Oceanic Acid Trip Bad for Business

Nearly 40 million clams were harvested from Narragansett Bay in 2012, according to Rhode Island Sea Grant. Estimates of clams in the bay are used to set fishing limits. In Rhode Island, commercial shellfishermen use a bull rake for harvesting clams. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Nearly 40 million clams were harvested from Narragansett Bay in 2012, according to Rhode Island Sea Grant. Estimates of clams in the bay are used to set fishing limits. In Rhode Island, commercial shellfishermen use a bull rake for harvesting clams. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Ocean acidification could have a profound impact on marine life, and southern New England’s shellfish industry would be at risk

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Shellfish are arguably one of southern New England’s most valuable natural resources. Like the region’s many popular beaches, the area’s quahogs, oysters, lobsters and clams attract tourists. Clamming, as much as sunbathing, is a local summertime ritual.

Ocean acidification, however, a byproduct of the planet’s changing climate, is threatening shellfish and the industries they support. Studies have found that more acidic salt waters make it more difficult for oysters, mussels, scallops and other shelled mollusks to develop their hardened protection.

Shellfish rely on aragonite, a naturally occurring form of calcium carbonate, to generate their shells. Increased ocean acidity, however, means less aragonite, forcing mollusks to expend more energy to build shells and less on reproduction and survival.

Mark Gibson, deputy chief of marine fisheries at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, told the Providence Journal last year that ocean acidification is a “significant threat” to local fisheries.

In fact, a study published last year said the Ocean State’s shellfish populations are among the most vulnerable in the United States to the impacts of acidification.

Ocean acidification — a change in pH accelerated by the absorption of carbon dioxide by seawater — isn’t turning coastal waters into hydrochloric acid, but it can have a profound impact on marine life, local businesses and southern New England’s way of life.

Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut are among 15 states whose shellfish industries are at long-term economic risk from the impact of ocean acidification, according to the 2015 study funded by the National Science Foundation.

Among the concerns, according to the study’s authors, is that many of the most economically dependent regions, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and Louisiana, are least prepared to respond, with minimal research and monitoring assets for ocean acidification.

While Northeast fisheries face lower acidification rates than the Pacific Northwest, their vulnerability is higher, according to Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Massachusetts and Maine are places that are just screaming for problems,” Suatoni told Climate Central last year. “New Bedford is the highest earning fishing port in the country. Eighty-five percent of landings are coming from one species: scallops. They’re really vulnerable.”

Southern Massachusetts brings in more than $300 million in shellfish annually, accounting for most of the region’s fisheries revenue, according to Climate Central.

Rob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, told The Westerly Sun late last year that he is waiting for more scientific evidence to show how an increasingly acidic ocean will impact oysters and clams.

“Right now, the science on the impacts is weak,” he told the newspaper. “The only thing that we know for sure is that the larvae, in that first 48-hour period before they start feeding, are tremendously susceptible to dissolution. Their energy budget goes negative because they haven’t started to feed yet, and if they haven’t got enough energy in that egg and they’re starting to dissolve, then it takes extra energy to lay down shell, and they sometimes don’t make it.”

Of the 23 U.S. coastal regions identified by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 16 of them will face ocean acidification levels unfavorable for shellfish. Overlaying social factors, levels of agricultural runoff, local pollution and upwelling, a natural ocean process that brings more corrosive deep ocean water to the surface, helps tease out regional differences in vulnerability. (NRDC)

Of the 23 U.S. coastal regions identified by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 16 of them will face ocean acidification levels unfavorable for shellfish. Overlaying social factors, levels of agricultural runoff, local pollution and upwelling, a natural ocean process that brings more corrosive deep ocean water to the surface, helps tease out regional differences in vulnerability. (NRDC)

Acid hits
Oceans store dissolved carbon dioxide for hundreds of years, creating a large-scale environmental problem that is causing wholesale changes to ocean chemistry worldwide, according to a 2013 study.

Long Island Sound is just one example of acidification’s impact. The tidal estuary between Connecticut and New York is feeling the effects caused by excess carbon dioxide, according to the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. The New Haven-based nonprofit has noted that the sound’s low-oxygen dead zone forces finfish from local waters and kills shellfish.

Low oxygen levels (hypoxia) begin with massive algal blooms, caused largely by runoff that contains nitrogen and phosphorous. The blooms then die and decay on the seafloor, sucking in dissolved oxygen. Research from the University of Stony Brook suggests that bacteria feeding on the decaying algae also emit carbon dioxide, which reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid. Researchers at the New York university are examining the link between hypoxia and ocean acidification.

This dual threat is a considerable concern for both Connecticut’s environment and economy. The state’s shellfishing industry generates about $30 million annually and accounts for some 300 jobs, according to the state Department of Agriculture. More than 70,000 acres of shellfish farms are under cultivation in Long Island Sound alone, and shellfish account for about 70 percent of all Connecticut fisheries’ revenue, according to the agency.

Since 1998, when Connecticut’s lobster catch hit a record 3.7 million pounds, the numbers have dropped significantly. In 2013, the Nutmeg State lobster catch was 121,700 pounds, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Varying explanations have been theorized — overfishing, warming waters, pollution and habitat loss — but Connecticut isn’t alone when it comes to changing saltwater chemistry and adjusting populations of marine life.

The world’s oceans haven’t been able keep pace with increasing greenhouse-gas emissions. After decades of absorbing nearly a third of excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, the planet’s salt waters are suffering from acid reflux.

Shellfish help keep southern New England’s coastal waters and wetlands healthy by filtering out pollutants. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Shellfish help keep southern New England’s coastal waters and wetlands healthy by filtering out pollutants. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Acid sinks
While the shellfish that inhabit the region’s coastal waters are a popular part of southern New England’s social and cultural fabric, they also are integral pieces of a marine ecosystem that provides economic and recreational opportunities, and environmental benefits.

Southern New England has spent plenty of time and taxpayer money upgrading stormwater systems and better managing runoff. Shellfish, most notably oysters and mussels, are efficient at taking excess nitrogen, supplied by wastewater treatment facilities, agricultural operations and over-fertilized lawns, out of vital marine waters.

A 2004 study published in Science that involved analyzing 70,000 ocean samples taken worldwide in the 1990s found that 48 percent of carbon dioxide produced by human activity between 1800 and 1994 — 467 billion tons — had been absorbed by seawater.

The burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has made the oceans, on average, 30 percent more acidic at the surface, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The world’s five oceans also absorb about 90 percent of the heat trapped by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

NOAA scientists have projected that the world’s oceans and coastal estuaries will become 150 percent more acidic by the end of the century.

Seawater is naturally alkaline, with a healthy pH that ranges from 7.8 to 8.5 (7 is neutral). But with a daily intake of some 22 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, these waters are losing the ability to handle the acid.

This change in seawater chemistry, caused by an increased concentration of hydrogen ions, also impacts the behavior of non-calcifying organisms. For example, the ability of certain fish to detect predators is decreased in more acidic waters, according to NOAA research.

When marine waters absorb carbon dioxide, carbonic acid — the same acid that gives soda its fizz — is formed. This acid dissolves the shells of mollusks, crustaceans and zooplankton, leaving the foundation of the marine food web vulnerable.

More carbon dioxide in the oceans means slower growth, thinner and more fragile shells, and poor shellfish reproduction, according to Newport, R.I.-based Sailors for the Sea. When excess carbonic acid is present, the formation of calcium carbonate becomes difficult and can dissolve shells that have already been formed.

The corrosion of shellfish caused by increased carbon dioxide in the water will reduce U.S. shellfish production 10 percent to 25 percent in the next five decades, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI).

“The current rapid rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, due to our intensive burning of fossil fuels for energy, is fundamentally changing the chemistry of the sea,” Scott Doney, a WHOI senior scientist, wrote in testimony he presented to the House Committee on Science and Technology during a hearing in 2008 on the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act. “Acidification threatens a wide-range of marine organisms, from microscopic plankton and shellfish to massive coral reefs, as well as the food webs that depend upon these shell-forming species.”

During the past 250 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by nearly 40 percent, in large part because of fossil-fuel combustion and deforestation, according to Doney. In that time, the world’s oceans have absorbed some 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

Ocean acidification could also impact the millions of people who depend on the oceans for food and jobs. Fish and marine organisms provide, on average, 15 percent of the world’s protein. Americans alone spend about $60 billion annually on fish and shellfish. And reef losses would expose low-lying areas and biologically diverse regions to storm surge and wave damage.

