We can still save our oceans and fisheries. New study shows how.

Merrick Burden

For years, scientists have warned that climate change, along with overfishing, would devastate oceans and the fisheries that depend on them. Fishermen worldwide are already feeling the impact of warming oceans as fish move and stocks dwindle.

But a new study shows that if we adopt sustainable fishing practices today and keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, we can change this trajectory. Not only would the decline be halted – we could actually boost sustainable production from our fisheries by $14 billion by 2030.

Under this scenario, there would be 25 billion additional meals of seafood compared with today, and 217 million more metric tons of fish in the sea. That’s nearly one-third more fish than oceans contain now.

These surprisingly positive results were published today in the journal Science Advances after a two-year study I undertook with colleagues at Environmental Defense Fund, the University of California Santa Barbara and institutions around the world.

We wanted to find out whether we could rebuild already-struggling fisheries in the face of warming oceans, and what the consequences of inaction would be.

Millions of lives at stake – unless we act now

To raise productivity from the oceans and secure food for the billions who depend on them, nations must work quickly and collaboratively to limit carbon emissions and to adopt sustainable and adaptive fisheries management. If they don’t, 80 percent of the world’s fisheries will be in serious trouble by 2030, up from 33 percent today, our study found.

Already now, 845 million people are facing serious malnutrition because of failed fishing policies. Failure to adapt to a changing climate soon will likely result in declining fish populations, increased conflict between nations as fish move out of their usual grounds, and reduced ability to feed a human population projected to exceed 8 billion a decade from now.

Inaction will hit developing nations the hardest. As ocean water warms, many fish species will be shifting away from the equator toward the poles and further offshore where it’s cooler.

Equatorial nations, many of which are highly dependent on seafood as a source of food and income and may lack the economic means to adapt, will suffer most if we don’t adopt more sustainable fishing practices and keep climate change in check.

 Some nations are already reforming fisheries

The amount of warming we experience by 2100 will make a big difference for whether global fisheries can see gains in fish and prosperity.

If we can limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, we can help the world’s fisheries turn around. If warming exceeds 4 degrees, our study showed, our ability to produce food from our oceans will plummet with potentially dire effects for billions of people.

Thankfully, we’re already seeing signs of hope. A growing number of nations today are adopting sustainable fishing reforms. In countries such as Chile and Peru, where fish move freely across national ocean borders, scientists are now coming together to address long-standing fishery challenges amid climate change. 

We hope our study will serve as a wakeup call to more governments to follow suit, because we truly do have the power to change the future. If we work together to manage fishing more responsibly and address global warming – now – we can still secure our food supply for generations to come.

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