The State We’re In 7/12: Fish in hot water

Keyport’s waterfront had a clear view of the New York skyline on Feb. 9.

By Michele S. Byers

Around the globe, climate change is leading to increased ocean temperatures and more acidic water.

The impact on fish and the fishing industry is enormous.

The problem is especially troubling in the waters off New Jersey and the Atlantic Coast.

“Here in the northeast, the water is warming faster than almost any place in the world,” says Malin Pinsky, associate professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources and co-author of several recent studies on ocean impacts.

“This corner of the ocean is seeing some very dramatic changes,” Pinsky said.

From 1977 to 2015, water temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic Bight – the area of ocean from North Carolina to Massachusetts – rose 3.5 degrees.

The increase may seem small, but to fish and shellfish, it’s huge. “It turns out that ocean animals can tolerate only a narrow range of temperatures,” explained Pinsky. “They’re quite sensitive.”

Fish respond to ocean warming by moving north to cooler waters. Shellfish can’t escape rising temperatures as easily. But their larvae can travel and slowly shift colonies northward.

The northward migration of fish and shellfish means change. Species once abundant in New Jersey are leaving, and others rarely seen are becoming common. These changes are impacting recreational fisherman, commercial fishing and processing.

“That means jobs,” Pinsky said. “When a species moves, there are ripple effects throughout communities, economic effects.”

Here are some examples right off New Jersey’s coast:

  • The New Jersey lobster industry is becoming a memory. “Lobsters are just nowhere near as abundant as they used to be,” Pinsky reported. But they’re booming in the waters off Maine, which 50 years ago were too cold.
  • Hake fish, sometimes called whiting, were once caught out of New Jersey ports but are no longer common here. Most hake fisheries today are centered in New England waters.
  • Surf clams – used in chowder and fishing bait – are much less abundant in the mid-Atlantic, and no longer support a major New Jersey fishery. Now they’re mostly found on the Georges Bank off Massachusetts.
  • Sea scallops are currently a thriving industry in New Jersey, but research suggests that our state’s scallops could soon be threatened by warming waters.
  • Black sea bass are emerging as the new winners along the New Jersey coast. The bass were centered off the Virginia coast in the 1960s, but have shifted north as far as Rhode Island. “They’re a slightly warmer water fish, and the waters have warmed up,” Pinsky said.
  • Summer flounder, also known as fluke, were also centered off Virginia during the 1960s but have moved north and are more plentiful than ever. “Here in New Jersey it’s a really popular recreational species. It’s a big part of the Jersey Shore,” Pinsky explained. Part of the success of fluke here may be due to good fishery management, including a short season and increased minimum size of keepers.

The shifting fish populations are making it more challenging to monitor and regulate fisheries and conserve species. “In many ways, the fish are outrunning the regulations,” he said.

Fish migrations are also changing due to ocean warming. Migratory fish including bluefish and striped bass may arrive earlier in the spring and later in the fall.

To Pinsky, the changing fish populations off the New Jersey coast are yet another sign that global action is needed to reduce the impacts of climate change.

“The ocean too often is out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “But it’s 70% of Earth’s surface. We’re all connected, whether we know it or not.”

For more information on climate change and its impact on the New Jersey coast, visit https://coastalresilience.org/project/new-jersey/

And for information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.

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