Warmer waters affecting the New England fishing industry

At the fish exchange, the impact is stark

(CNN) – A new study has found the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost every other ocean in the world. For the first time, it links warming sea temperatures to the collapse of cod stocks in the region.

For Portland’s fishing community, the first hours of daylight are the most important. At the town’s fish exchange, boats rush to unload their catch, ready to be sorted, and sold.

They are not just working against time.

Today’s landing at the Portland fish exchange was about 40,000 pounds worth. That’s not considered very much. Out of that, just seven boxes worth of cod; that’s about 500 pounds.”

Cod stocks have been declining here for decades. Federal quotas were slashed by 75 percent back in May, to help the species recover.

Now a new study suggests that intervention may have been too late.

Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute says, “You assume that if you pull back on the fishing, the stock will have the same productivity that it had in the past.  But our work really shows that the productivity in Gulf of Maine cod was declining pretty rapidly as the waters were getting warm and so by not factoring that in they weren’t able to rein in the quotas fast enough.”

Pershing believes he has established an explicit link between climate change and cod. These picturesque waters are ground zero. “We found that over the last 35 years that the Gulf of Maine warmed at a rate that was about three times the global average rate, but then over the past 10 years, so 2004 through 2013, the gulf of Maine warmed faster than 99% of the global oceans. So it really was a change that very few ecosystems have ever experienced.”

Yet there’s a divide in this town, between the scientists and the fishermen.

Many, like veteran Brian Pearce, don’t believe cod stocks are as low as they say. “I’ve been fishing for 30 years, and I will say that I’ve seen the population higher, and I’ve seen it lower than it is now, it sorta goes in cycles. I started 30 years ago and there was no issue with climate change, and we had years where there was tons of fish around, and then, no two years are alike.”

Cod is what’s known as a “choke” species. Once a fishermen catches his quota for the year, he has to stop fishing altogether if there’s any risk of accidentally catching cod.

So, they’re now using nets with larger holes, and even planning different routes, just to avoid cod.

Pearce says, “Everywhere we go, we can’t find a spot that we can target the healthy stock and not interact with the cod.”

At the fish exchange, the impact is stark.

Bert Jongerden from the Head Portland Fish Exchange says, “I think if we had a little more codfish available, I think we’d have a lot more fish this year. Matter of fact, this year compared to last year, we’re at about almost a million pounds less on landings.”

It’s a fragile industry, operating in what some believe is one of the world’s most fragile environments.

Copyright 2015 CNN

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