How Do Rising Ocean Temperatures Affect New England Sea Life?
Lobsters, crab, fish, coral, turtles and other aquatic animals enrich New England waters, and for New England residents, life on the northeastern coast revolves around the sea — whether it's having a friend who works at a fishery, having a regular appetite for delectable crustacean dishes, enjoying the sound of crashing waves or waiting for the next sailing adventure. The ocean is a center that many benefit from and many depend on.
Increasing shifts in sea surface temperatures alter this thriving area's sea life. Lobstermen, marine biologists and residents of the region have noticed the ebb and flow of species in smaller pockets of the New England coast and in the overall region, and one thing is certain — temperature and sea level differences matter.
The temperature of the sea has been dutifully and reliably tracked since the mid-19th century. Since then, New England has been under close watch by scientists and continues to hold the attention of those interested in the climate and sea life. Because marine animals do react strongly to disruptions in their habitats and those organisms are so vital to New England's structure and sustainability, efforts to understand the temperature patterns are worthwhile.
A Look at History: Are Temperatures Really Changing in New England?
Historical temperature patterns in New England have been measured and evaluated closely. However, the last century contains the most well-documented information available to us, and this data reflects a pattern of change. Ocean surface temperature measurements at two New England locations — Boothbay Harbor, Maine and Woods Hole, Massachusetts — show an overall temperature increase in the coastal climate.
Several factors have influenced the ecosystem around New England, including the typical atmospheric pressure fluctuations — or the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the presence of extensive carbon dioxide and air and water temperatures. The shifts in the strengths of what are known as the Icelandic Low and the Azores High in the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf results in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Essentially, sea level pressure responds to the movement and strengthening of pressure cells in this area.
The NAO's nature yields positive and negative shifts that alter the state of New England and its neighboring area. A positive shift means wetter and warmer conditions for the New England coast, and a negative shift results in the opposite. In the 2000s, the NAO has been positive, and this means warmer temperatures have dominated the New England area. A positive NAO does not necessarily mean sea life is in a positive predicament, however. This is not isolated to the 2000s, either — in the past century, warmer temperatures have persisted in this specific region.
Air and water temperatures in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay demonstrate these higher temperatures. This region's water and air has warmed by 2.5-3.0°F since 1960.
According to a National Climate Assessment, heat waves and an increase of wintertime storms and rain will occur in the New England area. The following years are expected to show seasonal changes and rising sea levels. However, spurts of negative NAO also are present in historical temperature records, and these drier, colder spans also alter ocean life.
But how do rising or falling temperatures make a difference for sea life in New England?
What Impacts Do Rising Temperatures Have?
The environmental significance of higher temperatures is in the rising of the sea level, flooding, stronger storms and warmer ocean temperatures. However, these changes also cause sea life to make drastic alterations in habitat or in their survival habits. Some species are showing these changes as lobster, crab and various fish are finding new homes in alternate waters.
Because many kinds of marine life thrive in a particular climate, they will react to rising temperatures by moving to different locations or suffering from the inability to relocate. The food chain will show the gaps that relocation will force because certain organisms may not find their main food source nearby any longer. Species populations will undoubtedly fluctuate if rising temperatures cause further redistribution.
Here's a look at how temperatures changes have affected a few different marine animals:
Several types of fish have either declined in their typical habitats, along with their food sources, or they have transitioned to new locations that are either further north on the coast or in deeper segments of the ocean. A variety of Atlantic cod, and its favorite zooplankton, formerly frequented Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine. In recent years, the prey and predator populations have dropped.
Other fish with reduced populations include Acadian redfish, thorny skate and groundfish. The majority of fish in the Northeast U.S. Shelf are moving further northeast, and even a few southern fish are moving into New England. Billfishes and certain kinds of tunas could also shift northward, although this has not occurred yet. Yellowtail flounder, Atlantic croaker, American shad, red hake and alewife are a few of the fish climbing the coastline to cooler waters.
But unexpectedly, some New England fish are heading south. The reasons that fish are shifting southward are a bit of a mystery, but little skate, Adult spiny dogfish and offshore hake have taken to warmer waters. Atlantic mackerel and butterfish have turned to the Mid-Atlantic Bight and moved closer to the shore rather than seeking the depths or journeying up the coast.
2. Lobsters and Crabs
Lobsters in more south-reaching areas of New England have developed weaker systems and buckled under illnesses as a result of high temperatures. A shell disease correlates to high temperatures, and 35.52 percent of lobsters in southern New England were suffering from this condition at the highest point. Lobsters are beginning to stop growing at a smaller size, and the warmer climate has compromised their reproduction. Long Island Sound has lost a significant portion of lobsters, pushing the lobster population north into Maine waters.
Crabs are also transitioning to colder areas, and blue crabs have left Chesapeake Bay for Maine's chillier gulf. Blue crabs are also a primary predator, and their dispersal from lower New England estuaries and lagoons has shaken the food chain they were once involved in. They are not limited to colder temperatures but have inhabited many places in North and South America. Yet the climate change has pushed them northward still. Interestingly, snow crabs have even become more prosperous in Newfoundland.
Carbon dioxide, a closely connected factor to rising temperatures, causes acid build up in oceans, harming coral. Deep coral, rather than coral reefs, flourish in New England waters. However, debilitating coral bleaching from warm water leaves these organisms brittle. They struggle to heal and rebuild in continuously higher temperatures. Their survival is linked to certain fish, and both fish and coral suffer during coral bleaching. Bottom trawling can also decimate deep coral.