Employees of the Matunuck Oyster Bar farm at work on Potters Pond in South Kingstown, R.I. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Employees of the Matunuck Oyster Bar farm at work on Potters Pond in South Kingstown, R.I. (R.I. Sea Grant)

More study needed
Shelley Brown, education director for Sailors for the Sea, testified last year at a House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources hearing for a bill that would create a Rhode Island marine acidification study commission.

“Ocean acidification not only posses a serious threat to Rhode Island marine species and ecosystems, but also our economy,” Brown said.

In Rhode Island, this change in ocean chemistry could threaten the nearly 15,000 jobs in the state’s marine trades sector and $418 million in annual taxes and fees, said Brown, who holds a doctoral degree that focuses on microbial ecology in coastal marine environments from the University of Rhode Island.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, noted that other states,  such as Maine and Maryland, have set up similar study commissions. In Maine, where lobsters account for 80 percent of fishery revenue, there is considerable concern about the impact of acidification, he said.

“Rhode Island has a vibrant fishing economy and we want to make sure we keep that intact,” Edwards said.

URI oceanography professor Susanne Menden-Deuer testified at the hearing that creating a commission to study the available science and identify management strategies for Narragansett Bay is a good idea. She noted, however, that “it wouldn’t suffice to isolate the effect of ocean acidification but rather look at the multiple stressors that estuaries are subject to.”

She said it’s tricky to detect ocean acidification in estuaries, because the effects of runoff often appear as acidification.

Ocean Conservancy scientist Sarah Cooley said shellfish will experience the negative effects of ocean acidification first. Rhode Island is highly vulnerable because of the heavy harvest of oysters and quahogs, she said.

Cooley also said the Ocean State is vulnerable because Narragansett Bay experiences the negative effects of excess nutrients and runoff, which worsens ocean acidification. She said these challenges present opportunities to create tailored responses to acidification.

The bill was held for further study.

MIT is studying the impact ocean acidification is having on phytoplankton and what that could mean for the entire marine food web and the fishing industry. (R.I. Sea Grant)

MIT is studying the impact ocean acidification is having on phytoplankton and what that could mean for the entire marine food web and the fishing industry. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Impact on food web
A team of researchers from MIT and the University of Alabama has found that increased ocean acidification will dramatically affect global populations of phytoplankton — microorganisms on the ocean surface that make up the base of the marine food chain.

In a study published last July in the journal Nature Climate Change, the researchers reported that increased ocean acidification by 2100 will spur a range of responses in phytoplankton: some species will die out and others will flourish, changing the balance of plankton species worldwide.

The researchers also compared phytoplankton’s response not only to ocean acidification, but also to other projected drivers of climate change, such as warming temperatures. For instance, the team used a numerical model to see how phytoplankton as a whole will migrate significantly, with most populations shifting toward the poles as the planet warms. Based on global simulations, however, they found the most dramatic effects stemmed from ocean acidification.

Stephanie Dutkiewicz, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, noted that while scientists have suspected ocean acidification might affect marine populations, the group’s results suggest a much larger upheaval of phytoplankton — and therefore probably the species that feed on them — than previously estimated.

“I was actually quite shocked by the results,” said Dutkiewicz, the paper’s lead author. “The fact that there are so many different possible changes, that different phytoplankton respond differently, means there might be some quite traumatic changes in the communities over the course of the 21st century. A whole rearrangement of the communities means something to both the food web further up, but also for things like cycling of carbon.”

Dutkiewicz also noted that shifting competition at the plankton level may have major ramifications further up the food chain.

ecoRI News staffer Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.

An Uptick of Lyme Disease in Southern New England

A black-legged tick, or deer tick, can give a person more than one tick-borne disease. (istock)

A black-legged tick, or deer tick, can give a person more than one tick-borne disease. (istock)

Health officials and researchers debate the role climate change is playing, but they agree the region’s tick population is growing

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Lyme disease is a growing health threat in southern New England, and climate change could be making it worse.

The disease got its name after the symptoms, which likely have been around for decades and perhaps centuries, showed up simultaneously in a group of children and adults in Lyme, Conn. during the mid-1970s. The town, 75 miles south of Providence, sits at the center of one of the biggest health crisis in the region.

The condition finally had a name, but it wasn't until 1991 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started tracking cases. Massachusetts didn’t begin tracking the disease until 2005; Rhode Island in 2010.

According the Rhode Island Department of Health, reports of Lyme and tick-related infections are climbing, up 25 percent alone between 2013 and 2014. Connecticut, meanwhile, has seen its cases drop slightly; Massachusetts has seem its cases of Lyme rise since 2010, before dipping slightly in 2014.

Lyme disease is spreading to other states. Between 1993 and 2012, the number of counties in the Northeast reporting a high incidence of the disease grew 320 percent, according to the CDC.

In 2014, Rhode Island had the fourth-highest rate of Lyme disease in the country per capita. Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts were the top three, suggesting that the malady is moving north.

According to the CDC, Lyme-infected ticks will have a startling migration westward and northward because of climate change. As a result of misdiagnoses, the CDC also has upped it annual U.S. infection rate from 30,000 to 300,000 annually.

Disease hot spots
It wasn't until the past few years that the medical community began focusing on the illness exclusively. In southeastern New England, special Lyme disease clinics have recently opened in Newport, R.I., and Boston, and in smaller medical offices in disease hot spots such as North Kingstown, R.I., and on Cape Cod. Patient support groups have proliferated in those areas, and online.

Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have the highest Lyme-infection rates in Massachusetts. According to the CDC, Chilmark, on Martha's Vineyard, has had the highest reported Lyme cases, with 1,316 per 100,000 residents between 2010 and 2014. Marion has the highest infection rate along the South Coast, with 383 infections per 100,000.

Link to climate debated
While there is a divide among medical professional about the testing, treatment and lingering effects, there also is debate about the connection to climate change.

Climate-change assessments in Massachusetts and Rhode Island suggest that global warming will increase the prevalence of ticks carrying Lyme.

“A similar trend is probable with tick-borne diseases as well, resulting in the prospect of more human cases of Lyme disease, babesiosis (a malaria-like parasitic disease) and anaplasmosis (a bacteria which infects white blood cells),” according the 2011 report from the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

University of Rhode Island entomology professor Thomas Mather, however, argues that the connection between Lyme disease and climate change is more complicated. Climate variations, he said, may allow ticks carrying Lyme to persist, but he noted that extreme weather changes also may have the opposite effect. The expected swings in temperature and humidity may threaten the habitat of Lyme disease-carrying black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks. These ticks thrive in areas with a fairly regular temperature-to-humidity mix.

However, extreme weather changes may improve the ecology for other insects that carry the West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis.

“More extended humidity is what ticks need to survive,” Mather said. Extended bouts of humidity in June, when nymphal ticks are most active, followed by an extended dry spell might “mess with their heads a little and they struggle to survive.”

Bolstering his hypothesis are the Massachusetts and Rhode Island climate assessments that predict the region will likely get more precipitation, while also experience one mini-drought per summer on average.

The Rhode Island report is careful to include Mather's perspective, but cautions that it will be watchful for a rise in Lyme-infected ticks and other vector-borne diseases.

“The trends over the past 20 years and our climate projections provide useful information to help us project future growth of the tick population, which may correspond to an increase in Lyme disease risk,” according to a 2015 climate-change assessment by the Rhode Island Department or Health.

The uncertain connection between Lyme disease and climate change hasn’t kept some researchers from arguing that the two are concurrent. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public health are documenting Lyme’s northern spread.

“The most common vector borne disease in North America and Europe, for example, is Lyme disease,” according a Harvard report. “In the United States, children ages 5-9 have the highest annual incidence of Lyme disease. The primary vector here is the black-legged tick, which has been expanding its northward range into Canada as annual temperatures warm.”

And there is little doubt that development is putting more people in tick habitat. Experts agree that there are, as Mather said, “more ticks in more places.” According to the CDC, deforestation is bringing people into more contact with tick-friendly habitat.

In the past decade, awareness about Lyme disease has increased. (istock)

In the past decade, awareness about Lyme disease has increased. (istock)

Better awareness
Further complicating the upward trend in reported Lyme disease cases is the increased awareness and reporting. Researchers and medical professionals agree that more people are getting checked and identifying with the symptoms for early and chronic Lyme disease, which in itself is controversial.

The divide has some physicians and health-care officials believing that the bacterium that causes Lyme disease can change, hide and re-emerge in the body after the initial treatment with antibiotics. Others say that the bacteria is killed off after treatment and that lingering symptoms should be treated on their own and without the prolonged use of antibiotics.

