A recent study published in Nature, and cited by the Washington Post, claims that as the oceans warm, marine animals are responding to the warming by migrating from their original habitats in search of cooler waters. The study also found that as sea life moves from the warming tropics to the cooler poles, no new species are moving into the warm areas to replace the migrants.
This is troubling news for the commercial fishing industry that depends on a level of predictability that is less and less attainable in a climate-changing world. It is also troubling news for countries that depend on fish for a significant portion of their food. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that subsistence fishing provides the majority of dietary animal protein in the Pacific Island Countries and Territories. Looking to Africa, the FAO estimates:
Fish provides 22 percent of the protein intake in sub-Saharan Africa. This share, however, can exceed 50 percent in the poorest countries (especially where other sources of animal protein are scarce or expensive). In West African coastal countries, for instance, where fish has been a central element in local economies for many centuries, the proportion of dietary protein that comes from fish is extremely high: 47 percent in Senegal, 62 percent in Gambia and 63 percent in Sierra Leone and Ghana.
Migrating fish stocks could also have implications for challenging the often fragile fishing arrangements between nations and regions. These arrangements have been described by some as “a patchwork quilt of measures with differing geographical and legal reach.” As the fish move to colder waters, they also frequently move from designated national waters of one country to another, as well as into even more difficult to govern international waters. A 2012 report from the Center for New American Security points out that this could have serious implications for peace and security in the South China Sea:
The chapter on “The Role of Natural Resources in the South China Sea” highlights evidence, albeit not yet conclusive, that climate change will “affect fish migration in ways that could exacerbate competition in the South China Sea.” In short, warming ocean waters may cause cold-water species to decline, which is likely to “increase fishing in contested areas of the South China Sea, which may increase the number of confrontations involving fishing trawlers and worsen tensions between China and its South China Sea neighbors.”
The role of sea life migration on fishing agreements – in relation to national and regional security – certainty deserves more attention. At this point in time, it is clear that the fish are on the move, and with them, goes some measure of food security for many climate vulnerable nations. This trend is likely to continue and possibly worsen. And as that happens, international tensions over fish stocks could rise (This is also reason #8745 for why the U.S. should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – but we’ll save that for another post.)