Climate Change and its Effect on Our Coastal Ecosystem

Species like humpback and right whales are dying, and scientists are still trying to work out what can be done to save them.

Climate change and rapidly warming water mean a major impact on our coastal ecosystem.

The North Atlantic shelf, which includes our Connecticut shoreline and extends all the way up to the coastal waters of Canada, is warming faster 99 percent faster than our global oceans. Scientists are concerned for what the future holds.

“There’s a lot of concern about what climate change can do. The Gulf of Maine which is an incredibly productive body of water which includes Cape Cod and parts North is warming at an alarming rate. And it will be interesting to see how that changes the distribution of both the predator and prey,” said Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

In the case of great white sharks, climate change will likely affect the prey before the predator.

“The white shark is has the ability to warm its body temperature. It can penetrate cold water, it can stay in warm water. I don’t think the distribution of the white shark is going to be impacted directly by climate change. However it will be interesting to see what happens with the seals. Seals have a fur coat they have a thick blubber layer and I can see the seals perhaps shifting north which might of course draw the sharks with them,” Skomal said.

A migration has already begun for humpbacks whales, which used to be visible in large quantities from the Cape Cod shoreline.

“I think over the years those numbers have thinned out and they’ve moved,” said Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies. “Their movement patterns just like right whales have changed considerably as the food resources have changed the currents that bring in the food have changed and so the whales are moving into different locations.”

The whales aren’t just moving – they’re also dying.

“There have been lots of humpback whales found dead and it’s not clear why. We all suspect that underneath these unusual events with right whales and with humpbacks lies a signal a climate signal.”

The same changes hold true for the right whales, but the situation is much more dire. There are only estimated to be roughly 400 right whales left in existence.

Scientists are researching right whales in hopes of finding ways to save the species.

“ The situation right now is about as extreme as we’ve ever seen it. This whale is becoming one of the icons for the endangered species of all size animals across the world because the right well now is clinging to existence,” Mayo said.

The species is experiencing a high mortality rate in conjunction with a low calving rate. For perspective, seven calves were born earlier this spring, and so far this summer, four right whales have been found dead. The high mortality is being traced back to humans - whales are becoming entangled in fishing gear and run over by ships. But the low calving rate is a bit of a mystery.

“One suspects as is usually the case that there are dysfunctions in the ecosystem. Potentially changes and food may be due to climate change, potentially females carrying diseases there is a thought that there may be some genetic dysfunction because of such a small population but we can’t say for sure why there are so few calves,” Mayo said.

With roughly 100 reproductively mature females in existence, researchers would expect to see anywhere from 20 to 30 calves born each year. And while seven this past spring was incredibly low, it was an improvement from last year when no new calves were born, and the year prior to that with only five calves.

“Those numbers are too low. It’s great to have calves but the numbers are too low so there’s a frustration that we don’t understand or the public does not understand that this is not good. At seven it’s better than zero but it’s not good.”

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