What will it take to secure healthy fisheries in the face of climate change?

Editor’s note: This is the first in a multi-part blog series, Fisheries for the Future, examining the impacts from climate change on global fisheries and the opportunities to address these emerging challenges. Throughout the series, we’ll be investigating how climate change will impact the world’s supply and distribution of fish and what we can do to ensure the most sustainable future for ourselves and our planet.

Fisheries are a globally-important source of jobs and income and critically important for the food security and nutrition of some of the most impoverished people on the planet. This is increasingly the case as human populations continue to grow. Managing fisheries well is also an important aspect of ecosystem health, as well-managed fisheries help contribute to vibrant and abundant ecosystems. Climate change is already affecting fish populations and will scramble these systems in ways not fully understood. This poses a risk to fisheries, the people who depend on them for their livelihoods and the continued ecological abundance and diversity that we hold dear.

We know impacts on fisheries from climate change will occur — and these impacts are likely to become more severe as we experience the effects of warming already baked into the system. So what needs to change in the face of climate change in order that fisheries can continue to feed people and provide jobs? How can fisheries managers better protect marine ecosystems, ocean wildlife and biodiversity as climate change puts greater stress on the oceans? What should be done to help fisheries transition as climate change takes hold? These are some of the questions policymakers and fishing communities are asking as ocean systems continue to change, and which we’ll cover in our blog series.

As we think about what fishery management needs to look like in the future, a few core points are clear.

We must not abandon the fundamentals of good fishery management in the face of climate change.

This means we should not abandon concepts of maximum sustained yield and ecosystem-based fishery management. However, what the application of these fishery management foundations look like may be different, and what we need to do in order to implement them will require a different set of tactics. Fisheries have always had to deal with change — that is the nature of wild populations and the ocean itself — so some robust approaches for dealing with change have already been developed and used successfully. However, climate change will introduce new kinds of challenges, requiring us to address a different suite of risks than we are accustomed to. And, it will require us to be much more focused on some aspects of conservation and governance compared to what we do today.

We must understand that we should not forget the lessons we have learned so far, but a sustainable future cannot be built on the practices of the past.

Over the past several decades we have learned a great deal about what it takes to manage fisheries well. Some of these lessons have come painfully, and we are admittedly still recovering from some prior mistakes. We must continue to heed these lessons and not forget them, but we also need to allow ourselves to reimagine what fisheries of the future can look like, and set our goals accordingly. This means that we need to acknowledge that much of what we imagine as a healthy fishery is based on observations of the past that will be increasingly irrelevant, and we will need to establish new expectations, goals, benchmarks and standards that are relevant to a changing world. To get there we will need to help each other — all involved in the fishing community — imagine what is possible in a climate-changed future and what it takes to get there.

We must develop and embrace new tools and approaches.

To create a sustainable future, we will need to get better at aspects of fisheries management we struggle with today. This is particularly the case for international fisheries management. Shifting fish stocks as a result of climate change will require much more international cooperation and will raise important issues of equity between developed and lesser-developed countries. We have already seen how a lack of effective cooperation can lead to overfishing and stock declines among countries with otherwise good domestic management, such as the recent experience in Northern Europe over Atlantic mackerel. Here a shift in the geographic location of mackerel to the north and west brought Iceland and the Faroe Islands into the fishery due to increased abundance in their waters. Disagreements about how to share the harvest of the mackerel stock between relative newcomers, the EU, and Norway led to overfishing and a loss of that fishery’s seafood sustainability certification. When it comes to international cooperation, fostering the willingness of countries to work together will require that decisions over shared resources strongly consider principles of fairness equity in order to ensure willingness among cooperating parties.

We must maintain the health of marine ecosystems to build healthy fisheries in the future.

Marine ecosystem resilience ensures ecosystems can handle shocks and disturbances — even those that are unexpected. Research and practice outlines a clear set of steps that socio-ecological systems can do in order to build resilience.

Take the salmon of Bristol Bay, Alaska, often described as one of the greatest migrations of wildlife on the planet. In this ecosystem, habitat complexity, system diversity and management have worked to support a highly productive ecosystem — even in spite of several disturbances and shocks over the decades.

Another example is the impacts to tropical corals around the world. The world’s coral reefs are experiencing profound changes and impacts as a result of a changing climate, with recent estimates indicating that half of the Great Barrier Reef was decimated by bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. However, recent coral research gives us hope that some strains of coral can resist high ocean temperatures, making it clear that genetic diversity is a key component to resilience in the face of climate change. Biological and genetic diversity are crucial to making sure species that can take advantage of a changed world are given the opportunity to do so. And good fisheries management can very likely help retard the impacts of climate on reef ecosystems.

We must address inequity to achieve our goals.

Addressing issues of inequity is necessary for many reasons, including making sure societies are cohesive and can work together constructively to make necessary adaptations. History shows us that the lack of equity can cause problems like social instability and public rejection of policies that may otherwise be sustainable. In Chile, recent decisions concerning management of a squid resource that were perceived as unfair led to large demonstrations and public rejection of a policy that would have otherwise been deemed sustainable. Chilean policymakers have since remedied the situation, but this case is just one example demonstrating the importance of fairness and equity. By striving to avoid the creation of winners and losers in the face of climate change, we can help ensure that society is better able to adapt and embrace the changes we need to make.

Finally, there is much we do not know about climate change and the many risks we will need to manage.

In order to deal with unexpected events that will undoubtedly occur, we will need to get better at implementing more responsive and nimble adaptive management. This includes management systems and policy decision-making processes that are more nimble, but also tools that allow the fishing industry to be more flexible and adapt to changing fishing opportunities on their own as unexpected events occur. Other forms of risks and uncertainty are more identifiable. For example, we know that climate change will alter productivity — and hence the sustainable yield — of fish stocks. However, we do not have a good sense of when these changes will occur, how quickly and what the magnitude of the change will be. Management tools are available that can help with these types of uncertainties, such as ramped harvest control rules that tie fishing rate to changes in biomass. These tools have proven to be robust to climate change uncertainties.

To be clear, society must act to reduce our emissions. If we can do so and also rise to the fishery management challenges by implementing the actions described above, research and experience show that fisheries can continue to produce jobs, yield high amounts of food production and help ensure ocean ecosystems maintain abundant life. To ensure the most sustainable future for ourselves and our planet, reimagining our world amid climate change — and becoming more resilient in the process — is key.

In the coming weeks, we will dive into these examples and show how climate resilience can be built into fisheries. Stay tuned for the posts to come in this series.

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