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Dec 17, 2018 11:09 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Changes In Water Temps And Fish Populations

Dec 17, 2018 4:41 PM

A surprising fact that I learned from swimming at the East Hampton YMCA is that our sensitivity to water temperature is quite acute, with swimmers able to detect shifts in water temperature as small as two degrees. The lap pool temperature is usually kept at 81°F. If it drops to 79°, the number of complaints about it being too cold soars, and if it’s 83°, those doing a hard workout feel like they are suffocating. Small children are most susceptible to getting cold and some with very little body fat will begin shivering even after a short swim lesson in the 80° lap pool.We also have very narrow ideal temperature thresholds for hot showers and hot tubs, yet we can tolerate a wide range of temperatures for each, including swimming, and with time we can make amazing adaptations to greatly widen those ranges. An example of the latter is the East Hampton Chill Squad’s swimming year round in the bay and ocean with no wetsuits.

Some aquatic species are like us, displaying generally wide tolerances to water temperatures as adults, but having very narrow thresholds for certain critical life history events such as spawning and juvenile development.

The ocean waters off the northeast coast of the U.S., including Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine, are warming much faster than the global warming rate. The Gulf of Maine’s warming rate has been seven times higher than the global average over the past 15 years.

Long Island Sound’s average bottom temperature has risen 2.8°F since 1978. Researchers have documented increased mortality among male and juvenile lobsters from a bacterial infection on the shell surface called epizootic shell disease. In slightly warmer water, the spring molt among males and juveniles takes place earlier in the spring giving the bacteria a longer period of time to eventually consume the lobster’s protective cuticle.

As the warming rate continues, there is concern that the pattern found recently in Long Island Sound will also occur in the Gulf of Maine, the center of the U.S. lobster industry.

Stony Brook University fish ecologist Janet Nye has tracked water temperature and fish population changes over the last century. This was possible in part due to the wealth of data collected by the legendary fish biologists, Dr. Henry Bigelow and William Schroeder, authors of the classic work, “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine.” Nye’s research has documented cold-water species including cod, winter flounder and lobster being forced farther north out of New York and Massachusetts waters, including the famous curved spit of land named for the cod, as the waters here warmed just a few degrees.

She also tracked warmer-water species, notably blackfish or tautog, increasing their distribution northward and moving into this area in larger numbers. Blackfish feed heavily on very small (< 0.5 inch-long) blue mussels, but also feed on crabs and lobsters, and their increasing numbers in the Gulf of Maine are another of several concerns for the long-term survival of Maine’s lobster fishery.

It’s worth noting the importance of conducting basic ecological surveys, such as done by Bigelow and Schroeder, as a baseline to track longterm ecological changes. We need to be doing more of that.

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