07.18.18

Time To Wake Up: Changing Seas, Shifting Stocks

As-prepared for delivery

Today I’m grateful to be joined by Senator King to speak about the troubling changes we’re seeing in the oceans, and how climate change is reshaping our fisheries.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognizes that “[c]limate change imperils the structure and function of already stressed coastal aquatic ecosystems,” and Maine and Rhode Island are aquatic.

The oceans have absorbed approximately 30 percent of the excess carbon dioxide that we have added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began.  That is changing the ocean’s chemistry.  The oceans have also absorbed roughly 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by those greenhouse gases.  As a result of that excess carbon dioxide and that excess heat, our oceans are warming, and they are rising, and they are losing oxygen, and they are growing more acidic.  This puts marine life, coastal communities, and the global ocean economy all in jeopardy.

Commercial fishing is an important economy in the United States, and both Maine and Rhode Island celebrate our longstanding fishing traditions.  According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, over 9.6 billion pounds of wild seafood, valued at around $5.3 billion, was commercially landed in the United States in 2016.

In New England, American lobster was our most valuable fishery, with lobstermen bringing around $663 million worth of lobster to shore.  Sadly, Rhode Island’s lobster fishery is badly knocked down by warming waters.  NOAA notes, “[t]he lobster industry in New York and southern New England has nearly collapsed.”  Maine dominated the catch, bringing in nearly 85 percent of the lobster landed in the region.

According to NOAA, “[f]rom 1994 to 2014, Maine’s landings surged 219% to more than 124 million pounds.”  The lobster population is shifting north as waters warm, leaving Rhode Island and other southern New England traps empty.  But Mainers are taking note too as warming waters are driving lobsters even further north.  A recent study of 700 North American marine species predicted lobster populations could move 200 miles northward by the end of the century as waters continue to warm.

Lobster isn’t the only fishery feeling the heat in New England.  A 2017 study of global warming found that the greater Northeast region is anticipated to warm faster than other regions of the world.  According to the Climate Science Special Report, a federal report that will form the scientific basis of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, “the Northeast has warmed faster than 99% of the global ocean since 2004.”  The Northeast is also expected to see higher-than-global-average sea level rise, putting our ports, fishing docks, and coastal infrastructure at risk.

Fishermen are keenly aware of the myriad ways climate change is altering the waters generations of their families have fished.  As fishermen in Rhode Island have told me, “things are getting weird out there.”  “It’s not my grandfather’s ocean,” they tell me.  They share anecdotes of catching increasing numbers of tropical fish early in the summer season and seeing fish that rarely frequented Rhode Island waters until recent years.  As new fish move in and traditional fish move out, fishermen are left with more questions than answers.

In Southern New England, black sea bass has become the poster fish for shifting stocks.  As you can see in this graphic, in the 1970s, the hub of black sea bass hovered between North Carolina and Virginia.  Since that time, the population center has shifted significantly northward hovering now off Long Island and Southern New England.  This commercially valuable fish can help Rhode Island fishermen replace traditional species that are growing more scarce, like winter flounder, which has crashed as winters warm.

The current fisheries management structure forces Rhode Island fishermen to toss the increasingly abundant black sea bass overboard.

NOAA scientists saw this coming years ago, but regulatory catch limits are generally based on historical catches, and states are hesitant to give up quota even after the fish have long left their shores.  State-specific quotas badly lag the changing distribution of the fish.  A former Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council scientist acknowledged that fish like summer flounder are moving north, telling NPR, “Some of the Southern states are having trouble catching their quota, and states to the north have more availability of fish.”  Dave Monti is a charter boat captain out of Wickford Harbor in North Kingstown, RI.  “There’s no doubt the waters have warmed and black sea bass have moved in,” he said.  “The quotas haven’t done a good enough job at figuring in climate change yet.”

Mr. President, I would like to submit for the Record an article from the Providence Journal describing the changes Captain Monti sees on the waters of Narragansett Bay and our local efforts to deal with these changes.  We have got to fix this.

To use the black sea bass example, the species is co-managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Rhode Island only has a seat on the Atlantic States Commission; it does not have a vote on the Mid-Atlantic Council.  That means my state is not fully represented in the decision-making process, and perfectly good black sea bass keeps being thrown over the side.

In 2016, NOAA scientists assessed the vulnerability to the effects of climate change of over 80 commercially valuable species in the Northeast.  This Northeast Climate Vulnerability Assessment ranked species based on climate risks and sensitivities to changing ocean conditions.  It found Atlantic salmon and bay scallops to be most at risk.  Other shellfish, like quahogs and mussels, as well as winter flounder and striped bass, followed close behind.  None – none – of the species studied scored less than a “high” risk of climate exposure.

