Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

IPCC Highlights Ocean Warming

Sea surface temperatures were unusually high in 2012, particularly in the western Atlantic. Image: NOAA Climate

The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) includes a greater focus on what climate change is doing to our oceans than have past reports from these Nobel-laureate scientists, and there’s a good reason for that. The oceans have been absorbing the bulk of the heat from a changing climate and are beginning to show the effects of that warming.

As U.N. World Meteorological Organization chief Michel Jarraud pointed out, sea temperatures have been rising fast as “more than 90 percent of the excess energy trapped by greenhouse gases is stored in the oceans.”

This has immediate implications for New England, where sea temperatures have hit historic highs and fisheries officials are close to a major decision that could determine how fish populations will fare in a changing climate.

As regular Talking Fish readers already know, the Northeastern U.S. has experienced record warming of waters—far greater than most other coastal regions of the country. Ocean ecosystems here are already showing some of the impacts in the form of disruption to the ocean food web and mass mortality of nesting seabirds. Fishermen and scientists are reporting on the movement of fish populations as species seek cooler water.

The IPCC report recognizes many of these marine effects of climate change on a global scale, from shifting species distribution to ocean acidification to changes in primary productivity to smaller maximum fish sizes. The report is also the latest scientific statement that we must both address the causes of climate change and act to adapt to the warming that is already underway—including actions that will help natural systems adapt.

Scientists at NOAA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and other federal and state agencies laid out a common-sense strategy in a federal adaptation plan for wildlife. The plan’s top goal to help fish is to protect ocean habitat. Reducing the other stresses on fish populations can help make them more resilient in the face of warming.

Unfortunately, fishery managers in New England—home to some of the country’s most rapidly warming waters—are about to move in the wrong direction by reducing habitat protections. Shortsighted proposals from the commercial fishing industry would slash protected areas—including critical habitat like Cashes Ledge—by some 70 percent, just when fish need this protection more than ever.


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