A ‘long, creeping change’: As climate warms, Virginia fisheries struggle to adapt

By: - June 24, 2019 12:01 am

Creative Commons via Pixabay. Virginia fishermen are pushing to participate in an experimental shrimp season as more are found in Virginia waters.

George Washington had few dietary preferences, save one: he was “excessively fond” of fish.

Luckily for the president, his perch at Mount Vernon afforded him an easy opportunity to indulge.

The Potomac, he recorded in 1793, was “well-stocked with various kinds of fish in all Seasons of the year, and in the Spring with Shad, Herring, Bass, Carp, Perch, Sturgeon, etc. in great abundance. … The whole shore, in fact, is one entire fishery.”

Today, Mount Vernon still overlooks the Potomac, but the species that call Virginia waters home are increasingly different due to something Washington couldn’t have foreseen: climate change.

“It’s hard to manage fisheries to begin with, [and] in the past we’ve always considered the climate stable,” said Patrick Geer, deputy chief of fisheries management for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “But now that theory of a stable climate and environment has been taken out.”

As global air temperatures warm, so too do global waters. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the temperature of the ocean’s surface has risen an average of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit every decade since the beginning of the 20th century. And the Chesapeake Bay is estimated to be warming even faster, at an average rate of 1.2 degrees every decade since the 1980s.

Increasingly, that is making environments inhospitable for fish. In reaction, populations on the East Coast are shifting northward and eastward, leaving commercial fishermen and states who have long relied on their presence with lighter nets — and fears of lighter coffers.

Some of those fears are justified. The classic cautionary tale is that of New England’s northern shrimp fishery, which crashed precipitously around 2012 and was closed in 2014 by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the governmental body that oversees the management of fisheries in state waters from Maine to Florida. In February 2018, the ASMFC extended the moratorium to 2021 in an announcement that linked the collapse to warming ocean temperatures and broached the possibility of a future in which “the stock has no ability to recover.”

Such regional collapses may become more frequent in coming years, while at the same creating more favorable environments for other species.

“In any one region, some species will experience improving environmental conditions that may result in increased available habitat and increased species productivity, while other species will experience the opposite and perhaps decline in abundance,” the National Marine Fisheries Service declared in its 2015 Climate Science Strategy.

Or, as Geer put it, “For any given area and for any given species, there will be winners and losers.”

In the meantime, fisheries managers are facing a host of new problems. Most pressing is the growing gap between quota allocations, which reflect where fish have historically been found, and the actual presence of fish in the waters today.

Commercial fishermen aren’t free to fish whatever they want, whenever they want. On the East Coast, all fishing in state waters is governed by the ASMFC, which sets quotas for how many fish can be harvested commercially and recreationally each year to ensure that populations remain sustainable. Commissions are also in charge of allocating each state a certain percentage of that quota. (Fishing in federal waters is managed similarly by regional councils under the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act.)

A number of quota allocations, however, are largely based on data from decades ago that may no longer match what fishermen are seeing out in the water.

“States that historically had not seen large landings are now seeing more and more fish,” said Tina Berger, director of communications for the ASMFC. And when it comes to reallocating quotas, those in the South Atlantic region like Virginia that are seeing their long-prized populations shift north up the coast “want to hold on to what they have.”

The concern, said Geer, is that “if something is given up, you’ll never get it back.”

‘Significant disparities’

For Virginia fishermen, much of the concern over changing quota allocations centers on two fish: black sea bass and summer flounder.

These populations have much in common. Both have been fished for years off the Atlantic coast. Both migrate between state and federal waters and are therefore managed jointly by the ASMFC and several federal councils, including the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the New England Fishery Management Council.

Most importantly, both fisheries have historically been dominated by the southern mid-Atlantic states, generally understood in fisheries management circles to stretch from New Jersey to North Carolina.

That dominance has been justified using data from as far back as the 1980s. Since 1993, Virginia has been entitled to about 21 percent of the commercial summer flounder quota, exceeded only by North Carolina’s roughly 27 percent share. Since 2003, the state has enjoyed 20 percent of the commercial black sea bass quota, matched only by New Jersey.

Over the past decade, however, these fish populations have begun expanding north — a shift that has destabilized the status quo.

(See how the distribution of summer flounder along the East Coast has changed since 1968 in this video illustration from NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center.)

The problem boils down to percentages. According to Caitlin Starks, a fishery management plan coordinator with the ASMFC, Virginia isn’t losing black sea bass, but as the population increases everywhere on the Atlantic Coast, “there has been more growth north of Hudson Canyon than there has been south of the canyon.”

Northern fishermen and the commissioners who represent their interests have taken notice and are beginning to demand greater allocations, giving rise to heightened regional tensions.

Illustration of black sea bass
Black sea bass (Freshwater and Marine Image Bank)

This April, an ASMFC working group on black sea bass pointed out “significant disparities” between state quota allocations and where the fish are actually found in abundance. Connecticut in particular, some members noted, is seeing far more black sea bass than it ever has before, but its fishermen are only allowed to catch 1 percent of the overall commercial quota.

