Sea of Change

With rising sea temperatures, fish are on the move and management policies need to catch up.

Julia Tolin with a nice New Jersey Summer Flounder

Julia Tolin with a nice New Jersey Summer Flounder

The sea bass are coming, the sea bass are coming! So are the summer flounder and scup, not to mention a whole host of other species that historically have stayed south of Cape Cod and in the Mid-Atlantic. This is probably not news to a lot of folks. It has been happening for a few years and with 2012 being the warmest on record for the Gulf of Maine, it almost seems to be happening at an accelerated rate. Fellow blogger John McMurray has touched on this in several blogs looking at more regional management for summer flounder.

I attended a talk by Dr. Jon Hare from NOAA’s Narragansett Laboratory where he heads the Climate Change Program. His presentation showed that while there may be year-to-year variations either up or down in the average water temperature, the trend has been steadily up. What he also showed is that without a major change the high reading in 2012 will be about the norm after 2050. His presentation also showed the expected changes in certain groundfish species as the temperature rises. To a large extent, New England will be saying goodbye to traditional angler staples like cod, cusk and haddock.

The good news is that species from farther south will be extending their range as they already have. Sea bass are now regularly caught off of New Hampshire, something unheard of five or more years ago. So, great, we’ll have some new target species for recreational anglers. Fish that are fun to catch and great to eat. But not so fast! There is a problem here. As they move north and get caught off New England states, some of those states may not have enough or any quota to allow them to be landed. Whaaaaat, you say? Yes this is a problem. Many of these fish are jointly managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the Regional Fishery Management Councils (RFMC) and the quota shares have been determined by historic catches. Of course, those historic catches are no longer there, but the individual state shares are. With fish managed solely by the RFMC’s, the problem is a little different. Fish may be caught in the federal waters (3 to 200 miles out), but they have to be landed in individual states. Also, fish that are currently managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) may have moved up off the coast of Maine, yet Maine fishermen, recreational or commercial, do not have direct membership on the MAFMC and therefore are at a disadvantage in the management process. Complicating the issue even more, the current Magnusson Stevens Act (MSA), which controls federal fisheries, makes real regional management for federal fisheries very difficult. It was designed to manage on a single species basis.

At the Managing Our Nations Fisheries Conference last year in Washington, DC, I pointed out the need to address this deficiency in the ongoing debate about the Re-Authorization of the MSA. This will not only solve some of these interjurisdictional issues, it would be a big step toward managing based on Large Marine Ecosystems rather then on a species-by-species basis.

It is unfortunate that our representatives in Congress will spend countless hours debating changes to MSA that may change alternatives that already work and will miss changes that would make the act more functional for future management and the resource more sustainable. All because no one is rattling sabers over this issue and a vocal minority is doing it about other potential changes. Make no mistake, these changes are happening and if we want to be able to manage these changes, MSA needs to a facelift. What it does not need is a heart transplant. If the normal reauthorization cycle of around 10 years continues. The management process for fish in all our federal waters will be way behind the curve.


"Rip" Cunningham, who owned, published and edited Salt Water Sportsman for 32 years, is also an accomplished writer and photographer. Cunningham has received several awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in such magazines as Field and Stream, Rod and Reel, Gray's Sporting Journal, Australian Boating and the Boston Globe Magazine. Among his many accomplishments, Rip was recognized as the Conservationist of the Year from both the International Game Fish Association, the Coastal Conservation Association of Massachusetts, The Billfish Foundation and Federation of Fly Fishers. "I've earned a living from fishing, and I believe strongly that people with an interest in a given area should give something back,” he says. “It's rewarding every single day." Cunningham received his MBA from Babson College in Wellesley, MA and his BA from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He has two grown children and four grand children and lives with his wife and hunting dogs in Dover, MA and Yarmouth, ME. When he's not fishing or working through the items on his wife's "honey-do" list, Cunningham does some hunting and skiing.

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