Fishing in Warming Seas, North Carolinians Trek North to Reel in Their Catch

As climate change sends fisheries into flux, managers must keep up with the latest science to sustain them.
Fishermen bring in a catch off the coast of Smith Island, Virginia.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP--Getty Images

When Jimmy Ruhle began fishing for summer flounder 54 years ago, he would cast his nets into the sea off Morehead City, North Carolina. But over the decades, Ruhle’s boat, Darana R, has had to travel farther and farther north in pursuit of its quarry. These days his crew often finds itself fishing off the coast of Long Island, New York.

“The fish were available in higher densities farther north,” says Ruhle, a third-generation commercial fisher and the president of the Commercial Fishermen of America, a program of the Institute for Fisheries Resources.

According to a study published earlier this year in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, between 1996 and 2014, fishing fleets from North Carolina and Virginia needed to go as much as 500 additional miles up the East Coast to reel in their catch. Fishing patterns for summer flounder and Atlantic croaker saw the most dramatic geographic shifts. The suspected causes? Harvesting pressures on the fish populations coupled with rising ocean temperatures due to climate change.

“If climate is affecting the natural resources, then by extension it’s also going to affect the people that are connected with those natural resources,” says the study’s lead author, Talia Young, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University.

The study went on to recommend that fishers diversify the types of fish they pursue as a means of reducing trip distances (as well as fuel and labor costs). But changing the catch can be difficult: Fishing vessels and equipment are often rigged for specific fish, and local seafood processing businesses onshore might not accommodate a variety of fish types. In the end, it can be more profitable for fishers like Ruhle to just keep moving up the coast. While this tactic might work well enough in the short run, as fish populations continue to respond to warming seas, fishers may soon require a longer-term strategy in order to sustain their businesses.

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A Quota Conundrum

In the case of summer flounder, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) established state-by-state fishing quotas based on catch data collected between 1980 and 1989. The species-specific catch limits are based on biomass, or the total weight of the stock, not numbers of individual fish. The rules on which types of fish can be caught by whom, however, are the source of much debate. For instance, because of the time period used to set the state-based quotas, a 2018 study found that federal fisheries managers allocated much more flounder to North Carolina fishers than to New York despite the species’ northward shift.

“It’s really been striking how many species distributions are changing [and] how much that’s disrupted fisheries and fisheries management in this region,” says biologist Malin Pinsky, an associate professor of ecology at Rutgers University. Pinsky worries that conflict over quotas could threaten food supplies and employment opportunities worldwide, not just in North Carolina.

“The allocation issue is a complicated one,” says Kiley Dancy, fishery management specialist for NMFS’s Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which has jurisdiction over federal waters from northern North Carolina to New York. “As the biomass shifts, there are ongoing efforts to understand how we can make management better able to adapt to climate change.”

New York Senator Charles Schumer introduced the Fluke Fairness Act in March to address what he calls an unfair quota allocation. If the fish are in the waters off the coast of New York, the reasoning goes, local fishers should have more access to them than those coming in from North Carolina and other southeastern states.

It matters little to these fish species, however, whose net traps them. And protecting marine habitats and fish populations is more important for sustainability than how quotas are allocated among states, says Brad Sewell, director of NRDC’s fisheries program. “I don’t think catch allocation is the only, or even the most important, conversation to be having when it comes to climate change and fisheries,” he says. “Climate change is putting stress on fish populations. If we’re going to have sustainable fishing communities, whether those are in North Carolina or New Jersey or New York, you need sustainable fish populations, and that comes from having sustainable fishing practices.”

Sewell calls the MagnusonStevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs fisheries management in U.S. federal waters, a generally “sound law” when it comes to preventing overfishing but one that should be strengthened to better protect marine habitats and ecosystems. That way, as warmer seas send species into new areas, the fish are more likely to encounter suitable conditions once they get there.

The law covers fisheries operating from 3 to 200 miles offshore, and its centerpieces are measures to prevent overfishing and protect vulnerable species, and programs to rebuild overfished stocks.

Ongoing pressure to raise quotas and, in turn, weaken the MagnusonStevens Act, however, remain a challenge. Some argue that there is too much uncertainty regarding how climate change could affect marine populations, and therefore that concerns about warming seas should not affect fishing quotas. But Sewell says that approach is shortsighted. “We need to pay even more attention to the science and respond to the uncertainty by being more careful with quota setting.”

Fishing for Solutions

Over the past three years, Ruhle has been traveling shorter distances to make his flounder catch because the fish appear to be repopulating waters closer to home. Instead of trekking up to New York, he’s fishing off the coasts of northern Virginia and Maryland. The north-south movement, he says, is all part of a migration cycle he’s witnessed over the past five decades.

More fishing pressure and changes in the age and structure of fish populations could be factors contributing to the flounder’s and croaker’s erratic migration patterns, says Bradford Dubik, research scientist at the Duke University Marine Lab. But climate change should not be dismissed. Dubik says some fishers might be reluctant to admit that overall, they’re seeing long-term changes in the distribution of marine populations. After all, such implications have the potential to disrupt their business models in regard to how the fisheries they rely on are managed.

“They might not believe in climate change,” he says. “If they attributed the population shifts to climate change, that frames it as more of a permanent ecological change, which is not good for making a case to keep the quota like it is.”

As both fishers and their catch continue to adapt to changing seas, Rutgers’s Pinsky thinks it’s imperative for fisheries managers to keep up with the latest science in order to make responsible decisions for the good of all.

“The key takeaway is that the ocean is warming rapidly and fish are on the move,” he says. “One of the things we hear is ‘Oh, fish are moving around. We should make fisheries management more flexible,’ but flexibility is often interpreted to mean, ‘Oh, we can catch whatever we want.’ We can't let these changes be an excuse for ignoring basic fisheries management principles like sustainable harvesting.” Otherwise, one day there may not be flounder or croaker or fluke north, south, or anywhere else.

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