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A new NOAA Fisheries-funded study presents the first major projections of where U.S. fish species populations may shift under future climate scenarios.
By NOAA  |  February 4, 2019
There is evidence that species like cod are moving further north as ocean water temperatures continue to rise.

A NOAA Fisheries-funded study presents the first major projections of where U.S. fish species populations may shift under future climate scenarios. The research was led by James Morley and Malin Pinsky of Rutgers University-New Brunswick. According to Rutgers, "Climate change will force hundreds of ocean fish and invertebrate species, including some of the most economically important to the United States, to move northward, disrupting fisheries in the United States and Canada.

Fish are sensitive to the temperature of the water where they live, and as it becomes too warm, populations often shift to where the water temperature is right for them. This process has already begun, though at different rates in different places. As climate change continues and the oceans warm up, the study shows, more species of fish will move north to where the temperature range is habitable for them." 16 different climate models were used by researchers for this study, as was NOAA Fisheries stock assessment data for many species including finfish, sharks, rays, crustaceans, and squid. Cisco Werner, Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries, stated: “This kind of science helps fishermen, fishery managers, and fishing communities track ocean change, assess resources at risk, and safeguard the nation's valuable marine fish stocks and the many businesses and people that depend on them,” he said.


A major impact of climate change in the oceans has been the redistribution of marine organisms, which have generally been shifting poleward or into deeper waters as temperatures warm. Long-term shifts in species distributions have been linked to directional shifts in their preferred temperatures, as the geographic distributions of marine species are strongly linked to temperature tolerance. Further, regional species productivity and phenology can be highly sensitive to variation in water temperatures, which may be a driver of long term shifts. The implications of geographic shifts of marine species have already been observed in global fisheries catches and changes in catch composition from regional landings data are consistent with poleward shifts in species distributions. The North American continental shelf is an expansive area with some of the most productive fisheries globally. This diverse area also contains some of the most rapidly increasing regions of ocean temperature in the world. The rising temperatures have been linked to major shifts in the distribution of some species. These shifts have led to conflicts between regions over fisheries catch allocation as species shift across management boundaries. Global ocean temperatures are projected to continue rising and areas of the Northeast American shelf may experience some of the most extreme increases. Associated with this warming are predictions for substantial shifts in regional fisheries productivity. Predictions for how ocean warming will impact the living marine resources of the United States and Canada are currently a priority for federal management.


Across the United States, changes in our climate and our oceans are having very real and profound effects on communities, businesses, and the natural resources we depend on—including our economically valuable fisheries and coastal habitat. Understanding these changes and measuring their impacts is an important part of NOAA Fisheries’ mission. Every day we work with our partners to provide data and information needed by fishing industries, coastal businesses, local planners, and many others to prepare for and respond to changing conditions.

Our changing climate is affecting life in the oceans, as droughts, floods, rising seas, ocean acidification, and warming oceans change the productivity of our waters and where wildlife live, spawn, and feed. Marine species tend to be highly mobile, and many are moving quickly toward the poles to stay cool as average ocean temperatures rise. These shifts can cause disruptions as predators become separated from their prey. The shifts can also cause economic disruptions if a fish population becomes less productive or moves out of range of the fishermen who catch them.

As a result, fishing industries and coastal businesses face immense challenges. And there is much at risk—marine fisheries and seafood industries support more than $200 billion in economic activity and 1.83 million jobs annually. Coastal habitats also help defend coastal communities from storms and inundation, and provide the foundation for tourism and recreation-based economies in many coastal communities. For these reasons, NOAA Fisheries is committed to staying ahead of these changes and sustaining our invaluable marine resources for generations to come.

In 2015, NOAA Fisheries established a national climate science strategy (PDF, 13 pages) to help scientists, fishermen, managers, and coastal businesses better understand what’s changing, what’s at risk, and what actions are needed to safeguard America’s valuable marine resources. In 2016, NOAA released regional action plans with specific actions to help each coastline track its own unique combination of changing conditions, provide better forecasts to help businesses adapt their operations, and identify the best strategies to help local officials reduce impacts and sustain our marine resources.

In addition to our strategy, NOAA Fisheries’ scientists work every day at sea, on shore, and in laboratories to conduct important research that helps us monitor and measure the impact of climate on fisheries. This includes tracking ocean conditions, providing early warnings of climate-related changes, understanding the mechanisms of climate impacts, modeling and projecting future conditions, and using this and other information to evaluate possible options for fisheries management and protected resources conservation in a changing world.


We are seeing dramatic changes, particularly in cooler ocean regions like New England and Alaska where warming waters over the past 20 years are pushing fish farther north or deeper to stay in cooler waters. In New England, known for its cod and lobster fishing, ocean temperatures have increased faster than in many other parts of the world. Changes in the distribution and abundance of these and other species have affected where and when fishermen fish and what they catch, with economic impacts rippling into the coastal communities and seafood businesses. With better information on current and future shifts in fish stocks, fisheries managers and fishing industries can better plan for and respond to changing ocean conditions.

But not all change is bad. As species like black sea bass spread northward along the East Coast, they may provide opportunities for additional commercial or recreational fisheries. Changing conditions may also stimulate more opportunities for other marine-related businesses, such as fish and shellfish farming. Better information on when, where, and how marine resources are changing is critical to taking advantage of future opportunities and increasing the resilience of our fisheries and fishing communities.


Communities and economies in southern states are also being affected by changing climate and ocean conditions. Due to rising seas and sinking lands, every hour, Louisiana loses coastal wetlands the size of a football field to the sea. The loss of these essential nursery areas for shrimp, oysters, crabs, and many other commercial and recreationally important seafood species has significant impacts on fisheries, seafood industries, and coastal communities. Better information and on-the-ground action can reduce these impacts and help sustain these vital habitats and the many benefits they provide.

In the Pacific and Caribbean, we’re seeing bleaching and destruction of vitally important coral reef environments associated with warming seas. Although they cover only 1 percent of the planet, coral reefs are home to 25 percent of all marine species, and upwards of 40 million people rely on coral reefs for the seafood they provide. The loss of coral reefs also makes coastal communities more vulnerable to storm events. Coral reefs in Puerto Rico, for instance, help prevent an estimated $94 million in flood damages every year. NOAA’s Coral Reef Early Warning System has already helped decision-makers take action to increase resilience of valuable reef ecosystems to warming seas and other threats.

In colder regions like the poles, ocean warming is taking place at more than twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth, making the Arctic the front lines of climate change. And with melting sea ice come new opportunities for commercial activities like fishing, transportation, and energy extraction. For these reasons, NOAA Fisheries takes part in national and international scientific efforts to measure and monitor changes in fisheries and endangered marine mammals like whales.


Ocean acidification refers to the oceans becoming more acidic, and is often called “climate change’s evil twin.” Like a sponge, our oceans are absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This exchange helps to regulate the planet’s atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, but comes at a cost for the oceans and life within it—from the smallest, single-celled algae to the largest whales. Over the past 200 years, the world’s seas have absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon from human activities. That’s a worldwide average of 15 pounds of carbon per person per week—enough to fill a train long enough to encircle the equator 13 times every year. Carbon dioxide concentrations are now higher than at any time during the past 800,000 years, and the current rate of increase is likely unprecedented. Were it not for ocean uptake of carbon dioxide, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would be increasing at an even greater rate than they are now. Learn more about ocean acidification