November 7, 2022
From November 6th to 18th, the world will convene at the UNFCCC’s 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) along the shores of the Red Sea in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Here, we cover how harvest strategies are a valuable tool for climate change adaptation and why it’s important they receive attention at the upcoming meeting.
I. Harvest strategies for climate change resilience
Making sound fisheries management decisions requires understanding how many fish are in the ocean, where they spend their time, and how many new fish we can expect to survive to adulthood in coming years. In an ocean that covers 70% of the planet and averages 4,000 meters deep, these questions are not easy to answer, and countless fisheries scientists have dedicated their careers to finding out.
Whereas traditional fisheries science is already like playing chess against a grand master, climate change is like having a toddler next to the board who’s constantly rearranging the pieces. Warming oceans are causing fish to appear in places where they never have before, which has already caused international conflicts around marine resources. Other impacts from climate change and greenhouse gases like ocean acidification, deoxygenation, and changing currents may further contribute to marine life appearing in new regions without management measures in place, altering ecosystem dynamics, and rising or crashing from climate change impacts with little warning. The outlook is worrisome.
To make fisheries more resilient to climate change, experts are calling for adaptive management practices that can allow fisheries to adjust as quickly as possible to account for new conditions or information. Many species, particularly high-value ones that are governed internationally, often require long and tedious political processes to make management decisions. This leaves them ill-prepared for a future where changes may happen rapidly. Harvest strategies are the ultimate adaptive management approach for fisheries, and scientists in countries like the United States are advocating for their wider adoption to build resilience.
Why are harvest strategies our best bet for fisheries management in a changing climate? In harvest strategies, catch limits or other measures can be directly tied to indicators of fishing activity and environmental conditions that may be sensitive to climate change impacts. When informed by a thorough management strategy evaluation that compares a range of potential future scenarios, a harvest strategy can allow fisheries to adjust regulations in real time with changes in the environment that impact fish abundance and distribution. This can also include delayed impacts with indicators that influence future growth and recruitment. Extensive scientific research has demonstrated the ability for harvest strategies to account for climate change for tuna, flatfish, sablefish, and many others.
In addition to informing catch limits, harvest strategies also support other characteristics scientists have found are important for climate resilient fisheries:
II. Taking action at COP27
Among key agenda items at COP27 are food security, agricultural and food systems, adaptation and resilience, and ocean and coastal zones. Marine fisheries supply 80 million tons of protein around the world, contribute $270 billion annually to the “Blue Economy” and are the dominant source of income and food in many countries.
Fisheries will surely be a frequent point of discussion at official meetings and side events for COP27, and never has there been a more important time to embrace the potential for harvest strategies as a tool to build climate change resilience for coastal communities and the blue economy. It’s also a poignant moment, as many of the countries that have the most to gain from harvest strategies are also expected to face the greatest impacts from climate change overall.
Small Island Developing States in the Pacific are facing threats like sea-level rise, extreme storms, and coral bleaching. Many of these, such as Tokelau, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia, have been called “tuna-dependent”, with tuna fisheries being the majority of protein and up to 84% of government revenue (average 37%). Sustainable management of these important fisheries will be critical to supporting these countries, especially as they weather other climate change impacts. Scientists also fear that climate change may distribute tuna away from the exclusive economic zones of these countries into the high seas, making international cooperation and management of these stocks even more important. Regional fishery management organizations in the region should adopt harvest strategies as soon as possible.
Fortunately, many prominent fisheries organizations like FAO, WorldFish, and the Pacific Community (SPC) will be present at COP27. SPC is especially important as the principal scientific organization for tunas in the western and central Pacific region and will be hosting several side events. Together with other organizations with a stake in marine fisheries, COP27 presents a unique opportunity to elevate harvest strategies as a tool for climate-adaptation on the world stage.