“The Lyme is going to persist if you don’t treat all the forms of the Lyme and co-infections, and this is why it leads to treatment failures and the difficultly in treatment and the necessity for longer treatment,” said Susan Nueber, a nurse practitioner who has been treating Lyme disease since 2001 and runs a clinic in Cumberland, R.I.

The debate has been so intense that Rhode Island passed legislation in 2014 that protects physicians from liability for treating chronic Lyme disease and helps patients with insurance coverage for testing and treatment.

Dr. H. Ram Chowdri, of Hawthorn Medical Associates, has treated infectious diseases in the New Bedford, Mass., area since 1980. He said antibiotic treatment lasting longer than eight weeks comes with added health risks. He said better diagnosis and testing are two reasons that more cases of Lyme are being reported.

Deer hunter
One response to the increase in deer has been to allow hunting to cull the host population of the disease. For the first time in more than a hundred years, a deer hunt was held last December at the 7,000-acre Blue Hills Reservation in Quincy, Mass. Last spring, resident hunters on Block Island were paid $150 per deer killed during a special hunt. Both hunts were held, in part, to scale back the spread of Lyme disease.

Block Island has one of the highest deer populations in the region, with an average of 100 per square mile. Blue Hills has an estimated 85 deer per square mile. Massachusetts health officials believe a healthy deer population is about eight to 10 deer per square mile.

One Harvard School of Public Health researcher, however, says that culling the deer heard is ineffective against Lyme disease.

If you kill deer “you would simply have more ticks per deer because the surface area of each is enough to support many ticks. Just killing deer won’t do the job,” said Tamara Awerbach, a health scientist with Harvard in a 2010 interview.

The results of these deer hunts won't be know for years. For now, the most agreed upon option to prevent Lyme infection is protection. Health experts suggest wearing proper clothing, preferably coated with tick repellent, when spending time in nature and even in your backyard.

Three Sides to Every Fish Story

Small owner-operated day-boat commercial fishing businesses are the traditional backbone of Cape Cod’s iconic fishing industry. Chatham remains as one of the last small-boat fleets in New England, preserved in part by efforts of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. (David Hills/The Prospect Hill Foundation)

Small owner-operated day-boat commercial fishing businesses are the traditional backbone of Cape Cod’s iconic fishing industry. Chatham remains as one of the last small-boat fleets in New England, preserved in part by efforts of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. (David Hills/The Prospect Hill Foundation)

The relationship between the fishing industry, conservation groups and scientists is complicated. Climate change isn’t helping.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

One could argue, relatively easily, that domestic fisheries are the most beleaguered food-industry sector in the United States. Monsanto and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are certainly more vilified, but they’re also better protected, because of the wealth and power they wield.

Seven states have passed “ag-gag” laws that are designed to silence whistleblowers from publicizing animal abuses on industrial farms, by criminalizing acts related to investigating factory-farm activities such as recording, photographing and/or videotaping. It’s also illegal to possess and/or distribute such documentation. Nineteen other states have tried to pass similar legislation.

Since 2008, Monsanto has spent $52,535,120 — nearly $6.6 million annually — on lobbying. Not surprisingly, Congress continues to pass Monsanto-friendly legislation, allowing the Missouri-based multinational to take more and more control of the world’s food supply and sell more and more Roundup poison.

The U.S. seafood industry doesn’t possess the same influence. That’s not to say corporate fishing giants — environmentalists routinely point to pair trawlers — don’t put profits over the environment, or that some fishing practices/gear don’t harm marine habitat. Sectors of the fishing industry most certainly have been poisoned by greed, but the industry’s makeup is similar to its terrestrial counterparts.

“There’s this misconception that the fishing industry is some giant corporate operation,” said Robert Vanasse, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Saving Seafood, which conducts media and public outreach on behalf of the seafood industry. “It’s really a lot of smaller fishing operations. There’s a lot of blue collar-working families in this industry.”

Dead zones and algal blooms, which rob waters of oxygen, often result in devastating ‘fish kills.’ (Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Dead zones and algal blooms, which rob waters of oxygen, often result in devastating ‘fish kills.’ (Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Dead in the water
Land-based corporate food manufacturing — Big Ag and factory-farm operations and the politics and policies that allow them to avoid paying the true cost of the damage they cause — impact aquatic ecosystems, and harm both the commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Dead zones are oxygen-depleted bottom waters of oceans and bays. The lack of oxygen kills bottom-dwelling marine organisms and forces out others that can’t survive in such conditions. Some 400 dead zones have been identified in coastal waters around the globe, including up and down the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

These zones that suffocate coastal marine habitat are created in large part by agricultural and industrial farm runoff that contains nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers, animal waste, and toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

In southern New England, wastewater treatment facilities, septic systems and cesspools, from Cape Cod to the western end of Long Island Sound, are the bigger threat, dumping tremendous amounts of nitrogen into the region’s waters.

CAFOs house thousands of chickens, cows or pigs in crowded conditions and produce staggering amounts of waste. Animal manure and urine are funneled into largely unprotected waste lagoons. These open-air cesspools often leak and overflow, or can breach, sending microbes, nitrate pollution and bacteria into local rivers, streams and drinking-water supplies, and helping create marine dead zones hundreds of miles away.

But, despite the well-documented harm caused Big Ag and factory farms, they are seldom held accountable for the environmental laws they ignore or circumvent. Single-boat fisherman and small-scale fishing operations are more closely scrutinized.

Dead zones are a key stressor of marine ecosystems and rank with overfishing and habitat loss as global environmental problems, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

While small-scale farming operations, organic farmers and urban farmers are praised by conservation organizations and environmentalists concerned about the harm being perpetrated by government-backed Big Ag and CAFOs, small-scale fishing operations and single-boat fishermen are typically lumped in with the entire domestic fishing industry.

“Ninety percent of the fishermen today don’t want to destroy the environment,” said Jon Williams, president of the New Bedford, Mass.-based Atlantic Red Crab Co. “They understand the importance of the resource and harvesting in a sustainable manner. They want to protect this resource much in the way a farmer wants to protect his fields.”

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is working with the fishing industry to develop practical solutions to fisheries challenges. (UMass Dartmouth)

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is working with the fishing industry to develop practical solutions to fisheries challenges. (UMass Dartmouth)

Troubled relationships
The clash between the fishing industry and conservationists/environmentalists has been raging for generations, with scientists often caught in the middle. There appears to be no end in sight. In fact, the relationship grows more contentious by the year.

Williams told ecoRI News late last year that the relationship between the two sides is deteriorating. He blamed much of the added hostility on “deep-pocketed” non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Vanasse, of Saving Seafood, said the relationship is further stressed by the “political appointee revolving door” between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and conservation organizations.

“It’s a strained relationship at best, and that’s unfortunate,” Williams said. “Environmentalists are a necessary evil and we’re a necessary evil for them,  because without us they wouldn’t have jobs.”

The relationship between fishermen and scientists isn’t much better, and distrust between all parties involved abounds. It is scientists, after all, who ultimately decide whether fish populations are endangered, improving or thriving. To help make that determination, scientists receive reports on the number of fish brought to port and they conduct their own trawl surveys. But to understand what is really happening at sea, scientists largely rely on fishermen’s logbooks.

Since 1994 fishermen have been required to report how much of each species they catch and where — even those animals they throw back — and provide that data to government monitors. As would be expected, this system of self-reporting features facts, half-truths and deceit. Some fishermen consider the reports a joke, and the logbooks, sometimes filled with stained and/or ripped pages, are often unreliable.

John Torgan, director of ocean and coastal conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, said it makes better sense for conservation organizations and the fishing industry to work more closely together.

“The idea is to offer constructive solutions to fisheries challenges; not assign blame,” he said. “All voices are valuable. You need to build trust and confidence.”

But strained relationships, questionable catch information, environmental protections, fish quotas, flawed data, permits, historic abuses, criticized trawl surveys and lack of scientific data, plus the growing stresses of a changing climate and land-based pollution, makes fisheries management a complicated business.

“Fisheries management is a hazardous occupation,” Torgan said. “It’s complex ... you’re dealing with livelihoods. The same information is being viewed many different ways. Even the industry never speaks with the same voice.”

He noted, however, that southern New England’s fishing industry and culture is too important to be torn apart by contentious relationships. “There’s value in having a sustainable fishing industry,” Torgan said. “Fishing, shellfish, seafood restaurants, fish markets are who we are. They define southern New England.”

