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As World's Oceans Warm, Hundreds of Fish Species Forced to Swim for Their Lives

"It's like the rug is slowly getting pulled out from under our fishing communities."


Fisheries worldwide are expected to face substantial struggles as warming ocean waters force marine species to change their migratory patterns. (Photo: Des Paroz/Flickr/cc)

The climate crisis poses a growing threat to fisheries across the globe, as warming oceans force marine species to head for the poles or deeper waters—and away from some of the world's most heavily fished areas, according to a new report published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Warming ocean waters, as a result of anthropogenic climate change, have already caused migration changes for marine organisms, "which have generally been shifting poleward or into deeper waters as temperatures warm," according to the report. For the new study, scientists examined the migratory changes of nearly 700 species living in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the North American continental shelf, and projected future shifts for these species, based on anticipated increases in ocean temperatures throughout the 21st century.

Fish shifts

The North American continental shelf, the reports notes, is "an expansive area with some of the most productive fisheries globally" that also "contains some of the most rapidly increasing regions of ocean temperature in the world"—meaning that as the water temperatures continue to rise, these highly productive fisheries will likely be significantly impacted.

"We've already seen that shifts of a couple of hundred miles in a species' range can disrupt fisheries," lead author James Morley, a marine biologist at Rutgers University, told The Independent. "This study shows that such dislocations will happen all over the continent and on both coasts throughout the 21st century."

As Rutgers researcher and report co-author Malin Pinsky put it to InsideClimate News, "It's like the rug is slowly getting pulled out from under our fishing communities."

Even if the international community somehow manages to meet the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement and limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, Pinsky explained that their findings indicate these fisheries could still suffer a great deal from the warming waters, considering that highly mobile marine species are changing habitats in response to the climate crisis at 10 times the rate of land-based species.

"This is something that's been playing out on the East Coast already. If we don't start to get ready for that, it's going to create more conflict and challenges for fishing communities in the future," Pinsky warned. Pointing out that permitting isn't keeping up with the pace of migratory changes, particuarly along the East Coast, Pinksy added: "Accounting for climate change injects more certainty. If we pretend like nothing is happening, it's not going to help."

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