Lack of Action on Climate Change Is Costing Fishing Jobs

Lobster fishing and climate change
Maine’s shrimp industry is suffering, and its lobster catch is also in danger. Brian Snyder/Reuters

In late 2014, fishery regulators announced that for the second consecutive year, there would be no shrimp fishery in the Gulf of Maine this winter. The culprit? Principally, warming ocean waters caused by global climate change.

Maine in particular is feeling this climate pinch: The water temperature in the Gulf of Maine increased eight times faster that the rest of the world's oceans in recent years, according to a 2014 study by Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

As a result, while the shrimp fishery is the first to close in New England primarily as a result of our changing climate, it is unlikely to be the last. Some of the Gulf of Maine's depleted stocks of groundfish, particularly Gulf of Maine cod, have been slow to rebuild from overfishing in the 1980s and 1990s in part as a result of warming water. Lobster has been disappearing from its traditional habitat in southern New England.

Meanwhile, the iconic lobster industry in Maine has experienced record landings in recent years, but more and more of the catch is coming from areas further down the coast toward Canada. And a phenomenon that scientists dubbed an "ocean heat wave" in the spring of 2012 led to an early molt and migration of lobsters that caused a supply glut and subsequent price collapse.

The message here is clear: climate change is taking dollars and jobs away from New England's fishing communities.

Scientists, fishery managers and industry members recognize the necessity of better understanding this phenomenon, and numerous research projects are already underway. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Rutgers University have partnered to analyze data from oceanographic and fisheries-dependent studies. Their project, OceanAdapt, has confirmed that fish species off the northeast United States are collectively moving to higher latitudes and deeper water in search of the cooler temperatures they require to survive.

Of course, fishermen are the ones who know their ocean the best. So in order to get their perspective on what they are experiencing on the water, the Center for American Progress (CAP) commissioned a poll of participants in the groundfishery as well as the lobster fisheries in Maine and Massachusetts.

The CAP poll shows that majorities of all these fishermen and women believe climate change poses a significant risk to their industry, as warming waters lead to lower profits and lower catch limits. Respondents are deeply concerned these impacts could force them from the fishery or result in the disappearance of traditional markets for their product.

This perspective is consistent with the findings of the "Risky Business" report released last June by a bipartisan committee co-chaired by Michael Bloomberg, Hank Paulson and Tom Steyer. I was involved as a member of this project's "Risk Committee," which found that the American economy faces significant and diverse economic threats from the effects of climate change— rising seas, increased damage from storm surge, and more frequent bouts of extreme heat—all of which will have measurable impacts on our nation.

Each geographic region analyzed by the project faces distinct and significant economic risks. Here in the northeast, projections are already showing that temperature increases in Gulf of Maine waters will restrict habitat for commercially vital species such as cod and lobster. In addition, sea levels are likely to rise by two to four feet in Boston by the end of the century threatening to swamp coastal infrastructure, including the wharves and fish houses critical to sustaining our fishing industry.

These numbers fail to reflect the potential for dramatic "storm surge" events, in which higher sea levels combine with more intense weather activity to increase flooding and storm damage. The Risky Business research finds that these kinds of impacts, combined, could increase annual property losses along the northeast coast from $11 billion to $22 billion—a two- to four-fold increase from current levels.

As vigorous policy debates continue in Washington, the economic impact of addressing climate change and transitioning to a lower carbon economy is understandably a key issue—and one that is not the domain of one side versus the other. Here in New England's fishing communities, there is serious and legitimate concern for the fishing jobs that will be lost if we don't act to rein in the emissions warming and acidifying our waters and causing sea levels to rise.

The loss of Maine's $5 million shrimp fishery should serve as a warning. A similar blow to our $300 million lobster fishery must be avoided at all costs. That will require honest, fact-based discussion and a genuine bipartisan commitment to solutions.

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and three terms in the U.S. Senate, including 12 years as the top Republican on the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard.