The 45-foot gill netter Shannon Kristine (left) passes the Christina Carol at the Portland Fish Exchange in November 2020. The Shannon Kristine was pulling up to offload fish after a three day trip about 50 miles off the Maine coast. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Officials who oversee fishing in the Gulf of Maine and the entire East Coast are taking a hard look at how fishery regulations will need to evolve in order to keep up with the accelerated and unpredictable changes wrought by climate change. 

Fishery managers from organizations across the eastern seaboard are brainstorming scenarios they could face in the coming decades as water temperatures rise, fish stocks fluctuate and species push into new areas. 

Several fishery experts said they’ll likely have to reimagine how management has worked in the past. 

“I think people are recognizing that small little tweaks and band aids might not be what we need here,” said Deirdre Boelke, a fishery analyst at the New England Fishery Management Council and one of the leaders working on the scenario planning effort.

Even before the effects of climate change were more widely known, fisheries management had a reputation for being complex and cumbersome. There are various layers of governance, with councils and managers making decisions at the state, regional, coastwide and national levels.

“To say that it’s a glacial process is putting it kindly,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries analyst at Oceana, an international conservation group.

It’s also historically been a reactive field. Something happens, officials monitor it, they study it and eventually, sometimes years later, render a decision.

But with the pace of change quickening and potentially straining the existing management systems, being slow and reactive may not be an option anymore.

“We’re trying to be more proactive here,” Boelke said.

One of the biggest focuses is looking at shifting fish populations. It’s something that’s already happening in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming 99 percent faster than the rest of the world’s oceans and just recorded its highest water temperatures ever last year.

“You’re starting to see species that were more abundant in the southern range make their way in some of the more northern ranges,” said Toni Kerns, a fisheries policy director with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

When a significant amount of fish move from an area managed by one regulatory body into another, regulatory oversight can get complicated. The poster child for that right now is the black sea bass fishery.

A temperate reef fish largely concentrated between Cape Cod and Cape Canaveral, the black sea bass has been managed using historic quotas that were first implemented about 20 years ago.

In the past, the fish were a rare sight in Maine. The stock traditionally stopped near Massachusetts and the epicenter was off New Jersey. 

But as waters have warmed over the last decade, the species has begun to spread further north.

Marissa McMahan, the director of fisheries at the Massachusetts-based coastal ecology research non-profit Manoment, first remembers seeing black sea bass in greater numbers off Maine in 2012, when the Gulf of Maine experienced an ocean heatwave.  

That summer, she caught between 30 and 40 black sea bass while lobstering with her father off Georgetown. Since then it has become common for lobstermen to haul up black sea bass in their traps but they throw them overboard because of the small quota Maine and neighboring New England states receive, McMahan said.

Connecticut has seen huge increases in the number of black sea bass in the Long Island Sound in recent years but until recently only had one percent of the coastwide quota. Maine gets half a percent.

These disparities between the amount of fish available and the size of the quota can raise thorny questions for regulators.

If a fish population in a new area grows larger than in the traditional area, does management shift to a different regional body? Do they continue to share the stock? How do allocations then get doled out?

“This hasn’t happened before,” McMahan said. “There’s not a nice roadmap on how this works.”

What can make managing shifting stocks such as black sea bass even harder is they don’t always migrate across management lines in a tidy fashion.

Despite the extension of its range northwards, black sea bass hasn’t abandoned its historic southern fishing grounds. Those traditional ports want to hold onto their allocations while New England states are looking for a larger piece of the pie.

“It’s not black and white,” said Kerns.

There are also questions about if the science that’s used to make management decisions will need to change. Under climate change, long-running historical surveys may no longer be the indicator that they once were.

Surveys are usually done in a designated part of the ocean at the same time of year, every year. These surveys and other models that regulators use to understand the health of fish populations are the bedrock for many management decisions. 

But if stocks move and patterns shift under climate change, these surveys, while still giving good historical data, could soon be looking in areas that don’t give accurate representations of what’s happening to a species, said Carla Guenther, the chief scientist at Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. 

“Our surveys may be in the wrong places and we are missing the clues of the shift,” she said.

Scientists are hesitant to change these long-running surveys drastically because that would throw away any value past data has.

“You almost have to create a whole other survey and run them parallel,” Guenther said. “And that’s really expensive.” 

Scientists may need to work hand-in-hand with the industry to get better real-time information.

For black sea bass, these changes are starting to happen. McMahan said she’s doing interviews with people in the fishing industry to help scientists better understand their data, as well as trying new forms of surveying.

The scenario-planning process is expected to run through the end of the year, when officials will start to come up with potential responses to what they might see in the future. But, like anything with fisheries management, that will take some time. 

“There maybe won’t be major changes right away but I don’t think managers are opposed to thinking outside the box,” said Boelke. “I think there’s a wide recognition that things might have to change.”