By Penelope Overton
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND — In a warmer future, Maine fishermen will probably be catching squid or mackerel, not cod or herring.
They will probably have to travel farther and fine-tune their gear to catch the cold-water species that remain in the Gulf of Maine, like lobster and sea scallops, and be ready to fish the new species that will be calling a warmer Gulf of Maine home by then, like black sea bass.
“We face some challenges moving forward that will require adaptation to maintain our vibrant fisheries,” Katherine Mills, a research scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said in an address last month during the five-day Gulf of Maine 2050 Symposium in Portland.
Mills gave the audience a peek at work that GMRI scientists and economists are doing to explore how New England fishing communities will be affected by rising sea temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming three to four times faster than the rest of the world’s oceans. The Gulf is expected to warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2055.
The work examines how 56 commercially fished species will fare in the warming waters of 120 New England fishing ports from Rhode Island to Maine through 2055, and explores how fishermen and the port communities that rely on them can prepare for the changes that lie ahead.
Since the record-breaking heat wave of 2012-13, the Gulf of Maine has continued to warm, seeing its second and third warmest sea surface temperature years on record in 2016 and 2018. Researchers also have learned that the depths of the gulf have been warming steadily even during cooler years.
According to GMRI projections, Mainers will still be catching lobster in 2055, but not at the record-setting levels landed over the last decade. Lobster hauls will decline in southern Gulf of Maine and on the Georges Bank, she said, but could increase in Downeast Maine and off the Bay of Fundy.
The warming waters will help some ports, like Point Judith, Rhode Island, where fishermen already fish for scup, summer flounder and squid. These three species, all ranked among the top five commercially fished species at that port, will become more plentiful in warming waters, Mills said.
That will not be the case for Portland, Mills told the crowd. The top five commercial species fished out of Portland — lobster, herring, pollock, cod, white hake and hagfish — will experience “across the board declines” as Gulf of Maine waters warm, Mills warned.
It’s not all bad news. “There are some signs of hope,” Mills noted – if fishermen can learn to adapt.
Some species that Portland fishermen catch now that aren’t among their top money makers will become more plentiful by 2055, such as mackerel and scallops, she said. And new commercially viable species will arrive, including black sea bass, summer flounder and squid.
But fishermen will have to follow the species they fish now, such as lobster, as they move to colder water. They will have to optimize their gear to become more efficient in an era of declining stocks. To follow the fish offshore, some will need to buy bigger boats to safely stay that far out for longer periods.
One fisherman in the crowd was skeptical. “It’s not like it’s a plug-and-play kind of situation,” he said. “You can’t just snap your fingers and re-rig your boat or make it bigger. And it’s hard enough for us to keep the quota we already get. How are we going to get quota (for a species) we’ve never had?”
Mills acknowledged how hard it will be for Maine fishermen to start fishing for squid or black sea bass out in federal waters. The government controls the total catch to protect the species. For Maine to get a share of the quota, a state that already fishes that species would have to give some up.
Although quota sharing is unusual, it does happen. For example, in years when menhaden is plentiful, Maine has persuaded other states to give up their unused quota so Maine fisherman can land more of the oily schooling fish that is used as bait by Maine’s lobster industry.
As the fisheries change, shoreside infrastructure will have to change, too. Storing, selling and trucking a live lobster is very different than a squid, which is almost always stored and shipped on ice. Dealers will have to learn new markets, and create consumer demand.
“We see challenges, but there are also bright points,” Mills said. “Adaptation for fish and for fishermen.”