How Can Fisheries Managers Account for Climate Risk?

Incorporating climate information into fisheries management planning is crucial, now more than ever.

Quota cuts, gear restrictions, and fisheries closures–that’s a snapshot of the future of wild fisheries in Canada and around the world if course-correction measures to reduce Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not taken. A new climate risk assessment for marine species, led by Daniel Boyce, finds that–under a worst-case high-emissions scenario–87 per cent of 25,000 marine species studied globally face high or critical risks due to climate change.  In the Northwest Atlantic ocean in particular,  commercially fished species face greater climate change-related  threats than non-fished species, according to a preprint of a recent Canadian study, also led by Boyce. If these scenarios play out, then fisheries managers would be pressed into taking any and all measures necessary to help bring depleted fish populations back from the brink. At present, most fisheries management plans in Canada do not yet incorporate climate information – but this new made-in-Canada climate risk scorecard offers a path to doing so.

The global study also finds that under a more favourable emissions scenario–specifically, if lawmakers can keep their Paris Agreement promises to offset emissions–then these tens of thousands of species can see their climate vulnerability risks cut back universally (by over 98 per cent).  This includes Canada’s most valuable commercial fisheries like lobster.

Under any emissions scenario, incorporating climate information into fisheries management planning is crucially important now more than ever. Let’s explore why.

Video by Leila Beaudoin

How is climate change affecting fisheries?

Climate change,  and the acidification and deoxygenation of the ocean are affecting fisheries around the world. These effects include “raising water temperatures and changing water chemistry, impacting biological processes, altering migratory patterns and disrupting habitats” according to the Oceana Canada 2022 fishery audit. “Looking ahead, these impacts will only intensify,” it reads. Released this week, it also finds that fewer than one-third of wild fish stocks in Canada are considered healthy, and the vast majority of critically depleted stocks lack rebuilding plans.

The climate findings of the fishery audit are in line with a report last May by Oceans North, which finds several worrying trends ahead for marine species due to the negative consequences of climate change. These include: 

Warmer water temperatures lead to an increased threat of deoxygenation, which can cause species death; northward and deeper migration of species; and more invasive species;

  • Earlier sea ice melting, impacting the timing of phytoplankton blooms and, in turn, spawning of commercially caught species;
  • Decrease in the overall size of most species;
  • Impeded growth, metabolism and condition due to ocean acidification (particularly true of shrimp, lobster and phytoplankton);
  • Increase in vulnerability to disease.
Scientists say worrying trends are ahead for marine species due to the negative consequences of climate change. Source: Oceans North (2021) Point one: Warmer water temperatures and reduced oxygen, causing species to die or migrate, and opening the door to invasive species. Point two: Earlier sea ice melting, impacting the timing of a critical food source - phytoplankton blooms - in turn, disrupting when commercially caught species spawn. Point three: Decrease in overall size of most species. Point four: Ocean acidification, which impedes species’ growth, metabolism and condition. Point five: Increase in vulnerability to disease.
Infographic by: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

Climate change increases uncertainty. That is, “uncertainty about how marine life and fisheries will fare, but also uncertainty about [whether or not] our strategies for managing and safeguarding them will still be effective if we aren’t considering climate change,”  Daniel Boyce, a marine ecologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told the Independent.

Boyce is the author of ‘A climate risk index for marine life,’ published in Nature Climate Change, and the Canadian preprint study, the latter of which found that climate exposure risk in the Northwest Atlantic is greater for species that are fished, as opposed to those not fished. That finding is in accordance with a 2022 modeling study published in Global Change Biology, which argued global fish stocks will be unable to recover to sustainable levels unless strong actions are taken to mitigate climate change. Examining 226 marine regions over the period from 1950 and projecting to 2100, the researchers found that climate change had reduced fish stocks in nearly half of the regions (103 or 45 per cent), which included Canada.

“In a worst-case scenario, where nothing is done to mitigate global warming, including meeting internationally agreed targets, and where overfishing beyond sustainable targets occurs, fish stocks globally would drop to 36 per cent of current levels,” reads the release.

“We are at a turning point. What we need is a coordinated global effort to develop practical and equitable marine conservation measures to support effective biomass rebuilding under climate change,” said lead author Dr. William Cheung, professor in the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, at the time of the study’s release.

To what extent do fisheries managers rely on climate variables in current management efforts?

“Canada’s current approach to fisheries management fails to adequately consider the effects of climate change. Although we have an abundance of knowledge about how climate change affects marine populations, that information is often missing from DFO’s science and advisory documents,” reports Oceana Canada, arguing only one-third (28 per cent) of Canadian wild fish stocks consider climate change effects in official science and management documents, despite evidence being available for around 82 per cent of these stocks in peer-reviewed literature.

