Cold Cape Cod clams, delectable
Maine lobster, Georges Bank halibut, sweet northern shrimp, tiny populations of wild salmon, sea-running alewives, and every species one can imagine in the Gulf of Maine thrive there because of cold, nutrient- filled waters.
But that may all be a fond memory in the not too distant future. The Gulf of Maine is warming up, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans.
Until 2004, the temperature in the Gulf of Maine was rising, but was rising at a level like other bodies of water, about 0.05 degrees per year. That’s still too much to be sustainable, but it would have given populations a chance to adapt over time.
Now, the temperature in the Gulf is increasing by a half-degree every year — 10 times the previous rate.
It’s related to global warming, but the exact mechanism is still being debated. Is it atmospheric events, like hurricanes, bringing warm water into the Gulf on a more regular basis? Has the Gulf Stream shifted further west? Has the ocean absorbed all the carbon it can hold from the atmosphere and is responding by warming up? Did Arctic sea ice have a much stronger cooling effect on the Gulf of Maine than previously thought?
Whatever the mechanism, the results will be devastating.
Almost all of New England’s commercial fisheries are being adversely affected even now. Infant lobsters are on the decline near the shore, and they are moving off into deeper, colder waters where it will be much more expensive to trap them as adults. Scallops and shrimp have had their seasons severely curtailed or canceled because of low numbers. Clams are being predated by a relatively new arrival — the green crab. Herring stocks are so low that baby puffins are starving to death. And as the waters warm, the plankton that feed rare right whales and other cetaceans will die off, sending the large mammals ever northward.
The species that are replacing the ones leaving for colder climes aren’t nearly as valuable — several species of squid, the dreaded green crab and slightly more valuable blue crab and sea bass, are suddenly turning up in Maine fishermen’s nets.
The Gulf of Maine is fast becoming a living laboratory for global climate change in a manageable setting, which is a good thing for climate scientists, but a bad thing for the Gulf of Maine and all the creatures that live beneath its waves and on its rocky shores and islands.
The Gulf represents a canary in a coal mine in terms of climate change. This is a change we must take seriously. For a time, our fishermen and women can fish for bass instead of cod, squid instead of shrimp, blue crab instead of lobster. But in the end, those species will move off, too. Bringing the Gulf’s fever down will take the concerted efforts, not only of the people of Maine, but the entire world. Their canaries might still be singing right now, but unless everyone pulls together, it’s a matter of time before the canary song — and the whale song — is silent around the globe.
The Times Record of Brunswick (Maine),