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State of the Ecosystem Reports for the Northeast U.S. Shelf

State of the Ecosystem reports are developed annually for the New England and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils. They provide the current status of the Northeast Shelf marine ecosystems.

A state of the ecosystem infographic of images representing the fishing industry, primary production, fishing, climate change, other human uses of the ocean, forage fish, synthesis presentations, and currents.

State of the Ecosystem Reports

The State of the Ecosystem reports provide the current status of the Northeast Shelf marine ecosystems (Georges Bank, Gulf of Maine, and the Mid-Atlantic Bight). They are developed for the New England and the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Councils. These annual, collaboratively produced reports inform the councils about social, ecological, and economic aspects of the ecosystem—from fishing engagement to oceanographic and climate conditions.

View the complete 2021 Mid-Atlantic report (PDF, 43p)

View the complete 2021 New England report (PDF, 43p)

View the technical documentation.

2021 Updates

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.
The Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf ecosystem showing the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank and Mid-Atlantic bight regions as well as the dominant currents and oceanographic features.

The Northeast U.S. Shelf is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. The ecosystem is changing and these changes are affecting the ecosystem services it provides. These reports synthesize ecosystem information to better meet fishery management objectives. The 2021 reports were restructured and organized into two sections:

  • Performance measured against ecosystem-level management objectives
  • Potential risks to meeting fishery management objectives such as climate change and other ocean uses, such as offshore wind development

Characterizing Ecosystem Change for Fishery Management

We use three overarching concepts in the report, all of which influence the structure and function of this complex ecosystem:

  • Multiple system drivers
  • Regime shifts
  • Ecosystem reorganization

Physical, chemical, biological, and human factors comprise the multiple system drivers that influence each component of the ecosystem and the services it provides. Changes in those drivers can lead to regime shifts—large, abrupt, and persistent changes in the structure and function of an ecosystem. Regime shifts and changes in how the multiple system drivers interact can result in ecosystem reorganization, as species and humans respond and adapt to the new environment.

We are working to better characterize ecosystem changes and identify the early warning signs of future changes to understand the implications and improve management advice.

Multiple Ecosystem Drivers

Illustration showing factors that drive change in the marine ecosystem grouped into three interconnected categories. The Societal Activities and Benefits category represents human uses.  It includes commercial and recreational fishing, fish markets, and our seafood consumption. The biological drivers include all non-human components of the food web from microscopic plants to top ocean predators. The physical and chemical drivers include weather, storms, currents, tides, temperatures, physical habitats, and

Multiple competing factors cause change in an ecosystem. Numerous environmental drivers influence the quality and distribution of habitat in the ocean, which affects the amount and diversity of fish in the system. These environmental drivers, combined with social and economic drivers, influence the range of fishing opportunities and the seafood, recreation, and other services we derive from the ocean. Not all drivers are changing at the same rate, thus the effects on different parts of the ecosystem are not uniform.  We are working to show both how systems are changing and what factors are driving those changes.

Regime Shifts & Ecosystem Reorganization

 Illustration showing the concept of an ecosystem regime shift in two panels. The panel on the left represents a current ecosystem regime and the panel on the right represents the same ecosystem after a regime shift fundamentally changes it. The benthic habitat and animal species shown in each panel are different, illustrating the differences between the two regimes. A line representing Ecosystem State has a valley for each regime and a peak representing a critical threshold separating each regime, which de

Ecosystem change can happen rapidly, resulting in large, abrupt and persistent changes in the structure and function of an ecosystem. It is important to identify these “regime shifts” because our historical knowledge of how the system works may not apply under the present conditions. Ecosystem reorganization occurs as species and humans respond and adapt to the new environment. Changing habitat conditions influence the range and distribution of resident species and create the conditions for new species to take up residence. 

Performance Relative to Fishery Management Objectives

Fishing: Decorative image representing both commercial and recreational fishing

To evaluate fishery management performance, we examine indicators related to broad, ecosystem-level fishery management objectives. We also provide hypotheses on the implications of these trends—why we are seeing them, what’s driving them, and potential or observed regime shifts or changes in ecosystem structure.  Identification of multiple drivers, regime shifts, and potential changes to ecosystem structure can help managers make changes to meet objectives and to prioritize for upcoming issues and risks.


Ecosystem-scale Fishery Management Objectives

Objective categories in bold and the indicators used to evaluate performance

Provisioning and Cultural Services
Multiple system drivers: Decorative image illustrating the physical, chemical, biological and human factors affecting the ecosystem.
  • Seafood production: landings; commercial total and by feeding guild; recreational harvest
  • Profits: revenue decomposed to price and volume
  • Recreation: days fished; recreational fleet diversity
  • Stability: fishery and ecosystem diversity
  • Social & Cultural: community engagement and reliance status
  • Protected Species: bycatch; population (adults and juveniles) size; mortalities
Supporting and Regulating Services
  • Biomass: biomass or abundance by feeding guild from surveys
  • Productivity: condition and recruitment of managed species; primary productivity
  • Trophic Structure: relative biomass of feeding guilds; zooplankton
  • Habitat: estuarine and offshore habitat conditions


Risks to Meeting Fishery Management Objectives

The fishery management section of the report focuses on trends and status of indicators that are

Wind energy: Decorative image showing multiple wind turbines. Climate Change:  Decorative image showing clouds, wind, precipitation, a thermometer and waves  indicating sea level rise to represent climate change.

directly related to the management objectives. We are also looking at indicators that can affect our ability to meet the management objectives. Changes in climate, oceanographic conditions, habitat, food resources, and human uses can be a risk to fisheries. We are monitoring these indicators to assess how multiple changes in the ecosystem and its uses could lead to regime shifts or ecosystem reorganization. In the 2021 report we focused on:

  • Climate and ecosystem productivity risks 
  • Other human uses, specifically risks associated with the development of offshore wind  

COVID-19 Impacts

COVID-19 affected both fisheries and data collection in 2020 (pdf, 46 pages). We will continue to evaluate the impacts in the Northeast for future reports.

Integrated Ecosystem Assessment

Define Goals and Targets, Develop Indications, Assess Ecosystem, Analyze Uncertainty and Risk, Formulate strategies.
The NOAA Integrated Ecosystem Assessment approach.

These reports are part of a larger, iterative Integrated Ecosystem Assessment approach, a component of Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management. The approach integrates physical, biological, economic, and social components of the Northeast Shelf marine ecosystems into the decision-making process. This allows managers to balance trade-offs and determine what is more likely to achieve their desired goals. The reports are produced by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center with collaborators from academic research institutions, non-profit organizations, and state agencies.

Archived Reports

Mid-Atlantic State of the Ecosystem Reports: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020
New England State of the Ecosystem Reports: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on November 17, 2021