Are Fisheries Ready for Climate Change?

Climate change could rob us of a sustainable fishing future

The ocean has buffered our planet from the impacts of climate change, absorbing much of the carbon dioxide we’ve emitted and a substantial amount of the heat from our warming atmosphere. That comes at a cost. The ocean is getting higher and hotter; it holds less oxygen; and it’s becoming more acidic. In short, the ocean is becoming less familiar and its patterns less recognizable.

Marine species have been swimming in these changing waters for years now, and we are starting to understand what that means for them. Fish populations are shifting their ranges in response to changing temperatures and food availability, and scientists predict that the potential global catch could decrease by as much as 16-25% by the end of the century.[1] Habitats, like kelp forests and coral reefs, are diminishing. Marine mammals and seabirds are struggling to find sufficient prey during extreme events like marine heatwaves.[2]

The effects of climate change on marine ecosystems come at a cost to people, businesses and cultures. Coastal communities which engage in fishing are deeply dependent on a familiar ocean to sustain their way of life. We can already see the impacts of change, as many fish populations that have been sustainably managed for years have had frightening declines. In Alaska, Tribes and Alaskan Natives who have fished sustainably for millennia can now no longer fish their traditional salmon runs as too few fish return to streams and rivers. Multiple crab species are vanishing in the North Pacific, shutting down major commercial fisheries. In New England, there are questions about whether the water is now too warm to allow fish populations to recover from historic overfishing. Warm “blobs” of water, which are large and long-lasting marine heatwaves, haunt the West Coast of the United States and have resulted in decreased fishing opportunities and harmful algal blooms. Hurricanes fueled by climate change and “super storms” have devastated fishing communities far and wide, from northwest Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.

We know these changes are happening, and we know they will get worse. Large-scale climate models that predict how our planet will respond to emissions show steady increases in global temperatures and impacts until at least 2050, which is the earliest that emissions-reductions efforts that we take right now will change the course of our planet’s warming.[3] That’s because there’s so much “thermal inertia” in the climate system—heat absorbed long ago is continuing to warm our planet today. While the U.S. has taken bold climate action recently with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, our climate future is already set for the next 30 years. The climate will get warmer before it stabilizes.

That’s why the recent findings of a report about U.S. fishery management by the Government Accountability Office are so shocking. The report found that only a quarter of the 46 management plans that determine sustainable levels of fishing for over 450 critically important marine fish stocks in the U.S. consider climate change at all. It concluded that NOAA Fisheries, the government agency responsible for ensuring that our ocean fisheries are managed for the long-term good of the public, should identify and prioritize opportunities for managers to enhance the climate resilience of federal fisheries.

Fundamentally, we need to apply new approaches to change the way we manage fisheries in the U.S. We’ve built a strong foundation, as decades of evidence-based management approaches have helped reduce overfishing, rebuild stocks and restore coastal communities. But if we don’t find ways to adapt, climate change will rob us of a sustainable fishing future. NOAA Fisheries has worked for years to build a scientific understanding of how climate change is altering our fisheries, investing in efforts to understand marine ecosystems, monitor indicators of change and build advanced predictive models to look into the future. More must be done there, but the Government Accounting Office report shows that the science and information already available is not making it into management decisions. It does us no good to understand what will happen if we fail to take steps to respond to it.

We are running out of time, but the good news is that we have many of the pieces we need to make a difference. Now, we need bold leadership from NOAA Fisheries to reimagine our approaches for managing fishing. Climate-ready fishery management will prioritize sustainability, resilience and equity in order to preserve the ocean’s long-term ability to provide food and support businesses, recreation and culture. We know the ocean will keep changing. If we fail to adapt, sustainable fisheries and the benefits they bring will be only a thing of the past.

[1] Cheung, W. W. L., Bruggeman, J., and Butenschön, M. (2018). “Projected changes in global and national potential marine fisheries catch under climate change scenarios in the twenty-first century,” in Impacts of Climate Change on Fisheries and Aquaculture: Synthesis of Current Knowledge, Adaptation and Mitigation Options, eds M. Barange, T. Bahri, M. C. M. Beveridge, K. Cochrane, S. Funge-Smith, and F. Poulain, (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 63-85.

[2] Cooley, S., D. Schoeman, L. Bopp, P. Boyd, S. Donner, D.Y. Ghebrehiwet, S.-I. Ito, W. Kiessling, P. Martinetto, E. Ojea, M.-F. Racault, B. Rost, and M. Skern-Mauritzen, 2022: Oceans and Coastal Ecosystems and Their Services. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 379–550, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.005.

[3] IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3−32, doi:10.1017/9781009157896.001.

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