As temperatures rise, Maryland is witnessing the arrival of different animal species, signaling a changing ecosystem influenced by climate change. A recent incident in the Chesapeake Bay highlights this shift, with a Salisbury man pulling in the largest recorded Florida pompano in the state, pointing to the impact of warming waters.
The Florida pompano is just one example of various fish and bird species appearing more frequently in Maryland, a trend attributed to climate change. While these newcomers may enhance biodiversity and spark excitement among residents and fishermen, scientists caution that they also serve as indicators of a transforming ecosystem.
Gwen Brewer, a science program manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Heritage Service, notes that these shifts in distribution are signs of changing environmental conditions. However, not all species may adapt positively to these changes, posing threats to some.
The increase in warm-water fish like pompano, Atlantic cutlassfish, cobia, and others is noticeable in Maryland waters. Common species such as black sea bass and summer flounder are shifting northward, and a pilot program allows watermen to trawl for shrimp off Ocean City for the first time this fall.
Erik Zlokovitz, DNR’s recreational fisheries coordinator, acknowledges the changes, stating that the Bay seems to be transforming into something more akin to the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina.
Jim Uphoff, a DNR fisheries biologist, suggests that weather patterns and warming temperatures contribute to shifts in fish populations. Data shows that Maryland’s air temperatures have risen by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th century, and monitoring stations across the Chesapeake Bay indicate a consistent temperature increase since the mid-1980s.
While the influx of warm-water fish may not significantly disrupt the local food chain, concerns arise about the potential impact on native fish. Warming waters, coupled with other conditions like dry and hot winters, could adversely affect the spawning success of native species like striped bass, white perch, shad, and herring.
The decline of striped bass in the Bay since 2019 is partially attributed to hotter waters, limiting viable areas for rockfish. Warmer water holds less oxygen, creating areas where striped bass cannot survive.
In freshwater systems, rising temperatures constrain habitable zones for native fish like brook trout. Dan Goetz, manager of statewide operations for DNR’s freshwater fisheries, notes that brook trout, restricted to the coldest parts of the stream, face challenges if temperatures exceed their thermal limit.
On the terrestrial side, warming climates impact bird species. Changes in breeding patterns and the arrival of birds not traditionally found in the state are linked to climate change. Sea-level rise also contributes to habitat loss for breeding birds, exemplified by the absence of black skimmers breeding in the state last year due to lost nesting grounds.
Climate change brings additional challenges, such as the spread of diseases carried by mosquitoes in hotter temperatures. West Nile virus, for instance, contributes to the decline of the ruffed grouse, while avian flu may further spread, posing threats to birds globally.
While tackling global temperature increases may be challenging at the state level, scientists emphasize mitigation and adaptation efforts to create better conditions for native species. Maryland’s initiatives include planting over five million trees for cooling canopies and carbon sequestration. Environmental programs assess land use projects, and habitat restoration projects aim to build back healthier ecosystems.
Despite the challenges posed by climate change, efforts to mitigate other stressors and enhance conditions for existing species are crucial. Brewer emphasizes focusing on what can be done to improve the situation for species persisting in the face of changing conditions, rather than resigning to inaction.
As Maryland grapples with the impacts of climate change, ongoing efforts aim to strike a balance between adapting to these changes and preserving the state’s diverse wildlife.