The Fishing Industry Is Poised To Lose Billions Due To Climate Change, Report Finds

A worker harvests oysters for Taylor Shellfish in Washington, another company grappling with the effects of ocean acidification. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN, FILE
A worker harvests oysters for Taylor Shellfish in Washington, another company grappling with the effects of ocean acidification. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN, FILE

The global fishing industry is poised to lose $17 to $41 billion by 2050 due to climate change’s effects on the marine environment, according to a new report.

The report, published by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and the University of Cambridge, outlines the range of challenges that increasing ocean temperatures and acidification will bring to the seafood industry, based on findings from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. The authors found that climate change puts the 400 million people who depend heavily on fish for food at risk, especially small-scale fishermen in the Tropics. That’s because yields are expected to fall by 40 to 60 percent in the Tropics and Antarctica — in the high latitudes, however, the report said yields are likely to increase 30 to 70 percent.

Some fish stocks will be able to migrate to cooler or more food- or oxygen-rich waters, which is good news for those fish populations but can lead to conflicts among countries as to which nations are entitled to the displaced stocks, and also could lead to more illegal fishing. The report singles out the recent shift of Atlantic mackerel to Icelandic waters over the last few summers as one example — with these new fish stocks, Iceland and the Faroe Islands have been fishing mackerel outside of international agreements. Top predators like tuna are some of the most likely to move, putting economic strain on small island nations in particular.

“This report is a wake up call for the seafood industry to recognize the scale of the threat to ocean resources from climate change and acidification,” Blake Lee-Harwood of Sustainable Fisheries Partnership said in a statement.

The report also highlighted the danger ocean acidification and warming waters pose to coral reefs, with those in Southeast Asia and parts of the Pacific as some of the most at risk. Reefs serve as nurseries or habitats to 10 to 12 percent of fish caught in tropical countries, and coral reef fisheries around the world are already being fished unsustainably. The report estimates coral reef fish production in the Pacific could decrease by up to 20 percent by 2050, due in part to the habitat damage climate change will inflict on reefs.

This report is a wake up call for the seafood industry

Aquaculture, too, is at risk. On the East Coast of the U.S., oyster farmers have already been hit by the impacts of ocean acidification — Goose Point Oyster Co. in Willapa Bay, Washington, was forced to move their oyster larvae operations to Hawaii after high acidity levels off the coast of Washington caused larvae to start dying in 2006.

“We took a production hit because we couldn’t get enough oyster larvae to set out in oyster beds — two years of not having enough oyster larvae was a big hit for our company,” Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy, plant manager for Goose Point Oyster Co. told ThinkProgress. “We’re just now getting back into real full-time production.”

The report points to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as essential to avoiding some of the worst impacts of ocean acidification, noting that though the carbon levels in the atmosphere currently make some impacts of climate change inevitable, “the further and faster that climate change is allowed to progress, the greater the cumulative impacts will be on the fisheries and aquaculture industries.”

But it also states that climate change exacerbates other human-caused stressors on marine ecosystems — such as overfishing and habitat destruction — and that these are, at least theoretically, are easier to fix than climate change. Artificial reefs can serve as fish nurseries, and restoring reefs that have been damaged by human activities can restore their health and can build back up their effectiveness in decreasing wave energy, serving as protectors for coastal communities. Restoring coastal and marine environments can also help mitigate climate change — the report notes that mangrove forests, salt marshes, and sea grass beds act as major carbon sinks, representing almost 50 percent of the organic carbon burial in ocean sediment. These habitats also serve as fish nurseries, so restoring their health can also help restore fish stocks.