This piece first appeared on NRDC’s expert blog and is reprinted with permission. Top photo by John McMurray.
Healthy fish populations are building blocks of a healthy ocean. They support marine ecosystems, including other wildlife like whales and seabirds. They are also engines of our coastal economies and the communities that rely on them, with fisheries in the United States supporting an estimated 1.7 million jobs.
With increasingly acute impacts from climate change, however, it has become more obvious that there will not always be more fish in the sea. This means that a business-as-usual approach to fisheries management will be insufficient.
Our ocean is undergoing rapid transformations, including rising acidity levels, shifting currents, and warming waters, as well as more frequent extreme events like marine heat waves. Faced with these changing environments, fish populations are struggling to adapt. While some are successfully migrating to colder waters, others are dwindling.
According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA), marine fisheries and fishing communities in the U.S. are at “high risk from climate-driven changes in the distribution, timing, and productivity of fishery-related species.” Although impacts will not be uniform across regions or species, and some fish species may come out as “winners” under changing conditions, ocean temperature increases are expected to depress maximum catch potential in all U.S. regions except for the North Pacific under current emissions trends. The already-warm tropical waters of the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico regions could see a decline of 10–47 percent in fish catch potential by 2085. Globally, scientists have projected that current emissions trends could reduce potential global catch by 16-25 percent by the end of the 21st century.
Fish are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature, and their rapid migration to cooler waters is another stunning trend. OceanAdapt, a great tool developed by Rutgers University scientists, allows us to see shifting distributions of fish stocks over the last five decades.
Substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains the first, necessary step to ensuring healthy fisheries and marine ecosystems into the future. Effective fisheries management will also be fundamental. This means preventing overfishing and helping fisheries adapt and be resilient to climate change.
Our federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), has helped to recover and safeguard many of our valuable fisheries resources in the United States. However, this law lacks any mention of climate change, and fishery managers’ decisions are not keeping up with the unprecedented transformation of our ocean. NRDC has examined these shortfalls, including deep dives into the issues of shifting fish stocks and resilience of fish populations, and provided recommendations for necessary updates to the MSA and fishery management decisions.
The U.S. government, unfortunately, is only just beginning to take these issues seriously. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently took a close look at this issue, asking specifically: (1) the extent to which fisheries managers have used climate information; and (2) challenges to enhancing the climate resilience of federal fisheries and opportunities to address challenges. In its final report–Federal Fisheries Management: Opportunities Exist to Enhance Climate Resilience—GAO found that fishery management councils have used climate information only to a limited extent in fishery management. GAO concluded that NOAA Fisheries does not regularly collect or share information about actions that fishery managers are taking to enhance the climate resilience of federal fisheries, and the agency could better share information across regions. To address these gaps, GAO recommends that NOAA Fisheries should work with councils to “identify, prioritize, and plan to implement opportunities to enhance the climate resilience of federal fisheries.”
Building on these critical findings, this week nine members of Congress sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries urging the agency to use its full suite of existing authorities and new funding opportunities under the Inflation Reduction Act to scale up climate-ready management of our marine fisheries. The letter was led by Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA), who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, and joined by several other members representing fishing communities, including Reps. Mary Peltola (D-AK) and Ed Case (D-HI). They make several specific recommendations for how NOAA Fisheries can help fill in the information gaps described in the GAO report and accelerate climate-ready management approaches for on-the-water impact.
We urge NOAA Fisheries to act on the recommendations laid out in this letter, paraphrased below:
- Prioritize climate-ready management with explicit climate resilience goals: With the historic passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Congress has provided critical funds to accelerate our adaptive approaches, including funds intended to help fisheries and coastal communities adapt to climate impacts. NOAA Fisheries should respond with a similarly bold and transformative strategy for adapting our fisheries to climate change, making more explicit that climate-ready management is not the same as business-as-usual management. This could be accomplished through a national resilience strategy, or an agency-wide Administrative Order to operationalize and incentivize the use of climate-ready management approaches across the science centers and regional offices, through to all council meetings and procedures.
- Recommit to rebuilding overfished stocks and preventing overfishing: Ecologists recommend that the most important preparation fishery managers can undertake is to ensure that fisheries are well-managed to promote high levels of biomass and genetic diversity. Given this, it is concerning that that 51 stocks are now overfished (over 20 percent), and 26 stocks are subject to overfishing. Further, 9 of the 47 federally managed stocks that have been previously rebuilt are once again in need of rebuilding, and rebuilding has stalled since 2019. NOAA Fisheries should assess opportunities to leverage existing authorities for enhancing fishery resilience, including implementing more precautionary management for stocks that have been identified as particularly vulnerable to climate change.
- Invest in the Climate, Ecosystems, and Fisheries Initiative: With the funds made available under the Inflation Reduction Act, NOAA Fisheries should build and support a full-scale implementation of the Climate, Ecosystem and Fisheries Initiative, developing not only longer-term innovative modeling solutions but also establishing, in the near-term, the decision support tools and management teams that will meet the needs identified by the GAO in helping fishery managers understand and implement management approaches that will increase fishery resilience and adapt to climate impacts.
- Significantly increase technical guidance and assistance to support implementation of climate-ready approaches: While a variety of approaches are being tested in various regions, there is no centralized guidance, nor is there a hub of information distribution, best-practices sharing, or technical support for fishermen, regions, and councils. Even for managers and other actors with a clear interest in climate-ready management, it can be challenging to keep track of the different management approaches that could be taken to adapt the system and increase fishery resilience. This issue was specifically highlighted by the GAO as an opportunity for NOAA Fisheries to facilitate knowledge-sharing between the agency and the councils. NOAA Fisheries should also provide assistance and incentives to facilitate the incorporation of climate science into the management process.
These solutions also have a key role to play in the Biden Administration’s upcoming Ocean Climate Action Plan. These pathways to climate-ready fisheries are also included in a detailed blueprint of recommendations for Ocean Climate Action that was supported by over 90 organizations and businesses nationwide. (See the full Blueprint for Ocean Climate Action here.)
Considering the climate threats that our fisheries are up against, it’s clear that maintaining the status quo isn’t an option. Fisheries managers need to help fishing communities keep up with the rapid changes they are already witnessing on the water. Taken together, these recommendations are an opportunity for NOAA Fisheries to give fishery managers and fishing communities actionable information and management tools they sorely need to ensure sustainable fisheries into the future.