By Doreen Leggett
When people talk about the poster fish of warming waters, black sea bass surfaces. The shimmery, tasty fish is also on the tips of tongues when people talk about flaws in the management system.
“Populations are really surging off the Northeast, likely related to climate change,” said Hannah Verkamp, research biologist with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation in Rhode Island.
Since 2010, landings in the southern Atlantic are down 50 percent. In the mid-Atlantic and New England, landings are up 249 percent and 260 percent respectively.
“These are really drastic changes we are seeing,” Verkamp told an audience gathered late last month at the Fishermen’s Alliance for the non-profit’s Small Boats, Big Science series. “The Northwest Atlantic is actually a hot spot for ocean warming.”
However, decisions on land are not keeping pace with immense changes offshore. Captain Kurt Martin, who has fished for black sea bass for several years and spoke at the event, said the total amount of fish the state’s fishermen could catch this year had been cut by more than 200,000 pounds – or 34 percent. Black sea bass are managed jointly by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council since – until recently – the fish was found predominantly in southern waters, Massachusetts is only allocated 13 percent of the overall quota.
Managers have heard time and time again there are far more sea bass in the ocean around here than scientists report. But fishermen’s experiences on the water are considered anecdotal, not scientifically verifiable.
Verkamp, and others at the research foundation, are trying to change that. The group (like the Fishermen’s Alliance in 1991) was started by fishermen in 2004. A big part of CFRF’s mission is to fill data gaps and train fishermen in how to be included in science and management decisions.
“Fishermen have observations they see all the time from being on the water that are often dismissed,” says David Bethoney, executive director of CFRF. “We can give fishermen tools to record in a scientific manner.”
Several study fleets focus on species fishermen are interested in, and since 2016 black sea bass has been a priority.
Verkamp said commercial fishermen told managers they consistently throw back fish well over legal size because they don’t have quota to allow them to land. Fishermen have long criticized how research vessels have only been able to complete a small fraction of their scheduled trips and how surveys used to gauge recreational fishery effort may be off by up to 40 percent. Those data gaps become gaping holes.
Through the Rhode Island program, fishermen are paid for the work, collect data (the size of the fish caught, gear used, location), and enter it on an on-deck app.
Twenty fishermen have been involved, representing seven gear types including draggers, rod and reel, and pots, said Verkamp. Each fisherman samples 150 fish a month, which has translated into 55,000 fish at 3,000 locations.
“We have had a ton of success,” she said. “(Fishermen) really are stewards of their resources.”
The information has backed up fishermen’s claims; close to 40 percent of the fish they throw back are over legal size.
“So there is reason to suggest quota could be increased,” Verkamp said, adding her team is working to make sure the information is included in the next stock assessment.
Fish are cold-blooded, so they are very sensitive to water temperature. As the ocean changes, species will move or expand their range. Increasing black sea bass populations in northern waters may impact other species because they are voracious eaters. Researchers are looking into whether black sea bass are linked to a decrease in lobsters.
“Any time fish change where they are they can have a direct implication on fisheries,” she explained.
Along with the added benefit of having more reliable science from research fleets, management that includes fishermen’s findings can more closely monitor the health of the population. For growing sustainable stocks, fishermen will be able to land more fish and become less reliant on species negatively affected by climate changes, such as cod or lobster.
The Small Boats, Big Science series, in its second year, opens up a window into some of the work happening just off the coast – work that could help numerous small businesses across the Cape.
“I believe Small Boats, Big Science is important because it facilitates knowledge exchange not only between scientists and fishermen, but also with community members. Discussions between these stakeholders can lead to collaborative research and a better understanding of Cape Cod’s marine ecosystem,” said Ana Brown, who organized the presentation for the Fishermen’s Alliance as part of her summer internship.
John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, said with a changing climate, and changing seas, cooperative science with fishermen becomes increasingly important. Pappalardo has been helping spearhead the New England Fishery Management Council’s ecosystem-based fisheries management efforts, a holistic way of managing fisheries and marine resources by considering the entire ecosystem.
In the meantime, Captain Martin has been watching the temperature where he fishes in Nantucket Sound. It reached 78 degrees this summer.
“I keep moving to colder water, moving east,” he said.