‘Climate is what you expect, Weather is what you get’

At Fishermen’s Forum, industry seeks balance between Mother Nature and politics

Fri, 03/04/2016 - 1:15pm

ROCKPORT — Julie Keene is harbor master for the town of Lubec. “I’m an elver fisherman,” she said. ”Last year, we got nothing. I didn’t catch my quota. We’re going to have a good year for eels, maybe, this year. But I’m on a quota system. I can’t fish that much.”

Julie’s frustrations were shared by most during the panel discussion “Questioning our Changing Oceans,” a well-attended forum held during the annual Fishermen’s Forum at the Samoset in Rockport, March 3-5.

Rising ocean temperatures, strengthening weather events courtesy of El Nino, and over-fishing continue to change the landscape of the world’s marine industries.

Crab fishermen in the Bay Area of California struggle to pay rent after the once-abundant Dungeness crab shifted habitat north to Alaska. Gulf of Mexico wetlands are decreasing daily. Southern New England fishermen declare complete devastation in the lobster industry due to climate vulnerabilities, and Mainers are concerned. 

Port Clyde fisherman Gerry Cushman, who is captain of the fishing vessel Bugcatcher Inc., ran the Maine numbers.

“Twenty years ago, we landed 38 million pounds of sea urchins. Today we land 1.9 million.

“Twenty years ago, we landed 1.6 million pounds of scallops. Today we land less than a half a million.

“Twenty years ago, we landed 17 million pounds of shrimp. We’re going on year three without a shrimp season.

“In 1995, we landed 38 million pounds of lobster. That was equal to the amount of sea urchins. In 2015, we landed 123 million pounds of lobster. It did come at a price. We saw prices as low as they’ve ever been for 20 years.

“Ground fish. 20 years ago, we landed roughly around 30 million pounds. We are at 1.8 million pounds today.

“In my small town of Port Clyde, 20 years ago, there were 23 active fishermen. Today, we have one.”

Panelist Andy Pershing, representing the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, shared the results of a recent study, suggesting that, “the Gulf of Maine will continue to warm at a rate that’s above the global average.”

Other large-scale models indicate a warming trend of .01 degrees Celsius to .02 degrees Celsius per year.

Pershing concluded that the Gulf of Maine is warming more rapidly than just about anywhere else in the ocean. The temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are at near-record level, just shy of those set in 2012. And the lobster fishery is predicted to “switch on” early to extremely early in the coming months.

Meteorologist Todd Gutner, of WSCH6, one of the panelists of the event, admitted that he, like other meteorologists, used to only focus on the day-to-day forecasts. He had been skeptical of the concept of climate change and global warming. But now, after 16 years in the weather business, he sees the wide-range scope of the issue.

So does Capt. Keith Coburn, of the show Deadliest Catch. He’s seen many changes in the past 30 years; the most dramatic of those changes were in the past 15 years.

“Three years ago, I couldn’t get out of the ice,” he said. “We were fishing the ice the entire season. This year, right now, in an El Nino year, I didn’t know how they were going to make a television show, because for the first 10 days it was flat calm,” he said.

The show, along with being entertaining, has brought more attention to the fishing industry, to the environment, and to Coburn himself.

In searching for solutions to deter climate change, one audience member suggested Coburn head down to Washington, D.C., and say: “You ask us to put food on America’s tables, and we’re willing to do that. It’s not the easiest job in the world. It’s the most dangerous job. But we’re willing to do that, but you’re making our place of business a very hostile environment.”

Capt. Buddy Guindon, of the show Big Fish, Texas, is reeping the benefits of this El Nino year, with more than a 100 percent increase in Red Snapper haul; yet run off from land farming in the Gulf of Mexico due to three months of flooding last year and three destructive hurricanes this year have created dead zones within the watershed.

There, wetlands are decreasing daily, greatly affecting the shrimping industry.

His advice for Maine fishermen: Market your product and give customers a reason to pay more based on knowing where the food came from. Get involved in management, and listen to the scientists, not the politicians.

Use science, said Coburn. Watch the trends; in warm years, crabs go deeper. Don’t just go to the same spot, or follow the same routine because of tradition. And remember that the industry is unpredictable.

Otherwise, “If I was a Maine lobsterman, I’d be trying to get a Canadian passport soon,” Coburn said.

Along with Coburn and Guidon, panelists at the Questioning Our Changing Oceans forum included John Mellon, of the recently closed California dungeness crab fishery; Linda Williams, of the Western Australia rocklobster fishery; Todd Gutner, of WSCH6; Jon Hare of NOAA; Andy Pershing, of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute; Carl Wilson, of the Department of Marine Resources; and Jake Kritzer, of the Environmental Defense Fund.