The continued warming of the Gulf of Maine is expected to pose additional threats to the region's commercially important species of seafood — and by extension to the fishing communities that harvest them, according to a new study.

The study, jointly compiled by researchers at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the Nature Conservancy, draws the link between the region's unprecedented warming and concerns about the ability of species to find new, sustainable habitats.

"These changes will directly affect fishing communities, as species now landed in those ports move out of range, and new species move in," said the authors of the study that appears in journal Progress in Oceanography.

The migration of a spectrum of species could create "economic, social and natural resource management challenges" throughout the region, according to the study.

"The projections indicate that as species shift from one management jurisdiction to another, or span state and federal jurisdictions, increased collaboration among management groups will be needed to set quotas and establish allocations," the researchers concluded. 

At the heart of the concern is the startling rate at which the Gulf of Maine is warming.

Previous research has shown the region's surface waters are warming faster than 99 percent of the Earth's oceans and the study's researchers project the region will continue to warm "two to three times faster than the global average through the end of this century."

The report's authors said the Gulf of Maine surface and bottom waters could rise as much as 6.6 degrees and 9 degrees, respectively, through the 21st century.

The study projects that species with the ability to shift northward may stand a better chance of locating a new suitable habitat within the region. The same, however, may not be true for species that have shifted to deeper water rather than move northward.

"Species concentrated in the Gulf of Maine, where species have shifted to deeper water rather than northward, may be more likely to experience a significant decline in suitable habitat and move out of the region altogether," said lead author Kristen Kleisner, a former science center staff and now lead scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The study said that the warming waters could benefit some species, while creating a series of complex problems for others.

"Key northern species including Acadian redfish, American plaice, Atlantic cod, haddock and thorny skate may lose thermal habitat, while spiny dogfish and American lobster may gain," researchers stated in their findings. "Projected warming in the Gulf of Maine may create beneficial conditions for American lobster populations, and they may continue to be accessible to fishing ports in the region."

And while species such as monkfish, sea scallops, witch flounder and white hake also may remain accessible to local fishing fleets, researchers say they could experience strong declines in habitat.

"Atlantic cod, which is at the southern end of its range, may find suitable thermal habitat off the shelf entirely or in more more northern waters in Canada," researchers concluded.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT