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Changes in Ocean Conditions and Human Activities Impacted the U.S. Northeast Shelf Marine Ecosystem in 2020

April 08, 2021

The U.S. Northeast Shelf is one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems. Seafood production, commercial and recreational fishing, ocean-dependent jobs, and other services provided by the ecosystem are all being affected by a changing climate.

Surfaster in waves at sunrise.

Two new reports provide an updated picture of conditions supporting fisheries in the U.S. Northeast Shelf marine ecosystems. One report focuses on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, two ocean regions off New England, and the other report focuses on the Mid-Atlantic Bight. These are the three major regions within the U.S. Northeast Continental Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem.

For the first time, the reports focus directly on how well we have achieved fishery management goals and the risks to achieving those goals posed by ecosystem changes and other human activities. Linkages between environmental conditions and managed species are also highlighted throughout the report. This focus ensures that scientists are providing ecosystem information in a form that the regional fishery management councils can use effectively.

Major findings in this year’s report include:

  • Seafood production trends downward
  • Recreational fishing effort is steady, but fewer anglers are taking for-hire trips
  • Waters continue to warm and marine heat waves continue
  • Less cold, fresh water is entering the Gulf of Maine
  • The Gulf Stream is further north
  • Chesapeake Bay’s warmer winter and cooler spring affected blue crab and striped bass<
  • More fish species are moving to the north and east of their historic distribution, some into deeper water

The reports also cover new and rising factors, including offshore wind energy development and COVID-19 effects on fishery harvests and scientific data collection (pdf, 46 pgs). There are more than 20 offshore wind development projects proposed for construction over the next decade in the Northeast. They have the potential to impact many parts of the ecosystem. With sufficient data, subsequent reports will further address these factors.

Supporting An Ecosystem Approach for Fishery Management

Our State of the Ecosystem reports are produced annually by scientists at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. They collaborate with other NOAA researchers and collaborators from academia, non-profit organizations, and state agencies.

The reports are presented annually to the Mid-Atlantic and New England Fishery Management Councils as part of a larger, ongoing NOAA-wide initiative to advance ecosystem-based management. NOAA scientists use the Integrated Ecosystem Assessment approach to advance this type of management. They incorporate all components of an ecosystem, including human needs and activities, into the decision-making process. This approach helps managers balance trade-offs and determine what is more likely to achieve their desired goals.

2021 Report Results

Seafood Production Trends Downward

In the Mid-Atlantic, the amount of seafood landed continues to trend downward. This is likely driven by the market for seafood, rather than fewer fish available for harvest because of overfishing or other factors. Surfclams and ocean quahogs account for most of the decline in landings and revenue. They are some of the most important seafood species caught in the Mid-Atlantic.

In New England, the amount of seafood caught also continues a 30-year downward trend. Gulf of Maine lobster and Georges Bank sea scallops account for a majority of catch and revenue. Both of these species are vulnerable to decline in a warming ocean; relying exclusively on them can be a risk to fishing communities.

Continuing forward it will be important for scientists to monitor climate change, species shifting distributions, and other ecosystem changes.

Recreational Fishing Effort Steady, More Anglers Fish From Shore

Recreational fishing draws hundreds of thousands of anglers to coastal waters off New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Summer flounder, striped bass, and many other species are sought after by shoreside anglers, boaters, charter and party boats, and fishing tournaments.

In the Mid-Atlantic, recreational fishing opportunities are near a long-term average. Recreational fishing diversity is measured by the number of trips from shore, on private vessels, or for-hire vessels. It is decreasing due to a shift away from trips on party/charter boats to shore-based fishing, decreasing the range of recreational fishing opportunities. Shore-based anglers have access to different species and sizes of fish than vessel-based anglers. In New England, recreational opportunities have been relatively stable.

2020 Ecosystem Changes

A map of the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf ecosystem showing the Gulf of Maine in the north, Georges Bank east of Cape Cod, and Mid-Atlantic Bight in the south.  The image includes the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current, examples of warm and cold rings, and the cold pool in the Mid-Atlantic Bight region.

Warmer Water in the Gulf of Maine and Chesapeake Bay

In 2019, the Gulf Stream was at its most northern position since 1993. A more northerly Gulf Stream means warmer ocean temperature on the Northeast U.S. shelf and increased sea surface height along the East Coast. The Gulf Stream influences the oceanic conditions on the shelf by moving heat from the equator northward. This movement of heat impacts ecological productivity—the amount of plants and animals in the ocean.

Deep source water that enters the Gulf of Maine is typically a mix of both Labrador and warm slope water. We continue to observe little to no Labrador Slope water entering the Gulf of Maine. The source water determines part of the temperature, salinity, stratification, and nutrient content of the Northeast Shelf marine ecosystem.

Warmer ocean temperatures impact many important species in the region. For example, surfclams and ocean quahogs are vulnerable to damage from warming ocean temperatures. Warmer waters also cause the ocean to be more acidic, reducing calcium carbonate, a mineral that clams need to build a shell. Surfclams and ocean quahogs are commercially valuable, and among the most popular seafood eaten in the United States. New observations show that acidification in surfclam summer habitat is approaching, but has not yet reached, levels affecting surfclam growth.

Satellite data show the Chesapeake Bay experienced a warmer winter and a cooler spring in 2020 compared to the 2010–2019 average temperatures. Above-average winter water temperatures likely helped blue crabs, but hurt striped bass numbers. More blue crabs could live through the warmer winter. The cooler spring may have reduced survival of larval striped bass, and the warmer winter probably meant less food for them.

Chesapeake Bay blue crab is highly sought-after by commercial and recreational fishermen because of its value and taste. As both predator and prey, blue crab are also a keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay food web. Striped bass are another top predator in the Chesapeake Bay food web, and important to commercial and recreational fishermen.

Fish Distribution Shifts Continue

Many species continue to shift northeast along the shelf and into deeper waters. This impacts what fish are available to catch, how much time and effort it takes to catch those fish, and who is responsible for managing human use of those species. In particular, fishery management measures based on historic distribution of a species may not have the expected outcomes if that species is changing when and where it occurs.

NOAA scientists will continue to work with the fishery councils to advance ecosystem-based management.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on April 14, 2023