Fish fight: Climate change hits fisheries in the North East Atlantic

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Atlantic herring

Joachim S. Miller/flickr

(This post was co-authored by Claire Swingle.)

Climate change in the oceans is happening now and it’s happening very quickly. A newly-published study by University of Queensland marine ecologists found that the "leading edge or ‘front line’ of marine species’ distribution is moving towards the poles at an average rate of 72 KM per decade.”

This isn’t merely an academic matter; already, fish migration in response to warming oceans is having real-world effects. Take, for example, the herring and mackerel fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic.

Our international fishing agreements are not nimble enough to respond as fast as the oceans are changing.

The European Union (EU), Norway, Russia, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland all catch herring and mackerel in the North East Atlantic. These nations have traditionally shared the fish under a multilateral agreement that set a sustainable limit on the total catch, which they divided equitably. However, as climate change increases ocean temperatures, mackerel and herring have increasingly migrated north to cooler waters, disrupting this agreement.

As the fishes’ range changes, Iceland and the Faroese say that more of the fish are now found in their Exclusive Economic Zones (waters closest to their shores where, under international law, they have sole control over resources). They claim that their traditional share of the total allowable catch (TAC) is no longer fair, and that, with the increasing numbers of herring and mackerel in their territorial waters, they deserve a larger share. Meanwhile, the EU and Norway do not want to forfeit a share of the fish they have come to depend on catching. As a result, there has been no multilateral quota agreement since 2010.

Overfishing the resource

The herring and mackerel moved northward to escape warming waters resulting from climate change. This didn’t happen gradually, but over just a few years. For example, as recently as 2006, mackerel caught by the fishing industries of Iceland or the Faroe Islands accounted for just 5% of the North East Atlantic TAC. By 2011, Iceland and the Faroe Islands accounted for about 47% of the total.

Meanwhile, the EU and Norway still claimed rights to 90% of the TAC for mackerel. As a result, mackerel and herring have been fished well beyond the scientifically recommended levels. In 2012, scientists advised that total catch not exceed 639,000 tons. The estimated total caught that year was around 930,000 tons.

Overfishing on this scale will rapidly deplete the resource. In fact, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which sets international standards for sustainability, suspended its certification of the North East Atlantic mackerel fishery in 2012, and that of Faroese herring earlier this year because the dispute meant that governments could no longer assure proper controls on catches. In addition, the European Commission recently placed sanctions on the Faroe Islands, banning imports of both herring and mackerel from the islands, and indicated that sanctions against Iceland could soon follow.

But the real problem is that our international fishing agreements are not nimble enough to respond as fast as the oceans are changing. As the diplomats and fisheries experts negotiate, mackerel and herring continue to be overfished, jeopardizing the long term sustainability of these stocks.

The mackerel and herring dispute in the North East Atlantic is just a harbinger of things to come. More such disputes are probably on the horizon, as fish populations migrate in response to changes in ocean temperatures. As global warming alters the world’s oceans, fish diplomacy is sailing into uncharted waters.

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Jessica Landman

Jessica Landman

Jessica Landman, based in Washington, is a senior project director for EDF's Oceans program.

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