Casting farther afield How climate change is impacting fishermen across the Atlantic

2018-12-13 | Press of Atlantic City

Flipping through his captain's log, Larry Colangelo looks at the water temperatures off Atlantic City's coast this past summer. Unusually warm 70- and 80-degree days are jotted down inside the record-keeping book he's had for nearly two decades.

For $800 a day, he takes tourists and professional anglers alike onto his 31-foot ship, but in recent years, he said, certain fish have become more challenging to catch and keep.

Climate change and outdated regulations are partially to blame, researchers say, and it's affecting local fishermen in different ways.

"I only know what I see, and what I see is that the water definitely seems to be warmer. ... We have to work a little harder now," said Colangelo, who owns a charter boat docked at Kammerman's Marina in Atlantic City.

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He now looks for mahi-mahi and tuna, in addition to sea bass, within the three-mile limit of state waters.

Fish have responded to a gradual increase in the ocean's temperature by slowly migrating north and deeper to colder waters. By 2100, the habitat for black sea bass is expected to move 300 miles farther north, according to a Rutgers-led study from 2017.

But a November report in the ICES Journal of Marine Science looked at how fishermen are reacting. It reports dramatic shifts in the distances large, commercial Atlantic Coast fishing operations have been traveling over the past 20 years.

"Fishers often notice the effects before scientists do," said Malin Pinsky, a Rutgers University assistant professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources and one of several authors of the study.

Pinsky and researchers from Princeton and the University of California analyzed vessel trip data for 60 large and small commercial vessels stationed from North Carolina to Massachusetts between 1996 and 2014.

A third of the trawls saw northward movement of 5 kilometers or more per year since 1996.

Some North Carolina fishers accustomed to catching summer flounder are now buying permits to venture hundreds of miles from their home ports into New Jersey's waters, the report states. Extra fuel use contributes further to climate change.

"Large-vessel fleets from North Carolina and Virginia, in particular, which used to fish near their ports of origin, are now fishing 800 km north, off the coast of New Jersey," the report states.

Other smaller boats without as many resources simply change the type of fish they catch, the study found.

But for some commercial fishers in South Jersey, it's been business as usual.

Dotted with outdoor seafood restaurants, Cape May's commercial fishing industry brought in $85 million in 2016. The city boasts one of the largest local fishing markets in the country.

Jeff Reichle, president of Lunds Fisheries in Cape May, said his 19-boat fleet has been buying permits off North Carolina and Virginia for decades.

In recent years, he said he's noticed more summer flounder and sea bass near Connecticut and Massachusetts, but said his boats continue to travel along the entire coast both to maximize the number of fish caught and due to higher quotas in Virginia and North Carolina.

"You follow the fish where they go," Reichle said. "This is why boats float and have propellers."

Still, it's likely a different story for those in southern states and in New England, where stocks and habitats are changing more drastically while quotas have remained the same, Pinsky said.

Reallocation in the Northeast is set by each state through the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission based on where fish were traditionally brought to land. The last time quotas for summer flounder were modified, for instance, was 1993, and those percentages are based on landing data from the 1980s.

In Massachusetts and Connecticut, there are lower quotas for summer flounder and black sea bass, even though they are now seeing these fish in greater numbers. If a trawl catches a large amount of those fish, some may need to be thrown back.

Congressional delegates from Massachusetts signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2016 asking for a reallocation of summer flounder.

Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the commission, said member states of the commission have been meeting this week to discuss an amendment to summer flounder quotas.

The amendment, which was postponed until February, could be significant for a management system that has not responded to the migration of fish.

"Over the last 10 years, there have been changes in the ocean's environment," Berger said. "We're wrestling with some of these issues now and how best to distribute quotas."

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