The slow warming of the Earth someday will require difficult adaptations in many sectors of society, for example farming, energy and insurance.
One challenge already is here — fish. They are voting with their fins, moving northward out of warming ocean waters and into cooler temperatures they prefer. And that is disrupting fisheries management and quotas, which only recently had achieved stability and acceptance.
Earlier this year, a study led by a Rutgers University marine biologist predicted two-thirds of the 700 ocean species it analyzed would be forced to migrate — some more than 600 miles — in the worst warming scenarios.
A 2016 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study found half of the Northeast’s fish and shellfish were highly vulnerable to climate change. It warned that fisheries dependent on a single valuable species, such as New Jersey is on scallops, are at particular risk.
And global warming might shrink fish as well. A pair of University of British Columbia scientists last year reported the size of fish is likely to decrease by 20 to 30 percent for every 1 degree Celsius increase in water temperature, as their metabolisms speed up and the oxygen content of the water diminishes.
Another Rutgers study, published last month in Science, warned that fishing industry disputes already are being worsened by warming-induced migration. The lead author cited the case of Iceland, which in 2007 started taking mackerel moving there from warmer Ireland and Scotland. That started a fish fight with the European Union that spilled into a trade war and helped discourage Iceland from becoming an EU member.
Federal fisheries managers last year wanted to reduce New Jersey’s summer flounder catch by 30 percent. It took a united effort by the state congressional delegation, defiance of the federal rules by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and an unprecedented overruling of the limit by the U.S. commerce secretary to avoid the catch reduction. Since then, the state’s flounder quota has continued to be targeted.
New Jersey’s neighbor to the north is pushing for a bigger share of the summer flounder catch because the species is now centered off New York/New Jersey and no longer off Virginia. The executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association said he’s “very unhappy at this approach” and favors New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina keeping their share of the fishery and continuing to go wherever the fish are.
But maintaining historic catch allocations would worsen the impact of global warming on fisheries. Boats from North Carolina, which has the biggest quota for black sea bass, now must motor north for 10 hours to catch their share while New England boats often discard the bass.
Fisheries regulators will be hard pressed to avoid overfishing of species in the face of conflicts from fish migration, said one of the Rutgers lead authors. “We need to set up mechanisms now for sharing information and science on where the fish are, and make decisions on how to divide the catch equitably and fairly so there isn’t a race to fish,” Malin Pinsky said.
The warming seas, which absorb more than 90 percent of the Earth’s temperature increase, will require unprecedented adaptation and cooperation by New Jersey’s government and fishing industry.
Let’s hope that process is successful and helps prepare for the much tougher global warming challenges to come.