By Doreen Leggett
“You are where you eat.”
That phrase, adapted by David Wiley, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, goes a long way toward explaining why 45 species of fish, two squids, 16 sea birds and nine marine mammals can be found in sand lance habitat.
Wiley, speaking at a Small Boats. Big Science. event in the barn at the Fishermen’s Alliance, went through some of the species that nosh on the lance. In the sanctuary, close to half of the commercial catch landed comes from sand lance habitat.
“You can see how important sand lance are,” Wiley said.
Drawing connections between the Cape, the sea around us, and the waters beyond is one of the main goals of the speaker series that began this summer. The series brings together community, researchers, and commercial fishermen to discuss scientific advancements and how they relate to fishing fleets, the Cape’s environment, and coastal communities.
Brainchild of John Pappalardo, CEO of the Fishermen’s Alliance, the events are organized by Duke graduate student Rachel Barrales, who interned over the summer.
Wiley, who shared billing with Jill Thompson-Grim, a Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida-College of Marine Science, has been studying sand lance for 10 years. He praised Pappalardo for his work advocating for Ecosystem- Based Fisheries Management, EBFM, on the New England Fishery Management Council (John shares thoughts and news on this topic in his “Over the Bar” column this month).
In some ways sand lance could be a poster child for EBFM because so many species are dependent on them, but they aren’t commercially caught so not managed in the federal regulatory scheme. Massachusetts has protected the forage fish in state waters, although other countries allow them to be commercially fished. Rhode Island and New York are expected to follow Massachusetts’ lead.
Still, sand lance face challenges from other uses of the sea floor, including wind development and sand mining.
There are two prime sand lance habitats, one off Chatham, the other within the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary. The sanctuary is protected from mining and wind development, the area off Chatham is not.
Another threat is climate change. Wiley pointed out an oft-repeated, frightening fact: the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other ocean ecosystem. This has big ramifications for sand lance.
Wiley talked about the biology of the “crazy” sand lance, which (as its name suggests) dives in and out of the sand.
The sand lance, which looks like an eel, stays burrowed in the sand for several months, from November to February. During that time they have a high metabolic rate and deplete their fat reserves, so when they come out they need to eat right away, said Wiley.
They eat copepods, which are moving north because of climate change’s warming waters.
“So if copepods keep moving, the local adults will starve to death,” said Wiley. “There will be sand lance in Canada. There just won’t be sand lance here.”
Studies also show that ocean acidification – sometimes called climate change’s evil twin – drastically lowers the survival rate of lance larvae. It drops from 34 percent to 2 percent, Wiley said.
“Sand lance are perhaps the most CO2 sensitive species tested to date,” he added.
Grim’s research focuses on how fish populations have responded to climate change in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s clear more species than just sand lance are at risk. Grim’s work looked at hurricanes and was planned well before she narrowly avoided Hurricane Ian. The destruction was an unwelcome backdrop.
Grim has done work in the fisheries, but her focus is ecology. She recently looked at the long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina, the Category 5 storm that hit Louisiana in 2005.
There was a 95-percent reduction in the fishing industry, Grim said, and models show it will take 45 years for the ecosystem of the Gulf to return to pre-hurricane status.
The hurricane destroyed fishing vessels, processing plants, and uprooted people.
“I was in Houston and my grade school classes doubled,” Grim said.
The hurricanes, and climate change, in the Gulf of Mexico have direct effects on us here.
Grim said that bluefin tuna spawn in that Gulf and studies show that could stop in the next 20 years.
“Ecology connects us all,” she said.
Barrales said the intention of the programs is to be conversational and empowering. She said Pappalardo, and the Fishermen’s Alliance, are mentioned in Duke law classes as an example of what one person can do to make a difference in sustainable fisheries and local communities.
Small Boats. Big Science. just received a grant from The Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank to help the series become a permanent program.