Only one-third of Canadian wild fish stocks consider climate change effects in official science and management documents, despite evidence being available for around 82 percent of these stocks in peer-reviewed literature. Source: Oceana Canada 2022 Fishery Audit
Illustration by: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

“We have well over 200 stocks that Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently managing. And they have different levels of data availability and climate knowledge… We want to see good data, we want to see methods that incorporate that climate information into the population assessment models in order to make good climate-informed decisions with respect to fisheries management. At the other end of the spectrum, we have quite a few stocks that are data-limited, so we don’t have good monitoring data, we don’t have any environmental data, [and] the population assessment models are lacking,” says Boyce . Boyce joined DFO last year in hopes of supporting climate adaptation initiatives in Canadian fisheries management – in particular, to see climate data incorporated not just some of the time, but every time. 

A major impediment to this goal, is the lack of dedicated resources to gather and use climate data. Take for  example–as Seasplainer reported in June 2022–the  decision last year to cut the full stock assessment of Northern cod due to data gaps. Maintenance issues with a research vessel shut down the 2021 fall at-sea multispecies survey. This month, DFO once again confirms it’s unable to complete a 2022 fall survey, which means another year of data gaps for 2023 stock assessments for species like cod, snow crab and shrimp. This year, at least, the cause is to run a “calibration exercise” to ensure newly collected data is comparable to DFO’s existing time-series data. Doing so will help contribute to good science in the long-run. Still, it’s also discouraging to scientists and stakeholders wanting to have the best-available evidence in hand to inform stock management decisions, especially for critically depleted marine species.

“It is absolutely difficult for all dealing with such a dramatic change,” says Brian Healey, division manager of aquatic resources at DFO in St. John’s. “It impacts decision-making, it impacts stakeholders, and our ability to provide advice for the Canadian public. And it impacts [our] science team and how they work in terms of the information they’ll have in future years to conduct the research and produce advice.”

Where can fisheries managers start?

In Canada, 2019 regulations added to the Fisheries Act, require Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to restore the health of ‘prescribed fish stocks.’  There are already 30 fish species on that list such as Atlantic cod and mackerel, which were the first in line for rebuilding plans under the Act’s fish stock provisions. Now, DFO has a public consultation underway, open for comment until December 19, for adding a second batch of 62 fish stocks

But keep in mind that current fisheries management plans short-change the growing negative effects of climate change. The newly released climate risk framework provides a 12-indicator scorecard for assessing species’ sensitivity, exposure and adaptivity to climate change. Boyce says the scorecard can help fisheries managers figure out where to focus their attention first.

12 climate indicators across three dimensions that comprise the climate risk scorecard for marine species. Source: Boyce et al (2022), Nature Climate Change  Point one - Sensitivity (current): Thermal safety margin; Vertical habitat use; Anthropogenic stressors; Conservation status.  Point two - Exposure (future): Ecosystem disruption; Time of climate emergence; Thermal habitat loss; Climate velocity.  Point three - Adaptivity (innate): Thermal habitat variability; Geographic range extent; Maximum body length; Habitat fragmentation.
Infographic by: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

“The analogy that I always use is a triaging system. Climate change has been happening for a while, we’re in the emergency room right now. We need to deploy resources, we need to adapt right now, all of our fisheries, and we can’t do that. We don’t have the resources. So, we need to be able to prioritize which species are most at risk, which are most in urgent need of adaptation efforts? And I think our study and the scorecard can help to do that,” says Boyce.

Meanwhile, Oceana Canada suggests a four-pronged approach to addressing climate change effects in fisheries science and management. Like Boyce, Oceana recommends: 1) the effects of climate change are considered consistently in the science, which informs fisheries management decisions;  2) resources are directed to those stocks most vulnerable to climate change; 3) a new “climate change considerations” section is added to  all DFO Science Advisory Reports; and finally, 4)  DFO develops a national climate change adaptation strategy for fisheries management in Canada.

Above all, one thing is clear regarding climate change: the proverbial train has left the station, and fisheries managers better get on board fast. Otherwise, the future of Canada’s wild fisheries–and the communities that depend on them–is in jeopardy.

To ensure Seasplainer brings reliable evidence and trusted experience to its reporting, each issue will continue to be reviewed by those with on-the-ground, bench, or policy expertise. For those interested in offering ideas for the series, or participating as reviewers, please reach out to Jenn and Leila at: [email protected]

Seasplainer is The Independent’s monthly fisheries and oceans explainer series by journalists Jenn Thornhill Verma and Leila Beaudoin. Canada is a country of coastlines – the longest on the planet. The magnitude of that coastline is only overshadowed by the knowledge of those who call these coastlines home. Seasplainer travels to the boots and boats in harbours of the Northwest Atlantic to relay the best-available evidence on fisheries and oceans in Canada. Our explainer series covers a range of topics relevant to fisheries management, marine biodiversity, oceans climate, environment, natural resources and more. Each issue is reviewed by those with on-the-ground, bench or policy strengths and expertise. Reach us at [email protected]

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