Why does NOAA Fisheries care about climate change?
Across the United States, changes in our climate and our oceans are having very real and profound effects on communities, businesses, and the natural resources we depend on—including our economically valuable fisheries and coastal habitat. Understanding these changes and measuring their impacts is an important part of NOAA Fisheries’ mission. Every day we work with our partners to provide data and information needed by fishing industries, coastal businesses, local planners, and many others to prepare for and respond to changing conditions.
Our changing climate is affecting life in the oceans, as droughts, floods, rising seas, ocean acidification, and warming oceans change the productivity of our waters and where wildlife live, spawn, and feed. Marine species tend to be highly mobile, and many are moving quickly toward the poles to stay cool as average ocean temperatures rise. These shifts can cause disruptions as predators become separated from their prey. The shifts can also cause economic disruptions if a fish population becomes less productive or moves out of range of the fishermen who catch them.
As a result, fishing industries and coastal businesses face immense challenges. And there is much at risk—marine fisheries and seafood industries support more than $200 billion in economic activity and 1.83 million jobs annually. Coastal habitats also help defend coastal communities from storms and inundation, and provide the foundation for tourism and recreation-based economies in many coastal communities.
For these reasons, NOAA Fisheries is committed to staying ahead of these changes and sustaining our invaluable marine resources for generations to come.
What is NOAA Fisheries doing to take action about climate change?
In 2015, NOAA Fisheries established a national climate science strategy (PDF, 13 pages) to help scientists, fishermen, managers, and coastal businesses better understand what’s changing, what’s at risk, and what actions are needed to safeguard America’s valuable marine resources. In 2016, NOAA released regional action plans with specific actions to help each coastline track its own unique combination of changing conditions, provide better forecasts to help businesses adapt their operations, and identify the best strategies to help local officials reduce impacts and sustain our marine resources.
In addition to our strategy, NOAA Fisheries’ scientists work every day at sea, on shore, and in laboratories to conduct important research that helps us monitor and measure the impact of climate on fisheries. This includes tracking ocean conditions, providing early warnings of climate-related changes, understanding the mechanisms of climate impacts, modeling and projecting future conditions, and using this and other information to evaluate possible options for fisheries management and protected resources conservation in a changing world.
Where are the effects of climate change being felt the most?
We are seeing dramatic changes, particularly in cooler ocean regions like New England and Alaska where warming waters over the past 20 years are pushing fish farther north or deeper to stay in cooler waters. In New England, known for its cod and lobster fishing, ocean temperatures have increased faster than in many other parts of the world. Changes in the distribution and abundance of these and other species have affected where and when fishermen fish and what they catch, with economic impacts rippling into the coastal communities and seafood businesses. With better information on current and future shifts in fish stocks, fisheries managers and fishing industries can better plan for and respond to changing ocean conditions.
But not all change is bad. As southern fish species like black sea bass spread northward along the East Coast, they may provide opportunities for additional commercial or recreational fisheries. Changing conditions may also stimulate more opportunities for other marine-related businesses, such as fish and shellfish farming. Better information on when, where, and how marine resources are changing is critical to taking advantage of future opportunities and increasing the resilience of our fisheries and fishing communities.
How is climate change affecting warmer regions like the tropics?
Communities and economies in southern states are also being affected by changing climate and ocean conditions. Due to rising seas and sinking lands, every hour, Louisiana loses coastal wetlands the size of a football field to the sea. The loss of these essential nursery areas for shrimp, oysters, crabs, and many other commercial and recreationally important seafood species has significant impacts on fisheries, seafood industries, and coastal communities. Better information and on-the-ground action can reduce these impacts and help sustain these vital habitats and the many benefits they provide.
In the Pacific and Caribbean, we’re seeing bleaching and destruction of vitally important coral reef environments associated with warming seas. Although they cover only 1 percent of the planet, coral reefs are home to 25 percent of all marine species, and upwards of 40 million people rely on coral reefs for the seafood they provide. The loss of coral reefs also makes coastal communities more vulnerable to storm events. Coral reefs in Puerto Rico, for instance, help prevent an estimated $94 million in flood damages every year. NOAA’s Coral Reef Early Warning System has already helped decision-makers take action to increase resilience of valuable reef ecosystems to warming seas and other threats.