Deep-sea canyons, which can plunge to depths greater than 7,000 feet, and seamounts, which rise thousands of feet above the sea floor, create habitats that are home to corals, fish, marine mammals and turtles. They're also popular areas to fish. (CLF/NRDC)

Deep-sea canyons, which can plunge to depths greater than 7,000 feet, and seamounts, which rise thousands of feet above the sea floor, create habitats that are home to corals, fish, marine mammals and turtles. They're also popular areas to fish. (CLF/NRDC)

Hot waters
Two recent issues, both of which are still being hotly debated, provide a glimpse into the intense relationship between fishermen and environmentalists. At a September meeting in Providence both sides spoke passionately at a NOAA public hearing about the idea to create the first marine national monument protection area in the Atlantic, off the New England coast.

A few hundred people filled a hotel conference room to speak against or in favor of a proposal that would permanently protect a network of deep-sea canyons and underwater mountains. Commercial fishermen and industry representatives said the monument consideration process is flawed and shrouded in mystery.

In a piece published by The Hill, New Bedford fisherman Williams wrote about the meeting.

“Those of us who have fished sustainably and responsibly in the area for decades have had our voices almost completely shut out of this process. A prime example was the September 15 ‘town hall’ meeting held by NOAA in Providence. Hastily arranged, many fishermen who would be affected by the proposals were not even aware that it took place. Those in attendance were provided no firm details on the scope of the proposal, preventing them from commenting substantively about something that could dramatically affect or even eliminate their livelihoods.”

Williams also wrote that the environmental organizations urging President Obama to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate Cashes Ledge and some New England canyons and seamounts as marine national monuments is an abuse of the law.

“The Antiquities Act, originally enacted to give Teddy Roosevelt authority to protect vulnerable Native American archaeological sites, allows the president to act quickly, unilaterally, and without Congressional oversight to preserve sites in danger of destruction,” he wrote. “The act, while undoubtedly created in good faith, has been misused in the case of marine monuments to a frightening extent.”

More than 1,500 fishermen from 26 states have signed a letter opposing such a presidential proclamation. Monument supporters, however, have noted that the country’s national parks are proof that presidential action is sometimes warranted when it comes to protecting natural resources.

Cashes Ledge and New England’s collection of deep-sea canyons and underwater mountains will never be tourist attractions like, say, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but supporters believe these areas need to be better protected to ensure healthy marine ecosystems.

Environmental groups, including The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the NRDC, say they would like to see five canyons, four seamounts and Cashes Ledge, in the Gulf of Maine, included in NOAA’s monument designation. They say Cashes Ledge is one of the richest marine habitats on the East Coast and serves as an important feeding ground for tuna and endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Cashes Ledge is a roughly 500-square-mile undersea mountain chain about 80 miles east of Gloucester, Mass. The chain includes a large kelp forest that provides habitat for a diverse collection of marine life, including Atlantic cod.

“Cod has been devastated by overfishing since 1990. Even forty years after overfishing was first required to be prevented, estimated New England cod catches in the Gulf of Maine continue to be several times higher than the overfishing level,” Peter Shelley, CLF’s senior counselor, has said in support of greater fishing protections for Cashes Ledge. “Rebuilding New England’s cod populations must be the absolute highest priority and should not be sold out to an ill-advised quick fix of short-term economic concerns. How many more taxpayer-funded ‘emergency’ bailouts will be necessary before managers take the actions that are necessary for cod recovery?”

In 2014, Congress sent $32 million in government aid to cod fishermen, according to CLF.

Cashes Ledge has been closed to bottom-trawling since the early 2000s, but other fishing methods have been allowed in the area for decades. Environmental groups are arguing that it’s time to prohibit all fishing in the area. They say Cashes Ledge is a pristine resource that needs better protection.

The fishing industry — most notably the four fisheries that regularly fish these areas, red crab, swordfish, whiting and lobster — has responded to those concerns by noting that if ongoing fishing in Cashes Ledge was inflicting harm environmentalists wouldn’t be calling the area pristine. They would be citing the damage done.

Williams, president of the Atlantic Red Crab Co., said his company has been actively fishing in Cashes Ledge and in parts of the proposed marine national monument protection area for 20 years. He said the red crab fishery compiles with regulations and has “expended significant resources and time to ensure the health of the resource we fish.”

During testimony in late September before the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans regarding the potential implications of marine national monument designation, Williams noted that in 2009 the red crab fishery became the first Atlantic Coast fishery certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. He also noted that the deep-sea fishery is listed as “Ocean-Friendly” by the New England Aquarium Seafood Guide program.

His New Bedford business employees about 150 people and has five fishing boats.

Williams believes “large, well-funded environmental organizations” are using their money and power to marginalize fishermen. Williams claimed NGOs are negotiating with government regulators behind closed doors.

“Pew is the elephant in the room. It has a lot of influence in D.C.,” said Williams, noting that The Pew Charitable Trusts’ net assets are more than $5 billion. “Pew and NRDC employees get paid to attend all these meetings. Fishermen aren’t getting paid to be there. It costs them money. It’s frustrating. As my grandfather would always tell me, ‘There’s two sides to every story and the truth is somewhere in between.’”

Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, said most fishermen operate on razor-thin margins, and noted that they have to deal with quota cutbacks, catch limits, inflexible permits and depressed prices for locally caught fish. He said banning fishing in these proposed areas would unnecessarily cripple the industry.

“Fisheries are a real resource that need to be properly addressed,” Vanasse said. “Good science and good management are needed. The problem is environmental groups trying to close down one fishery and then moving on to the next.”

He suggested that NGOs use the money they spend on lawsuits to help develop better science, which would better protect marine resources and create better management practices. “I’d love to see that money put into science,” Vanasse said. “We should be funding science, not lawsuits.”

Fishermen dock their boats at Gardner’s Wharf Seafood and sell their catch directly to the North Kingstown, R.I., seafood market on Wickford Harbor. (ecoRI News)

Fishermen dock their boats at Gardner’s Wharf Seafood and sell their catch directly to the North Kingstown, R.I., seafood market on Wickford Harbor. (ecoRI News)

Science matters
The ongoing fight that pits marine protections against marine jobs is refereed by government regulators, who have to balance the demands of both sides. For example, last July regulators denied a request from a coalition of environmental groups to prohibit cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Instead, regulators reduced the Gulf of Maine cod catch limit from 1,550 metric tons to 386.

Last October, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the American eel is stable and doesn’t need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The New England Fisheries Management Council recommended last year reopening 5,000 square miles of Georges Bank, an area known as the Northern Edge, to fishing after a closure of two decades.

According to some scientists and those in the industry, the council’s decision, passed by a single vote, was an admission that having the area closed was accomplishing little while sacrificing plenty — a bounty of high-value scallops, for instance.

U.S. commercial fishing operations, which includes wholesalers, processors and retailers, contribute billions of dollars annually to the economy. The National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that the U.S. fishing industry contributes nearly $90 billion annually to the economy, and supports more than 1.5 million jobs.

And, according to Vanasse, environmental management by the U.S. commercial fishing industry ranks with New Zealand as among the best in the world.

He noted that this past fall the president of the Garden State Seafood Association, chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and director of the Mid-Atlantic Marine Program at The Nature Conservancy were recognized as “Regional Champions of the Ocean” by the New York Aquarium and Urban Coast Institute for the roles their organizations played in the preservation of 38,000 square miles of ocean floor in the mid-Atlantic as habitat for native deep-water corals and other marine organisms.

“Ecosystem management by our domestic fisheries has many successes that the rest of the world could learn from, but NGOs spend more time criticizing it,” Vanasse said. “It’s one planet with five oceans and we should be thinking globally. We should be taking what the United States and New Zealand are doing and teaching it to the rest of the fishing world. We should be helping the lowest ranked nations do better.”

Good management was what brought the $559 million U.S. sea scallop fishery back from the brink of collapse during the past 20 years, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

However, that fishery’s current management plan doesn’t account for longer-term environmental changes such as ocean warming and acidification that may impact sea scallops in the future. A group of researchers from WHOI, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the Ocean Conservancy hope to change that.

They have developed a computer program that concurrently simulates ocean conditions, sea scallop population dynamics and economic impacts on the fishery. In the past, each component was considered separately, so it wasn’t possible to anticipate the full range of impacts of environmental changes on, for example, fishery revenues.

“Combining ocean chemistry, biology, fishing and economics into a single model was a real challenge, but the effort is critical if we are going to provide useful information to fishing communities and resource managers,” said Scott Doney, a marine chemist at WHOI.

Researchers have described the model as a tool intended to empower everyone who is part of fisheries management.

