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Climate-Ready Fisheries are Healthy Fisheries

According to a new NOAA report, we need to do more to make our fisheries climate-ready

Joseph Dovala
© Joseph Dovala

In the last decade, we’ve been able to make record progress in restoring the health of U.S. fisheries. The law that guides management of our federal marine fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, has been an important piece of that success, along with the hard work of state and federal governments, fishermen, and groups like Ocean Conservancy, and the support of the public.

Each year NOAA Fisheries releases a “Status of Stocks” report that provides Congress and the public information about how well our fish stocks (basically a group of fish managed together) are doing. The latest report was released this month. Overall, the report has some good news, some not-so-good news and some clear indicators that climate change and its effects are impacting the health of fisheries. We break it down here. Our big takeaway: the report points to the fact that continued progress in restoring fisheries to healthy levels requires doing more to make our fisheries climate-ready.

The Good: We’ve done a good job managing fishing levels

The report has plenty of positive news. For example, the percentage of fish stocks that are being fished too much (called overfishing) is near historic lows. In fact, of the fish stocks where we know their status, 91 percent have been fished at levels that science has determined are sustainable. Seven fish stocks that had been previously fished too heavily were fished at appropriate levels in 2018, which is also good news. One fish—the barndoor skate—was brought back to a healthy population size last year, which brings the total to 45 stocks we’ve rebuilt since 2000.

The Not-So-Good: Several fish populations are now at unhealthy sizes

There are some troubling signs in the report. Eight new stocks were added to the list of “overfished” species, which means their populations are at a smaller size than they should be to support healthy fisheries. Managers will now need to put plans in place to rebuild the fish populations; these plans, while necessary, also can be hard on fishing communities. With these fish added to the list, the percentage of stocks that is overfished has increased for the first time since 2004. These overfished stocks raise concerns about stalling progress—in the last few years, fewer stocks have been rebuilt. Five of the eight fish stocks that became overfished last year had previously been rebuilt. These fish stocks continue to struggle and backslide, while others prosper. But the big question is, why?

The Future: It’s time for climate-ready fisheries

NOAA Fisheries notes in the report that it isn’t fishing alone that is responsible for the decline of some of the fish stocks that were declared overfished. Fish stocks face pressures besides fishing, and climate change is already making management harder. As the impacts from climate change become more severe, these challenges are only going to increase. Ocean acidification, warming waters and oxygen loss in our ocean are altering the productivity, abundance and geographical distribution of fish. We have no choice but to find ways to adapt the way we manage our fisheries so we can still fish sustainably even as climate change dramatically affects marine ecosystems. But, it is also essential that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the national and international level so that we can avoid extreme and devastating impacts to our fisheries and fishing communities.

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© GREGORY PIPER / CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK

The challenge of climate change doesn’t mean fishery managers are off the hook for taking action. They still have the responsibility of maintaining fishing at sustainable levels. Now is the time to make fisheries climate-ready by bringing climate information into management and preparing fishing communities for the changes at our doorstep. For example, fishery scientists and managers can incorporate climate and ecosystem information into assessments of how well fish stocks are doing and use tools like scenario planning to come up with strategies that are likely to work no matter what the future looks like. They can also set indicators and thresholds based on biological and environmental factors to know when management changes are needed in the fishery, and they can make sure that any changes happen. In order to ensure sustainable fisheries and avoid future fishery collapse, how we manage fishing must account for the fact that climate changes can lead to shifts (e.g., lows) in fishery productivity.

Luckily, NOAA Fisheries has laid a good groundwork for making fisheries climate-ready and has a science strategy in place. Managers are now grappling with how to maintain healthy stocks and predict risks and challenges early on. An important part of this groundwork is moving beyond focusing on managing each species separately toward an approach that considers the whole ecosystem and its relationship to the fishery. This approach, called ecosystem-based fishery management, can enable fisheries to better adapt to changes in the ecosystem.

When it comes to climate and fisheries, it is a “yes, and” situation. Yes, we need to continue to do a good job managing what we can control, such as fishing effort. And, we need to make serious progress making our fisheries climate ready.

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