CARMEL, California — Fishing is instrumental to business and food supply in many parts of the world, but climate change could throw the system out of line and push many fishing populations into food insecurity and poverty.
Fishing is an enormous industry that extends across the globe. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the fishing industry brought in 150 million metric tons of seafood in 2012, totaling $200 billion. In addition, fish is a crucial, staple protein source for populations around the world, especially in impoverished, indigenous or island populations. Unfortunately, the industry is made difficult by fights over waters and environmental concerns.
Climate change will further complicate the fishing business. Fish populations could take a steep decline as oceans warm, causing repercussions for the populations that rely on the source of income. Scientists estimate that by 2060, 40 percent of fish in the tropics could disappear.
Indonesia is likely to be hit especially hard, with a potential 20 percent decrease by 2055. Kenya, as well, will see substantially less of certain species that use coral beds to breed because of mass deaths of coral across reefs. Even places as far north as Oregon will see losses in their oyster beds.
Much of the decrease in numbers will be caused by fish moving to cooler waters as climate change affects their normal habitats and makes them inhospitably warm. “Fish are very sensitive to temperatures, and when the temperatures warm because of climate change, fish will move away. And some of the species — those that can’t swim far — may locally go extinct,” says William Cheung at the University of British Columbia.
Ocean acidification will compound the problem. “We think that our estimates should be considered conservative because adding ocean acidification into the equation would further decrease future fishery potential,” says Cheung. Waters become more acidic as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide. This causes animals’ shells to become weaker or causes processes to cease functioning, leading to further drops in populations.
Harm to the global fish populations could be catastrophic for the communities that rely on the industry for income and food. “You have lots of people living at the edge of the sea. They depend on fisheries, not in the way we do in northern countries. So income-wise and consumption-wise, they are affected directly by the decline in catch,” says Daniel Pauly, an investigator at the University of British Columbia’s Sea Round Us project.
Fishing is sometimes the only profitable business opportunity for impoverished populations and a decrease in fish could lead to an increase in poverty within these communities. For example, indigenous populations in Alaska will suffer greatly from climate change and the resulting loss of crab. The communities already live in incredible poverty and have few other opportunities for income, but this will become worse as oceans become more acidic.
Additionally, in Ghana, fish losses already make fishery a difficult business to live off of and fishermen are turning to cheap child labor to boost profits. The Persian Gulf will also be hit hard, pushing thousands of fishermen deeper into poverty.
“We went beyond the traditional approach of looking at dollars lost or species impacted; we know these fisheries are lifelines for native communities and what we’ve learned will help them adapt to a changing ocean environment,” says Jeremy Mathis, co-author of a study on Alaskan fisheries – though his statement can be applied to most regions. Essentially, a decrease in fish will cause poverty in the communities that depend on these species for their livelihood.
Fluctuations in fish populations because of climate change will also impact food security around the world. 20 percent of the world’s population relies on fish for their main source of protein and these rates are higher among coastal or island populations.
A report from Oceana examined the risk of food insecurity from dying fish populations in fishing communities from the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. The report found that Iran, Libya and Kuwait are home to some of the most at-risk populations. Basically, less fish could mean less food and vital protein for many communities across the world, with drastic repercussions like huge rates of malnutrition.
“In the tropics, climate change [means]fewer marine species and reduced catches, with serious implications for food security,” says Cheung, summarizing the looming dangers.
Climate change is an impending problem and there is little to be done to stop it fully, but there are ways local communities can prepare themselves and cope with decreasing fish populations. Allowing fish a safe habitat to breed and grow up and placing limits on how much can be fished at certain times of the year allows for healthier populations.
Kenya, for example, works to control its fishermen through policies that mandate protected habitats and prohibit dangerous equipment like drag nets. Indonesia is also working on building its fish management sector and protecting its marine life and it is already seeing rises in income and tourism in the community.
While we cannot put the breaks on climate change, communities do have the ability to protect their people and fish populations through local dedication to marine safety. It is essential that steps are taken to prepare communities in order to prevent widespread poverty and malnutrition as fish populations adjust to warmer waters.
– Caitlin Thompson