NOAA Study: Climate Change Threatens Important Marine Fish and Invertebrate Species

Atlantic sea scallops are among the species that could be affected by climate change and ocean acidification. Photo Credit:

Congress can deny human-driven climate change, but that does not change the fact that climate change is real, it’s happening now, and it’s negatively impacting our marine ecosystems. As previous studies have shown, the Gulf of Maine, an ecosystem that supports diverse and valuable fisheries, is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans.

Yesterday, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration released a major climate study titled, “A Vulnerability Assessment of Fish and Invertebrates to Climate Change on the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf.” In the study, NOAA scientists evaluated overall vulnerability to climate change as well as the potential for population distribution change. This is the first multispecies assessment of its kind and has already been highlighted by the Boston Globe and the Associated Press.

Climate vulnerability was defined as “a change in a species’ productivity and or abundance associated with changing climate, including both climate change and decadal climate variability.” Ocean surface temperature and ocean acidification were two important factors that contributed to vulnerability.

The researchers evaluated 82 exploited, protected, and ecologically important marine fish and invertebrate species common in waters from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine. They found that half of the species are “highly” (~23%) or “very highly” (~27%) vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Some of these species include Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, winter flounder, ocean quahogs, and bay scallops.

Iconic New England species were also estimated to be negatively impacted, such as Atlantic cod and Atlantic sea scallops. This should be a warning bell for the region’s fisheries: New Bedford, Massachusetts, the most valuable port in the country, relies on landing Atlantic sea scallops and the groundfish industry is already struggling with strict catch limits for Atlantic cod due to the combined effects of overfishing and warming waters.

The data also indicated an inverse relationship between climate vulnerability and the potential for a change in species distribution meaning that a species that exhibits low vulnerability to climate change may be more likely to migrate, likely north, to another region. So even though a species may not necessarily feel the effects of climate change, the ecosystems that the species move out from and into, as well as the associated fisheries, are likely to be impacted by shifting populations.

While the study focused on the impacts of climate change, the researchers emphasize that fishing remains a dominant driver in marine fish and invertebrate population abundance, and it’s the responsibility of regional fishery management councils to incorporate climate science into fisheries management or recognize when data is lacking. Taking an ecosystem-based management approach, which includes protecting ocean habitat where fish can take refuge, will help sustain our fish populations and will benefit our coastal communities and economies that rely on healthy fish populations.

At its January meeting, the New England Fishery Management Council took a precautionary approach to establish new quotas for witch flounder, one of the species determined as highly vulnerable to climate change. Although this was not the basis for their caution, it is safe to say we’ll need to see more of this type of management decision in the face of climate change.


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