Virginia fisheries struggle to adapt to changing climate

Virginia fisheries struggle to adapt to changing climate
George Washington wrote in 1793 that the Potomac River was 'well-stocked with various kinds of fish in all Seasons of the year.' (Source: Pixabay.com)

George Washington had few dietary preferences, save one: he was “excessively fond” of fish.

Luckily for the president, his perch at Mount Vernon afforded him an easy opportunity to indulge.

The Potomac, he recorded in 1793, was “well-stocked with various kinds of fish in all Seasons of the year, and in the Spring with Shad, Herring, Bass, Carp, Perch, Sturgeon, etc. in great abundance. … The whole shore, in fact, is one entire fishery.”

Today, Mount Vernon still overlooks the Potomac, but the species that call Virginia waters home are increasingly different due to something Washington couldn’t have foreseen: climate change.

“It’s hard to manage fisheries to begin with, [and] in the past we’ve always considered the climate stable,” said Patrick Geer, deputy chief of fisheries management for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “But now that theory of a stable climate and environment has been taken out.”

As global air temperatures warm, so too do global waters. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the temperature of the ocean’s surface has risen an average of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit every decade since the beginning of the 20th century. And the Chesapeake Bay is estimated to be warming even faster, at an average rate of 1.2 degrees every decade since the 1980s.

Increasingly, that is making environments inhospitable for fish. In reaction, populations on the East Coast are shifting northward and eastward, leaving commercial fishermen and states who have long relied on their presence with lighter nets — and fears of lighter coffers.

Some of those fears are justified. The classic cautionary tale is that of New England’s northern shrimp fishery, which crashed precipitously around 2012 and was closed in 2014 by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the governmental body that oversees the management of fisheries in state waters from Maine to Florida. In February 2018, the ASMFC extended the moratorium to 2021 in an announcement that linked the collapse to warming ocean temperatures and broached the possibility of a future in which “the stock has no ability to recover.”

Such regional collapses may become more frequent in coming years, while at the same creating more favorable environments for other species.

“In any one region, some species will experience improving environmental conditions that may result in increased available habitat and increased species productivity, while other species will experience the opposite and perhaps decline in abundance,” the National Marine Fisheries Service declared in its 2015 Climate Science Strategy.

Or, as Geer put it, “For any given area and for any given species, there will be winners and losers.”