Redfish, bluefish, no fish: Climate change threatens traditional fishing waters
Will red snapper get its due in Congress?

It’s not necessarily going to be a one-way thing, like fish moving north because of the heat.

The chances of climate change causing significant disruption to saltwater fisheries are pretty high, according to a NOAA Fisheries climate vulnerability assessment that’s on its way to finalization.

All of the species examined, with the exception of the Atlantic sturgeon, are at a very high level of exposure to elements of climate change and many have a high sensitivity to those changes, like the gag grouper, goliath grouper, horseshoe crab, and each of the brown, pink and white shrimp species.

Red snapper, notably, has a moderate sensitivity.

“This is the most significant thing — these are the potential for species distributions to change by low, moderate, high and very high (probabilities),” said Roger Pugliese, a habitat and ecosystem scientist with the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC).  

He presented at the SAFMC Habitat Protection and Ecosystem-Based Management Advisory Panel (AP) meetings this week.

“If you begin to look in here, some of the key areas are … some of the deepwater species like rock shrimp and golden crab,” he said, “but then even some other (shallower) species like spiny lobster and Eastern oyster.”

It’s good to know what the Eastern oyster is doing, he said, because of its foundational habitat. Spiny lobster, also known as the rock lobster, has a number of state regulations managing its population in Florida, especially in waters off the Florida Keys. Commercial harvest of the spiny lobster is already suffering a hit because it’s often too expensive for lobster boat crews to live near locations where those boats are based.

“It’s interesting that the higher (chance of redistribution) we go, we’re actually getting even more species, so that’s even more significant numbers of snapper-grouper species (than in other ranges), and then other pelagic species like king mackerel and bluefish,” Pugliese said.     

“A number of those species right there are actually ones that are probably in tougher shape, too.”

It’s not necessarily going to be a one-way thing, like fish moving north because of the heat. Upswells of colder water several years ago off the Florida coast, for instance, led to black sea bass moving south. There’s also what happened with striped bass.

“That one … gives you a good example of species that has both shifted north and offshore,” said Wilson Laney, a North Carolina fishery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I’m talking about the Atlantic migratory stock of striped bass. It used to provide a substantial fishery off the coast of North Carolina.”

To his knowledge, no one has landed a striped bass in North Carolina since 2011.

“(The move offshore) in some respects is good if you’re trying to protect your spawning stock, because all those big females are now hanging out in (federal waters) where fishing for striped bass is prohibited,” Laney said.

There’s some debate as to the extent of what factors are playing the most part in the bass’s move.

Gray triggerfish historically could be found as far north as Canada, but usually only the small ones that get caught in the Gulf stream, Laney added. Now, gray triggerfish of significant size are found in waters off the Mid-Atlantic states.

Researchers used existing knowledge and expert opinions to build out what they understand as species’ climate vulnerabilities, and qualitative data where quantitative data is lacking. Each species is considered through a combination of a dozen factors addressing sensitivity to climate change, along with exposure factors like sea surface temperature, salinity, ocean acidification, currents and sea-level rise.

“It’s important to have the capabilities to monitor all these factors that are affecting (the fishery) as well as the species that are affected, so that can feed into things such as we are talking about,” Pugliese said.

“How do we deal with (it) when these species shift and move into different regions … and how do we deal with changing habitats, too? It’s not just the fish, it’s the habitats, the prey. You’re seeing a lot of changes around.” 

NOAA, in its 2015 climate science strategy, identified as a priority the likelihood of climate change affecting species productivity, abundance or distributions. These factors are also a priority under the South Atlantic Climate Science Regional Action Plan and ecosystem-based fisheries management implementation.

“I think the discussion highlights just how critical this information is,” AP Chair Cindy Cooksey said.

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook:


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