By Caroline Fouvet
The global fish trade has seen unprecedented growth over the past 40 years, rising by 515% and amounting to US$148 billion in exports in 2014. Expanding fishery production and globalised markets combined with a higher demand have led to the overexploitation of the planet’s fish resources. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 90% of fish stocks are now fully or overfished and some species such as tuna are particularly affected. Now, in addition to unsustainable fishing practices, climate change is exacerbating an already dire problem through impacts like ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures.
A threat to marine life
Climate change compounds an already worrisome situation by threatening fish populations in their natural habitat. The combination of increased sea temperatures and more acidic waters – triggered by the absorption of substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into oceans – is leading to new distribution patterns and shifting some species from their usual environment. This can already be observed in the UK where Scottish fishermen are now finding squid, a Mediterranean species, in the North Sea. More acidic waters also mean that coral reefs, which protect thousands of fish, are destroyed and marine creatures, such as crabs or scallops, might struggle to form their shells.
This situation has important socioeconomic consequences at the global level. First, food security is endangered in a world that will count approximately 9 billion people by 2050. Developing countries where diets predominantly include fish, as in Bangladesh for example, are at risk of losing an essential component of their daily diet. The fact that 22 of the 30 principal fish consuming-nations fall under the UN’s “low-income, food deficit category” category clearly illustrates this concern.
Moreover, the exacerbating effects of climate change are threatening the fishing industry. According to the World Bank, coastal areas within 100 km of the ocean account for an estimated 61% of the world’s total Gross Domestic Product, while 10-12% of the world’s population works in fisheries and aquaculture. New migration patterns along with the difficulty for fish to genetically adapt to warmer waters can lead to the disappearance of commonly fished species, destroying an essential source of income.
Adapting fishing practices
Is it then possible for societies to adapt to these new trends? The answer is yes, so long as we develop sustainable management practices. Aquaculture is a rising sector that has grown substantially over the last few years, and has gone from producing over 25 tons of seafood in 1995 to more than 73 in 2014. Sea farming has the potential to minimise climate change consequences on seafood production although it remains a challenge, as would-be farmers must face high investment costs and slow returns. What is more, aquaculture can have significant environmental footprints, as shrimp farming for instance is believed to have led to a three-million-hectare loss of coastal wetlands worldwide. Eco-friendly sea farms that are also climate-resilient should then become mainstreamed.
Furthermore, to avoid conflicts that may arise due to fish migration to new territorial waters, countries should closely monitor fishing practices and ensure the enforcement of fishing quotas. The FAO recommends that fishery management plans are implemented to secure long-term conservation and management objectives.
The future of seas and oceans lies in our ability to both modify our consumption patterns and practices related to sea products as well as to sustainably adapt to climate change impacts on the sector. Recent fish migrations show that warmer waters already have an effect on animals and ecosystems. Acting now is essential to avoid major food disruptions and serious economic consequences.