Understanding Impacts of Climate Change on Summer Flounder
Marine Fishery Resource Center - News
Researchers from SoMAS and other mid-Atlantic institutions to collaborate

Stony Brook, NY, May 8, 2014 - As part of a collaborative mid-Atlantic Sea Grant research team led by Dr. Malin Pinsky of Rutgers University, Dr. Janet Nye, Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), will study how climate variability in the Mid- Atlantic Bight region and summer flounder population dynamics relate to each other and how the commercial and recreational fisheries are responding to such changes. Any changes found in fishing effort or shifts in flounder distribution will help to inform stock assessments and fishery management as well as provide insight on how to evaluate fish stocks under new climate situations.

As an intern at New York Sea Grant, I was able to sit down with Dr. Janet Nye and interview her about a current research project titled, “Understanding the impacts of climate change on the distribution, population connectivity, and fisheries for summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) in the Mid-Atlantic.” Dr. Janet Nye is a quantitative fisheries ecologist who studies fish populations and coastal ecosystems through mathematical and statistical methods. Her current focus is on climate variability and its effects on North Atlantic fish and ecosystems, including the summer flounder fishery. Dr. Nye is also on the Marine Conservation and Policy Graduate Program Committee at SoMAS.

What sparked your interest for this study?
“I’m most interested in the climate change aspect of the project and understanding the effects of climate variability and change on fish populations.” Dr. Nye explains that summer flounder populations declined in the 1990s and have since recovered. Even though there were management efforts to control fishing pressure on the population, climate and environmental conditions were favorable for the summer flounder populations to recover as well. “Other fish species have not recovered despite lowering fishing mortality with management tools similar to those used in the summer flounder fishery,” which is a good indicator that climate is an importantfactor controlling population dynamics.

What is your background and how did this prepare you for this research?
Dr. Nye received her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, where she studied bioenergetics at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, MD. She explained that this physiological approach is helpful to analyze temperature, growth, and consumption of fish within ecosystems. She also has an understanding of climate models and has worked closely with climate scientists such as Michael Alexander of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Colorado. “I have worked with Mike to use climate model output to project the effects of climate change on fish which helps me understand how climate models work in such a way that I can convey how to appropriately use this information to biologists and ecologists.” She is currently working with climate scientists Hyemi Kim, a co-PI on this project, and Sultan Hameed, both of SoMAS.

Why is this study important?
“It is a real opportunity to look at one species that is important, recreationally, economically and ecologically in great detail.” Dr. Nye explains how this study is examines summer flounder population dynamics from many different angles. The summer flounder population models will incorporate the genetics of the summer flounder, as well take into account factors such as birth rates, death rates and fishing mortality.

Dr. Nye goes on to explain that there will be a bio-economic model that will take into account not only the biology of the fish, but the economics involved such as the decisions of fishermen and the price of their catch. It is an interdisciplinary approach to assess how to sustainably harvest the summer flounder species in a changing climate.

Who are the stakeholders? Who will benefit from this study?
Likely, the stakeholders most impacted are fishermen. “New York fishermen have reportedly seen more summer flounder recently” and would like “to see the percentage of the coastwide quota go up.” The quota in place is low and was last designated based on reported landings from one year in the 1980s. “The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is interested in asking for a reanalysis of this quota allocation” and this study will help inform this allocation for the summer flounder fisheries.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge in this research?
Dr. Nye explains that while the large scope of the project is a unique benefit of the project,  coordinating and working together may be a challenge. However, “we have planned periodic meetings where the scientists can go over their findings  which should keep the project on track--there are a lot of ‘moving parts’ in different places.” This refers to scientists from various mid-Atlantic states and the collaborating organizations:  New York Sea Grant, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Northeast Fisheries Science Center- NOAA, Sea Grant programs in New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Another challenge will be that the population modeling and bio-economic modeling will depend on other analyses first, such as the otolith microchemistry data and genetic data. “The population change and stock structure…will determine how modeling will work.” Otolith microchemistry is a common technique used to assess fish stocks by analyzing fish ear bones which reveal much about the species characteristics and region of origin.

What do you think is the greatest impact climate change will have on summer flounder populations?
“The greatest impact that climate change will have on flounder populations might be their ability to survive cold winter temperatures. Since summer flounder spawn in the fall, their larvae and juveniles are exposed to winter temperatures and this could be a key bottleneck for this species. If temperatures are cold, a lot of larvae and juveniles might die, but if winter temperatures warm, their larvae may do better. Higher survivorship of the larvae and juveniles in the winter could potentially cause the population to increase.” However Dr. Nye informed me that “larvae can stay at very low temperatures for several months and do just fine,” implying that they may be more resilient than originally expected.

How do you predict commercial and recreational fisheries will respond to climate change impacts on the flounder population?
Dr. Nye explains that fish may move north as a result of climate change and warming waters.  Some fishermen can “follow the fish,” but high fuel prices and longer time spent at sea make this strategy expensive. If their fishing license allows them, sometimes fishermen switch the species they target out of economic necessity.

What do you hope to gain from this study? What overall outcome are you hoping for?
Overall, the study should show how to incorporate climate aspects into models of fish population dynamics and stock assessments. “This will definitely be a case study that incorporates climate variability and climate change into a stock assessment type model.” 

— Barbara A. Branca

More Info: New York Sea Grant

New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York, is one of 33 university-based programs under the National Sea Grant College Program (NSGCP) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NSGCP engages this network of the nation’s top universities in conducting scientific research, education, training and extension projects designed to foster science-based decisions about the use and conservation of our aquatic resources. Through its statewide network of integrated services, NYSG has been promoting coastal vitality, environmental sustainability, and citizen awareness about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources since 1971.

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