Editor’s Note. Two pieces follow here: A story about how changing ocean temperatures results in traditional fishery depletion; a letter from Acting Secretary of Commerce to Alaskan Governor regarding failure of the Alaskan Chinook salmon industry in 2012.
—By Julia Whitty
Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) off the East Coast from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine were the hottest ever recorded for the first six months of 2012, according to NOAA’s latest Ecosystem Advisory. Above-average temperatures were found everywhere: from the sea surface to the ocean bottom and out beyond the Gulf Stream.
The area is known as the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem. Parts of it were declared a fisheries disaster last week (I posted about that here: Fisheries Declared Disasters on Four Coasts). This was due to the fact that stocks of cod, yellowtail flounder, and other groundfish are not rebuilding even though most fishers have adhered to tough quotas.
The problem lies in the warming waters. The super warm SSTs of 2012 jumpstarted an early and intense spring plankton bloom—which began in some places as early as February—and lasted longer than average. This ricocheted through the marine foodweb from the smallest creatures to the largest marine mammals like whales.
It forced the ongoing trend whereby Atlantic cod are shifting northeastward from their historic distribution center. That’s consistent with a response to ecosystem warming—as you can see that in the two maps above. The top map shows cod distribution between 1968-1972. The bottom map shows cod distribution between 2008-2012. (All other four-year distribution maps for the interim here.)
Kevin Friedland, a scientist in NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center Assessment Program (NEFSC), says the average sea surface temperature exceeded 51°F (10.5°C) during the first half of 2012. Whereas the average SST during this period over the past three decades has typically been below 48°F (9°C). Noteworthy from the Ecosystem Advisory:
- SST data are based on satellite remote-sensing data and long-term shipboard measurements, plus historical SST conditions based on shipboard measurements dating back to 1854.
- Some nearshore locations like Delaware and Chesapeake Bays in the Middle Atlantic Bight region saw SSTs more than 11°F (6°C) above historical average at the surface and more than 9°F (5°C) above average at the bottom.
- Deeper offshore waters to the north saw bottom water temperatures 2°F (1°C) warmer in the eastern Gulf of Maine and more than 3.6°F (2°C) warmer in the western Gulf of Maine.
Warming ocean temperatures have changed the distribution of other fish stocks besides cod, as reported by the NEFSC in a 2009 study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series. About half the 36 fish stocks studied in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean—many commercially valuable species—have been shifting northward for the past four decades.
Some, like the three hake species shown in the maps above, have shifted themselves completely out of US waters.
Chinook Salmon Fishery Failure
September 12, 2012
The Honorable Sean R. Parnell Governor of Alaska Juneau, AK 99811
Dear Governor Parnell:
Thank you for your letters from July 14 and August 16 requesting a determination of a commercial fishery failure due to a fisheries resource disaster under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (MSA) for certain Alaska Chinook salmon fisheries.
After reviewing the information provided by the State of Alaska, I have determined that a commercial fishery failure due to a fishery resource disaster exists for three regions of the Alaska Chinook salmon fishery under Section 308(b) of the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act of 1986 (lFA) and Section 312(a) of the MSA. Specifically, (1) a previously determined commercial fishery failure has continued in 2010, 2011, and 2012 due to a fishery resource disaster for the Yukon River, (2) a commercial fishery failure occurred in 2011 and 2012 for the Kuskokwim Rivers, and (3) a commercial fishery failure occurred in 2012 for Cook Inlet.
Exact causes for recent poor Chinook salmon returns are unknown, but may involve a variety of factors outside the control of fishery managers to mitigate, including unfavorable ocean conditions, freshwater environmental factors, disease, or other factors. “Undetermined causes” are an allowable cause under the MSA and the IF A, and the changes in these stocks are causing a significant loss of access to fishery resources with anticipated revenue declines that will greatly affect the commercial fishery.
Commercial fishery failures can have cascading economic impacts on subsistence and sport fisheries. Rural communities on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers depend on both the commercial and subsistence Chinook salmon fisheries for income and survival. In addition, the Cook Inlet Chinook salmon fishery supports an important sport fishery, which is one of the principal economic drivers for the local and regional economy.
This determination provides a basis for Congress to appropriate disaster relief funding under the MSA and the IF A, and for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide assistance to affected communities. If Congress appropriates disaster relief funding, NOAA will work with the State of Alaska, the Alaska Federation of Natives, and the affected communities to develop an appropriate economic spending plan that would support additional science to understand the underlying causes of this disaster, prevent a similar failure in the future, and assist the affected fishing communities. Please be aware that the MSA limits the Federal share of such activities to no more than 75 percent.
If you have any questions, please contact Jim Stowers, Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at (202) 482-3663.
Rebecca M. Blan Acting Secretary f Commerce