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  • Taylor Davis

Marine Species Migration in the Gulf of Maine

The Gulf of Maine is very well known for its lobster industry, but how much longer will this important commerce, as well as many others, be available? The drastic effects of climate change have caused marine species to begin migrating at an alarming rate. As U.S. waters warm, it is forecast that many fish species will migrate hundreds of miles northward. With the Gulf of Maine being one of the fastest warming ocean areas in the world,[1] it is expected that by 2100 mainstays of the fishing industry, including cod, will be well out of reach for U.S. fisherman. [1] A study by Malin Pinsky, researcher at Rutgers University, has shown that 686 North American fish species are forecast to have a much larger migration, in search of colder water temperatures, than expected.[1] So, what does this mean for these affected species, as well as the Gulf’s vitally important fishing industry?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently become aware of how climate change is going to drastically change the future of Maine’s wildlife. Bob Houston, a biologist and a GIS specialist in the Gulf of Maine Program identifies 168 species of plants, fish, birds, and other wildlife in Maine that could experience wide range shifts in population.[4] Even though climate change is affecting all species across the globe, ocean species are migrating ten times faster than land species. This is due to the oceans taking in the excess heat from the land.[4] Climate change has warmed the oceans of the globe to the point where native fish species have been forced to migrate north from their now uninhabitable environments. They have been found migrating northward in the search of colder ocean temperatures. According to Nick Bradford, researcher at the National Environmental Education Foundation,[6] “more than 80% of the earth’s marine life is migrating to different places and changing their breeding and feeding patterns due to warming waters.” Not all species have been found to be migrating at the same time, however, which causes a disruptive shift in the foodweb.

Although finding colder waters is the main cause of mass migration, it is not the only cause; some species base their migration patterns around their prey.[6] When these patterns are disrupted, predator-prey relationships are altered, mass strandings are increased, starvation is increased, and poor reproductive success is increased. In the Gulf of Maine, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) prey on a specific species of zooplankton, when they first hatch; however, higher sea surface temperatures have caused a massive shift of zooplankton to cooler waters. Lower reproductive success has been found among the populations of Atlantic cod where the zooplankton has already shifted, this will make it very difficult for the Gulf of Maine cod industry to continue in the future.[6]

Modified from original graphs by Pershing et al., 2015

As waters warm, they become less hospitable to the cold-loving species such as cod and other groundfish that were the backbone of the coastal New England economy for hundreds of years,” NOAA research suggests that there will be an abundant decline in groundfish in the upcoming decade.[5] Commercial fishing is one of Maine’s largest industries, with Maine fisherman bringing in nearly $570 million worth of seafood in 2017. Of that, $434 million was contributed by the lobster industry, which landings had fallen 15% from 2016.[5] Although there is a decline in lobster, the soft-shell clam industry is at particular risk with the spread of the invasive green crab species (Carcinus maenas). The green crab has been in Maine for over a century but has only started to become an issue with warming waters causing them to be able to multiply at an immense rate.[5] These crabs are found to be the largest predator to clams. In 2017, Maine reported their smallest commercial clam harvest since 1930.[5] With cod looking to decline 90% by 2100, lobster population looking to shift another 200 miles north to Canadian waters, Atlantic sea scallops looking to shift 430 miles north, and clams already declining, it is no doubt that the Gulf of Maine’s fishing industry will go at a rapid decline unless they are able to adapt to current and future situations. With current species migrating out of the Gulf of Maine, and new species migrating into the Gulf, fisheries will have to adapt if they want to continue in the future.

