NEWBURYPORT — Last summer, local fishermen were surprised to catch bonita fish and black sea bass off the local coast, neither of which normally venture farther north than Cape Cod. The news made local headlines.
But that may not be so unusual in the future. Yesterday, wildlife experts from northern New England reported that warming temperatures have resulted in a variety of dramatic phenomenon in our region — ranging from tropical seahorses found in the Gulf of Maine to moose dying from severe infestations of ticks.
They expect the changes to become more dramatic in future years, and said major shifts are under way in ocean waters that will have a substantial impact on local fisheries and wildlife.
“No doubt we’ve seen some very important changes to the ecological system from climate change,” said Rick Wahle, a research associate professor from the University of Maine. “How it will all play out ... is still a big question.”
The presentation was made by the Natural Wildlife Resources Council of Maine and the National Wildlife Federation to highlight a report the federation released last week on a national study that found a wide variety of climate-related impacts on land animals and sealife in the United States.
One of the harbingers of change has been the lobster industry, which Wahle called a kind of “canary in a coal mine.”
Maine fishermen have set record harvests over the past few years, perhaps due in part to higher water temperatures and fewer groundfish, which prey on young lobsters. Fishermen off Newburyport have also reported good harvests, with last year being among the best.
Meanwhile, in southern New England, it’s an entirely different story. Mass lobster kill-offs in Long Island Sound have been caused by warming waters, Wahle said, while a disease that infects lobster shells has been spreading northward through the sound and into Massachusetts waters.
“(The disease) seems to have stalled out just south of Cape Ann,” Wahle said.
If the disease spreads farther north, it could have a devastating impact on northern New England’s lobster fisheries, Wahle said.
Rising sea temperatures have also brought a variety of warm-water fish to New England’s waters. Wahle said seahorses, snowy groupers and even a triggerfish — a colorful tropical fish that would look at home in an exotic fish tank — have been found in New England waters.
New Hampshire wildlife biologist Eric Orff noted the changes are not just affecting the sea. He said New Hampshire’s moose population has been devastated in recent years by ticks. Orff said ticks are surviving better in the recent relatively mild winters. Thousands of ticks have been swarming onto moose.
“When up to 150,000 ticks are on a moose, it virtually kills them,” he said. The moose population in New Hampshire has dropped by about 40 percent since 2005, and the cause of death for many has been ticks, he said.
Orff said black bears in New Hampshire have also changed their habits, due to a warmer environment. They have become “insomniac bears,” hibernating less and becoming more active in the winter. A lack of food, due to hot and dry temperatures in the summer, has drawn bears to alternate food sources such as birdfeeders, he said.
“Clearly, there is something new going on with bears that is new over the past few decades,” he said.
The report recommended four steps be taken to reduce global warming — cut carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030; increase usage of renewable energy such as energy like offshore wind, solar power and next-generation biofuels; safeguard wildlife and their habitats; and help communities prepare for impacts such as rising sea levels, more extreme weather and more severe droughts.