February 16, 2023
Today’s Nation & World section of my local newspaper reported on the rising temperatures in the Gulf of Maine. During 2022, the Gulf recorded warming that was faster than most of the world’s oceans. Last year was the second-warmest year on record with an average sea surface temperature of 53.66F (12C), or more than 3.7F (6.6C) above the 40-year average. The accelerated warming is changing an ecosystem that is host to numerous important commercial fishing industries, especially the American lobster (Homarus americanus), in addition to the rare North Atlantic right whales (Balaena australis). Last year fell short of setting the mark for hottest year by less than half a degree Fahrenheit, said scientists with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, a science center in Portland. Warming is driving species more associated with southern waters into the Gulf of Maine and altering its food chain. That includes species like the black sea bass (Centropristis striata) which prey on the Gulf’s lobsters.
When I looked online, I found the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) and environmental groups have been locked in a fierce debate over lobster regulations for over a decade. Ecological groups have warned the near-shore vertical fishing lines that connect the seafloor traps to surface buoys can snag whales and call the lines a primary culprit in the devastating collapse of the right whale population. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) introduced new rules for catching lobsters last year that limit the number of fishing lines in the right whales’ habitat, requiring knots in the lines that can break free when a whale is entangled, and implementing two seasonal fishing ground closures when the whales migrate to northern waters. The July ruling by the US District Court judge in Washington D.C. found the 2018 regulations from the NMFS failed to protect the right whale population, and the agency had violated the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Lawmakers in New England have been split on regulations targeting the lobster industry, with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) accusing Seafood Watch of “literally trying to put these people out of business”. During 2021 Maine’s lobster fishery took in US$724.9 million, a 75% increase from 2020 and the most profitable year in the state’s history.
Interestingly, Right whales earned their name because they were once considered so abundant they were known as the “right whale to hunt” and because they floated when they were killed, a plus for 18th and 19th century whalers. Whale numbers plummeted due to overfishing during the 1900’s, and dropped to 268 individuals in 1990, although they slowly rebound to 481 individuals in 2011. The numbers have subsequently dropped each year. Scientists have been concerned with low birth rates, with only fifteen calves born this year. According to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, less than 18 were born last year and only an average of 24 a year in the early 2000’s. Scientists at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries estimate 85% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once and efforts to disentangle whales from the gear can be deadly.
THOUGHTS: Protection of any species is a delicate balance between competing resources. The Gulf of Maine’s ecosystem is being disrupted by warming waters that are allowing black bass to migrate north. Overfishing of the Right whale went unchecked for centuries. Now politics and competing lifeways are being used to create a desperate patch to resolve a crisis that had been ignored for too long. In January 2023, the Doomsday Clock was moved forward to 90 seconds (1 minute, 30 seconds) before midnight. Ninety seconds is only an eternity when your team is holding a precarious lead in basketball. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.