How did this winter's record-setting cold and snow has affect the ocean? WGBH News science editor Heather Goldstone told Morning Edition host Bob Seay some rather strange things are happening.
Seay: How did all the ice and stormy weather affect fishermen?
Goldstone: Recreational fishermen may notice that trout stocking — stocking of ponds, rivers with trout — has been delayed. Normally happens in early March and is just beginning to happen now.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife is also warning that we could see fish kills in some ponds — thick ice cover, plus snow on top, blocking light to the algae (microscopic plants) whose growth would keep oxygen levels high enough in the water under the ice. No sunlight, no algal growth, no oxygen equals dead fish, which we may see washing up on shores as ice dissipates.
On the commercial fishery front, we don't have any firm economic numbers yet, but there was definitely a slowdown due to both sea ice and stormy weather. Some fishermen basically tied up their boat in mid-to-late February and figured they wouldn't be back on the water until April. Very few people are getting rich on fishing in New England these days, so that can hurt.
Seay: Heather, you mentioned on Monday that this winter might affect oyster growers. What about that?
First, a lot of growers who left gear, say plastic frames, in the water for the winter have sustained physical damage from the ice — crushing, breaking, scraping, being pulled out.
John LeBeaux, commissioner of the Deptartment of Agricultural Resources, says that's unusual and costly.
Another issue is getting a late start on the growing season — growing shellfish a lot like growing vegetables. Baby oysters and clams called seed. Just like you'd bring a fig tree inside for the winter.
Most growers pull their oysters out of the water for the winter, put them into cold storage — cellars, or pits — for the winter. The oysters basically go dormant. In a normal year, they'd be putting those oysters back in the water to start eating and growing in March, maybe even late February.
A lot of growers putting gear and shellfish back in the water just in the past couple of weeks, so that's a very late start — lost revenues during these early months and maybe a reduced harvest.
Seay: There were reports a couple of weeks ago about a large number of seals stranded on the beach in New Jersey. Have we seen anything similar here?
Goldstone: Forty stranded seals in the last week or so of March more animals showing up but not necessarily sick or injured, just trapped by all the sea ice cover.
The sea ice story appears to have played out differently here.
A common dolphin got trapped in the sea ice and required a rather dramatic rescue.
Brian Sharp, stranding coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare told me stranding numbers for both seals and dolphins have been well below average, although that's pretty typical for a harsh winter with lots of sea ice.
The thinking is that the ice prevents the animals from getting into the nearshore areas where they strand.
With the colder temperatures here, those animals that are on the edge of their habitat might be going farther south.
December to April is peak stranding season, may see a bigger influx now that the ice has cleared.
We've already seen a bit of an uptick, with two live porpoises stranded in one week.
Seay: What about the larger whales? There are usually lots of right whales in Cape Cod Bay this time of year. Have they been affected?
Goldstone: Really interesting story there. Right whales used to show up in Cape Cod Bay in early spring — important midwinter/early spring feeding ground for this endangered species. In the past few years, we've seen them showing up as early as November or December, possibly because of climate change, changes in water temperatures, ocean circulation, the availability of food.
Stormy Mayo heads up right whale monitoring at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. They've been tracking right whales since the mid-1990s, and Mayo says this year has been bizarre.
Seay: Where did they go?
Goldstone: Again, they may be hanging out just to our south.
There are higher than normal numbers of right whales south of Cape Cod and the Islands, and in Rhode Island Sound.
Stormy Mayo doesn't think water temperatures are driving this, at least not directly.
The ocean is a big, complicated system — cold near-shore waters, but waters off-shore much, much warmer than usual.
These right whales are large animals that can cover an enormous amount of territory and Mayo says they may be integrating different types of information on a scale that we would have a hard time piecing together.
His hunch is it's food that's driving things.
Mayo says there's no doubt in his mind that the weather of the past few months is the reason for the right whales' unusual behavior this winter, even if he doesn't know exactly how. That may be frustrating for some of us. But he told me that, as a scientist, it's those hard questions that excite him and keep him going. So he's kind of enjoying this.