I recently asked a shellfish grower and a lobsterman how they are coping with all they are learning about climate change. We were walking to dinner, having just spent the day together hearing presentations from fishermen and scientists on how ocean warming and acidification would make it increasingly hard to continue making a living in their bay.

The lobsterman replied, “We’re adaptable, we’ll change our practices, we already are, we’re survivors.”

This calm optimism was challenged immediately by the shellfish grower: “We should be flipping cars over and lighting them on fire! We need to get off of fossil fuels. We need a carbon tax!”

That evening, we met up with a fisheries scientist and a fisheries manager. Climate change heckling among this rarified crowd ensued.

“I’m ordering the Black Sea Bass,” chided the lobsterman. The fisheries manger said, “You can’t, that can’t be on the menu—current regulations don’t address a Maine fishery.” The sunburned lobsterman smiled through swollen, cracked lips and replied, “You know we’re seeing more and more here. Watch me put ’em on the menu.”

The fisheries manager planned to order Maine shrimp. “You can’t get those anymore,” he said. The scientist chimed in, “2012 was the warmest on record in the Gulf of Maine, too warm for shrimp”¦ complexity”¦ climate velocity”¦ cyclical”¦ ecosystem”¦”

The lobsterman was pissed-off because he bought shrimp gear just three years back.

The scientist leaned in. She planned to order lobster at “market price.” The lobsterman was appreciative, but heading toward apoplectic. He was torn between wanting her to order the lobster, but restaurant pricing annoys the hell out of him, and the lobsters in his bay are far fewer than they used to be.

This mash-up of recent discussions reflects reality. Black Sea Bass are showing up in greater numbers, shrimp will become increasingly scarce as the ocean warms, and lobsters are heading Down East (the species is moving at roughly 14 miles per decade—see The Working Waterfront’s August Fathoming column). Many more changes are anticipated across our state’s fisheries.

Over the course of two days in early August, fishermen, scientists and managers from across the Northeast and beyond gathered at “A Climate of Change,” a symposium hosted by the Island Institute. Over 100 people met to share what they were learning from their research and personal experiences on the water.

The fragility of the Gulf of Maine was made clear by Dr. Bob Steneck of the University of Maine, who pointed out that there have historically been fewer than 100 species of fish in the Gulf of Maine, making it one of the least diverse fisheries in the world.

“In Pulau, you may have 1,600 species, but here in Maine we have less than 100.”

He explained how we’ve fished down cod, then urchins, creating a less diverse system in the sea. This lack of diversity creates a situation where each additional stressor to the system can cause a radical restructuring of our ocean. Climate change in the form of a fresher, warmer, more acidic ocean is poised to produce the greatest stressor yet.

What does this mean for fisheries managers? They too need to adapt. Fisheries have traditionally been managed by looking in the rearview mirror, based on historical landings reported by fishermen and dealers. These methods aren’t relevant when no history exists.

The term “weak science” was used again and again to discuss managing in fast changing environments. “Fine scale management” was discussed as well, where decisions are made that are responsive to fishermen’s experiential knowledge paired with fisheries science. Climate change will likely force a more urgent discussion of “ecosystem based management.”

These discussions are relatively new on the water, and they are increasingly frequent. This is good news, for in discussion lies the possibility that a shared understanding will emerge of what climate change means to each of us.

Shared meaning, after all, is the basis of an emergent culture that can transform our current climate debates into acceptance and action. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. At this moment, climate change is embroiled in politics, cultural politics, a struggle over meaning that continues to stifle action.

Read more about “A Climate of Change” conference at: http://www.islandinstitute.org/events/A-Climate-of-Change/15374/

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute.