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Global Warming Is Already Destroying New England’s Fisheries

The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming areas of the ocean. It's going to get worse.

A lobsterman in the increasingly lobsterless Long Island Sound (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

To wake up in the Northeastern United States—as California blazes and Japan digs itself out of typhoon damage—is to experience an uneasy gratitude for all that is not burning, battered or underwater. Seven years out from Superstorm Sandy, we know not to get cocky, but there’s a relief in being able to worry about work and more pedestrian finances instead of evacuation plans, or ordering the right kind of smoke mask. It’s a small luxury in climate-didn’t-come-for-me-today compartmentalization.

But deep down, we know better. And if the national discussion hasn’t moved to climate change in the Northeast yet, it soon will. The effects are already profound—they just happen to be underwater. 

Fourth-generation fisherman Al Cottone holds no illusions of being spared climate impacts in 2019.  He captains one of the 15 fishing boats still active in the waters around Gloucester, Massachusetts. Not a decade ago, there were 50. To fish in the Gulf of Maine—the ocean inlet spanning from Cape Cod up to the southern tip of Nova Scotia—is to navigate one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on the planet. “It’s not something you see with your naked eye,” Cottone told me. “But fish are definitely reacting differently, and I’m attributing it to climate change. We’re seeing them in deeper water—they’re trying to get the right temperature at depth.”

Like many of the world’s worst climate impacts, extreme water temperatures along the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf is directly connected to melting glaciers. Around the world, the effects differ: In the Himalayas, glacial melt has led to intense flooding. As the ice diminishes, scientists expect a crisis in fresh water supplies for the 800 million people in the region who rely on seasonal runoff. In the North Atlantic, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet has triggered a slowing of ocean currents that routinely circulate cooler water into New England. “Since 2010, we’ve had weaker flow in that cold water current,” said Andrew Pershing, Chief Scientific Officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “Those changes in circulation are part of this large-scale reorganization of the North Atlantic.” 

Pershing compares what’s happening in the Northeast right now to a bathtub whose cold water tap got turned down a bit while the hot water kept flowing. It’s left the Gulf of Maine with a warming level at almost four times the global ocean average.

For centuries, the Northeastern U.S. has featured an abundance of fish, especially cod. “I mean, we named a whole Cape after it,” Pershing said. Cottone used to catch 34,000 pounds of cod a year. This year, he’s down to 2,000 pounds. Part of that is because of concerns about overfishing—in 2013 the federal government put some very low quotas on what professional fishermen are allowed to bring in. But another part of that, according to Pershing, is a diminishing ecosystem that just can’t support larger, meaty fish like it used to.

Fast-warming seas cause all sorts of problems for fish at each stage of their development. For centuries, the Gulf of Maine has operated like a sub-Arctic ecosystem, with very cool temperatures for part of the year and then routine, seasonal warm-ups. Every creature along the food chain had adapted to that pattern. Calanus, a tiny, crustaceous zooplankton which resembles a micro-shrimp, about the size of a grain of rice, feeds voraciously on cool-water phytoplankton (marine algae) in early spring. The tiny shrimp get good and chubby and then go into hiding deep-down for a few months, re-emerging in the autumn full-grown, and looking mighty good to a herring, which in turn, looks mighty good to a cod. That life-sustaining chain is disrupted by heat spikes in the spring, which throws off Calanus development. “When things warm up, what we suspect is that its metabolism is clicking along so fast that it can’t build up the reserve of fat it needs, so it isn’t able to complete its life cycle the way it normally would,” Pershing told me. When the little creatures can’t adapt, the predator fish take the hit too. The ones who survive have often expanded their search for sustenance into waters further north.

Lobsters have made this migration too, which is why fisherman working the Long Island Sound said their goodbyes to that cash crop a long time ago. In the Gulf of Maine, fishermen saw their lobster “landings” (the industry term for the number of caught fish) begin to triple during the late aughts. The frame of optimal conditions moved from Southern New England to Maine, giving the state an unprecedented boom, a high point of 132 million pounds of lobster landings in 2016 as opposed to 57 million pounds of lobster in 2000. The Southern New England lobster industry is on life support, and Maine’s boom is not likely to last. 

According to a study published recently in the journal Ecological Applications, warming seas are altering biological dynamics in the waters off Maine, and peak conditions for lobsters are now moving north again. “We predict that in many of the areas in the Gulf of Maine, landings will return to levels around the mid-2000s within the next four to six years,” Noah Oppenheim, Executive Director of the Institute for Fisheries Resources and one of the study’s authors, told me. A fisherman-turned-marine-biologist, Oppenheim looked not only at food chain issues, but at how juvenile lobsters respond to hot spots in the ocean while they instinctively choose a safe space to mature. “They’ll bounce off 12 degree [Celsius] water like it’s a wall,” Oppenheim said. “Lobsters avoid water that’s too warm. They have a break point where their pulse will decrease and their organs begin to fail.” 

Oppenheim is hoping that his predictions will help humans respond to these new ecosystem conditions. “It’s going to be a rough few decades, IPCC made that crystal clear,” he said, referencing the September 25 ocean report from the International Panel on Climate Change, which predicts that the maximum catch potential rate of global fisheries will decrease at a rate of 4.1 percent per decade, a direct result of global warming. “We need to decarbonize the economy so that we can prevent worse outcomes, the ones we’d rather not have to predict,” Oppenheim added.

The U.S. fishing sector is still worth $200 billion in economic activity each year and employs roughly 1.6 million people. But since Cottone and the other fishermen left around Gloucester are already experiencing levels of warming that the rest of the world may not see until 2100, they can tell you about what future climate adaptation in local fisheries could look like.

First, they lost about 50 percent of their income. Then the older fishermen “retired” early because there wasn’t enough money left in the business for them. Their kids had no interest in buying those available boats. “We’ve lost a whole generation that was completely discouraged from getting into the industry,” said Cottone. “Once fishermen like me in their 50s age out, I don’t know who’s going to be left.”

The Gloucester fishermen still working have started delaying maintenance on their boats and letting some insurance policies lapse. They endure more frequent and more intense storms, the kind that keep your boat docked for five days until the ocean swells calm down. They target flounder and haddock for now, and wonder if southern species like the blue crabs of the Chesapeake Bay might migrate up in time for their last years at sea. 

They’ve acknowledged—as others so far have not—the fact that this won’t be one transition, but several. As David Wallace Wells wrote this year, it’s not the “new normal.” It’s “the end of normal.”