Following the Fish
Rhode Island Fishing Fleet Adapts to Species Shift
By Annie Sherman
Title Photograph by Meredith Haas
Black sea bass, once more common in the mid-Atlantic than off the coast of New England, has surged northward over the last 10 years to flood local waters. Lobstermen find dozens of these bottom fish in their traps, quahoggers catch them when raking–they are everywhere.
The abundance of this popular fish should have been a jackpot to Rhode Island’s commercial fishermen. But 20-year-old state regulations that limit commercial harvest to 50 pounds per day haven’t caught up with the burgeoning supply.
“There has been a tremendous shift in black sea bass due to climate change and warmer waters,” says Fred Mattera, a retired offshore draggerman and executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island. “As many as 20 to 30 years ago, we’d go to New Jersey or the Carolinas to catch sea bass. But now there is an explosion up here, and we could catch tens of thousands of them, but we have to throw them back because of regulations. So there is a shift in dynamics in where and how we fish.”
According to the Rhode Island Statewide Climate Resilience Action Strategy, commissioned by Gov. Gina Raimondo in 2016, surface temperatures in Narragansett Bay have risen between 2.5°F and 2.9°F during the past 50 years, and “it appears that the late 20th and early 21st centuries were likely the warmest period the Earth has seen in at least 1,200 years.”
A couple of degrees might not seem like a heatwave. But for traditionally colder northern waters like ours, it’s a big deal to the marine ecosystem. So, while throngs of this bass and other species are attracted to the area’s uncharacteristically warm water, other colder-water animals are driven away.
As a result, some fishermen are experiencing really successful harvests in certain species, like crab, scallop, and squid because of a serendipitous alignment of regulations, fish, processors, and market, even though they may have had to change where and what they are fishing.
“I used to target strictly lobsters for decades,” says Al Eagles, a Newport-based lobsterman and industry advocate for 47 years.
“Now I’m branching out and doing crabs and finfishing in season. It wasn’t lucrative enough to stay in the bay—the lobster biomass isn’t what it used to be. So we have to adjust.”
Jamestown lobsterman David Spencer, who has been in the fishing business since 1973, is treasurer of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation (CFRF) and also owns the Newport Lobster Shack. He says the population of Jonah crab has filled in, while the lobster population has declined.
“IT WASN’T LUCRATIVE ENOUGH TO STAY IN THE BAY—THE LOBSTER BIOMASS ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE. SO WE HAVE TO ADJUST.”
Lobsterman Al Eagles has branched out to harvesting crabs and finfish. Photograph by Melissa Devine
Fortunately for Spencer, crabs seem to be better adapted to current conditions, and fishing for them does not require a complete overhaul of his gear, method, or fishing locations. And Spencer is not the only one with his sights set on Jonah crab—their profusion has spawned a new industry for the southern New England lobster fleet.
“This is very common. Anywhere from Cape Cod to the south and west, crabs have become a staple for fixed-gear fishermen. It’s allowed them to fish year-round,” he says. “If they stayed with lobsters, they wouldn’t be able to fish year-round because population size is shrinking.”
With a long history of being adaptable, the fishing industry sees this upheaval as an opportunity to seek other species, Spencer says. However, fluctuations in fish species took place before climate change, and even today, climate is not the only factor affecting fish populations—water quality and wastewater management, for instance, may also play roles. That, and the cascading effects of climate change that impact predator-prey relationships and increase ocean acidification, for instance, can be hard to predict and adjust to.
“What is out of balance is our ecosystem. We have tremendous abundance of some species, and there are so many possible explanations,” Spencer says.
“Everybody, from fishermen to regulators, understands that things are changing and they’re adapting to the best of their ability. The place for the consumer in all of this is to know what’s local, what’s in season, and go with that,” he adds. “Don’t just say ‘give me codfish’ that isn’t in season, because it probably came frozen from a boat in Alaska.”
Another problem is processing limitations, with facilities shrinking in resources and lacking technology to handle some of the newest abundant landings. Scup is the perfect example. This cute little whitefish has been harvested since the 1800s when it was the most abundant fish of the era.
As a result, it was overfished, then highly regulated, and has now rebounded. But it is largely overlooked commercially because while it was restricted, it lost market share and was replaced by tilapia—so at times of plentiful landings, it fetches a mere $0.10 to $0.20 apiece on the market. “It’s very disillusioning and disappointing, not getting a large return for the effort. So fishermen don’t target scup, they just use it to augment their trip,” says Mattera. “It’s a very underutilized species.”
Scup is also difficult to debone and filet, and because Americans generally don’t know what to do with a whole fish, he says, he’s working through CFRF in collaboration with Johnson & Wales University and Pier Fish Company in New Bedford to modify an Icelandic filleting machine to streamline this process. This measure could revolutionize the scup industry in the Ocean State.
“We are creating diversity at sea. Instead of shying away from scup, you might be inclined to target it,” he says. “These are the things we need to continue to foster, to be resilient, to get through the shifts in markets and climate change and compete with imports, and try to get the consumer to recognize that wild-caught fish right here on your doorstep is the best.”
Indeed, Midtown Oyster Bar operations manager Charlie Holder agrees. Scup is not on the menu there yet, but with 60% of the business at his Newport restaurant dedicated to exclusively local seafood and 75% of his menu changing with the varying species available at any given time, Holder won’t rule it out.
“There’s always a fluctuation of what the trends are and what sells. But there is value in selling local seafood. People have expectations of coming to New England and eating certain local dishes,” he says. “You don’t go to Florida expecting to eat New England lobster, at least not without paying an arm and a leg for it. I think they come to Newport looking for clam chowder, lobsters, fish and chips, things that are indigenous to here.”
Still, keeping pace with the changing fish populations can be challenging for fishermen, who are licensed by the species and have invested in specialized boats and gear; it’s typically incredibly expensive for them to switch, which is why many haven’t. Like Spencer and Eagles, they fish as many species as they can with their existing gear and licenses, but if something happens to those species, there is no Plan C.
This specialization “can severely inhibit the ability of fishing operations to adapt to changes in the timing, spatial distribution, and composition of local fish stocks,” says Sarah Schumann, a member of the Rhode Island fishing industry, co-coordinator of the Resilient Fisheries RI project, and co-author of Simmering the Sea: Diversifying Cookery to Sustain Our Fisheries. “It also makes it harder for the industry to respond to changes in price and consumer demand for fishery products.”
Meanwhile, water temperature and food sources will continue to influence where black sea bass, scup, lobster, and dozens of other species congregate. How fishermen—and consumers, and regulators—are able to adjust may help determine the fate of their industry.
“I feel like Rhode Island has done really well in adapting compared to other places. But there are so many intersecting stressors,” Schumann says. “Are we in a bubble? And if so, when will it burst? If squid or crab were to go away, for whatever reason, it’s not at all clear what fishermen would turn to.”