Climate Change Is Putting Billions Of Fishery Dollars At Risk

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The first of what will be a series of assessments of the country’s fisheries found that Northeast marine life will respond poorly to ongoing man-made climate, although some species will be resilient.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study, published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, examined 82 species in the Northeast Shelf, which ranges from Cape Hateras in North Carolina through the Gulf of Maine along the Atlantic Ocean. The study ranked the vulnerability of marine life to ongoing ocean warming, an endeavor NOAA is doing for the first time through new methodology that combines ocean conditions, the latest climate models, species characteristics, and NOAA expert analysis.

“More than half of the species which we assessed are likely to get negatively impacted by climate change,” said Jon Hare, lead author and a NOAA oceanographer, in an interview with ThinkProgress.

Researchers defined vulnerability as the risk of a species changing its distribution and its capacity to reproduce. They then ranked species under four categories of vulnerability: low, moderate, high, and very high. The evaluation included all commercially managed fish and invertebrate species living in the Northeast Shelf, a large number of recreational marine fish species, all marine fish species listed or under consideration for listing on the federal Endangered Species Act, and ecologically important marine species.

Scientists found that many of the iconic species of the region — like the Atlantic Sea Scallop, the Atlantic Cod, and Atlantic Mackerel — are highly vulnerable to global warming.

“In many cases it’s not a nice picture,” Hare said of an ecosystem that producesbillions of dollars through commercial and recreational activities.

He noted, too, that some species will benefit from climate change. “It’s not all negative. It’s not all positive,” said Hare. “Like everything, it’s complicated.” About 17 percent of species assessed are likely to benefit from the changing climate, according to the study.

NOAA’s study, formally known as the Northeast Climate Vulnerability Assessment, is the first in a series of similar evaluations planned for fisheries around the country. The agency says climate change vulnerability assessments of U.S. fisheries are a priority for NOAA’s Fisheries Climate Science Strategy. The strategy aims to provide decision-makers with the information to mitigate and build resilience against climate change impacts.

And with warming continuing, there is much at risk for animals and communities alike. Fisheries generate about $200 billion in sales and support 1.7 million jobs each year, according to NOAA. Benefits are not just economical. Coastal habitats also defend communities from storms and inundations.

NOAA said similar assessments are underway for the Bering Sea and the so-called California Current Ecosystems. These studies are happening at a pivotal time for that region, as bird die-offs have been reported for several months. One theory is that the state of fisheries may be playing a role in these die-offs.

“This work will help us better account for the effects of warming waters on our fishery species in stock assessments and when developing fishery management measures,” Hare said.

And learning to cope with climate change is crucial, researchers reached by ThinkProgress said, since oceans are already warming and effects on marine life aren’t fully understood. The waters of the Northeast Shelf, for instance, are showing a disproportionate amount of warming when compared with other U.S. waters, said Michael Alexander, one of the study’s authors and a meteorologist at NOAA.

Yet this warming trend is expected for all oceans. “Different [climate] models all show that by the second half of this century, basically the oceans will be warmer than … they ever have been before, and just stay that warm,” said Alexander.

The drastic warming that Alexander and most in the scientific community attribute to man-made climate change means big problems for marine ecology and the communities that depend on the future of the sea. “We have significant challenges ahead of us with regards to fisheries management,” Hare said.