In Rhode Island, squid is king.  Fifty-six percent of the longfin squid caught on the East Coast was landed in Rhode Island in 2016.  According to NOAA, this catch was valued at over $28 million, accounting for nearly 30 percent of our landings value in 2016.  But climate change is putting our calamari at risk.  Warmer waters may actually open more habitat for the species, but its carbon cousin, ocean acidification, is the hazard.  Like its shellfish brethren, squid require calcium carbonate; for squid, it’s to grow the hard beaks they use to feed.  Acidic waters decrease the availability of this necessary compound in the seawater and can even dissolve calcium carbonate organisms’ shells under extremely acidic conditions.

On the West Coast, shellfish farmers have been dealing with ocean acidification since the mid-2000s.  Dr. Richard Feely is the researcher who first identified ocean acidification as the cause for oyster spat failures in the Northwest in 2005.  He noted in a recent NPR article that the acidification problem is only going to get worse.  “The acidified water welling up from the ocean floor now contains carbon dioxide gas emitted 50 years ago,” he explained.  Carbon emissions are worse since then.  Some hatcheries in the Northwest are already moving operations to less acidic waters in Hawaii and others are looking to buffer the water with seagrasses to absorb carbon and lower acidity.  Shellfish farmers in Rhode Island are facing the challenge of acidifying waters as well.

At the same time, marine species are also facing deoxygenation, increased harmful algae, and other consequences of a warming and acidifying ocean.  The symptoms of climate change are everywhere.  A recent study in Global Change Biology warned reduced oxygen availability could limit the growth of fish and other species.  Fishermen can’t make a living off sick and tiny fish.  California’s lucrative Dungeness and rock crab season was cut short in 2015-2016 due to a harmful algae bloom.  Our Great Lakes are hit too.  I went out on Lake Erie after the horrible algae event there, and the fishermen who took me out sounded a lot like Rhode Islanders.  “Everything I’ve learned from fishing a lifetime on this lake is worth nothing now, because it’s all changing so fast.”

If we have an opportunity to have an open, bipartisan debate on a strong Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, I urge my colleagues not to overlook the toll climate change is taking on our fishing industry.  The changes happening in our oceans do not care whether or not you believe they exist; the physics, chemistry, and biology driving these changes will happen anyway.  And our fishermen are depending on us to give the scientists and the managers the tools and resources they need to meet the challenges climate change is bringing to our shores.

Mr. President, today I’m grateful to be joined by Senator King to speak about the troubling changes we’re seeing in the oceans, and how climate change is reshaping our fisheries.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognizes that “[c]limate change imperils the structure and function of already stressed coastal aquatic ecosystems,” and Maine and Rhode Island are aquatic.

The oceans have absorbed approximately 30 percent of the excess carbon dioxide that we have added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began.  That is changing the ocean’s chemistry.  The oceans have also absorbed roughly 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by those greenhouse gases.  As a result of that excess carbon dioxide and that excess heat, our oceans are warming, and they are rising, and they are losing oxygen, and they are growing more acidic.  This puts marine life, coastal communities, and the global ocean economy all in jeopardy.

Commercial fishing is an important economy in the United States, and both Maine and Rhode Island celebrate our longstanding fishing traditions.  According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, over 9.6 billion pounds of wild seafood, valued at around $5.3 billion, was commercially landed in the United States in 2016.

In New England, American lobster was our most valuable fishery, with lobstermen bringing around $663 million worth of lobster to shore.  Sadly, Rhode Island’s lobster fishery is badly knocked down by warming waters.  NOAA notes, “[t]he lobster industry in New York and southern New England has nearly collapsed.”  Maine dominated the catch, bringing in nearly 85 percent of the lobster landed in the region.

According to NOAA, “[f]rom 1994 to 2014, Maine’s landings surged 219% to more than 124 million pounds.”  The lobster population is shifting north as waters warm, leaving Rhode Island and other southern New England traps empty.  But Mainers are taking note too as warming waters are driving lobsters even further north.  A recent study of 700 North American marine species predicted lobster populations could move 200 miles northward by the end of the century as waters continue to warm.

Lobster isn’t the only fishery feeling the heat in New England.  A 2017 study of global warming found that the greater Northeast region is anticipated to warm faster than other regions of the world.  According to the Climate Science Special Report, a federal report that will form the scientific basis of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, “the Northeast has warmed faster than 99% of the global ocean since 2004.”  The Northeast is also expected to see higher-than-global-average sea level rise, putting our ports, fishing docks, and coastal infrastructure at risk.

