The Regional Impacts of Climate Change

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8.3.6. Food and Fiber: Fisheries and Aquatic Systems

Although there is considerable uncertainty about the physical changes and response of the various freshwater and marine species, it is possible to suggest how certain species may respond to projected climate changes over the next 50-100 years. The uncertainties highlight the importance of research to separate the impacts of changing climate from natural population fluctuations and fishing effects. Many commercial finfish populations already are under pressure (e.g., overexploited), and global change may be of minor concern compared with the impacts of ongoing and future commercial fishing and human use or impacts on the coastal zone. Further, changes in the variability of climate may have more serious consequences on the abundance and distribution of fisheries than changes in mean conditions alone (Katz and Brown, 1992), and changes in future climate variability are poorly understood at this time.

Fish, including shellfish, respond directly to climate fluctuations, as well as to changes in their biological environment (predators, prey, species interactions, disease) and fishing pressures. Although this multiforcing sometimes makes it difficult to establish unequivocal linkages between changes in the physical environment and the responses of fish or shellfish stocks, some effects are clear (see reviews by Cushing and Dickson, 1976; Bakun et al., 1982; Cushing, 1982; Sheppard et al., 1984; Sissenwine, 1984; and Sharp, 1987). These effects include changes in the growth and reproduction of individual fish, as well as the distribution and abundance of fish populations. In terms of abundance, the influence occurs principally through effects on recruitment (how many young survive long enough to potentially enter the fishery) but in some cases may be related to direct mortality of adult fish.

Fish carrying capacity in aquatic ecosystems is a function of the biology of a particular species and its interrelationship with its environment and associated species. Specific factors that regulate the carrying capacity are poorly known for virtually all species, but some general statements can be made with some confidence. Fish are affected by their environment through four main processes (Sheppard et al., 1984):

Fish are influenced not only by temperature and salinity conditions but also by mixing and transport processes (e.g., mixing can affect primary production by promoting nutrient replenishment of the surface layers; it also can influence the encounter rate between larvae and prey organisms). Ichthyoplankton (fish eggs and larvae) can be dispersed by the currents, which may carry them into or away from areas of good food production, or into or out of optimal temperature or salinity conditions-and perhaps, ultimately determine whether they are lost to the original population.

Climate is only one of several factors that regulate fish abundance. Managers attempt to model abundance trends in relation to fishing effects in order to sustain fisheries. In theory, a successful model could account for global warming impacts along with other impacts without understanding them. For many species of fish, the natural mortality rate is an inverse function of age: Longer-lived fish will be affected by natural changes differently than shorter-lived fish. If the atmosphere-freshwater-ocean regime is stable for a particular time, it is possible to estimate the age-specific mortality rates for a species of interest. However, at least some parts of the atmosphere-freshwater-ocean system are prone to oscillations on a decadal scale, which may not be cyclical. These natural changes occur globally; thus, they will have impacts on the freshwater and marine ecosystems that support North American fish populations. Under natural conditions, it may be expected that the different life histories of these fish will result in different times of adjustment to a new set of environmental conditions.

Any effects of climate change on fisheries are expected to be most pronounced in sectors that already are characterized by full utilization, large overcapacities of harvesting and processing, and sharp conflicts among users and competing uses of aquatic ecosystems. Climate change impacts, including changes in natural climate variability on seasonal to interannual time scales, are likely to exacerbate existing stresses on fish stocks. The effectiveness of actions to reduce the decline of fisheries depends on our ability to distinguish among these stresses and other causes of change and on our ability to effectively deal with those over which we have control or for which we have adaptation options. This ability is insufficient at present; although the effects of environmental variability are increasingly recognized, the contribution of climate change to such variability is not yet clear.

Recreational fishing is a highly valued activity that could incur losses in some regions as a result of climate-induced changes in fisheries.

Recreational fishing is a highly valued activity within North America. In the United States, for example, 45 million anglers participate annually; they contribute to the economy through spending on fishing and related activities (US$24 billion in 1991). The net economic effect of changes in recreational fishing opportunities as a result of climate-induced changes in fisheries is dependent on whether projected gains in cool- and warm-water fisheries offset losses in cold-water fisheries. Work by Stefan et al. (1993) suggests mixed results for the United States, ranging from annual losses of US$85-320 million to benefits of about US$80 million under a number of GCM projections. A sensitivity analysis (U.S. EPA, 1995) was conducted to test the assumption of costless transitions across these fisheries. This analysis assumed that best-use cold-water fishery losses caused by thermal changes were effectively lost recreational services. Under this assumption, all scenarios resulted in damages, with losses of US$619-1,129 million annually.


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