The first scenario researchers analyzed showed that with current harvest levels and business-as-usual carbon dioxide emissions, sea scallop harvests may decline over the next several decades, and landings of larger scallops may be less abundant. The researchers noted, however, that this is just one possible scenario. Additional scenarios need to be evaluated, they said, and more detailed information is needed regarding the impacts of warming and ocean acidification on sea scallops.

“Because this is a high-value fishery that’s not in crisis, we have the luxury of planning ahead for future challenges,” said Sarah Cooley, science outreach manager at the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy. “This way, we can help sustain the fishery and the communities that depend on it for income and jobs.”

Editor’s note: John Torgan is an ecoRI News board member.

There's Something Fishy About Climate Change

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher with an Atlantic cod. Warming water temperatures are impacting the distribution of this cold-water species. (NOAA)

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher with an Atlantic cod. Warming water temperatures are impacting the distribution of this cold-water species. (NOAA)

Warming waters and nitrogen overloads are conspiring to alter the composition of southern New England’s fisheries

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

For generations winter flounder was one of the most important fish in southern New England waters. Today, the once-abundant flatfish is hard to find off the coasts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Overfishing is often blamed, and the industry certainly bears much responsibility, as does consumer demand. The winter flounder commercial fishery was once a highly productive industry with annual harvests up to 40.3 million pounds, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Since the early 1980s, however, landings have steadily declined. Total commercial landings for all stocks combined — Georges Bank, Gulf of Maine and Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic — dipped to 3.5 million pounds in 2010, according to the Virginia-based organization.

Overfishing, however, is just one factor in the decline of some once-prevalent species in local waters. The reasons are complicated and diverse, from habitat loss, pollution, and even energy production — the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., pre-cooling towers, played a role in the precipitous decline of winter flounder in Mount Hope Bay — to climate-change impacts such warming water temperatures, shifting currents and less oxygenated waters.

In fact, one of the biggest current threats to domestic fisheries, including those along the southern New England coast, is the impact a changing climate, combined with land-based pollution, is having on water quality.

“When water is polluted, it exacerbates the threats posed by algal blooms and disease,” said John Torgan, director of ocean and coastal conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter. “Our coastal edges and estuaries inoculate the ocean from threats. Our coastal ponds and rivers are breeding grounds for marine life. If we reduce the amount of pollution in our waters, they’ll be able to better cope with whatever challenges climate change brings. The best investment we can make is to address the sources of land-based pollution.”

The former Narragansett baykeeper for Save The Bay said that effort must continue to focus on reducing the amount of nitrogen dumped into local waters from wastewater treatment facilities, septic systems and cesspools. He also noted the importance of rebuilding natural buffering along the coast, and better protecting wetlands.

However, the technology required to remove nitrogen from wastewater treatment plants and septic systems is expensive. In fact, very few wastewater treatment facilities in southern New England possess it. A de-nitrification septic system for a home or building can cost upwards of $40,000, but Torgan noted that one system could serve a number of structures. He said reducing the amount of nitrogen in local waters is an investment the region must make.

“Water quality and the ecological health of our coastal waters and estuaries are the most important drivers for environmental and community well-being in coastal states,” Torgan said. “Clean, healthy coastal waters are the key to environmental protections, public health and tourism. Can you swim? Can you take fish?”

Sea lettuce algae covers the shore of Bullocks Cover near Hanes Park in Barrington, R.I., at low tide, a clear sign of nutrient pollution. The photo was taken in 2011. (John Torgan)

Sea lettuce algae covers the shore of Bullocks Cover near Hanes Park in Barrington, R.I., at low tide, a clear sign of nutrient pollution. The photo was taken in 2011. (John Torgan)

Tepid waters
Southern New England’s coastal waters are warming, and key species are disappearing (cod and winter flounder), southerly species are appearing more frequently (spot and ocean sunfish) and more unwanted guests are arriving (jellyfish that have an appetite for fish larvae and, in the summer, lionfish, a venomous and fast-reproducing fish with a voracious appetite).

This biomass metamorphosis will likely transform southern New England’s fishing industry, for both better and worse. But how much of this change is climate related and how much is simply the region’s natural ebb and flow of marine life? A lack of ecosystem-wide data makes that a difficult question to answer. But change is being witnessed and documented.

“Climate change has happened in southern New England’s coastal waters,” Torgan said. “We’ve seen a significant warming on average in water temperatures, especially winter water temperatures. Southern New England’s ocean waters have changed, and this warming triggers fish kills, hypoxia and die-offs."

In 2012, water temperatures off the New England coast hit a record high, and shifts were observed in the distribution of Atlantic cod, a cold-water species, according to a 2013 study. While the region’s biomass diversity is certainly being altered by warming temperatures, species populations also are being changed by prey-to-predator ratios and by overfishing in waters hundreds of miles away.

Jon Hare, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Narragansett Laboratory, told ecoRI News that fishing pressures and climate change are the two obvious factors when it comes to changing population distributions.

“Whether it’s climate change or fishing pressures, species distribution is changing and we need to adapt how we manage that change,” Hare said.

Climate change, however, is perhaps the least understood factor. Both scientists and fishermen are just beginning to understand the possible ramifications. For instance, despite ongoing, but so far fairly limited, research it remains unclear how different species will adapt to warming waters, shifting currents and other climate-change impacts.

Species native to southern New England marine waters, such as cod, lobster and winter flounder, which the region’s fishing industry built its fleet around, will either adapt, find more suitable habitat elsewhere or their numbers will decline.

“Numerous studies have now documented changes in species distributions related to climate change,” Hare has written in research papers. “In general, species are moving poleward and into deeper waters. However, it is important to recognize that this is a general pattern and that there are a substantial number of exceptions.”

Winter flounder, which have distinct habitat needs and migrate to estuaries to spawn, may be unable to shift their populations, as warmer-water species such as black sea bass and butterfish move into the void left by the migration of cold-water species northward and/or further offshore.

Black sea bass, which are sought both recreationally and commercially, are appearing in greater numbers off the coast of southern New England. (Tom Richardson/New England Boating)

Black sea bass, which are sought both recreationally and commercially, are appearing in greater numbers off the coast of southern New England. (Tom Richardson/New England Boating)

Challenges and opportunities
Sarah Schumann, president and founder of the Warwick, R.I.-based nonprofit Eating with the Ecosystem, said local fishermen are seeing an influx of black sea bass, and it’s northern expansion is putting native species, such as lobster, at risk.

Black sea bass historically have been found between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras, N.C., where they are sought both commercially and recreationally and are subject to size restrictions and rigid quotas. However, their numbers here are increasing and they are now being found in the colder waters of the Gulf of Maine, which isn’t quite as chilly as it once was. In fact, according to a 2015 study, warming waters are a major factor in the Gulf of Maine's cod collapse.

The greater abundance and distribution shifts of black sea bass will have environmental impacts and economic implications — both good and bad.

“The predatory impact of this explosion of black sea bass will be significant. They eat lobsters and shellfish,” Schumann said. “Their quota is pretty small, so there’s time and effort associated with catching them by accident and throwing them back. They also get caught up in fishing gear. That’s money lost for fishermen.”

On the flip side, Schumann noted that the increased range of these spiky-finned fish opens up a possible fishery to New England fishermen. “This shift northward of black sea bass will hopefully bring new opportunities, but it also will bring new challenges,” she said.

The change in black sea bass population density and increased range doesn’t automatically mean a changing climate is the reason, according to Schumann, other fishermen and scientists.

Populations shift and change all the time. It’s difficult to spot trends without more significant data sets. For example, there is plenty of data on surface-water temperatures but very little on bottom-water temperatures.

Also, the appearance of southern, warmer-water species off the New England coast isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Atlantic garfish, torpedo rays and cobia, to name just a few, have been randomly appearing here for decades.

However, that doesn’t mean warming waters and shifting currents, being caused in large part by manmade greenhouse-gas emissions, aren’t reshaping southern New England’s fisheries.

“Climate change is happening and we need to deal with it,” Hare said. “Fishermen are seeing the changes every day. They’re used to seeing fluctuations in species from fishing impacts, habitat destruction and a large number of negative impacts, but climate change is having an impact.”

Summer flounder and blue crabs — both of which spawn offshore and are less dependent on specific habitat needs — will likely expand their range because of climate change. In fact, fishermen and scientists here are already seeing blue crabs, a more southerly species, in greater numbers. Summer flounder offshore spawning stock is moving up the East Coast, as coastal waters here become less New England like and more Mid-Atlantic like.

That’s not to say southern New England hasn’t witnessed the return of some classics. Torgan noted that cod, for the first time in years, are biting off Block Island. He also said the region’s Atlantic herring population is doing well.

