Aug 29, 2016

Connecticut’s traditional fishing catch is heading north

Jan Ellen Spiegel
The CT Mirror
Lobster used to be abundant in Connecticut. Not anymore. Photo: Courtesy Doug Cotnoir
Lobster used to be abundant in Connecticut. Not anymore. Photo: Courtesy Doug Cotnoir

Connecticut’s lobster landings topped 3.7 million pounds a year, worth $12 million, in the late 1990s, but by 2014 had diminished to about 127,000 pounds worth a little more than $600,000.

Instead of the picture of fishing success, lobster has become the face of climate change in New England: a sentinel of warming water, ocean acidification and other man-made impacts that have sent them and dozens of other marine animals scurrying in search of a more hospitable environment.

“We’ve found quite dramatic shifts in where species are found,” said Malin Pinsky, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist with the Rutgers University Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources who researches how climate change affects fish and fisheries. He has used data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create OceanAdapt, which includes animations that regionally show how dozens of marine species have moved in the last 50 years. “Especially here in the Northeast you have something like American lobster about 200 miles further north than they used to be, and other species shifting similar amounts.”

These climate-related shifts, on their own and dovetailing with older concerns such as over fishing and pollution, are now upending fishing patterns, threatening to upend fishing management systems and generating political controversy and finger-pointing as policies struggle to keep up with the pace of fish movement, and the Connecticut fishing community struggles to hang on.

But with water now warming and sea levels rising faster than scientists were predicting only a few years ago, how to respond and even what to respond to is, well, a moving target.

“We’re reshuffling the marine ecosystems like a deck of cards,” Pinsky said, echoing almost the exact wording of other scientists and experts. “We don’t entirely know what will happen. We understand the broad outlines of what’s going to happen, but we also know there will be surprises"