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Northeast Fisheries, Ecosystems Continue To Depart From Historical Norms

May 18, 2023

2023 State of the Ecosystem Reports show continuing physical, chemical, and biological changes in coastal Mid-Atlantic and New England ecosystems.

Blue, green, and red fishing boats docked in a bay.

The fisheries of the Northeast span from Northern Maine down to the tip of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras. These centuries-old fisheries harbor stories of trials and tribulations, perfect storms, and generations of tradition. It wouldn’t be out of line to describe these fisheries and the people involved as strong, hardworking, and able to weather any challenge that history has thrown at them. However, the continued effects of climate change pose another threat to these storied fisheries and the ecosystems that support them. NOAA’s 2023 State of the Ecosystem reports show that environmental conditions continue to push historical boundaries, altering the ecosystems, their inhabitants, and their productivity. Results from these reports will be discussed in-depth during a public OneNOAA Seminar on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 at 12pm ET.

The annual State of the Ecosystem reports are presented as two reports, focusing on the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions. They describe changes in physical, chemical, biological, and socioeconomic indicators that, when compiled, help describe the health of the Northeast ecosystem over time. These measurable characteristics of the environment are selected using NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment framework. As part of the assessment process, NOAA scientists and collaborators work closely with stakeholders in their respective communities to identify components of the ecosystem that are important for monitoring the health of the ecosystem as well as the human communities that rely on these systems. Results from the annual State of the Ecosystem reports are presented to the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils to inform management groups about important trends and changes in the ecosystem and move towards the usage of ecosystem-wide science in making management decisions, a holistic approach known as ecosystem-based fishery management.

Shellfish Drive Commercial Revenue in Low Seafood Production Year

Young male deckhand measures and sorts American lobster on a fishing vessel.
American lobster was the primary driver of commercial seafood revenue in the Gulf of Maine in 2022. Changes in ocean temperature and chemistry are making habitat unsuitable for optimum growth and survival of many shellfish, like lobster. Public Domain image.

Seafood production in 2021 fell below the historical average for both the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions. The Mid-Atlantic reached its lowest year of production observed. This negative trend in the Mid-Atlantic was coupled with the lowest observed commercial revenue since 1987. Mid-Atlantic revenue declines were driven mainly by surfclams and ocean quahogs, two federally managed shellfish species. Landings of these shellfish recently fell below allotted quotas, likely due to market dynamics.

In New England, there was no long-term trend in commercial seafood revenue, but 2021 profits were above the historical average. This revenue was driven by Atlantic sea scallops on Georges Bank and American lobster in the Gulf of Maine. Throughout all of New England, the species diversity of commercial fishing permits reached an all-time low. This means that New England fisheries are heavily targeting a few commercial species, instead of fishing for a more diverse variety of species. This could become problematic if these populations continue to shift offshore or if growth or survival decrease as a result of changing ocean conditions.

Suitable Habitat for Shellfish at Risk with Changing Environmental Conditions

Climate change continues to warm waters throughout the Northeast region, altering suitable habitat for many species. Both sea surface and bottom water temperatures were among the highest on record in 2022. Warmer water temperatures increase the metabolism of most marine organisms, which means they require more food and oxygen to survive. In addition, warmer waters hold less oxygen, which could make certain areas uninhabitable for some species that thrive in cool, oxygen-rich waters.

Small marine animals called sea scallops with two light brown rounded shells and numerous blue eyes along the shell margins sit in clear seawater on the mesh bottom of an aquarium.
Shellfish, like the sea scallops pictured above, are losing suitable habitat areas as a result of ocean acidification. Acidic ocean conditions weaken scallop shells and slow their growth. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Dvora Hart

However, warming waters aren’t the only risk to the Northeast ecosystems. In addition to changes in temperature, climate change also alters the chemical composition of ocean waters creating a more acidic marine environment. Ocean acidification is especially concerning for species like surfclams, ocean quahogs, sea scallops, and lobster that have hard calcium-carbonate shells. Acidic waters decrease the amount of free-floating calcium carbonate for hard-shelled organisms to build and grow their shells. Over the past decade, certain coastal and bottom waters temporarily reached levels of acidity that have been found to reduce shellfish growth during laboratory research. It’s likely that the ocean will continue to acidify in the future as a result of climate change, posing a risk for the future sustainability of shellfish fisheries along the coast.

Identifying Coastal Communities Vulnerable to Changes in Fishing Patterns, Offshore Wind Development

NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment approach allows researchers to investigate not only the conditions and marine organisms within the ecosystem, but the effects the ecosystem has on livelihoods in coastal communities. Environmental justice indicators measure how vulnerable a community is to potential changes in fishing patterns due to regulations, climate change, and the development of offshore wind leases. About one in three of the top commercial fishing communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and slightly less than one in five commercial fishing communities in New England show notable environmental justice concerns. This suggests difficulty in their ability to adapt to changes in fisheries. Likewise, about one-third of the top recreational fishing communities show notable environmental justice concerns in the Mid-Atlantic.

One of the more imminent changes to fishing patterns is the development of offshore wind energy. There are more than 2.4 million acres of proposed offshore wind development area along the Northeast shelf to be built by 2030. Researchers from NOAA ’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the Bureau of Ocean Management are currently analyzing potential impacts of development of an offshore wind area in these ecosystems. The construction of offshore wind structures will affect bottom-dwelling species differently: negatively affecting species that prefer soft bottom substrate, but potentially benefiting species that prefer hard structure habitat.

Using the Integrated Ecosystem Assessment approach, researchers are actively meeting with local port communities, fishermen, and stakeholders in the Gulf of Maine. They are discussing their questions and concerns about a proposed offshore wind project in the region. Through this collaborative “scoping” effort, researchers will identify ecosystem indicators that can be measured in order to monitor changes within the environment if this development occurs, all while attempting to maintain the rich ecosystem resources for both humans and marine life.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on May 30, 2023

Ecosystem Health