Fish Are Moving to Poles, And Management Isn’t Keeping Up

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

As the world’s oceans warm, fish are moving toward the poles where waters are colder. A new study finds that fishing regulations haven’t adapted to the new climate change-fueled reality.

Why This Matters: Fishery managers set limits on when, where, and how many fish of different species can be caught in a given region. Most current policies still assume fish populations are in equilibrium and haven’t taken the shifting population into account. This study can help inform management to update their regulations, which could allow boats to still fish close to their home port.

As the study authors write: “While fisheries in the Northeast United States have a long history of social and economic transformations, climate change has the potential to compound already unprecedented levels of fishing industry consolidation, community decline, and livelihood precarity.”

Overfishing and Climate Change: In New England, the situation of the region’s Atlantic cod highlights the intersection of past fishery management decisions and future ones. Cod is overfished and many of the species’ old spawning grounds have been destroyed, leaving the fish with a near-zero chance of rebuilding their numbers any time soon. Over the past decade, management decisions that didn’t take the rapidly-warming Gulf of Maine into account may have allowed too many fish to be caught. Now, the climate crisis is disrupting spawning and their food source—and leaving fishers increasingly squeezed. 

Perspective from the Fishing Boats: Fishers observe the shifts in the ocean firsthand, giving them unique insight into how fish stocks are changing. But while many of the fishers interviewed for the study noted changes in the fish they could catch and warmer water, they chalked it up to “cyclic changes” and “see scientists over-attributing [outcomes] to climate change.” This perception is also a data point: “Rather than any simple rejection or countering of scientists’ climate change claims,” the authors write, “we find fishers’ theories of environmental change to be important qualifications relative to how climate change is experienced ‘on the ground.’”

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