Managing Fisheries in a Changing Ocean

commercial-fishing-boatAs the conditions in the Earth’s oceans change due to rising ocean temperatures, among other things, the size and location of fish populations may also change. So, can federal agencies anticipate and plan for the effects of these changes on specific types of fish?

For today’s World Oceans Day, the WatchBlog explores the National Marine Fisheries Service’s efforts to successfully manage federal fisheries in light of changing ocean conditions.

Potential effects

Commercial and recreational marine fisheries are critical to the nation’s economy—they contributed approximately $100 billion to GDP and over 1.8 million jobs in 2014.

However, these fisheries may be vulnerable to changes—such as warmer surface temperatures and higher acidity levels—which could affect the abundance and distribution of fish populations. These changes could also have economic consequences for communities and industries that depend on fishing. For example, it could mean that some commercially and recreationally important fish species may become scarcer.

Atlantic Cod(Excerpted from GAO-16-827)

Trawling the data

We looked into how the National Marine Fisheries Service manages federal fisheries and found that it has general information about the effects of climate change on fisheries, but limited information about the effects on specific fish stocks.

For example, officials managing fish stocks around Alaska reported that they can project the potential effects of climate change on fish abundance for 3 of the region’s 35 primary stocks.

Northern Rock Sole

(Excerpted from GAO-16-827)

However, the full range of the effects of climate change on these fish populations is unclear. For example, the northern rock sole—a flat fish with both eyes on one side of its head, as shown to the right—may do better under warmer ocean conditions since they can adjust their diets to survive in a variety of habitats. Yet, it is unknown if warming oceans will affect when or where the northern rock sole spawns.

NMFS also identified several challenges to better understanding the effects of climate change on fisheries, such as determining the extent to which a change in a fish species is caused by climate change, natural variation in the oceans, or other human or environmental factors.

Building a cohesive strategy

In 2015, NMFS developed a strategy to help increase the use of climate information in its fisheries management. However, we found that this strategy doesn’t provide specific guidance on how climate information should be incorporated into fisheries management by NMFS’s regions.

To find out more about our recommendations to NMFS on fisheries management, check out our full report.


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