How is climate change affecting colder regions like the poles?
Warming at more than twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth, the Arctic is on the front lines of climate change. And with melting sea ice come new opportunities for commercial activities like fishing, transportation, and energy extraction. For these reasons, NOAA Fisheries takes part in national and international scientific efforts to measure and monitor changes in fisheries and endangered marine mammals like whales and ice seals.
By way of Alaska, the United States is an Arctic nation and is part of an eight-nation Arctic Council dedicated to cooperative science efforts to protect indigenous peoples, ensure international security, and responsibly pursue economic opportunities. NOAA Fisheries provides valuable information on biological resources, endangered resources, and oceanic changes to help council members make decisions to maximize opportunities and minimize dangers to these resources.
On the opposite side of the world, NOAA Fisheries also plays an important role in providing data and information that the United States and other nations use to understand dramatic changes happening on and around the Antarctic continent. Our Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division monitors important indicators of changes in the climate that affect polar fisheries and other sea life, such as water density, current patterns, and changes in the abundance of krill and other zooplankton that are the base of the polar food chain.
What is ocean acidification? What does it have to do with climate change?
Ocean acidification refers to the oceans becoming more acidic, and is often called “climate change’s evil twin.” Like a sponge, our oceans are absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
This exchange helps to regulate the planet’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, but comes at a cost for the oceans and life within it—from the smallest, single-celled algae to the largest whales. Over the past 200 years, the world’s seas have absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon from human activities. That’s a worldwide average of 15 pounds of carbon per person per week—enough to fill a train long enough to encircle the equator 13 times every year. Carbon dioxide concentrations are now higher than at any time during the past 800,000 years, and the current rate of increase is likely unprecedented. Were it not for ocean uptake of carbon dioxide, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would be increasing at an even greater rate than they are now.
What is the NOAA Fisheries Climate Science Strategy?
The NOAA Fisheries Climate Science Strategy (PDF, 13 pages) is part of a proactive approach to increase the production, delivery, and use of climate-related information in fulfilling NOAA Fisheries’ mandates. The Strategy identifies seven objectives that will provide decision-makers with the information they need to reduce impacts and increase resilience in a changing climate.
- Identify appropriate, climate-informed reference points for managing living marine resources (LMRs).
- Identify robust strategies for managing LMRs under changing climate conditions.
- Design adaptive decision processes that can incorporate and respond to changing climate conditions.
- Identify future states of marine, coastal, and freshwater ecosystems, LMRs, and LMR-dependent human communities in a changing climate.
- Identify the mechanisms of climate impacts on ecosystems, LMRs, and LMR-dependent human communities.
- Track trends in ecosystems, LMRs, and LMR-dependent human communities and provide early warning of change.
- Build and maintain the science infrastructure needed to fulfill NOAA Fisheries’ mandates under changing climate conditions.
What is NOAA Fisheries doing now to meet the objectives of the strategy?
The NOAA Fisheries Climate Science Strategy provides a national framework designed to be customized and implemented in each region through NOAA’s regional fisheries science centers, regional offices, and partnerships. While some impacts of climate change on living marine resources are shared across regions, each region has a unique combination of climate-related challenges, capabilities, and information needs that will need to be addressed in implementing the strategy.
NOAA Fisheries will work with partners to develop regional action plans to identify strengths, weaknesses, priorities, and actions to implement the strategy in each region over the next five years. The strategy also identified a series of priority near-term actions that address urgent common needs across the seven science objectives. These actions are designed to produce high returns on investment and meet urgent needs across mandates and regions.
What can I do? Are there any tools for the public?
With our nation's coastal communities and fishing industries particularly vulnerable to climate change, NOAA offers tools to help citizens and businesses understand changes happening around them and in the marine ecosystem.
In addition, the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, accessible via Climate.gov, offers data-driven tools, information, and subject-matter expertise to help people make smart decisions. The toolkit offers information from across the federal government in one easy-to-use location so that Americans can better understand the climate-related risks and opportunities affecting their communities and take steps to improve resilience.
NOAA Fisheries also provides detailed information on the vulnerability of fish stocks, marine species distributions, and international data portals to help outside organizations understand specific changes related to our fisheries.