Managing Shifting Marine Species

Shrimp boat off the coast of Biloxi, Miss.

Our love affair with the ocean runs deep. Humans love to live next to the sea, honeymoon on islands and dream about summer road trips to the beach while tapping away at our keyboards. During lobster and crab seasons in the Northeast U.S., we enjoy the food, community and culture of the Northeast U.S. Likewise, we celebrate shrimp and red snapper seasons on the Gulf Coast and halibut and salmon seasons in the Pacific Northwest. 

But, what if those seasons change or don’t come at all?

In the last five years, scientists have begun to see what they predicted in the 1980’s when global warming was first widely recognized: a shift in the habitats of marine species due to warming oceans.

“The oceans are warming due to climate change, causing fish to move to different areas,” said Charlotte Hudson, project director of the Lenfest Ocean Program. Hudson explained that fisheries managers are charged with overseeing the catches for commercially important species. “Large-scale relocation of species will require coordination among fisheries managers and regional management groups and likely will affect the policies they put in place.”

Salmon for sale at Pike Place Market in Seattle, WA.

Salmon for sale at Pike Place Market in Seattle, Wash.

The Lenfest Ocean Program supports research that addresses the needs of coastal stakeholders, with priority given to those projects that include the people who will be implementing solutions. To that end, Lenfest co-hosted the 2019 Ocean Fisheries Ideas Lab last month. “We thought it would be important to bring together all of the individuals who are experiencing this issue to talk about some ways forward,” Hudson said. 

The three-day KI-facilitated workshop was also co-hosted by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Biodiversity Funder’s Group. It included 29 participants — including academic researchers, fisheries managers, commercial fishing advocacy groups, conservationists and government regulators. During the Ideas Lab, participants formed interdisciplinary teams around pressing questions and developed research proposals, presenting their ideas on the last day. 

Research that results from this workshop could help solve some of the problems faced by stakeholders at the meeting, said Jeff Kaelin, Director of Sustainability and Government Relations for Lund’s Fisheries, a commercial fishing company based in Cape May, New Jersey. “We have information from our boats that we’re providing to the federal government — habitat information, temperatures and so forth — that they could use to monitor changing ocean conditions,” Kaelin said. According to Kaelin, a database system that combines that data with catch data also collected from commercial fishing companies could help scientists predict the movement of species in response to changing seas.

Lobster for sale in New England.

Kaelin also challenged the assumption that shifting species was all bad news. In the Northeast, he said, “southern species move north offering additional fishing opportunities and habitat ranges may increase for others,” he explained.

Having stakeholders like Kaelin bring their unique perspectives to the Ideas Lab was critical to its success. In fact, the diversity of the ideas generated was directly proportional to the diversity of people in the room, said Roger Mann, Ph.D., a workshop participant and professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “Rather than trying to take a group of fishery biologists who all think along the same lines and ask them how to fix a problem, you had people in groups who had a modest amount of overlap in expertise take on this broad intellectual exercise. It worked quite well.” 

Lenfest’s Hudson agreed. “Working together, participants identified research priorities. The resulting science will help efforts to adapt to climate-induced shifts in marine fisheries.”

Funded teams will soon have the job of turning their ideas into real solutions. Proposal selection is underway. Stay tuned!