It is hard to showcase an exact solution as to how this problem can be fixed. Some responses are looking to address mitigation, while others are looking to implement adaptation strategies. Both are able to be used effectively, but there is still the question of how they would be used. Some scientists are asking “how can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow and eventually reverse climate change?”[2], while others say that “due to the delayed effect of greenhouse gases on climate change, the planet will be subject to several decades of warming—and would be even if all greenhouse gas emissions were eliminated today.”[2]

Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard, Daniel Schrag, emphasizes that “no one knows exactly what is going to happen [as marine waters warm]. [He] wants to make it clear that there will be surprises.”[2] This will make it incredibly hard for scientists to setup long-term, or short-term, plans that will eliminate the effects of climate change on marine waters. Ellen Douglas, Assistant Professor of Hydrology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, insists that mitigation and adaptation strategies need be put in place as soon as possible so we can change any further impacts that may happen within the next fifty years. Scott Doney, a marine chemist at University of Virginia, believes that it is not so much the change that is affecting the marine ecosystems, more that it is the rate of change that species are not able to keep up with. Doney states that “the rate of change we are experiencing is 100 to 1000 times faster than geologic change and threatens to outstrip evolution,” which is nature's own means for adapting.[2]

Several scientists have reiterated the fact that an approach of any kind is surely needed for this issue to be solved. Some regions, however, have already started to set up plans to help solve this issue. In 2009, Nova Scotia released their Energy and Climate Change Action Plan. This plan calls for a cap on emissions, increased renewable energy, and improvements in energy efficiency.[2] Natural Resources Canada has stressed the “importance of adaptation to climate change in Atlantic Canada.” Storm Smart Coasts, a program of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, helps communities prepare for and protect themselves from coastal storms and flooding. This is a new method of approach emphasized by Gary Yohe, Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University. This method allows for the people of a region to assess the probability of climate change impacts as well as the consequences that will occur with them. Finally, in December 2010 the U.S. Gulf of Maine Habitat Restoration and Conservation Plan was put into place, it is a needs assessment for Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.This plan has set up five main goals that characterize the critical problems affecting fish and wildlife and visions for habitat restoration: protect and restore fish and wildlife habitats and populations; provide clean, healthy coastal waters; provide science, planning, and communication required for regional ocean management, marine spatial planning, and ecosystem-based management; promote resilience to climate change; prevent and detect invasive species and restore affected habitats.[8] It is not easy to tell what methods should be and can be used for this stressed issue, however, scientists are working hard to come up with new risk management plans to put in place.

Many more plans that include adaptation, as well as mitigation, need to be put into place as soon as possible; this is the only way to figure out what will work best for the future of this problem. Putting these plans in place will help promote resilience to climate change, provide clean coastal waters, and restore fish and wildlife habitats.[8] Not only will these plans promote clean, healthy environments but they will help communities adapt and restore the Gulf of Maine’s valuable marine service industries.


"Are We Farming Lobster in the Gulf of Maine?" 20 Aug. 2014. 18 Jan. 2019


"Atlantic cod: Decline mirrors warming sea." The Why Files. 22 Jan. 2016. 18 Jan. 2019


1 Berwyn, Bob, et al. “Fish Species Forecast to Migrate Hundreds of Miles Northward as U.S. Waters Warm.” InsideClimate News, InsideClimate News, 22 May 2018, cific-northwest-alaska-atlantic-gulf-maine-cod-pollock

2 “Climate Change and the Gulf of Maine.” Benefits of Restoration | Habitat Restoration Program Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, 30 June 2009,

3 Goldfarb, Ben. “Feeling the Heat: How Fish Are Migrating from Warming Waters.” Yale E360, 15 June 2017, ers

4 Houston, Bob. “Climate Change and the Future of Maine's Wildlife.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, 17 Mar. 2014, nes-wildlife/

5 Kevin Miller. “Climate Change to Have Drastic Effects on Gulf of Maine Lobster and Clam Fisheries, Studies Say.” Press Herald, 23 May 2018,


6 “Marine Species on the Move.” NEEF,

7 Press, Patrick Whittle Associated. “Climate Change Threatens to Sink Gulf of Maine Fishing Industry.” Press Herald, 28 June 2016,

8 U.S. Gulf of Maine Habitat Restoration and Conservation Plan: A Needs Assessment for Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Dec. 2010,


Taylor Davis graduated from Kennebunk High School this June. Taylor’s interests include playing tennis, going hiking, kayaking and swimming. She is attending Thomas College, Waterville, Maine, where she is majoring in business management and entrepreneurship.

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