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Fishing communities are on the frontline of climate change

Climate change is having a major impact on the abundance and distribution of fish, as many species are migrating in search of cooler waters and more suitable habitats. In the Northeast United States, fishing communities are preparing for these changes in three specific ways, according to a new study from Wellesley College.

A team of experts led by Professor Becca Selden set out to investigate how fishing communities have responded to shifts in the distribution of summer flounder, also known as fluke, and red and silver hake. 

The researchers identified distinct changes that fishing communities have made in their approach. Some have opted to follow the fish to a new location, while others have begun targeting a different kind of fish. In addition, many fishers are now bringing their catch to shore at another port of landing.

The experts analyzed quantitative data on fish availability from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and from a unique database of fishing trip records developed for this project. The researchers also interviewed fishers in 10 ports from North Carolina to Maine.

Ultimately, the team found that fishers throughout the Northeast were more likely to shift their target species. The research suggests that targeting a mix of species is a critical option for adaptation, but it can be complicated. 

“Most communities tend to fish where they have fished for generations, and therefore, for any fishery management plan to be more climate-ready in the future, it needs to take that into account,” said Professor Selden. 

“They’re less likely to move where they fish, more likely to switch what they fish, but only if they can, and regulations play a big role in that being successful.”

The study revealed a previously undescribed strategy in which fishers bring their fish ashore in new locations. According to the experts, this was found to be particularly common for vessels coming from northern fishing communities that sell summer flounder in Beaufort, N.C. 

“Had we not combined the quantitative data with the in-depth interviews with community members, we would have totally missed the phenomenon we saw come to light in Beaufort,” said study co-author Eva Papaioannou, a scientist at GEOMAR.

“It made for such a powerful way of analyzing the data, so that we were really using it to influence the questions we would ask in each interview, and the interviews would drive what we would examine in the quantitative data. I think that approach really made for a much more complete look at the impact of changes in species distribution and fishers’ adaptations.”

Out of all the fishing communities examined, Beaufort was the only one to use the strategy of following fish to new grounds. 

“Beaufort fishers have gone to tremendous lengths to keep fishing fluke, and following fish to new grounds brings its own constraints and concerns,” said Professor Selden.

The study was focused on the Northeast because it has been a hotspot of recent ocean warming, especially in the Gulf of Maine, and in some ways it is a harbinger of what other areas might be experiencing soon, said Professor Selden. 

She explained that along the East Coast, there are state-by-state regulations, and you pass through different jurisdictions with species crossing boundaries all over the place. “This all has an impact on fishers, their behavior, and their communities.”

Going forward, Professor Selden plans to continue this work on the West Coast to compare how stable their fishing grounds are and how much fishers are responding.

“Fisheries are really on the frontline of climate impacts. It’s really a bipartisan issue, and there are stakeholders across party lines. That was my motivation to focus on how communities are adapting, how they’ve adapted to past change,” said Professor Selden.

“We need to be able to understand how they might adapt to future change and potentially how we would need to change management to facilitate some of the adaptations that they are already demonstrating.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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