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Which Fish Will Be Most Affected by Climate Change?

Warming sea waters

ocean climate change map

This map, created with NOAA's Ocean Climate Change Portal, shows changes in the mean sea surface temperature for the latter half of the 21st century as compared to the latter half of the 20th century. Ocean warming will be greatest in the northern Hemisphere where changes are more than 3 degrees celsius. Less intense warming is predicted in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. (NOAA)

Our climate is warming, affecting everything that lives on land or in the water.  While temperatures are not rising at the same pace everywhere, waters off the Northeastern US are likely to be among those experiencing the greatest change as the century progresses.  Increases in our waters’ average temperature have already produced stark effects for some sealife, changing their distribution, their food sources, maybe even their growth and development at very young ages.

In March 2014, experts met for three days at the NOAA Fisheries Narragansett Laboratory to review 79 northeastern fishery species and start work to rank each according to its vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

vulnerability chart

The Northeast is the first region to attempt this exercise using a new method developed by NMFS, and global climate models collated by colleagues at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL).  The ESRL has created a new ocean climate change web portal to help researchers access and display very large data sets on the earth’s climate over time.

At the Narragansett meeting, the group started with profiles of each species that included a summary of life history, ecology, and fishery use.  Species exposure to climate change was determined from the global climate models, summarized for the Northeast region.  Exposure is defined as the magnitude of climate changes in the region occupied by a species. Sensitivity of a species then evaluates traits like population growth, habitat specificity, and ability to move to measure the potential impact of climage change on a species. To determine the scale of warming effects on a particular species, the researchers are using a combination of knowledge about that animal’s life history and ecological requirements, and the model results indicating the likely scope of warming in ocean waters over the next century.

The results of the assessment are expected once the results have been peer-reviewed. Researchers expect to report on which species are likely to be most strongly affected by projected climate changes in the Northeast, to explain why these species are likely to be vulnerable, and identify data gaps.  This work can then be used to prioritize efforts to track and understand effects of climate change on marine resource species.

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