Water Closet for April 15, 2016
Marine mammal protections evolving with the environment: Warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine may bring new species with new regulations
By Heather Desse and Susie Arnold* (FATHOMING column, February-March issue of The Working Waterfront published by The Island Institute out of Rockland, Maine)
[pullquote]”According to the North Atlantic right whale consortium, for the last 25 years, right whale numbers have slowly and steadily increased from about 300 in 1990 to just over 500 whales last year.”[/pullquote]A number of large whales spend time in the Gulf of Maine, as do seals, porpoises and dolphins. The Gulf of Maine is home to other species that garner special attention and protection, including seabirds, sea turtles, and threatened or endangered fish, such as sturgeon, the giant anadromous fish that looks like a living dinosaur.
Many of these species are in recovery after centuries of being hunted. Some, like puffins, have been reintroduced by humans to places they once inhabited. All marine mammals, seabirds and turtles are protected by strict rules under state and federal legislation. This is true even if individual species are not endangered or threatened, which leads to controversy when some marine mammals reach high population levels, as is the case with the harbor seals in New England.
In 2015, all of the protection and research has been paying off for some of those iconic animals. In the same way that bald eagle populations have rebounded in the last decade with record numbers seen throughout Maine this year, minke and humpback whale populations also are up. In fact NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) issued a draft rule in early 2015 that would remove humpback whales off the East Coast from the endangered species list, since the population is now considered healthy.
Marine animals, like land animals, are impacted by changes in the environment due to climate change. In New England, our ocean waters have warmed rapidly in recent years, and are projected to continue warming over the coming decades. A paper published by Vincent Saba and colleagues in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans find that the most accurate climate model for the northwest Atlantic shelf shows the previous projections to be too conservative. It now projects warming in the northwest Atlantic to occur at nearly three times faster than the global ocean average.
As a result of this rapid change, many whale species seem to be changing their habits and habitats. In the last four years, North Atlantic right whales, for example, have been seen much less frequently at their traditional late summer and fall feeding grounds off the Bay of Fundy, and may be visiting areas further north instead.
Human activities offshore, such as shipping and fishing, also create stressors for whales. According to the New England Aquarium, ship strikes are the most common cause of death for the North Atlantic right whale, followed by complications related to entanglement in fishing gear.
In the last decade, shipping routes have been modified (east of Boston and in Canadian waters at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy) and fishing gear requirements have gone into effect aimed at decreasing harmful interactions (including a major transition to sinking ground lines six years ago that affected many fishermen, and a new requirement last year for the minimum number of traps that could be fished from each vertical line).
These changes along with more dedicated disentanglement capability seem to be having a positive impact. According to the North Atlantic right whale consortium, for the last 25 years, right whale numbers have slowly and steadily increased from about 300 in 1990 to just over 500 whales last year.
Erin Summers, marine mammal biologist with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, notes that after some entanglement incidents that implicated the lobster fishery, no changes to regulations are expected. The National Fisheries Service is committed to keeping current regulations in place for five years before conducting it’s next major review, she said.
Looking forward, a couple issues are worth keeping an eye on. First given the rate of warming in the Gulf of Maine, sea turtles will likely become more frequent visitors which could lead to new requirements on fishing gear and practices.
Another potential future issue is new action by NOAA arising out of a long un-enforced provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act from 1972. The act requires countries exporting seafood to the U.S. to implement protections for the marine mammals that are as stringent as our own. The Japanese scallops for sale in Maine grocery stores this winter are testament to the fact that this concern of MMPA has long been ignored.
Three environmental organizations sued the federal government and reached a settlement in January 2015 that requires the U.S. to start enforcing this part of the law. NOAA has since issued a draft rule which will give countries five years to come into compliance.
It remains to be seen what impact this will have in Maine which clearly relies in many ways on seafood imports from Canada and other countries, some with only voluntary marine mammal interaction mitigation measures in place now.
*Dr.Heather Deese is an oceanographer and the Island Institute’s vice-president for strategic development. Dr. Susie Arnold is an ecologist and marine scientist with the organization. Their column in The Working Waterfront published by The Island Institute out of Rockland Maine is appropriately called FATHOMING.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||Jan||Feb||Mar||Apr|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||3.40||3.25||4.65||4.53|
|2016 Central Watershed Actual||3.31||3.71||3.80||2.8**as of Apr 11|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For April 11, 2016 Normal . . . 130 CFS Current Rate . . . 159 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru March.
**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for April.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584