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Rising Sea Temps Are Pushing Oceans Beyond The Level Of Habitability

“If anyone eats anything from the ocean, you’ve got to care about marine heat waves,” argues Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Fourth-generation Block Islander Ebben Howarth may be the last fisher in his family to make a living from lobsters. Lobstering is more than his work; it’s his heritage. Instead of studying marine biology at the University of Rhode Island, though, Howarth has majored in agroecology. Along with climate change, disease, rising operating costs, and stricter regulations around lobster fishing, fishers like Howarth face formidable challenges to their livelihood. Threats to the continued habitability of lobsters and other marine creatures are constant.

Oceanography professor Jeremy Collie supervises URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography’s Fish Trawl Survey, one of the longest continuous studies of fish and invertebrate abundance in the world. Collie researches the factors affecting marine fish populations’ productivity: harvesting, changes in climate, trophic interactions (feeding and predation behaviors), and human disturbance. He is the principal investigator on a study of the early life of lobsters funded by the National Sea Grant College Program, and since 2014, Collie has been monitoring offshore wind energy’s impact on lobsters and crabs.

“The Southern New England lobster population is not in a good place,” Collie admits, adding that the environment for them is diminishing, with the likely need for sustainable fisheries in Southern New England as options to be studied.

“If anyone eats anything from the ocean, you’ve got to care about marine heat waves,” argues Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “More often, these heat waves are lasting longer, and we’re having mass mortality events, which is really, really concerning. If it happens to be at the base of the food chain and we are eating fish that are at the higher end of the food chain, it really can have a big impact. We’re “getting to the edge of habitability for certain species.”

The Gulf of Maine Sea Surface Temps: “Drastic Impacts on Fisheries & the Ecosystems”

I remember walking the beach out at Race Point in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, MA, several years ago. These were bone-chilling waters swirling out to sea and far beyond sight up to Nova Scotia, Canada. The frigid water temperature is what created a 36,000-square-mile area rich in marine life. Home to more than 3,000 aquatic species and birds, the gulf has been “one of the most biologically productive marine ecosystems” in the North Atlantic, according to the Gulf of Maine Association.

According to the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, the Gulf of Maine is nourished by cold ocean waters and characterized by a complex geomorphology made up of deep basins and shallow banks. This is a semi-enclosed sea, one of the most biologically productive marine ecosystems. The Gulf of Maine is known for its powerful tides which mix the influx of North Atlantic waters with fresh waters from 60 rivers and which drains a large watershed spanning much of the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts which border its coast.

The typically icy-cold Gulf of Maine and surrounding areas in the northwest Atlantic Ocean are now believed to be among the fastest-warming regions of the entire global ocean. What had been incrementally slow temperature rises has sharply accelerated in the last 10 years, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information at NOAA, coinciding with a strengthened northward infiltration of warm subsurface water in the summer months. Such strong northward migration of warm water had not been seen in the 4 preceding decades, making the current rapid warming unique.

Researchers at WHOI found that warming in the Gulf of Maine during the 20th century had reversed 900 years of cooling. Since the early 1980s, the rate of warming in the Gulf of Maine (0.86°F per decade) has been more than triple that of the world’s oceans (0.27°F per decade). According to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the sustained warm conditions suggest a regime shift in the influence of major ocean currents (such as Gulf Stream vs. Labrador Current) in the Gulf of Maine.

In 2021, the average annual sea surface temperature was the highest recorded, at 54.09 degrees; 2022 was only fractionally less. It is likely that these extremely hot years may be one day cited as the coolest in this decade.

Rising sea surface temps are particularly devastating. Increases have “drastic impacts on fisheries and the ecosystems,” Svenja Ryan, a research associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), told the Boston Globe. “Our coastal community really strongly depends on fisheries, such as lobsters. … They’re actually moving further northward into Canadian waters, where they’re facing a habitat that they’re more used to from the past.”

Final Thoughts about Marine Habitability

The beloved puffin population, long stressed, took an alarming hit last summer as water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine surged to record highs. The seabirds struggled to find enough to eat, and the number of surviving chicks plummeted to about a quarter, down from about two-thirds in a typical year. Now redlisted as an endangered species, as temperatures rise, their prey, like herring and hake, seek colder, deeper waters or move farther offshore beyond the reach of the seabirds.

The ocean is warming at an “alarmingly” fast rate, according to NOAA.

The temperature spike is one more in a series of menacing indicators of how global warming is undermining the rich marine world off New England. Dire consequences, such as the loss of marine species, some of which are major sources of food and commercial fishing activities, and rising sea levels can unalterably damage coastal communities.

Not everyone sees the rising sea temps and the perils confronting marine habitability in the same way. Janet Duffy-Anderson, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, says that, although lobsters are moving north, warmer waters are bringing more species farther north from the Mid-Atlantic, including sea bass, squid, and blue crabs. She believes strong stewardship and patterns of adaptation on the part of New England fisheries can redirect the industry and maintain a “robust blue economy.”

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Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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