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Ocean Currents

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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Climate change could make the good strides we’ve made towards sustainable fisheries turn ugly. Fast.

First, the good: Our nation’s fisheries are in better shape today than they have been in decades. The Status of the Stocks 2016 report tells us that 41 fish stocks have been rebuilt to healthy levels since 2000. And after decades of hard work and the use of science-based catch limits, only 9% of stocks are experiencing overfishing (fishing harder than stocks can reproduce) and 16% of stocks are still overfished. These are big improvements over just 10 years ago—20% of stocks were experiencing overfishing and 25% were overfished in 2006.

And the Fisheries Economics of the United States 2015 report tells us what these healthy fish stocks mean for the wallets of American fishermen. Commercial and recreational fishing support 1.6 million full and part time jobs in the U.S. and their combined sales impacts inject nearly $208 billion into our economy.

Then, there’s the bad. There is troubling news about the impacts of climate change on fisheries in the Fisheries Economics of the United States report. Climate change is hitting our ocean ecosystems hard, altering the temperature and chemistry of the water, causing toxic algal blooms and resulting in fishery closures and economic losses for communities who depend on our fisheries.

The West coast experienced a massive algal bloom which caused marine toxin closures in the crab fisheries. As a result, crab landings revenue fell sharply in California, Washington, and Oregon. Crab landings revenue fell by $50 million (down 71%) in California and by $36 million (down 75%) in Oregon.

Similarly, landings revenue for Pacific salmon and hake fisheries in Oregon and Washington dropped significantly because of a large mass of relatively warm water dubbed the “warm blob” in the Pacific Ocean. The warmer water results in reduced phytoplankton productivity, which in turn disrupts the ocean food chain. This, and other effects of a changing environment, resulted in falling revenue from salmon landings: $8 million (down 41%) in Oregon and $11 million (down 28%) in Washington.

These are the kinds of losses that can’t be ignored—climate change is negatively impacting fisheries, and it’s not just limited to the West coast. For example, the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming areas on the planet. Species are already shifting their range in response,and cod continues to struggle to recover.

Finally, the ugly. There is a lot to lose and inaction will take a bad, risky situation and make it worse. Responding to these new threats will take the same kind of dedication and ingenuity that scientists, managers, and fishermen brought to the challenge of ending overfishing. Nationally, NOAA Fisheries has developed plans to improve climate science and incorporate it into management. And I’m excited that, earlier this year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to explore solutions through a project that would better prepare West coast fisheries and fishing-dependent communities for climate change. Through the Fishery Ecosystem Plan, this project will take a broad look at the ecosystem and use new science, management best practices and stakeholder experience to respond to the recent rapid changes being seen over the last three years along the Pacific coast.

These are good starts, but our fishermen, coastal communities and ocean will need even more bold, forward-thinking management to face climate threats now and in the future.

So, yes, let’s take a moment to celebrate the success of decades of hard work that have gone into the recovery of America’s fisheries. Let’s also be clear-eyed about the challenges ahead.

Tackling climate change will require us to look beyond just individual fish stocks to the overall health of our ocean. We will need sustained engagement from commercial and recreational fishermen, scientists and members of the public to ensure we have healthy fishery resources and vibrant ocean ecosystems now and in the future.

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