Ecosystem Armageddon: Can We Prevent it ?

Jul 26, 2022 | Aids to Navigation, News

Melissa Sanderson of the Fishermen’s Alliance attended “East Coast Climate Change Scenario Planning.”

By Doreen Leggett

Temperatures are increasing, sea levels rising. Ocean currents are unpredictable and marine heatwaves bring us to a climate tipping point. Hurricanes follow hard on the heels of one another, creating temporary dead zones. 

Estuarine nurseries are shadows, choked by sea level rise, coastal population growth, armoring the coast, and marsh die offs. Productivity plummets and poisonous plankton blooms proliferate.

Fuel prices increase dramatically, there is no workforce for harvesters and processors, consumers turn to cheap, mass-produced food.

Large swaths of the ocean are given over to corporations specializing in aquaculture, wind, shipping. 

Fishermen chase fish northwards into cooler waters, increased expenses make fishing less profitable. Corporate consolidation increases. 

Without the usual predators, the base of the food web increases in abundance. Fishermen redirect effort to new forage fisheries, depleting herring, menhaden and other forage species, allowing jellyfish and zooplankton to explode. Overfishing of forage combined with climate stresses crashes the bottom of the food web.

Ports across the Cape go extinct.


That apocalyptic scenario is just that, a scenario, but not completely out of the question. It was one of several developed at the end of June at the “East Coast Climate Change Scenario Planning” conference in Virginia, engaging managers, fishermen, non-governmental organizations, environmental groups, and fisheries advocates.

“This doomsday scenario exists in a world where production and habitat are declining and not all regions have replacement species, where science has not kept up with changes in the ocean and is unable to help fisheries management adapt, where fishermen are unable to or not allowed to adapt,” said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, who attended the conference with about 80 others.

“We called it ‘the ostrich and the jellyfish’, for the ostrich that sticks its head in the sand and ignores the problem until it is too late.

The scenario planning initiative is jointly organized by NOAA Fisheries, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic, and New England Fishery Management Councils.  They decided on scenario planning as “a tool that managers can use to test decisions or develop strategy in a context of uncontrollable and uncertain environmental, social, political, economic, or technical factors.”

The meeting earlier this summer was step four of six and was preceded by a series of scoping and exploration webinars.

“We all know climate change is here, fishermen regularly see fish from southern regions that weren’t formerly here,” Sanderson said. “Managers know this too, but the regulatory framework has yet to change in order to adapt to these shifting population ranges”

Scenario planning is an attempt to depict potential impacts from uncontrollable changes so there can be preparations planned  before the changes blindside us.

Participants were divided into groups and started with decks of cards, each printed with a range of predetermined elements such as “changing ocean uses create more competition for fisheries,” “extent of predation on key species,” and wildcards – “multiple pandemics.”

During the first scenario, Sanderson’s group was “optimistic,” but other scenarios were capital driven, which led to the demise of working waterfronts and an acceleration of the disconnect between people and the food they eat.

Some of that occurred through a disinterest in building back coastal infrastructure after hurricanes; the return on investments for small ports was deemed unworthy.

“The only ones who are going to keep rebuilding are those who have tremendous access to capital,” said Sanderson. “Unless you have a community that is heavily invested in local access to fishing opportunities, those working waterfronts may be a thing of the past.”

The Fishermen’s Alliance was present during scenario planning because the non-profit represents small-boat fisheries.

“We are exploring what could happen to our communities,” Sanderson said.

Fishermen in the room were frustrated by the process, which felt like a creative writing exercise, Sanderson said.

“They wanted to focus on management solutions, but the purpose of this workshop was to describe probable futures; doing this first helps prevent us from  overlooking something or putting forward regulations that do more harm than good.”

Sanderson added that in the coming months a team from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, would share scenarios with fishery management councils and the public to solicit ideas for possible management tools that would help regions to secure or avoid various scenarios. EBFM, which considers the whole ecosystem when making management decisions, may become a very important  tool to help us adapt to shifting fish populations and a changing ocean.

Another tool could be further protections for forage fish. Forage fish can withstand larger temperature fluctuations so will experience less range shifts.  If they  are all that’s legally available to catch in a region, fishermen may be pushed to target them and that is a short route to the doomsday scenario posed by Sanderson’s group.

Another foreseeable eventuality is New England fishermen won’t be able to sell their permits northwards; for example, lobsters are moving north into Canada but you can’t transfer US permits to Canadian fishermen. Without the sale of their existing permits, they won’t have capital to  buy permits from fishermen in the Mid-Atlantic, whose fish populations are moving into our region. How can that be addressed? Can the government offset permit costs? Hammer out an agreement with Canada to transfer permits across borders?

This winter, another workshop will be held to develop management tools to deal with credible threats. The Fishermen’s Alliance plans to have similar discussions with local fishermen as well, in preparations for this coast-wide planning.

“Getting ahead of the ramifications of climate change is the name of the game,” Sanderson said, “so we aren’t caught off guard and in 10 years it’s too late to protect our identity and blue economy.”

The climate tipping point in the doomsday scenario is forecast for 2042.


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