The ecosystems in New England's seafood-shed
Learn more about each ecosystem, the species it contains, the people who make their livelihoods from it, and the impacts that are affecting its future:
New England's seafood-shed is the expanse of ocean and coast from which the region's fishing fleets obtain their catch. Just as a watershed includes all of the land that drains into the ocean through a particular river outlet, the seafood-shed of a particular port includes all of the ocean area in which fishing boats from that port work before returning to that port. Locavores accustomed to defining the term "local" in terrestrial terms often have a hard time grasping a notion of "local seafood" that includes seafood caught hundreds of miles away. However, in socioeconomic terms, seafood landed locally is local seafood, regardless of how far away it was caught; the dollars and cents produced by catching that seafood support local fishing families, and if consumed by local seafood lovers, the benefit of that seafood stays within the community. As a result, local seafood lovers need to care for their region's entire seafood-shed so that in continues to provide for their tables.
New England's seafood-shed includes everything from inshore estuaries and rocky shorelines to the offshore canyons and banks of the Atlantic Ocean. Although there are many different habitats within this area, ecologists group the ocean off New England into three main eco-regions: the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and Southern New England waters. Although there is no hard and fast boundary between these three zones, each one functions as an ecological unit, defined by habitat features (such as water temperature, currents, and bottom type) and characterized by assemblages of species woven together in semi-contained food webs. Each is a wild food production system and a supporter of fishing livelihoods. Each experiences its own set of stressors and changes, and ultimately, its own destiny. But in all cases, that destiny is linked to the way that people use them for food.
The Gulf of Maine is defined by cold water, rocky substrate, and a circular pattern of currents that keeps ocean life within its deepwater basin. It is a hotspot for animals that like cold water and hard bottoms: lobsters, crabs, kelps, and urchins. Georges Bank is very shallow despite being far from shore; its bottom is made of sand and gravel, and it is a hotspot for finfish and scallops. Southern New England is not as clearly demarcated as the other two; it shares many species with Georges Bank and the Mid-Atlantic Bight (the larger ecosystem it is part of), and is a migratory pathway, harboring a very different set of species in the summer than it does in the winter. It is this overlap that makes the Southern New England eco-region unique: it is a "faunal transition zone" where cold-water and warm-water species intermingle.
Understanding what makes each of these areas function as a system is key to preserving their ecological stability and ability to feed us. All three of these ecosystems are constantly changing, partly due to natural variations and partly due to human impacts. Fishing is one of these impacts, but not the only one: climate change, nutrient inputs, and invasive species are also redefining the character of each of these three ecosystems. It is up to fishermen and seafood lovers to assure that we do not overburden them with too many changes too fast, and that as they change, we maintain a relationship to them by deriving and celebrating nutritious seafood and applying informed and conscientious stewardship.
This map of New England's seafood shed summarizes how ecosystems are changing and how consumers can help perpetuate ties to them: