Q: What makes fisheries vulnerable to climate?
In the medium term, when a rebuilding plan is put in place under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it goes along with approximately 10-year projection of what level of fishing is sustainable to get the stock back to a non-overfishing condition. If climate change or decadal climate variability is not included in the rebuilding plan, then the rebuilding targets may be off. They may be too favorable or too pessimistic.
In the longer-term, from the fishing industry’s point of view: a lot of infrastructure and longer-term financial decisions are largely based on an assumption that the conditions will be similar out into the future to what they are now. But climate change changes that assumption. The conditions in the future are going to be a warmer ocean and that’s going to affect fishery stocks, some positively and some negatively.
Q: A few years ago, you were involved in a study of Atlantic Croaker that found the species is likely to see stocks increase due to climate change. Is that unique in the industry?
I think in any particular region, some species will benefit from climate change and some species will be negatively impacted by climate change. In the Northeast region, the work that has been done to date suggests that Atlantic Cod will be negatively impacted and Atlantic Croaker will be positively impacted. As we do more work and start applying the Climate Vulnerability Assessment protocol, we’re likely to start seeing that there’s a group of species that are negatively impacted, a group of species that might not be impacted or are neutral, and then a group of species that may be positively impacted.
And that’s what you’re trying to figure out with this vulnerability study…
Correct. The Fisheries Climate Vulnerability Assessment takes a look at most of the exploited fisheries and shellfish species in the Northeast region. Seventy-nine species were included and the assessment will develop a relative vulnerability of each species to climate change. So a species that’s “highly vulnerable” to climate change is highly vulnerable in the context of the 79 species we assessed. That’s why we included such a large number of species—to really try to cover a large range. When you look at a species in the assessment context, you have a lot of information to compare it to.
Q: Are there specific tools currently available for people interested in how climate is affecting fisheries?
There are specific tools, but at this point they’re very technical. It hasn’t really been opened up into a user-friendly toolbox that anyone would be able to use. There are projects I’m aware of that are trying to develop these user-friendly end products so that a greater number of people can look at the effects of climate change on a population without having a very technical understanding of the models. But this is still at a very “research and development” stage right now. The tools at this point are very technical.
That’s one thing that stands this Climate Fisheries Vulnerability Assessment apart from the rest. It’s a qualitative assessment. It’s largely based on expert opinion—taking what research is available and using experts to decipher that information and assess the relative vulnerability of a large number of stocks. That’s not as much a technical tool as it is a qualitative tool that can be used for a large number of species.
Q: You said a lot of the tools that currently exist are very technical. What sort of tools in the future do you think could be helpful?
I’m involved in a project being led out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The idea is to take the very technical model and then put sort of a dashboard on top, which would allow a more general user to explore the model without needing the technical skills to reprogram it. This specific case is sea scallops and ocean acidification. A user could say: “What if ocean acidification increased at a more rapid rate?” and then they’d be able to slide a toggle and look at the response of the sea scallop population. Or “What if ocean acidification proceeded more slowly?” and they’d be able to slide the toggle and see the population. The specific implementation of the dashboard is still being designed, but the general idea is to make the technical models available to more general users and decision-makers.
It becomes an interface between a decision-maker and a fisherman or someone else in the industry to use these tactile models to understand how populations are going to respond to climate change and potentially to influence the decisions they’re making regarding the resource. That’s a specific example, but I think it can serve as one model for a general application for a whole host of fisheries, fisheries management counsels, for industry, and for the science side of things.
Q: Do you know if there’s a plan to branch this assessment out to the other U.S. fisheries regions?
It was developed as a national protocol to be implemented regionally. There are discussions going on now that it’s been developed and trialed in the Northeast. There is interest in doing this assessment in the remaining five regions—Alaska, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast, and Pacific Islands—but right now it’s in the discussions point of how does that happen. But it was designed to be a national protocol that would work in any one of the six fisheries regions around the country. In the Northeast, we just happen to be the first ones to do it.