The combination of a changing climate and nitrogen pollution is destroying lobster habitat, meaning the population of this popular species is declining in southern New England. (istock)

The combination of a changing climate and nitrogen pollution is destroying lobster habitat, meaning the population of this popular species is declining in southern New England. (istock)

Lobsters leaving
Southern New England’s lobster population has declined sharply since the late 1990s. The reasons are varied — for example, dredged material from marinas dumped off Prudence Island destroyed lobster habitat, and some believe pesticide use has contributed to the decline — but warming waters are likely shifting these bottom-dwelling crustaceans offshore and to the north.

In fact, last summer, a report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission attributed southern New England’s lobster decline to climate change.

“Since the American lobster is highly influenced by temperature, climate change is expected to significantly impact the life history and distribution of the species,” according to the 493-page report. “In the lobster’s southern range, the number of days above 20º C (68 degrees Fahrenheit) is increasing, threatening successful reproduction. Contrastingly, in the Gulf of Maine, the number of days in the ideal range of 12-18º C is increasing, providing a potential benefit to the species. Climate changes are important to monitor and provide a strong justification for the timing of this benchmark stock assessment.”

Warmer water temperatures also can influence lobster vulnerability to disease and reduce their growth rate — a bad combination for the species and for those who make their livelihood catching the popular seafood.

“Lobsters are moving offshore into deeper waters, and it seems to be connected to warming waters,” said Eating with the Ecosystem's Schumann. “But we don’t have data on bottom-water temperatures, so it’s difficult to say that’s the main reason. It’s a complex issue.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Torgan said climate change and pollution, most notably excess nitrogen, are conspiring to destroy lobster habitat.

“We’re losing lobster habitat,” he said. “They’re not dying; they’re numbers are declining because their habitat is.”

Climate change is impacting, and will continue to impact, southern New England’s marine waters. But how fast and in what way is still anyone’s guess. These unknown climate-change impacts pose a challenge for both scientists and fishermen.

With the decline of cod, winter flounder and yellowtail flounder, much of Rhode Island’s groundfish fleet has turned its attention to squid. The Ocean State is now one of the biggest harvesters of squid on the East Coast. Climate change most assuredly played a part in the local loss of those three popular fishery species, but without more data it’s difficult to pinpoint how big a role it’s playing or will play.

But climate change is altering ecosystems, both aquatic and terrestrial. Ocean surface temperatures are expected to increase another 4-8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council.

“Even a shift of one to three degrees on average can have a dramatic impact on the life cycle and distribution of southern New England’s classic cold-water species,” Torgan said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it will kill them, but it makes them more susceptible to disease and predation.”

Warmer waters could also lead to changes in the timing of seasonal plankton blooms, disruption in migration patterns, and the disappearance of species at the southern end of their range, such as lobsters.

The world’s oceans also have been steadily acidifying for the past 250 years, fueled largely by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Acidifying oceans could dramatically impact the world’s squid species, including the population off the southern New England coast that is being harvested in greater numbers by an adapting local fishing industry.

In fact, about half of 36 fish stocks in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, which includes the waters of New England, have been shifting northward during the past four decades, with some stocks nearly disappearing from U.S. waters as they move farther offshore, according to a 2009 NOAA study. Many of them are commercially valuable species.

The study focused on the impact of changing coastal and ocean temperatures on fisheries from Cape Hatteras to the Canadian border. The research looked at annual spring survey data from 1968 to 2007 for stocks ranging from Atlantic cod and haddock to yellowtail and winter flounder, spiny dogfish and Atlantic herring. Researchers found many familiar species are shifting to the north, where ocean waters are cooler, or staying in the same general area but moving into deeper waters.

The study’s co-authors, including Hare, selected the 36 species to study because they were consistently caught in high numbers during annual spring bottom-trawl surveys. They also represented a wide range of species known to be commercially and/or ecologically important.

Ocean temperatures have increased since the 1960s and ’70s, and the authors found significant changes in species distribution consistent with warming in 24 of the 36 stocks studied. Ten of the 36 stocks examined had significant range expansion, while 12 had significant range contraction, according to the study.

The study also found that heavily fished stocks appeared to be more sensitive to climate change. Also, each fish species has a particular temperature range in which it thrives. If water temperatures depart from that range, they may experience reduced growth and reproduction, ultimately reducing their numbers in a particular area and changing the species’ distribution.

It also means fisherman will have to travel farther to catch some species, at least until it’s no longer economical.

These climate change-driven shifts in fisheries pose a threat, or at least a challenge, to the industry. It will require fishermen and regulators — like the fish and shellfish they catch and monitor — to adapt. One possible measure that has been proposed is adjusting fishing seasons and allowable catches based on observed population shifts, such as the growing emergence of black sea bass in southern New England waters.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries scientist Jon Hare carried baskets of fish during the 2006 winter trawl survey along the Northeast continental shelf. This annual survey started in the 1960s and has been instrumental in documenting changes in fish distributions. (NOAA)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries scientist Jon Hare carried baskets of fish during the 2006 winter trawl survey along the Northeast continental shelf. This annual survey started in the 1960s and has been instrumental in documenting changes in fish distributions. (NOAA)

Adult-only conversations
While numerous studies have shown that adult marine fish distributions in the Northeast are changing, few studies have looked at the early-life stages of these adult fish.

A 2015 study by NOAA fisheries researchers, including Hare, has provided some answers, finding that distributions of young stages and the timing of the life cycle of many fish species are also changing.

Hare said most marine fish have complex life histories with distinct stages — much like frogs. Marine fish spawn tiny planktonic eggs that move at the whim of ocean currents. Over a period of weeks to months, while drifting in the ocean, larvae develop and grow until they reach a point where they transition into juveniles recognizable as a fish.

The distribution of larvae in the sea is determined by where adult fish reproduce and by currents that move these early-life stages around. In the study published last September, researchers used long-term survey data to compare the distributions of larvae between two decades, 1977-87 and 1999-2008. They also used long-term survey data for the entire Northeast shelf, from Cape Hatteras to Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, to compare distributions of adult fish over the same time periods.

“The distribution and timing of the life cycle of many fish species are changing,” said the study’s lead author, Harvey Walsh, a fisheries biologist at NOAA’s Narragansett Laboratory and a colleague of Hare’s. “The consequences of these changes for fisheries management need to be considered, but an important first step is documenting that change is occurring.”

Walsh and his colleagues found that larval stages of 43 percent of the species studied changed distribution, while adult stages of 50 percent of the species shifted distribution over the same time period. Shifts were predominantly northward or along the shelf for both life stages, which they said is expected given the warming ocean in the region.

But not all the shifts were northward, or along the shelf. Butterfish and Atlantic mackerel, for example, shifted inshore, while red hake and silver hake moved into deeper but more inshore waters in the Gulf of Maine. Adult spiny dogfish, little skate and offshore hake shifted southward, perhaps because of differences in fishing pressures and changes in habitat, according to Walsh.

“It is clear significant changes are underway,” he said. “It is apparent that fish stocks in the Northeast shelf have changed over decades for both larvae and adults. These changes will impact the productivity and distribution of these stocks, and that will have significant implications for their assessment and management.”

Editor’s note: John Torgan is an ecoRI News board member. Also, the article's author is an Eating with the Ecosystem board member.

Climate Planning: The Heat Is On

Ozone, fine particulate matter, pollen and mold all influence air quality, and all are made worse by rising temperatures. Two groups considered especially vulnerable are children and the elderly. Children are more susceptible to poor air quality because their bodies are still developing. (RIDOH)

Ozone, fine particulate matter, pollen and mold all influence air quality, and all are made worse by rising temperatures. Two groups considered especially vulnerable are children and the elderly. Children are more susceptible to poor air quality because their bodies are still developing. (RIDOH)

Plenty of plans, studies and assessments address warmer and wetter weather in southern New England, but is the region truly prepared to help the most vulnerable among us?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Climate-change reports in Rhode Island and Massachusetts address most of the essential health topics. But there is a significant difference in how the states are implementing changes and addressing inadequacies.

In Massachusetts, a 2014 report recognizes that climate change burdens residents as well as state and local agencies. The average temperature is projected to increase 10 degrees by 2101. Days above 90 degrees are expected to increase six times; days above 100 degrees are projected to increase 10 times. The elderly, low-income families and the sick are the most likely to suffer from this additional heat.

Health officials say a lack of air conditioning and vegetation make matters worse. Heat intensifies air pollution and prompts asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses. Increased rainfall increases runoff that carries toxic chemicals and pathogens, polluting groundwater and swimming areas.

