Prioritizing Climate Resilience in United States Fisheries

The impacts of climate change are already apparent in U. S. offshore waters, creating challenges for fisheries, fishing communities and fisheries management. Examples of climate impacts are prevalent across all regions of the coastal U.S. As ocean temperatures warm, species distributions are shifting. For instance, market squid moving up the West Coast from Baja California to Oregon spurred a harvest boom in the Pacific Northwest. Species, including blue crabs and black sea bass, are shifting northward on the Atlantic coast.

In some cases, these shifts are creating management challenges as they cross regulatory jurisdictions. In addition to gradual warming and changing ocean chemistry, sudden extreme events can shock ecosystems. Marine heat waves and heat-induced harmful algal blooms in the Pacific have required seasonal closures of Dungeness crab and razor clam fisheries. Even more startling is the rapid decline of snow crabs and red king crabs in the Bering Sea. Warming waters likely contributed to stock collapses that slashed fishing quotas and devastated crabbing communities.

A report published last year by the Government Accountability Office highlighted a stark reality, fishery managers are not doing enough to address the realities of climate change. The report found that climate information has been incorporated into less than one-third of fishery management plans. These plans serve as the roadmaps used by regional councils and the National Marine Fisheries Service to manage fisheries – leaving fisheries and the fishermen who work them vulnerable to shifting or declining stocks.

Wherever you look across the United States, the message is clear, climate change affects every aspect of our fishery systems and threatens the communities that rely on them. To meet this challenge, fishermen, managers, scientists and communities must work together to develop adaptive management approaches and technologies that increase the resilience of fisheries to climate change.

Here’s the good news, EDF has already been working with partners to make our fisheries more climate resilient. This work includes identifying solutions and developing tools so that fishery managers and fishermen can adapt to changing oceans.

In partnership with EDF, researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara studied the management of over 500 fisheries across the United States, focusing on Harvest Control Rules, which are pre-agreed decision rules used to set future fishing opportunities. With this new analysis, the team developed seven recommendations for Harvest Control Rules to increase resiliency while limiting pain for fishermen. These include basing catch limits on stock population size, fine-tuning the models used to determine catch limits, accounting for climate change and using Management Strategy Evaluation to determine which approaches are best for each fishery.

But improving the management and resilience of individual fisheries will only get us so far. Climate change affects the entire ocean, and even the best system for managing blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay won’t help Mid-Atlantic fishermen if the crabs scuttle north. The United States must prepare to manage shifting stocks’ social and economic effects and adapt to these new realities.

EDF is working with partners and stakeholders to create principles for allocating fishing opportunities in a changing climate. The consensus is that a climate-resilient allocation system considers impacted communities and stakeholders, including equity issues associated with changes in non-target species (such as bycatch); promotes self-management and transparent, inclusive co-management; recognizes historical and traditional dependence and incorporates both scientific research as well as local, traditional and indigenous knowledge; and ensures sustainability and conservation while incorporating adaptability into its regulatory structure.

EDF has developed a resource center for fishery solutions to make these recommendations more accessible for fishery managers and stakeholders. It features tools such as a Climate Vulnerability Assessment that takes a species-by-species look at vulnerability and estimates the potential for species distribution changes as the ocean continues to warm. The toolkit also includes a white paper distilling best practices from across the U.S. for incorporating climate information into management processes. The toolkit also includes a report that describes how technology can help meet the challenges facing fisheries, with practical examples of innovations already addressing specific climate challenges.

Creating more climate-resilient fisheries requires a broad approach with many strategies, tools, and partnerships. But acting now—before climate crises emerge—will help minimize ecological, social and economic impacts. Through ingenuity, adaptability and science-based decision-making, we can reduce the potential for fishery disasters and support thriving fisheries and fishing communities, even in the face of climate change.

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