2014-10-23 / News

Trawling bay becoming more dire, say fishermen, scientists

By Ken Shane


University of Rhode Island oceanography professor Jeremy Collie manages a weekly fish trawl in the bay to collect data. 
Photo by Nora Lewis University of Rhode Island oceanography professor Jeremy Collie manages a weekly fish trawl in the bay to collect data. Photo by Nora Lewis Each year Rhode Island Public Radio takes a week-long look at one community, covering it from a variety of angles. The series is called “One Square Mile.” This year the radio station highlighted Narragansett Bay.

Part of the coverage included a forum about how fisheries are adapting to climate change. The discussion took place last week at the Rhode Island Foundation in Providence, and was streamed live on Rhode Island’s NPR. The discussion was moderated by environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza, and the panel included fishermen, scientists, state officials, a shellfish expert and the owner of a restaurant well known for its local oysters.

To begin the discussion, Espinoza posed a series of questions to the panelists, seeking input on what it was like fishing in the bay in previous decades. She also wanted to know how commercial fishermen are adapting in order to stay in business.

Captain Denny Ingram is a commercial lobsterman from Warren who has been fishing for 35 years. He recalled his childhood in the upper bay, collecting rockweed to sell for a dollar a bag in the late 1960s. About 15 years ago Ingram said the rockweed went away, along with the fish and minnows that were in it. That was the first sign something was wrong. He didn’t know what the problem was, but mentioned weed killer, coastal development and global warming.

Seven years ago, Ingram began having trouble catching anything in the upper bay. These days he goes south of Prudence Island and even farther to where there is deeper water and tidal flow. His comments were not based on science, he said, but on personal observation.

Among those observations, Ingram said there are now different species in the bay. A good example is the sea bass, a fish that is normally found in Virginia waters. Sea bass moving north in such great numbers is one indication that the water is warming, he speculated. At the same time, resident species have left the area, seeking colder water.

Ingram said he did well into the late 1990s but things have gotten progressively worse. Last year, for the first time, female lobsters did not shed their shells in the bay. The males shed in April, a couple of months earlier than normal. This summer, however, things were back to routine, which Ingram attributed to an average winter and colder spring.

Trip Whilden has been fishing for more than 20 years. He used to go lobstering in the summer, but now he mostly drags for fin fish because the lobster business has a huge overhead. It can cost a captain $400 to $500 a day for bait, fuel and crew, he said. Whilden agreed that the decline of the lobster population began around the turn of the 21st century. When it did, he began to fish offshore. The lobsters began to repopulate the bay in 2005, but if they don’t come back this year, it will be five years since there was a fall season. Whilden said that he used to fish 300 days a year, but the incentive to be on the water is waning.

Also participating in the forum was Jeremy Collie, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. He said the school has been doing the same weekly tows for many years, and there is standard quantified data on the bay. According to Collie, the lobster population has never been stable, with peaks in Rhode Island Sound in the 1970s. There is no single explanation for this instability, he said, with the main factors being fishing pressure, which he said is under control now. He also mentioned warmer waters and shell disease, which is not fatal but stresses lobsters.

Phytoplankton are surveyed by taking water samples and examining them under a microscope, Collie said. These surveys indicate that the food web in the bay has changed from the bottom up. There has been a reduction in the abundance of large-bodied coldwater species, and an increase in smaller warm-water fish.

“The bay ecosystem is quite resilient, but from a human perspective, not all of the changes are desirable,” Collie said, citing algae blooms and a growing population of jellyfish.

Ingram said that the bay is an estuary, therefore the water shouldn’t look crystal clear, but rather cloudy.

“I can see the bottom in places that I could never ever,” Ingram said.

Collie responded that the water quality has improved but the population of phytoplankton has declined.

As the decline in lobsters occurred, Ingram continued to move south. He said that lobsters look bigger and healthier in Rhode Island Sound, and these days he’s also fishing for Jonah crabs, a population that has exploded inshore. They used to be a bycatch, meaning they were caught unintentionally, but fishermen are now targeting them as a primary catch.

Whilden said that fishing is a challenge because of closing fisheries and weight limits. These days he aims for fluke, tautog, sea bass and horseshoe crabs.

