I’ve got a couple of announcements to make, so I won’t beat around the bush:
- A new blog. Sometime in March (launch date is still a bit up in the air, but you’ll be the first to know), I’ll be launching a new blog called Living Lab. My vision for Living Lab is that it will be a place to explore how science gets done and how it could be done better, particularly the exciting things that happen when scientists break out of the old molds, engage their creative sides, and find partners in the community. Ocean and climate science will, of course, feature heavily since that’s most of what gets done here in Woods Hole and both fields are rife with great examples of ‘new science.’ But the spotlight will really be on people and their stories – how and why they do what they do – much more than the numbers that result. It’s a project I’m passionate about and very excited to see launch, but there is a downside to all of this. Since my time and energy is finite (disappointing, I know), Climatide will be going away. But not without a proper send-off …
- A last hurrah! Drawing on the climate change reporting I’ve done over the past eighteen months, I’m putting together a four-part radio series about the impacts of climate change on southeastern Massachusetts, and what state officials plan to do about them. Cape Change: A Local Perspective on Global Warming is due to air on WCAI the week of February 27th (next week – yikes!). And, of course, you can catch all the action – plus web-only extras and a surprise grand finale – here on Climatide.
By way of a peace offering for springing all this on you, here’s a sneak preview of the Cape Change series – an (draft) excerpt from the second story in the series, about the impacts of climate change on southern New England fisheries. Enjoy! And please stick around for all that’s still to come.
Sitting in a red pickup truck, looking out over New Bedford Harbor, Dick Allen recalls how he got his start in lobstering nearly fifty years ago.
Allen: “My sister married a fisherman who worked with the first offshore lobstermen, a fellow named Bill Whipple who just passed away recently. And they asked me if I wanted to make some trips on the weekends when I was going to college, which I did and then decided that I’d rather go fishing than I would to go to college.”
Allen later went back to school, earning degrees in fisheries and marine policy. As a result, he says he knows that lobsters in southern New England have been declining for well over a century. But fishing still seemed good when he was starting out.
Allen: “You’d haul up a trap and there’d be these big lobsters that you’d have to struggle to get ‘em out of the traps.”
Over the decades, Allen watched those large lobsters disappear. By the late 80’s, he says, they were basically gone.
Allen: “it was like if you went into a town and you never saw anybody over 13 years old, you’d say well something’s wrong here. And that’s the situation we had created in the lobster population in southern New England.
Then, around 1998, the number of lobsters with shell disease skyrocketed, hitting twenty to thirty percent of the population virtually overnight. Bob Glenn, Massachusetts’ chief lobster biologist, says the bacterial infection is rarely fatal. But the deformed shells make it hard for lobstermen to sell their catch and, what’s more, it’s a symptom of a population under extreme stress.
Glenn: “And, you know, we were searching for answers: what’s causing this? Why all of a sudden? Is it a chemical? Or is it environmental?”
Over the past fifty years, average water temperatures around New England have risen between two and four degrees Fahrenheit as a result of global warming. Even that subtle increase has many marine species on the move in search of comfortable water temperatures. The National Marine Fisheries Service has documented shifts in the whereabouts of cod, mackerel, and more than a dozen other commercially important species, including lobster. But the link between a gradual increase in average temperatures and the sudden increase in shell disease wasn’t immediately apparent.
Glenn: “I just saw that small increase in the average temperature and was like well, it doesn’t seem like that much. But when we started to really break it down, looking at how long the water exceeds certain temperatures, and that kinda really stuck out.”
Lobsters are exquisitely sensitive to water temperatures above sixty eight degrees Fahrenheit. They get stressed, become susceptible to disease, and start to move away. When Glenn looked at the number of days with water temperatures above that mark, what he found looked like someone had flipped a switch.
Glenn: “there’s been a dramatic increase since about 1998 in the number of days that are above that 68° threshold. so it on average in years say prior to that period, over the course of the entire history, you may have oh 30 days in a year that are above that temperature in the shallow waters. now we’re seeing that increase to may be 70 or 80 days a year.”
Glenn is convinced that these underwater heat waves are behind the disappearance of lobsters from areas like Buzzards Bay. If he’s right, it could spell disaster for the southern New England lobster fishery.
Glenn: “In 15 or 20 years I see one of two things: I see an extremely, a much smaller scaled back industry that is a fraction of what it currently is – a small number of boats fishing and making a profit on a sustainable but pretty small stock of lobsters.”
That’s the optimistic scenario.
Glenn: “the worse alternative would be that maybe it’s a fishery that you see slowly phase out.”