Go Fish (Somewhere Else): Warming Oceans Are Altering Catches

Play associated audio

Climate change is gradually altering the fish that end up on ice in seafood counters around the world, according to a new study.

"The composition of the [global] fish catch includes more and more fish from the warmer areas, and cold-water fish are getting more rare, because the temperatures are increasing," says Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia, a co-author of the study.

As oceans warm — a result of climate change — fish maintain their preferred water temperature by moving away from the equator and toward the poles.

So, for example, people in Denmark are now encountering swordfish, which you'd normally find in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Africa.

"In British Columbia, where I live, we have Humboldt squid, giant squid from Mexico," Pauly says. "They eat all the herrings and stuff, and people don't know them. They are stranded on the beach, and people think they are sea monsters."

And fishermen have scuffled over Atlantic mackerel quotas, as the fish moves north to new grounds around Iceland.

The new study in Nature shows these anecdotes aren't simply a fluke. Data from fish catches from around the world show it's happening everywhere the ocean is warming — which is just about everywhere.

This trend isn't obvious at American fish counters. That's because 80 percent of our seafood is imported, and we don't know whether fishermen are catching our swordfish in the tropics or the North Atlantic. Also, half of all seafood is now produced in enclosures — not caught in the wild.

But if it's invisible to us, that's not the case for many people who rely on their local fisherman for protein.

"In the tropics, there are lots of developing countries' fisheries where their ability to adapt to changes in the resources is much lower," says William Cheung, the report's lead author. Like Pauly, he's at the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Center in Vancouver.

The paper documents a migration of some species out of the tropics, as they seek cooler waters. But there are no fish to replace the ones that are leaving. As a result, "these fisheries in the tropics will be most vulnerable to climate change impacts," Cheung says.

The United States will gradually feel the effects as well.

"Imagine a reef fish that is driven by temperature into North Carolina or the Delaware coast," Pauly says. "That reef fish will not find reefs. It's like you having to move, but you cannot take your furniture with you, or your house. That is the problem."

Many fish will have a hard time adapting to this very rapid change, he says.

Mark Payne at the National Institute for Aquatic Resources in Denmark was not involved in the research, but he's impressed by the result.

"This is suddenly a wake-up call," he says. "It's a strong suggestion that climate change is here. It's real, and it's really starting to affect what we catch and, therefore, what we eat."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Tampa Hosts Bollywood's Biggest Stars At Annual Awards Show

India's Bollywood film industry is increasingly reaching a world-wide audience. To highlight the international appeal, the industry holds its annual awards ceremony every year outside of India.
NPR

Got My Goat? Vermont Farms Put Fresh Meat On Refugee Tables

Americans don't eat much barbecued goat, but the meat is a mainstay in many African, Asian and Caribbean diets. In Vermont, farmers raise for refugees and immigrants, with hopes to mainstream it.
WAMU 88.5

On National Mall, Native Americans Protest Keystone XL Pipeline

Native Americans from across the country are visiting Washington this week to protest the construction of a controversial pipeline in the Midwest.
NPR

Life Outside The Fast Lane: Startups Wary Of Web Traffic Plan

The Federal Communications Commission's proposal would let Web companies pay for faster access. But entrepreneurs, like Reddit's co-founder, are wondering how they would have fared with such rules.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.