Significant flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011 around the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers in Massachusetts rendered a 6-mile stretch of Route 2 impassable. Reconstruction cost $34.5 million. (MassDOT)

Significant flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011 around the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers in Massachusetts rendered a 6-mile stretch of Route 2 impassable. Reconstruction cost $34.5 million. (MassDOT)

Floods and extreme rainstorms spawn harmful mold in buildings, which creates respiratory illnesses and mental disorders. Extreme weather and drought outside of cities impair crops and fisheries. Higher food prices follow, squeezing the budgets of older and low-income groups. Also, damaged caused to infrastructure costs taxpayers.

Suggested strategies recommend agency collaboration to address housing and zoning standards, and improve transportation, water resources, agriculture, utilities and emergency planning. Specifically, there is a need to develop stricter building codes and better warning systems, and create enhanced flood-control, evacuation and relief-recovery plans.

Massachusetts health departments are being asked to emphasize education, emergency preparation and management, and public outreach.

Aside from emergency-management preparations, “There is a significant disconnect between what public health officials know about the health threats associated with climate change, and what the public knows,” according to a 2011 report by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environment and Energy and Adaptation Advisory Committee.

A 2014 survey of municipal health department heads across Massachusetts revealed a startling lack of attention to the changing climate. Consider: 60 percent expected climate impacts; 69 percent said preparation to address the health effects wasn’t a priority; 21 percent said they have the resources to address the health issues of climate change; 62 percent said they didn’t have the expertise and would require staff and funds to address climate change; 75 percent said climate change wasn’t a top-10 priority; 50 could identify their elderly population; 80 percent weren’t aware of how many residents have illnesses, although the data was available; 70 percent had a plan to reach out to vulnerable populations but lacked information on many at-risk groups; half said their communities have resources to address heat waves.

Southeastern Massachusetts performed the worst in the survey. Only 8 percent of health departments believed their communities were ready for climate-change impacts. Thirteen percent said staff had the expertise.

A 2014 assessment of climate-change preparedness reached a similar conclusion “that most local health departments felt unprepared, under-resourced and that they lack expertise to address various health issues posed by climate variability.”

Multiple requests for an update on these conclusions from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health went unanswered.

The agency will be holding a symposium for planners and emergency professionals on preparing for climate health effects at the municipal level April 22 in Westborough, Mass.

Progress is slow
In Rhode Island, a 2015 state climate-change report identified health issues facing the poor, elderly, immigrants and non-English speaking populations. The document serves as a guide for the next 70 years, and offers best practices and case studies of solutions being used in cities outside the state. Some of these ideas are being put to practice, albeit slowly.

A study by the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) and Brown University corresponded with a national pattern showing that emergency-room visits spiked with higher temperatures. The elderly and young suffered the most. Health-care needs are also expected to increase as the number of hot days increases.

This research partnership is now studying the role of heat on social and geographic groups in the state. The results will be compared with similar studies being done in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.

Health officials believe the health impacts of hotter days and heat waves, such as heat-related deaths, can be minimized with preparation and good public-information campaigns.

“Lack of preparedness in addressing the dangers of heat can lead to disastrous consequences,” according to the study.

Julia Gold, the DOH’s climate-change program manager, is the only fully funded state employee addressing climate-change health risks for Rhode Island.

While Massachusetts is able to work with local health departments on adaptation strategies, Rhode Island must oversee efforts directly with cities and towns; there are few municipal health boards in the Ocean State. Engaging municipalities is a big priority, and finding funds to do is difficult. Most Rhode Island initiatives must be funded by federal grants and other outside sources.

“It’s a really big task,” Gold said. “We need to figure out how to provide cities and towns additional resources to plan for climate change.”

She believes Rhode Island’s small size is an asset. “We’re lucky we have a close-knit community working on these issues and how to change and adapt for the changes we are seeing,” Gold said.

Heat will be a big human health problem across the state in the years ahead. By 2070, the state is projected to experience up to 50 days of 90-plus-degree weather. In 1970, there were four days above 90 degrees; in 2013, 22 days exceeded 90 degrees.

A lack of trees and vegetation, a prevalence of pavement and other heat-absorbing, manmade structures contribute to the higher temperatures, all of which heighten the heat-island effect. Heat generated from black roofs, vehicles, homes, power plants and factories also contributes to the problem.

Muggy, with a chance of rain
Heat and air pollution are major concerns in minority and low socioeconomic communities, as housing often lacks insulation, air conditioning and adequate ventilation. In addition to power outages, heat worsens air quality and increases illness and mortality among the elderly and people suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.

Heat and air pollution intensify cases of asthma, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, respiratory infection, heart and lung conditions, allergic reactions and chronic diseases. Consequently, hospitalizations increase, along with economic harm and outbreaks of disease. Isolation, language barriers, level of education and vehicle access heighten exposure to these impacts.

Gold works closely with the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council to establish broad solutions to climate-related health issues. The focus, she said, is on the health problems the state is already seeing, “because the strategies of today will help with the future.”

So far, her office has established an internal advisory board to help with strategic planning. Goals include state and regional collaboration with agencies such as the Division of Elderly Affairs, and municipal groups like park departments. The University of Rhode Island is a partner on monitoring water quality through its Watershed Watch program.

More data is needed about impacts on food systems and water quality. “So much of it stems from the science,” Gold said. “It’s really complicated.”

Gold also is developing a heat response team with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. Groups are studying extreme cold, impacts on medical institutions and mental health plans, all of which are intended to send fewer people to emergency rooms.

She said there is a lot of uncertainty with preparing for climate change, “but we know things are changing. We can start planning for these types of climate changes but we don’t know what they look like, but we can prepare for them.”

On an island
A partnership between Brown University’s TRI Lab-Climate Change and the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island focuses on improving responses to the heat-island effect and planning for threatening weather and power outages in three Providence neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods will be identified for their susceptibility to heat-related illnesses. Profiles will include age, race and prevalence of illnesses such as diabetes and respiratory problems. Poverty, heat-island impacts, distance to the coast and green space will also be measured.

DOH is collaborating with Brown University and state agencies to host seminars with long-term-care and senior-housing facilities to help prepare them for heat impacts and power outages. This collaboration will conduct energy-resilience audits and develop emergency-preparedness plans. One goal is emphasizing the shelter-in-place response, as moving the elderly during weather events can often cause greater health problems.

Through a partnership with the Division of Forest Environment, DOH is mapping neighborhoods with low tree canopy coverage and high poverty. One goal is to reduce energy consumption. Tree planting, for instance, creates a natural cooling effect. Regional cooling centers reduce the cost and energy use of simply installing more air conditioners. Cooling centers also improve social interaction and reduce isolation.

DOH’s Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response is developing a uniform heat response plan for other agencies and groups. The agency also is working with Brown University and the National Weather Service to expand emergency warning systems. This project will gather data about heat-related admissions at hospitals to look for trends.

Barely passing
Air pollution is already a problem. Most of Rhode Island receives an air-quality rating from the American Lung Association of a C or below. Air pollution impairs lung function, triggers heart attacks and strokes, and causes cancer.

Climate change is expected to worsen air quality. Warmer temperatures lengthen allergy season and increase air pollution. Poor-quality housing, high-exposure jobs and lower rates of education put minority and low-incomes groups at a heightened risk.

Flooding causes more harm on the elderly, young, low-income groups and the disabled, groups that are likely to live in floodplains. DOH and the state Emergency Management Agency have responded by creating a registry of the disabled, the chronically ill and others who may require help from first-responders during emergencies.

Mentally tough
Mental health is an emerging topic in climate-change planning. Heat is suspected of contributing to mental-health disorders, especially people with preexisting conditions. In fact, heat waves triple the risk of death for those with mental-health issues. Extreme weather and flooding lead to property loss, social disruption and displacement. They produce a string of chronic health issues such as depression, long-term anxiety, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide and increased aggression in children also increase.

Bob Doppelt, of the University of Oregon and The Resource Innovation Group, spoke in Providence last year about mental health and climate change.

“Emergency response and mental-health response systems are never going to be robust enough to deal with these issues alone,” he said. “So prevention has got to be the key. We have to focus on prevention. We are not very good at that in the U.S. It’s not just Rhode Island, it’s any state.”

These Rhode Island and Massachusetts climate-change reports share many conclusions. Sea levels here are rising faster than the global average. Low elevations permit storm surges and flooding to move further inland. Winters are shorter and wetter. At least one drought per summer is expected. Although relatively brief, these annual droughts cause water shortages, crop damage and impacts to drinking water. However, both states have yet to address catastrophic impacts such as displacement and conflict.

