Living Marine Resources Institute
The decade of the 70s was a pivotal one for fishermen in New York and throughout the mid-Atlantic region. In 1976, the United States extended its jurisdiction over marine fisheries resources to 200 miles from the shore, prompting a precipitous decline in foreign fishing in these waters and a corresponding expansion of domestic offshore fisheries in the last several years of the decade.
Through the mid-1970s, New York State regularly led the nation in the production of hard clams. As a result of the banner year class of 1970 (fish born in that year), coastal stocks of striped bass were at record levels of abundance through the early and middle part of the decade. Technological advances in navigation; larger, refrigerated catch holding capacity; and fish location equipment enabled commercial fisheries and the fast-developing recreational fisheries to find and catch fish more efficiently.
Expanding Fishing in a Shrinking Fishery
By the mid-1980s, this expansive scenario had changed greatly. The explosive growth of domestic trawl fisheries following the extension of U.S. fisheries jurisdiction to 200 miles from the coast had created an over-sized, more efficient fleet that was harvesting traditional resource species. The enlarged fleet exceeded the sustainable harvest, severely depleting stocks of many species.
In a different fishery, but one reaching a similar endpoint, other factors were at play. Hard clamming in the bays was relatively easy to do, relying on inexpensive equipment and close access to land. Today, the hard clam fishery of Long Island has become a shadow of its former self, the victim of overharvesting and poor reproductive success in such important clamming areas as Great South Bay.
Coastal species are easily exploited because of their proximity to land, but they are also, because of this proximity, easily affected adversely by human influences that cause changes in the coastal environment. The coastal migratory stock of striped bass had fallen to very low levels of abundance because of poor reproductive success in Chesapeake Bay, the species’ main spawning area. Perhaps this was a result of coastal changes, but perhaps also made worse by overharvesting throughout its range.
The “Brown Tide”
In 1985 bays on eastern Long Island were first afflicted with a mysterious, devastating alga bloom, the “brown tide,” which nearly wiped out the important bay scallop resource in these waters. In many areas of the coast, water quality and habitat degradation posed grave threats to the vitality of fishery resources. For fishermen, resource managers, and fishery scientists alike, the bountiful days of fisheries of the mid-1970’s had become a bittersweet and fast receding memory. A sense of crisis and urgency pervaded fisheries resource management.
Some Management Successes
In the decade of LlMRl’s existence, fisheries have experienced some reversal in fortune. While the causes of the “brown tide” remain unknown, the bay scallop has made a limited comeback in Long Island’s eastern bays, a reflection of the subsidence of the “brown tide” and the combined effects of juvenile scallop transplant programs and reproduction of remnant wild populations east of Shelter Island.
Stringent limits on the harvest of striped bass, first imposed in 1986, have begun to restore this species to its former abundance. Under the joint auspices of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, management of these multi-jurisdictional fishery resource species important to New York has become regionalized and better founded in scientific information. Coastal water quality in many parts of the region also has improved since the mid-1980s, particularly in those areas that have historically been most degraded.
The above notwithstanding, serious and ominous problems remain. Offshore trawl and other commercial fisheries remain capable of harvesting well beyond what the target species can sustain. Fishermen are facing severe economic hardships as management plans aimed at rebuilding depleted stocks force boats to remain at the dock. Marine recreational fisheries, too, are increasingly under catch restrictions, producing economic hardship in the many service and support industries associated with angling.
The hard clam fishery, once Long Island’s premier commercial fishery, collapsed in the late 1970s and has not rebounded appreciably since that time, despite the best efforts of managers and scientists. The fishery presently supports less than 20 percent of the number of commercial clammers in the 1970s.
Aquaculture, hailed a decade ago as a “growth industry,” has not grown in New York, and in that time, the number of firms growing marine species has actually declined. We still have only the most rudimentary understanding of the dependency of fishery resources on specific coastal and estuarine habitats and how changes in those habitats affect their functionality.
Research to Protect the Resource
Concerned with the future of New York’s fishery resources, in 1985 the State Legislature established LIMRI, the Living Marine Resources Institute, within MSRC to enhance the Center’s expertise and capabilities in fisheries and aquaculture and to apply these capabilities more directly to priority fishery issues.
From its inception, LIMRI has developed a balanced program of fundamental and applied research. This research has focused on several key areas: interaction of the biology of finfish during early life history stages (larval and post-larval) with physical transport (currents and eddies) in the nearshore waters of the mid-Atlantic coast; causes, nature, and effects of noxious marine algal blooms (especially the “brown tide”); the population biology of commercial shellfish species (Mercenaria mercenaria, Spisula solidissima Mya arenaria); environmental factors affecting shellfish resource productivity; determinants of larval recruitment success in commercial finfish and crustaceans (lobsters and crabs); catastrophic mortalities of young cultured oysters; and effects of coastal development on nearshore fishery habitat.
Participants in Better Management
The region’s fisheries are complex and multifaceted; so too are the issues that confront and confound them. Improved scientific and technical understanding are clearly required to resolve many of these problems satisfactorily, yet more and better information alone is often not sufficient. The overriding challenge is to identify those issues and problems where LIMRI can make a difference and to target the limited resources available to these priority tasks.
LIMRI scientists and staff are active participants in the interactive management process that governs the region’s fisheries, sitting on a wide variety of boards, councils, committees, and commissions that deal with the condition of fishery resources and the habitats they occupy and rely upon. Through the office of the LIMRI Director, the Institute works directly with regional and state fishery managers, and the State Legislature, to forge strategies and policies that benefit from the best available resource based scientific information and that respond as well to socio-economic considerations, part and parcel of present-day fishery and environmental management.
Supporting Research Facilities
Along with its research and policy activities, LlMRl’s mission includes the development of SoMAS scientific infrastructure, particularly that fraction dedicated or applicable to studies in fisheries and aquaculture. LIMRI has purchased diverse scientific equipment for use in various investigators’ labs and research, including a sophisticated computer-based image analysis system, state-of-the-art fisheries research trawl and other nets, and components for the precise sectioning and microscopic examination of mollusk shells to aid in shellfish growth studies.
A key resource for SoMAS fisheries and aquaculture studies is the Flax Pond Marine Laboratory, which has undergone a number of LlMRI-sponsored improvements to its scientific facilities and equipment in the past decade. Through LIMRI, the Center has recently received a large facilities improvement grant for the laboratory from the National Science Foundation. These funds are being used to renovate and improve the lab’s seawater supply system.
A Decade of Progress
Over the past decade, LIMRI has emerged as a leader in the involvement of SoMAS with key environmental issues affecting Long Island and the region. The Institute’s research on the brown tide, its continuing interaction with organizations attempting to revive a depressed inshore shellfishery, the close working relationship that has been established with fishery managers and the fishery management process-these are the hallmarks of a program that effectively bridges the gap between the University and the community of which it is a part. Across this bridge, information and ideas have flowed-and will continue to flow-that help sustain the region’s fishery resources and the economically important activities these resources support.