Summer flounder has proven equally touchy. At an April 2018 meeting, Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council member Anthony DiLernia of New York criticized the use of almost 40-year old data for allocation decisions and argued that “some of the southern states could lose a few percentage points.”

He also hinted that if changes weren’t made, New York would take the issue to the courts, prompting Thomas Fote of New Jersey to fire back: “Go ahead and sue.”

This past January, New York did, with Attorney General Letitia James calling the federal government’s “reliance on inaccurate and outdated data” to determine commercial summer flounder allocations “a direct threat to our state’s fishing industry.”

The case is still pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Illustration of summer flounder
Summer flounder (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

Meanwhile, the ASMFC and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Council this past March attempted a compromise by establishing a “trigger point” of 9.55 million pounds of summer flounder. Until mid-Atlantic watermen hit that point, each state’s allocation would remain the same. But once they exceeded that limit, all of the states (except three where the summer flounder fishery is very small) would be entitled to an equal percentage: just over 12 percent of the catch.

But while northern states are worried about present losses — the catch they aren’t allowed to take in — southern states like Virginia are worried about how much they have to lose.

Summer flounder and black sea bass are valuable fisheries for Virginia, accounting for the state’s sixth- and eighth-highest landings revenues in 2016. (Highest honors that year went to sea scallops, blue crabs and oysters, respectively.)

Fisheries are also more than a matter of fish: they’re also an economic framework. Not only do fishermen pay sizable sums to buy into the quota, but whole communities have invested millions and years in vessels, nets, processing facilities and all of the businesses that support the industry, from boat repair to ice delivery services.

This historic investment, the southern states argue, should be taken into account in decision-making about allocations. North Carolina, for example, which has the largest share of the commercial summer flounder fishery, has pointed out that “shorebased infrastructure and businesses were developed to support the state’s commercial summer flounder fishery” and has argued that any new measures should “consider … the historic fisheries of the affected states.”

If the allocations were to be abruptly reworked, Geer said, “these people who have invested tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, all of a sudden they’d be out of a fishery.”

‘A long, creeping change’

But if Virginia is facing the possibility of some of its fisheries shrinking, it’s also seeing the potential expansion of a previously unknown one: the commercial harvest of Atlantic shrimp.

Virginia has never been much of a shrimping state. For that, fishermen have had to go south, to the Carolinas and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico. But over the past five or six years, watermen began seeing enough of them to justify asking the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to explore the nascent fishery.

In 2017, the first commercial shrimp boat of the experiment launched from Virginia’s coast. In 2018, the VMRC allowed two shrimping boats to ply the state’s waters. They were successful, pulling in an average of 400 pounds of the shellfish per trip, and netting a harvest worth $13,000.

“As soon as people started seeing that, they were like, ‘OK, what can we do?’” said Geer. By the spring of 2019, 19 would-be shrimpers had applied to participate in the experimental fishery, which the commission is considering expanding to four boats.

The best guess for what’s bringing such large quantities of shrimp into the commonwealth’s waters is climate change. As the Earth warms, the larvae of North Carolina shrimp are being brought by winds and currents into Virginia, and particularly the Chesapeake Bay, which is a natural spawning ground due to its diversity and richness of food sources. While previously these juveniles might have found Virginia too chilly to thrive, now it seems that it falls into their sweet spot.

In that way, shrimp are a prime example of the complexity of the relationship between climate change and fisheries.

Temperature may be the main driver of the shifts now being observed, but other factors matter too. Many marine species have adapted to fit very precise environments, meaning that small changes in things like water salinity, available habitat and food sources can have outsize effects.

“There are natural cycles in the ocean, and they’re timed to one another,” said Kate Wilke, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Mid-Atlantic Marine Program. Spawning times for fish, for example, often match up with when the plankton that they feed on while young is at its most abundant. Change those schedules and juveniles may not be able to survive. Depending on where the species is on the food chain, that could set off other reactions.

In Virginia’s waters, another important shift relates to eelgrass, a marine grass used by many small fish and shellfish, including juvenile blue crabs, both to hide from predators and as grazing grounds. But the plant is also highly sensitive to temperature, and the Chesapeake Bay has long been near the southern edge of their range.

Scientists like Chris Moore of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation predict that as temperatures continue to rise, eelgrass will disappear from the region. That might not have too much of an effect on the blue crab, which some models show benefiting from the warming temperatures as spawning seasons lengthen, but it could affect other populations.

“It’s hard to pick apart what exactly drives fish distribution,” said Wilke. And, she pointed out, fish aren’t a static part of the system either: “Species adapt too, and I don’t think we can really anticipate how species might adapt to these changing conditions.”

In many ways, the task fisheries managers are facing is difficult: while scientists work to understand how climate change is unfolding, fishermen still have to get out on the water and fish.

“You try to put the best data you can in there and predict out,” said Geer. “But in fisheries we’re trying to deal with the now and the near-now. As far as the shifts in population, we’re being more reactive than proactive.”

And while fishermen are used to the uncertainty of life on the water, the perfect storm they’re now facing has no end in sight.

“The sea changes every year,” said Geer, “but the problem with climate change is it’s going to be a long creeping change that we’re going to see over decades.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.