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Proactively planning for climate change can protect fish and fisheries

Planning ahead for warming ocean waters will help both fish and fisheries withstand the impacts, according to a new study from Rutgers University. Proactive strategies to cope with climate change could also help prevent future conflicts over ocean uses. 

“Sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t work,” said study lead author Professor Malin Pinsky. “Effective ocean planning that accounts for climate change will lead to better safeguards for marine fish and commercial fisheries with few tradeoffs.”

On all seven continents, plans are underway for how parts of the ocean could be dedicated to energy development, fishing, conservation, recreation, and other uses. However, these efforts do not usually take the potential impacts of climate change into consideration.

As ocean waters continue to warm in the coming decades, many commercially valuable fish species are expected to move hundreds of miles north to find cooler temperatures. This shift, which is already underway, will cause major disruptions to commercial fisheries and complicate international fisheries conflicts.

The Rutgers team analyzed the costs and benefits of planning ahead for the impacts of climate change on marine species. The experts used a computer model to simulate the ocean planning process in the United States and Canada for conservation zones, fishing zones, and wind and wave energy development zones. 

The researchers also accounted for nearly 12,000 different projections of the movements of 736 fish species around North America through the end of this century. 

“We were worried that planning ahead would require setting aside a lot more of the ocean for conservation or for fishing, but we found that was not the case,” said Professor Pinsky.

“Instead, fishing and conservation areas can be set up like hopscotch boxes so fish and other animals can shift from one box into another as they respond to climate change. We found that simple changes to ocean plans can make them much more robust to future changes. Planning ahead can help us avoid conflicts between, for example, fisheries and wind energy or conservation and fisheries.”

Professor Pinsky noted that while this study was focused on long-term changes, many fisheries decisions are focused on near-term changes – one to a few years ahead. With this in mind, the researchers are currently testing whether they can forecast near-term shifts in where fish will be found to help fisheries adapt more easily.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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