What Impacts Are Falling Temperatures Having?
While rising temperatures seem to be the current trend in New England, falling temperatures also occur and have a viable effect on the environment and nature of marine life. Negative NAO causes ocean levels to decrease, cooling temperatures to become prominent and drier conditions to prevail.
Cold-water coral is abundant in Maine's waters, and due to the influx of fish, lobster and crab in Maine, the coral is likely to become a protective tool for more species. Cooling temperatures would also provide coral with the chance to repair their exteriors from recent bleaching. The deep coral found in New England are in less danger than shallow coral to be harmed by low sea levels. However, if sea levels reached the point of exposing coral on the northeast coast, bleaching could occur from excessive sunlight exposure despite a cooler climate.
Lobsters are extremely sensitive to temperature, and dips in temperature can also harm them. They require body heat from other sources outside themselves. Normally, this thermal receptiveness keeps them in cooler water — temperatures that are too warm can lead to disease and stunted growth. On the flip side, temperatures that are too cold also have a negative effect. Below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, growth slows. But, at as low as 32 degrees Fahrenheit, lobsters continue to reproduce despite the slowed growth.
Stone crabs found in the ocean have more difficulty transitioning into colder temperatures, but given a gradual time period, they eventually adapt to cooler habitats. Blue crabs are able to quickly adopt new and cooler climates because their usual habitats are estuaries with rapid, short-lived turnovers.
A decrease in rainfall, and in turn, sea level, increases the salinity of various bodies of water — such as estuaries, bays and the ocean — which injures fish populations. A fall in temperature is connected to a decrease in storms but also fresh water from rainfall. Saltwater would infringe on fresh water sources, leaving fresh water fish with no place to live. The multiple bays of New England would be altered along with the inhabitants of estuaries.
Fishermen and Lobstermen
Fishermen and lobstermen must make similar decisions to predators when their biggest sellers relocate or decline — follow the fish, lobsters or crab to their new habitat or pick a more abundant target and adjust their capturing techniques. Help from authorities is also available in some areas with new standards for lobster, crab and fish sizes or plans to alter carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.
Many fishermen must pick a new type of fish to target, as southern New England fish introduce themselves into cooler waters. Fishery wars ensue, and competitions between regions become tenser as the climate changes. It is difficult to keep quotas in check and updated to match the population increases and decreases along the northeast coast.
Lobstermen in southern New England are catching smaller lobsters or ones with shell sicknesses. In fact, fishermen are picking up an excess of these infant lobsters who have been eaten by fish — they're seeing the lobsters in the fishes' stomachs. Sea bass, especially striped or black, is an alternative in the locations where lobster once thrived. As of 2017, only 35 lobstermen in Massachusetts retained their fishing permits. These permits allowed them to catch the remaining lobster between Nantucket Sound and Long Island Sound.
As fishermen adapt to the new species of fish in their waters, they must find the best techniques to catch unfamiliar marine life. New equipment also complicates the shift from one kind of fish to another or from lobster to fish. Preparing fishermen and lobstermen to target a new species has sparked many programs and training classes.
Fisheries, a source of income and an anchor for many New England communities, must also alter their nature. This restructures communities and has the power to revitalize declining communities.
However, some lobstermen relocate to their catch's new point of abundance — Maine. Other fishermen must move even farther north, and depending on whether or not the climate pattern persists, their journey could continue. Fish tend to move toward the poles, but even these wriggly organisms have a limit.
A proposal to alter southern New England lobster size restrictions and amounts was rejected. The hope was that less activity in the waters would allow the lobster population to recover. Even proposals to nurture and propel lobster egg production have been attempted. Lobstermen in these areas are largely unemployed and without a new approach or new regulations.
Impact of Temperature Change on Quality of Seafood
The primary effect of climate alterations on seafood in New England depends on location. The warmer areas of the Northeast U.S. Shelf produce smaller kinds of many fish species, lobster and crab. The maturity of the seafood is consistent in many cases, but with more modestly-sized adult fish and crustaceans.
Upper New England seafood is larger and in more abundance, so the quality of fish in this area is richer and meatier. Regularity in climate and environment also produces a plentiful growth rate and more hearty seafood, especially in mussels.
Even the food that fish feed on react to warmer temperatures and an unstable setting. If the climate continues to compromise these resources, fish may lose their healthy qualities and taste.
Maine Lobster Now
Marine life is facing many challenges with shifts in temperatures, sea levels and uncertain ecosystems. The seafood industry is also attempting to stay current on best practices and how to provide for their seafood-loving customers. While many New England locations are struggling due to the migration of fish to cooler waters, Maine is booming with ocean life and producing delicious seafood for your table.
The haul of lobster in Maine in 2016 was 132 million pounds, significantly dwarfing their previous catches. Lobsters and other sea life are currently enjoying the cooler waters of Maine and the upper New England coast, making this area a notable source of seafood.
Maine Lobster Now has first-hand access to Maine's abundance of fish, lobster, crab, shellfish, scallops and more. We purchase the finest lobsters from Maine fishermen and send them directly to you.
New England seafood ships to your door with our exceptional service and delivery. For those outside of Maine craving rich fish or succulent lobster, shop our selections from the comfort of your home. Fresh, quality products, perfect for your event or special meal, are only a few clicks away. Browse our selection, order your favorites and dig into a hearty seafood meal straight from Maine.