After an alarming report of a collapsed fishery cancelled the shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine last year due to higher water temperatures, it seemed unthinkable to locals that it would happen again.
“There are definitely still people that were holding out hope that we might be able to get in a bit of a season this year,” said Ben Martens, who runs the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
But that’s exactly what a team of scientific experts told the federal regulators who will make the call next week in a draft report, according to the AP. The scientists on the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee told the regulatory body known as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that “the depleted condition of the resource” — meaning the shrimp population — can be blamed on “long term trends in environmental conditions.” And the culprit, according to the AP’s take on the draft report, is “rising ocean temperatures.”
Maine’s collapsing fisheries are on the bleeding edge of what climate change could look like in many places around the world. A study being conducted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute has found the area’s oceans are warming up faster than 99 percent of the planet’s oceans, according to New Hampshire Public Radio. The institute’s Chief Scientific Officer, Andrew Pershing, said that “the trend we have in the Gulf Of Maine Right now over the last ten years, is about 8 times faster than that global rate.” Pershing pointed out the appearance of species that normally live in warmer, southern waters, like the Black Sea Bass and long fin squid, as signs of warming waters off Maine’s coast.
“The decline of the shrimp fishery, I think that’s another one that has a very strong finger-print of warming,” he added.
Maine’s Northern shrimp catch has declined sharply since it hit a high of around 12 million pounds in 2010, essentially bottoming out at 563,313 pounds in 2013. Regulators estimate that the total shrimp population dropped even more sharply — by a factor of 14.
Jeff Nichols, Communications Director for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the 2013 moratorium was the right decision “given the overwhelming evidence of recruitment failure and stock collapse, and unfavorable environmental conditions.” There, because of the fishery’s collapse and “poor prospects for the near future,” scientists on the committee are recommending that the federal regulators vote on November 5th to close the fishery again this season. Nichols said the Commissioner would review the report from the Technical Committee, consult with DMR scientists, and attend the meeting.
The Northern shrimp season normally begins in the winter months, when small boat fishermen turn to shrimp after the summer lobster season.
“Maine shrimp are really small, really sweet,” said Martens, with the Fishermen’s Association. But for the last year, no one, tourist or local, has been able to eat them. “It’s more of a local market,” he continued. “People traditionally like to have shrimp in the winter,” and with the elimination of this Maine shrimp from menus, people will turn to other shrimp, often from overseas. In 2012, the catch valued about $5.1 million.
“It leaves our consumers not really understanding what happened to the shrimp, but it offers us an opportunity as managers to share with consumers why they don’t have Maine shrimp.” It presents an opportunity to talk about the causes, and foremost among those is climate change.
Asked whether the administration shares the scientific view that rising ocean temperatures are causing the collapse, Jeff Nichols, with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said, “there is a correlation between warming ocean temperatures and shrimp stock decline.” He pointed to a rise in predators and a decline in food as other factors, and as a caveat, he added that, “a review of historic landings data reveals declines in the late 1970s when there were also increases in ocean temperatures.”
The rise in predators and decline in food is also linked to warming waters, however, and the recent spike in water temperatures as carbon emissions trap heat is different than in the past.
“We don’t know what the thermal threshold of this species is, but the Gulf of Maine has always been the southernmost extreme of their range, so we probably don’t have much wiggle room,” said John Annala, Chief Scientific Officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
“If the Gulf of Maine was a coal mine, northern shrimp would be its canaries, and in the past two years, they’ve gone belly-up,” said Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress and a resident of South Portland, Maine. “In downeast Maine, where job opportunities are scarce, the loss of shrimp as a supplemental source of income is a huge blow to the local economy. This shows a clear link between climate change and job loss and a subsequent need for greater government spending on social programs. Politicians must not keep turning a blind eye to the climate crisis.”
One of the main concerns about these shrimp is their short, 5-6 year lifespan, and the fact that they are hermaphroditic, maturing first as males and then changing to female a year later, at age three-and-a-half. This means that if the baby shrimp population plummets, there will not be a balanced sex ratio, and the fishery is in serious jeopardy.
Scientists fear a similar thing could happen to another extremely popular Maine export for similar reasons — baby lobster populations have been on a steady decline. As the ocean warms up, lobsters, who are very sensitive to changes in temperature, have suffered. This is beginning to happen even after a boom that has preceded other lobster collapses, like the one that hit Long Island in 1999.
Another concern for Northern shrimp is ocean acidification, a lesser-known impact of climate change that has been occurring as increasing carbon dioxide emissions make the ocean more acidic, and less hospitable to many species. A 2011 study suggested that more acidic waters could delay development in the shrimp.
MCFA fisheries program coordinator Lucy Van Hook said earlier this year that “as the groundfish fishery has declined in the last few years, the reliance on shrimp has increased.”
“For some member fishermen, shrimp comprises about 50 percent of their income.”
Even though the fishing industry considers a moratorium a harsh measure, it may be the only thing keeping the fishermen, processors, retailers, and restaurants that rely on Northern shrimp a shot to survive.
“To give the shrimp population the best chance for recovery especially with warming waters and ocean acidification, the moratorium is the responsible management decision,” Van Hook said.
Maine is looking at what its response to ocean acidification should be through the aptly titled “Commission to Study the Effects of Coastal and Ocean Acidification on Commercially Harvested and Grown Species.” The panel is expected to deliver its findings to the State Legislature by the middle of November, but the reception it will receive from the governor largely depends on who wins Tuesday’s election.
Maine’s governor, Republican Paul LePage, touted the economic benefits climate change could bring his state last year. “Everybody looks at the negative effects of global warming, but with the ice melting, the Northern Passage has opened up,” he said. Shrimpers who have suffered from various climate impacts could not believe what they heard. Mark Brewer, a lobsterman and shrimper, wrote in an op-ed that “If we continue to increase the carbon pollution that is driving up water temperatures, we may never have a healthy shrimp season ever again.”
“Climate change is hurting our jobs, and it’s a threat to our entire industry,” said Brewer. “How come the governor doesn’t stick up for us fishermen?”
LePage has said he doubts the scientific consensus on the reality of climate change. Earlier this year, LePage vetoed a bill that would have created working group to deliver concrete proposals for how the state can adapt to climate change. When the Portland Press Herald conducted an investigation into the appointment of former corporate lobbyist Patricia Aho do be his commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, LePage cut off the paper’s access to administration officials.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler has also pointed to the positive impacts of an open sea lane as Arctic ice melts. Cutler’s fortunes have been a little topsy-turvy of late, as on Wednesday he held a press conference wherein he stated he was staying in the race, but that his supporters should vote their consciences. One of Cutler’s high-profile supporters, Independent Senator Angus King, promptly swapped his vote from Cutler to Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud.
Michaud replied to LePage’s comments about the Northern Passage shortly afterward, saying in December of 2013, “The threat of climate change might not be real to some but it’s real to Maine’s hard working lobstermen, shrimpers and clammers whose ability to earn a living is in jeopardy because of warming water temperatures.”