A View from the Wheel House – Changing Tide

- By Captain Fred Channell. April 25, 2019
Fred Channell about to deploy a MARU in the Maryland WEA.Captain Fred Channell deploying a Marine Autonomous Recording Unit (MARU).

This is not a scientific paper with theories, graphs, peer-reviews, and conclusions. This is a set of observations that some of my colleagues and I have experienced in recent past. I’m not going to use the term you might be expecting because I want you to come to your own conclusions. I am not a climatologist, meteorologist, or geophysicist. I have no special scientific knowledge concerning the physics or mechanics of our climate.

What I am, however, is a marine biologist and lifelong mariner with half a century of firsthand observations of the North Atlantic and the adjacent coastal front of North America: its weather, its fisheries, and its economy.

While I believe that the science behind climate change is settled, that’s not what I want to talk about here. I am here to discuss observable changes that have already taken place in the weather patterns at sea and how these changes impact marine life and us directly.

To be absolutely clear: something very strange is occurring — and it is concerning.

In my current role as captain of the R/V Jaeger, working offshore along the entire East coast of North America, and in my former profession as commercial fisherman along the coast of New England, being able to accurately predict the weather is a matter of life and livelihood.

After a long deployment, each MARU becomes a virtual “time-machine” that tells the acoustic stories of its surroundings from the recent past.

Traditionally, there was a level of predictability in the seasonal weather cycle. Spring and Fall would be somewhat unsettled, with periods of calm; Summer and Winter would have long periods of settled weather with interspersed storms. While this is a generalization, you could count on a period of relative calm after a winter or summer storm with some level of certainty. Being able to plan on these periods is what would make commercial fishing or our research field work possible to accomplish. We might not be able to predict which week in January we might be able to get offshore to a research site, but we could be fairly certain that in any month there would be a week with acceptable conditions.

In the past decade, this pattern has begun to dissolve to the point that for the past several years we have had back-to-back winter storms spaced closely enough to be nearly continuous.

Captain Fred at his “office.”

Summer, with its well-studied hurricane season, has been similarly affected. The back-to-back hurricanes in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico of the past several seasons, the recent series of huge hurricanes (covering large geographic area) along the Eastern Seaboard, and rather rare late-season hurricanes (even reaching Europe) have been anomalies that are becoming less rare and closer to the new normal.

R/V Jaeger at North Carolina coast waiting for her next trip down the Intracoastal Waterway (IWC).

Similarly, the Mediterranean has recently experienced a winter season of unprecedentedly large and numerous storms that have been dubbed “Medicanes.” The Pacific has had several years of increased number of Typhoons with increased size and intensity, recently capped with the largest and strongest storm ever observed. Right now, we are anxiously watching the development of a nearly unheard of South Atlantic hurricane.

While none of these factors individually reach the level of tabloid Doom and Disaster headlines, they have proven to be incredibly disastrous for many individuals and local economies, as well as a major drain on the world economy as a whole. The fact that they are becoming less newsworthy is itself testament to “new normal.”

The trend is clear: weather patterns are becoming more energetic and less predictable. However, it is important to remember that “weather” is not “climate” and individual events often cannot be directly tied to a specific climatic factor. The question is, how many individual events does it take to establish a trend, a pattern, and a problem?

Let’s look at a few of these events and changes that I have either personally observed or have had first-hand reports from persons who’ve directly observed similar phenomena. The American Lobster or “Maine” Lobster (Homarus americanus) is a flagship fishery species responsible for a significant portion of several state’s economies, and is individually responsible for historic wealth and tradition of a great number of families in the Northeast. Traditionally, its commercially viable range stretched from Maritime Canada to central New Jersey and further south.

Synchronizing the recording units in Virginia before deployment.

Over the past two decades, the southern reaches of this range have seen steadily reduced catch, both in quantity and quality. Frequently, this collapse is preceded by the increasing occurrence of lobsters being landed with what has been termed “shell disease.” There is some discussion that this disease is concurrent with warmer ocean temperatures and that it might be responsible for the species range moving north (see reports from NOAA; NY Daily News; Virginia Institute of Marine Science).

A very similar event has been occurring further south. Occurrence of Black Gill Disease affecting the shrimp fisheries in Florida and Georgia are examples of a changing trend. Black Gill Disease is associated with various parasites, bacteria, and fungus that infects the gills of the shrimp stressing and sometimes killing them, as well as making the harvested shrimp less marketable (more information on Black Gill disease can be found at the Huffington Post, The Savannah Morning News, and the Florida Times-Union).

Concurrent with the shrimp fishery in the Southern states becoming more sparse, shrimp have been showing up in Virginia to the degree that the state has begun issuing experimental shrimp harvesting licenses. There has never—yet—been a shrimp fishery in Virginia (learn more about this on the Virginian Post and the Chesapeake Bay Magazine).

The shrimp situation is a good example of how, as the ocean warms, species adjust their range to accommodate those changing conditions.It’s tempting to look at an event such as this and think, “Well, from an economic aspect, some will lose and others win—it’s a trade-off.” We’ve seen that to some extent in the New England lobster fishery. The problem is that the gains are short-lived but the losses are long-term or permanent. While one species may move in response to warming water, it is likely dependent upon other species that may not be able to move their range as easily or may respond to the changes in a different manner. An entire species may move for environmental reasons, creating the appearance of abundance, only to collapse in a short number of years as it finds that its new “home” does not support the food base that it is dependent upon.

Another example of this apparent movement of species are Billfishing Tournaments that have had to schedule their times earlier or later in the season, or farther north. This is a common topic of conversation at many of the marinas that we visit during our travels on the R/V Jaeger.

What does this all mean? I will leave the conclusions to you. These are simply my observations of events in my corner of the world. Persons living in the Great Plains, the Gulf Coast, the Desert Southwest, or above the Arctic Circle are going to have their own set of observations. Compare your own observations with mine and those of the people you know—and be informed.

Captain Fred Channell

R/V Jaeger

Captain Fred Channell is an USCG Master Mariner and a Marine Biologist. In his previous career, Fred was a commercial fisherman with a lifetime experience on the water. Fred has been a staff member at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacousitcs Research Program for 11 years.