Fishermen are keenly aware of the myriad ways climate change is altering the waters generations of their families have fished.  As fishermen in Rhode Island have told me, “things are getting weird out there.”  “It’s not my grandfather’s ocean,” they tell me.  They share anecdotes of catching increasing numbers of tropical fish early in the summer season and seeing fish that rarely frequented Rhode Island waters until recent years.  As new fish move in and traditional fish move out, fishermen are left with more questions than answers.

In Southern New England, black sea bass has become the poster fish for shifting stocks.  As you can see in this graphic, in the 1970s, the hub of black sea bass hovered between North Carolina and Virginia.  Since that time, the population center has shifted significantly northward hovering now off Long Island and Southern New England.  This commercially valuable fish can help Rhode Island fishermen replace traditional species that are growing more scarce, like winter flounder, which has crashed as winters warm.

The current fisheries management structure forces Rhode Island fishermen to toss the increasingly abundant black sea bass overboard.

NOAA scientists saw this coming years ago, but regulatory catch limits are generally based on historical catches, and states are hesitant to give up quota even after the fish have long left their shores.  State-specific quotas badly lag the changing distribution of the fish.  A former Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council scientist acknowledged that fish like summer flounder are moving north, telling NPR, “Some of the Southern states are having trouble catching their quota, and states to the north have more availability of fish.”  Dave Monti is a charter boat captain out of Wickford Harbor in North Kingstown, RI.  “There’s no doubt the waters have warmed and black sea bass have moved in,” he said.  “The quotas haven’t done a good enough job at figuring in climate change yet.”

Mr. President, I would like to submit for the Record an article from the Providence Journal describing the changes Captain Monti sees on the waters of Narragansett Bay and our local efforts to deal with these changes.  We have got to fix this.

To use the black sea bass example, the species is co-managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Rhode Island only has a seat on the Atlantic States Commission; it does not have a vote on the Mid-Atlantic Council.  That means my state is not fully represented in the decision-making process, and perfectly good black sea bass keeps being thrown over the side.

In 2016, NOAA scientists assessed the vulnerability to the effects of climate change of over 80 commercially valuable species in the Northeast.  This Northeast Climate Vulnerability Assessment ranked species based on climate risks and sensitivities to changing ocean conditions.  It found Atlantic salmon and bay scallops to be most at risk.  Other shellfish, like quahogs and mussels, as well as winter flounder and striped bass, followed close behind.  None – none – of the species studied scored less than a “high” risk of climate exposure.

In Rhode Island, squid is king.  Fifty-six percent of the longfin squid caught on the East Coast was landed in Rhode Island in 2016.  According to NOAA, this catch was valued at over $28 million, accounting for nearly 30 percent of our landings value in 2016.  But climate change is putting our calamari at risk.  Warmer waters may actually open more habitat for the species, but its carbon cousin, ocean acidification, is the hazard.  Like its shellfish brethren, squid require calcium carbonate; for squid, it’s to grow the hard beaks they use to feed.  Acidic waters decrease the availability of this necessary compound in the seawater and can even dissolve calcium carbonate organisms’ shells under extremely acidic conditions.

On the West Coast, shellfish farmers have been dealing with ocean acidification since the mid-2000s.  Dr. Richard Feely is the researcher who first identified ocean acidification as the cause for oyster spat failures in the Northwest in 2005.  He noted in a recent NPR article that the acidification problem is only going to get worse.  “The acidified water welling up from the ocean floor now contains carbon dioxide gas emitted 50 years ago,” he explained.  Carbon emissions are worse since then.  Some hatcheries in the Northwest are already moving operations to less acidic waters in Hawaii and others are looking to buffer the water with seagrasses to absorb carbon and lower acidity.  Shellfish farmers in Rhode Island are facing the challenge of acidifying waters as well.

At the same time, marine species are also facing deoxygenation, increased harmful algae, and other consequences of a warming and acidifying ocean.  The symptoms of climate change are everywhere.  A recent study in Global Change Biology warned reduced oxygen availability could limit the growth of fish and other species.  Fishermen can’t make a living off sick and tiny fish.  California’s lucrative Dungeness and rock crab season was cut short in 2015-2016 due to a harmful algae bloom.  Our Great Lakes are hit too.  I went out on Lake Erie after the horrible algae event there, and the fishermen who took me out sounded a lot like Rhode Islanders.  “Everything I’ve learned from fishing a lifetime on this lake is worth nothing now, because it’s all changing so fast.”

If we have an opportunity to have an open, bipartisan debate on a strong Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, I urge my colleagues not to overlook the toll climate change is taking on our fishing industry.  The changes happening in our oceans do not care whether or not you believe they exist; the physics, chemistry, and biology driving these changes will happen anyway.  And our fishermen are depending on us to give the scientists and the managers the tools and resources they need to meet the challenges climate change is bringing to our shores.