PORTLAND, Maine — The winter's warm air temperatures have helped drive up water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, in line with a continuing trend.
And experts say the warm waters could result in lobsters molting their shells earlier than usual — and ocean algae blooming ahead of schedule.
In the long run are questions around how rising ocean temperatures might affect the growth and reproduction cycles and distribution of fish and shellfish, whales, zooplankton and other marine life throughout the gulf.
Temperature affects all life processes, but it's too soon to say if changes brought on by rising water temperatures will be good or bad, said Jeffrey Runge, a biological oceanographer at the University of Maine and a researcher at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.
"Higher temperature means higher growth rates, but it also means they require more food in order to attain those higher growth rates," he said. "But whether there'll be more food around, I don't know."
Gulf of Maine water temperatures have been rising gradually since at least the 1870s, with ups and downs along the way. But the increase has been pronounced in the past decade or so, in the general range of 2 to 5 degrees depending on the ocean depth, Runge said.
The area is among New England's prime fishing grounds for boats out of Gloucester and other New England ports; it is also the area targeted by a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stock assessment that has shown a dramatic drop in Gulf of Maine cod, with federal Commerce officials and fishing industry leaders trying to sort out an interim limit for the coming fishing year, which begins May 1, and for 2013.
The temperature rise in recent years is similar to the 1950s, when the Gulf of Maine warmed up rapidly before falling later, Runge said Thursday in a phone interview from Spain, where he was attending a marine science meeting.