“You just have to keep going,” he said. “That’s the name of the game.”

Mark Gibson, the state’s deputy chief for marine fisheries, said changes in the bay are creating challenges, both scientifically and politically. With the changing climate, scientists say fish are doing things that they never did before, which makes it difficult to assess the amount. Stocks may never be rebuilt to former levels of abundance, according to Gibson.

As an example, he cited winter flounder, which used to dominate the biomass in the bay and are now a shadow of their former abundance. He said the warming water makes the larvae more susceptible to predators; as a result, the flounder population will not go extinct, but it won’t reach former levels. There are some signs of younger fish, but not the production of younger fish. Fishery closures have not resulted in the big comeback for the species that had been hoped for.

On the political side, Gibson said fish are moving northward and into deeper water without regard to state or federal boundaries. This is true not just in the United States, but all over the world. Below the equator the fish are moving south. Since the fish are not respecting boundaries, management is now out of line. Gibson said things need to be readjusted to correspond with current fish behavior.

According to Gibson, fishermen and regulators have to be more realistic about how high fish populations can be rebuilt. Rhode Island currently has a seat on the New England Management Fisheries Council, but not the mid-Atlantic panel.

“We’re making ends meet but by the skin of our teeth,” Whilden said, citing daily catch limits that requires fish to be thrown overboard. He said he is catching more sea bass and blackfish, but is not allowed to sell them all.

Gibson said the limits are primarily due to the 1995 federal fisheries act. Rhode Island required comprehensive license renewals in an attempt to avoid overfishing, and the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2007 set scientific catch limits, although there are ongoing debates about the science used to determine the regulations.

“You can’t put your goalposts there,” Ingram said. “We need to figure out how many fishermen can this fishery support and get to that number. That’s the new normal. Getting there is not easy.”

Ingram, 57, says he loves what he does, but doesn’t know how long he can keep doing it. As he gets older, Ingram hoped he could come back north into the bay, where the fishing is easier. Now he doesn’t see that happening.

“I want to see a healthy fishery,” Ingram said. “I want to be able to sell my business when I retire.”

While fishing is trending downward, there has been a rebirth in oyster farming in Rhode Island, according to Bob Rheault, executive director for the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. He says it’s resulted in new jobs. However, there is a challenge.

The industry is becoming the victim of vibrio bacteria, which occurs naturally, proliferates in warmer water, and can cause illness in people. Rheault said the oyster industry has worked to solve the problem with stringent handling regulations. Oysters now have to be put on ice or refrigerated within two hours of harvest. The challenge is to make sure that everyone in the industry, including recreational harvesters, is aware of the procedures.

Climate change also creates challenges for the shellfish industry, Rheault said. With the warming water, mid-Atlantic diseases are working their way up the coast. Sea-level rise will impact the oyster growing infrastructure, he said, and new predators are coming into the bay, including rays and blue crabs.

Another person who is keeping a close eye on the shellfish industry is Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar. He farms his own coastal oyster pond to supply his restaurant. Raso uses local fish as much as possible; depending on the season, the restaurant has offered flounder, fluke, steamers and lobsters from local waters, with much of it being caught offshore. Raso said there has been a degradation of the bay over time, although the water quality is slowly improving.

While he has also served skate, scup and hake, Raso said those fish are a harder sell to his customers.

“The decisions I make are business decisions,” Raso said. “I can’t base them on what’s good for the environment. It’s going to come down to consumer education, and the price will increase with demand.”

With fishermen getting less than $1 a pound for seafood that is selling on a wholesale basis for $15 a pound, Raso stressed the importance of getting people to eat some of these “lesser” species.

While Raso is looking at seafood from a business standpoint, Sarah Schumann wants people to eat seafood with an emphasis on the environment. She is the president and founder of Eating with the Ecosystem. The organization’s mission is to design a place-based approach to sustainable seafood.

“What do we need to do to protect the ecosystem?” she asked. “What can we do to make our choices match up to the ecosystem?”

The answer, she said, is to diversify eating choices so that there isn’t demand for fishermen to catch what’s not there. Schumann said people should eat in sync with what’s available in local waters.

The group has spread its message with cooking workshops at churches and community centers. She said that consumers should inquire local restaurants and markets about abundant species that are not available.

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