Shifting Stocks

Warming waters are sending fish away from their traditional habitats, creating fisheries management challenges
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Species migration is causing problems with quota allocation among states. 

Species migration is causing problems with quota allocation among states. 

When Massachusetts native Justin Sprague spotted a tail fin break the surface while striper fishing in the Cape Cod Canal in 2013, he thought it must have been a shark. After hooking up with it, the 29-year-old saw a sailfish leaping.

The news, reported in the Cape Cod Times, went viral as people questioned the legality of keeping the fish. Sprague gave it to two fishermen who helped him land it because he couldn’t see a way to get the 6-foot, 60-pounder home on his bike.

It hadn’t survived the fight, and Sprague had no clue about sailfish restrictions, since the species is traditionally found in the warm waters of tropical and subtropical regions. It so rarely visits New England that Massachusetts didn’t have a state record for sailfish.

The number of anglers hooking up with fish they don’t expect to find is increasing as water temperatures rise. In New England, surface temperatures rose 3.6 degrees between 2004 and 2013, according to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Warming waters, caused by climate change and natural events, are expected to force hundreds of ocean fish and invertebrate species — including some of the most economically important in the United States — to move north, disrupting fisheries in the United States and Canada, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries report.

“We’re just beginning the science on some of this, so there’s little evidence scientifically because this is just getting on everyone’s radar,” says Greg Stunz, a Texas A&M University marine biology professor and director of the Center for Sportfish and Conservation, who sits on the Gulf of Mexico NOAA Fishery Management Council.

Earlier this year, the Mid-Atlantic and New England councils met with members of the South Atlantic council to discuss how to manage fish that pop up in regions where take and bag limits may not exist. “How they’re going to deal with that is going to be a challenge, and at least in federal fishing management, nothing happens fast,” Stunz says. “There’s outright displacement of some species that were economically important that may or may not exist in a certain area.”

Summer flounder is an example, says Bob Beal, executive director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Historically, the species has been caught from North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod in New England, but 50 percent of the quota has been allocated to Virginia and North Carolina. However, the population has shifted north as the stock has been rebuilt.

NOAA is following the migration patterns of black sea bass; (right) historical charts show rising water temperatures over the decades.

NOAA is following the migration patterns of black sea bass; (right) historical charts show rising water temperatures over the decades.

“The older and larger animals head to the northern range, so we’ve got redistribution and expansion of summer flounder,” Beal says. “Allocation is hard, but reallocation is really hard. Once the stakes have been established and there’s dealers and infrastructure in states with higher quotas, shifting quotas away from those states has an impact on the economics of those states that have relied on summer flounder for decades.”

It’s been difficult for states to vote themselves less of the overall quota as habitats shift, Beal says. Managers are now trying to determine how to move away from those votes and make allocations based on math, rather than catch information from decades ago.

“Fisheries management, now more than ever, gets political really quickly,” Beal says. “The number of stakeholders and constituents eager to go to Capitol Hill and voice their concerns — which they should be doing — is prevalent. It’s another thing that complicates management, when you have a lot of input from elected officials providing feedback to fisheries managers.”

It has been a challenge to get science to catch up with the shifts, Stunz says, especially with today’s debates, including habitat loss, algal blooms, low dissolved oxygen levels and climate change. “It’s never one thing, so we’ve got to look at fisheries management a lot more holistically,” Stunz says. “Many times, we don’t have the scientific tools or understanding to see things at that level. If you look 10 years down the road, you’ll be looking at the whole ecosystem.”

To address the problem, there needs to be close coordination among the East Coast councils, NOAA Fisheries Science Centers and state natural marine fisheries agencies to document the occurrence of species in new locations, the disappearance of species from historical locations and the persistence of either situation, says Spud Woodward, a biologist who spent 34 years managing fisheries for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources before taking a seat on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “For example,” Woodward says, “is the occurrence of king mackerel off the Massachusetts coast a temporary phenomenon or the new normal?”

Then there are governance and management issues. Currently, the South Atlantic council sets management policy for dolphin and wahoo along the entire Atlantic coast, with input from members of the Mid-Atlantic and New England councils. Similarly, the South Atlantic council sets king and Spanish mackerel management from the Florida Keys to New York, with input from the Mid-Atlantic council.

So if snapper or grouper shows up in abundance farther north than the border of North Carolina and Virginia, the South Atlantic council would not be able to protect the species, Woodward says, because the location isn’t part of the existing geographic management plan. Other councils would have to decide whether to have a joint plan or let the South Atlantic council have the lead authority, as is the case with dolphin and wahoo.

“Suffice it to say that all the management institutions — federal, interstate and state — are struggling with how to prepare for something that is impossible to predict,” Woodward says. “At least it is being discussed and not ignored like many of the changes occurring on Earth these days.”

Some fisheries already have been closed in regions where they once were abundant, Beal says. “Some stocks are just grim,” he says. “There’s a species of northern shrimp that lives in the Gulf of Maine. The water temps have risen to where they can’t spawn unless the water cools down. The American lobster stocks south of Cape Cod used to be a large fishery, and the water’s just too warm. Unless we have some cooling of the water, we don’t anticipate that fishery coming back. There are other stories like that, which are unfortunate. It’s really hard for managers to figure out.”


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission works along the entire East Coast and manages three local councils within that area, along with federal councils. The commission’s jurisdiction covers state waters, inland and estuaries, and goes 3 miles offshore. The three local councils along the East Coast — South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic and New England — operate from 3 to 200 miles offshore.

Because many fishermen don’t pay attention to that 3-mile line, the commission and councils have to communicate. “The commission can work fairly quickly with states, but the council is fairly involved, so that can slow the process down, too,” Beal says. “We recently adjusted the summer flounder commercial allocations a little, and that process took four years. It’s a lengthy process to make changes when species changes and water temperature changes are happening quickly.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.


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