Most residents of southern New England know by now that things are going to get hotter, wetter and, at times, drier. Lots of planning is taking place. But it’s not clear if it will be in time or strong enough for the next natural disaster, especially if the most vulnerable populations are threatened.

Urban Cores are Already Feeling the Heat

On Dec. 12, 2008, Waterplace Park in Providence got a preview of what 3 feet of sea-level rise will look like, as 2.7 feet of flooding washed out much of the area’s riverside walkways. (James Boyd/CRMC)

On Dec. 12, 2008, Waterplace Park in Providence got a preview of what 3 feet of sea-level rise will look like, as 2.7 feet of flooding washed out much of the area’s riverside walkways. (James Boyd/CRMC)

Metropolitan areas most susceptible to multiple climate threats

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Is southern New England adequately prepared for the impacts of the projected harsh weather ahead, especially on its most vulnerable residents: the sick, elderly, young and poor?

ecoRI News looked at Providence and Central Falls, R.I., and three cities in southeastern Massachusetts to check on their readiness for climate change. For the most part, all are making and improving their plans to help underserved groups. Emergency-management agencies across the region are on guard for floods, heat waves, cold snaps and power outages.

Providence
Severe weather poses a heightened threat to Rhode Island, as 90 percent of its population lives in urban settings — the areas most susceptible to multiple climate threats. Much of the rest of the state lives in coastal areas, which come with another set of risks heightened by sea-level rise and flooding.

Providence has both urban and coastal problems related to climate change. A NASA study of 42 cities in the Northeast found that Providence has one of the highest heat-island temperature disparities. As a densely built metropolis, Providence is more than 12 degrees warmer in summer than the surrounding geography.

It also has an extremely diverse population: 29 percent are foreign-born and 26 percent live below the poverty level. Fortunately, it has a progressive and innovative plan to protect its diverse population. After hiring its first sustainability director in 2011, the city began looking beyond the traditional emergency response-planning practices of establishing shelters and evacuation procedures.

The city first identified the health impacts of climate change in a 2012 report. It singled out at-risk groups and launched a comprehensive sustainability plan, which seeks to address water and food availability, infrastructure durability, air and water pollution, health issues, and communication.
So far, the program has launched initiatives to reduce flooding through green infrastructure and streetscapes, and advanced the development of a multi-city stormwater management system. The city also launched a CodeRed information campaign that provides emergency alerts in English and Spanish.

Additional partnerships with Brown University are also moving forward. A pilot plan on the West Side replaces paved and cement surfaces with water-absorbing vegetation. A project with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island and other groups is creating “health equity zones” around the city’s nine recreation centers. These public spaces are expected to reduce the effects of heat and flooding and provide safety and healthier landscaped common areas.

An ongoing tree-planting campaign focuses on mapping urban hot spots and reducing the heat-island effect in low-income neighborhoods. The program recently planted its 10,000th tree. Other initiatives focus on youth education, community-response teams, painting roofs white and planting green roofs to reduce heat. All of the programs will or are being delivered through a multilingual communications and outreach initiative.

In February, the city will unveil a design-resiliency program to identify and remodel infrastructure in the most at-risk neighborhoods.

“This is certainly an area that is priority of the mayor’s,” said Leah Bamberger, the city’s director of sustainability. “We’re keenly focused on Providence as a coastal community and there is certainly a need for this.”

Social-justice issues are particularly prominent in South Providence, where the predominately low-income neighborhood is exposed to a mix of pollutants from its industrial port and traffic emissions along Interstate 95.

Flooding and severe weather threaten to release toxins from an oil terminal, an asphalt plant, and chemical mixing and storage facilities at the port. A proposed liquefied natural gas plant has drawn protests from neighborhood groups about harmful emissions. Flooding threatens to release toxins buried in brownfields scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Monitoring is underway to measure air quality around the port and highway. The results will address long-held suspicions that air pollution and higher temperatures, and the ensuing ozone-alert days, are triggering asthma attacks and causing respiratory diseases and other ailments.

Low-income residents are protected from utility shut-offs during the winter but not in the summer, when there is an increasing reliance on air conditioning.

Julian Rodriguez-Drix, an Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island board member, said the first priority is to improve communication. “There’s such linguistic diversity in both Providence and Central Falls ... that people may not get the alerts,” he said.

Central Falls, R.I.
This Providence County city is also curbing emissions, advancing sustainability and preparing for a world altered by climate change. Under the direction of Mayor James Diossa, the city of 19,000 living in just 1.3 square miles is merging its emergency-management agency with neighboring Pawtucket. This partnership expects to put greater emphasis on addressing extreme weather events.

The city, which has the highest percent of Spanish-speaking residents in Rhode Island, aims to curb carbon emissions by promoting intermodal transportation. One of its priority projects is the proposed Central Falls-Pawtucket train station. The city also is boosting its bike culture by installing bicycle-repair stations, and has recently been awarded grants to paint a bike lane through the city.

Central Falls also is pushing alternatives to car ownership, with the implementation last year of car-ride services Zipcar and Uber.

This year, the city is expected to launch a program that would allow low-income residents to finance home repairs and upgrades, which they might otherwise not be able to afford. These repairs would allow residents to incorporate energy-efficient materials and products into existing structures, leading to energy cost savings.

Brown University environmental studies professor J. Timmons Roberts has introduced several of the projects to address climate-change adaptation in Providence and Central Falls. He worries that the planning, so far, isn’t adequate.

“These are two cities that are starting the process of identifying at-risk populations and developing plans to reach them in the case of an emergency,” he said. “However, we are very far from having adequate systems to identify, warn, reach out to, and help all the vulnerable people in our cities.”

Heat waves in Chicago, Paris and Moscow, he explained, saw thousands of isolated elderly people die locked in their apartments. “Their fear of crime and social isolation combined with failing health put them at far higher risk than other groups,” Roberts said. “I think we can do much more to plan for reaching and helping these people, but at least we are starting.”

Floodwaters from the Taunton River flooded the junction of Route 44 and Route 104 in Taunton, Mass., during the March floods of 2010. (NOAA)

Floodwaters from the Taunton River flooded the junction of Route 44 and Route 104 in Taunton, Mass., during the March floods of 2010. (NOAA)

Southeastern Massachusetts
While Rhode Island is making efforts to protect specific at-risk groups, Massachusetts doesn’t explicitly address its most vulnerable populations from climate-change impacts. Instead, it takes a broader approach to emergency preparedness. Each city employs full-time emergency-management personnel who are constantly trained to address the extreme weather the region has endured in recent years.

Taunton, like much of southeastern Massachusetts, is built among vast stretches of hardwood swamps. Dams dot the region, and tributaries of the Taunton River are prone to flooding.

With the floods of 2010 fresh in his memory, Richard Ferreira, Taunton’s emergency management director, frequently updates plans to manage water risks and keep people out of harm’s way. Emergency shelters are opened regularly to accommodate residents suffering from extreme heat, cold and power outages.

“The planning is going on all of the time,” Ferreira said.

Communication with the local National Weather Service office is vital, he noted. Weather alerts and emergency communications are broadcast across multi-languages radio and TV channels. Seniors are identified and assessed for sheltering in-place or evacuation through the local Council on Aging.

Planning is also done for residents with access and mobility issues with the Office of Homeland Security, local housing authorities and fire departments.

“As many resources that are out there,” Ferreira said, “it’s incumbent upon every community to be prepared because they are all so different.”

Fall River’s steep hills and low-lying western shore present geographic challenges.

“We’ve got significant events you have to be prepared for,” said Richard Aguiar, the city’s director of emergency management for 16 years.

Climate change, he noted, is another piece of emergency preparedness, which mostly requires a careful monitoring of the weather.

Similar preparedness programs operate in New Bedford. Ferreira and Aguiar meet and collaborate with emergency-management directors across the region to address storm planning, most recently to prepare for tornadoes.

“Weather is a huge issue for us on a daily basis,” Aguiar said.

As a peninsula cooled by surrounding Buzzards Bay, New Bedford doesn’t consider rising heat a problem. Fortunately, federal funds paid for the construction of a hurricane barrier in 1966. The city installed pumps to protect its low-lying coastal neighborhoods from flooding.

The historic whaling city is winning points for climate-change mitigation. It is nationally recognized for having the largest municipal solar-energy program in the country, and has the largest municipal electric-vehicle fleet in Massachusetts.

“New Bedford has made climate change a priority and so the city is doing its part to address the problem and set an example for other communities,” said Elizabeth Treadup, a city spokeswoman.