Small Boats. Big Science. The Cape’s Arctic connection

Aug 23, 2022 | Plumbing the Depths

By Doreen Leggett

When scientists were poised to install the Coastal Pioneer Array, a system that depends on 7 mooring sites as well as underwater gliders and autonomous underwater vehicles, fishermen raised alarms about all that instrumentation in the ocean.

Glen Gawarkiewicz, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution senior scientist who relies on data from the array, remembers the “hullabaloo” and one meeting where researchers explained how information collected would increase oceanic understanding.

Fishermen were convinced. Fred Mattera, President of Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation of Rhode Island, asked a question: Why is the temperature of the continental shelf 72 degrees in December?

As it turns out, the Gulf Stream, which carries warm and salty water, had shifted 120 miles north.

“We never would have known if he hadn’t said that to me,” Gawarkiewicz said.

Gawarkiewicz told this story to dozens of people gathered at the Fishermen’s Alliance for the non-profit’s inaugural Small Boats. Big Science. event. The new series is a next step from Meet the Fleet, which has introduced people to local fish by fishermen who catch them and Cape chefs.

John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, said he had been thinking of a series where local scientists talk about ocean research. His idea came together thanks to the efforts of intern Rachel Barrales, a graduate student at Duke University, who worked with the Fishermen’s Alliance on Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management – a regulatory approach that considers the impact of the environment on fish stocks.

“I’ve learned a lot both through my time on the water fishing on boats and in meeting rooms with scientists,” Pappalardo said. “It’s really important for us to raise our level of awareness and our literacy when it comes to the environment because what makes this place special is the quality of our environment and our relationship to it.”

Gawarkiewicz was joined by Jennifer Francis of the Woodwell Climate Research Center to talk about “Arctic Changes – From the Arctic to You,” how accelerating climate change is impacting oceans.

Francis has been studying the Arctic her entire career and said in the last decade changes have been so drastic she questioned what they portend.

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Extreme weather events are happening all over the world. Francis highlighted one in Western North America that started on June 25, 2021, and spawned numerous deaths and wildfires.

“That heat wave would have been impossible without climate change,” Francis said.

She told the crowd gathered in the barn of the Fishermen’s Alliance headquarters that in recent years the jet stream is exhibiting “weird, loopy” patterns, extending much farther north. Tropical air gets pumped up to northern latitudes and remains stuck for a long time.

Similar scenarios can play out in the opposite direction. A deadly Texas cold snap, temperatures dropping below zero, also lasted a long time as the jet stream migrated far south.

That plunge has been attributed to a disruption in the polar vortex high in the atmosphere, 30 miles up compared to the jet stream at five to nine miles.

As the jet stream becomes unstable, “blobs” can get siphoned off from the polar vortex and push the jet stream down.

Francis said the last ice age was only three degrees colder than the 1950s. Now, the earth’s temperature is up 1.2 degrees.

“It will be equally catastrophic if we go three degrees warmer,” she said.

She connects melting of the Arctic’s sea ice, which has declined by 75 percent in one generation, with climate change.

As Arctic air warms up it takes up more room and there is less of a gradient, so the jet stream meanders, Francis said.

Francis compared the situation to a river flowing down a mountain. While moving rapidly down an incline, the river takes a more straightforward route; when it slows, the river will curve or bend.

Captain Eric Hesse, chair of the board of directors for the Fishermen’s Alliance, fishes for bluefin tuna with harpoons in the summer and longlines for haddock in the winter. He also is involved in several cooperative research projects with local scientists, including work with the Pioneer Array.

Hesse said fleets have started to notice things attributable to climate change. Traditionally huge tuna, up to 1500 pounds, are found north of here near Prince Edward Island. Cape bluefins are smaller, but still a big fish, about 500 to 800 pounds.

In recent years, the size here is getting smaller, similar to those that used to be seen in the Mid-Atlantic, too small to catch, said Hesse, who has been tuna fishing for 30 years.

Research in the mid-Atlantic says that smaller fish there are gone. But they aren’t gone; they’ve moved.

“We are surrounded by these fish,” Hesse said.

Another climate change example can be found with spiny dogfish. Very abundant, dogfish will take bait on longlines and occupy hooks before haddock, which fetches a better price in the marketplace. So fishermen traditionally would set their gear for haddock in winter, when migratory dogfish were off Maryland. When the water temperature dropped below 43, they knew to set, Hesse said, but in recent winters the waters haven’t cooled enough.

He has seen his December to April season shrink.

“Last year we only had March,” he said.

Audience members asked how researchers managed to stay upbeat given the drumbeat of bad news.

Gawarkiewicz and Francis said graduate students coming into the field are driven, idealistic, and that gives them hope. Gawarkiewicz has made it a point in recent years to bring students to fishery discussions, panels, or to sit in with journalists or legislators.

He feels it’s important scientists do a better job communicating and that will help effect change.

Small Boats. Big Science. is another step in that direction.

“This is really about us talking together,” Barrales said.


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