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map showing location of MA fishing communities, with six piecharts around the sides showing specific cities/towns and species landed Species vulnerability to climate change in Massachusetts fishing communities, based on landings value. Image credit: NOAA Fisheries/Lisa Colburn, NEFSC
pie chart showing species vulnerability for Point Judith
pie charts showing vulnerability of species landed in Newport News Vulnerability to climate change of species landed in Point Judith (top) and Newport News. Red means high, blue moderate and yellow low vulnerability. Image credit: NOAA Fisheries/Lisa Colburn, NEFSC
map showing sea level rise impact on New Bedford/Fairhaven and Point Judith waterfronts Impact of sea level rise on fishing infrastructure in waterfront areas of New Bedford/Fairhaven, MA and Point Judith, RI. Image credit: NOAA Fisheries/Lisa Colburn, NEFSC

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March 15, 2017
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Social Vulnerability Indicators Could Help U.S. Fishing Communities Plan for Change

Coastal communities that depend on fishing have a new tool for describing and evaluating how vulnerable their communities are to sea level rise, shifting fishery populations, and changes in ocean chemistry.

Using social, demographic and fisheries data, NOAA Fisheries social scientists have developed an initial set of community social vulnerability indicators (CSVIs), not just in the Northeast U.S. where the first climate vulnerability assessment for fisheries was conducted, but along the entire U.S. coast.

“This is the first time indicators of social vulnerability and fishing dependence have been available at a community level for such a large geographic area and applied to U.S fisheries,” said Lisa Colburn, an anthropologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)‘s Narragansett Laboratory in Rhode Island. “These indicators are intended to help fishery managers and policy makers and the communities affected assess the social and economic impact of sea level rise on commercial fishing infrastructure and the dependence on species identified as vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

Initially, Colburn worked with colleague Mike Jepson from the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office in St. Petersburg, FL, to identify 2,659 communities in coastal counties in 19 states, from Maine to Texas. Of these communities, 1,130 had commercial and/or recreational fishing activity, with 174 scoring in the high range for engagement or reliance on commercial fishing. Economic and social factors in each community were evaluated, from the dollar value and pounds of landings and the number of commercial fishing permits to the population, structure of the labor force, housing characteristics, poverty levels, education and crime.

That initial study of East and Gulf Coast states, based on data through 2013, was published in the journal Marine Policy in 2016. The study was updated and expanded in 2016 to include nearly 3,800 coastal communities nationally, and now includes a measure for risk from sea level rise. Colleagues in the NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska, Northwest and Pacific Islands regions are now collecting the broader suite of data and providing it to Colburn and Jepson for analysis. The data will be added to the NOAA Social Indicators web site and updated annually.

“The broader set of measures place the social condition of fishing communities in the context of the surrounding coastal communities in all 24 coastal states,” said Colburn, lead author of the study. As climate vulnerability assessments are completed for other regions of the country, more data about the fisheries in those regions will be available.

Among the measures used is the location and number of seafood businesses that could be affected by a 1 to 6 foot rise in sea level.

“Storms, weather and sea level rise directly impact coastal communities dependent on fishing, while changes in the availability of fish species because of changes in ocean temperatures and acidification have an indirect affect,” said Colburn, who has been working on the project for six years. “Added together, these changes will have major impacts on a community, requiring social and economic adjustments and could result in changes to fishery management regulations.”

Colburn and colleagues looked at a range of issues or pre-existing conditions that could affect the ability of a fishing community to cope with and respond to disruptive events such as changing fishery management regulations or climatic conditions. Each indicator was assigned a vulnerability ranking from low to high and was applied to each community.

Sea scallops, which are highly vulnerable to climate change, comprised between 82 percent of the value landed in New Bedford, MA and 75 percent of the value landed in Newport News, VA in 2013. Both communities exhibited notable social vulnerability profiles, scoring moderate to high on most indicators.

In contrast, the majority of Point Judith, RI landings value is based on multiple species that ranked low to moderate for climate change vulnerability, and the community also ranked low on social vulnerability. Sea level risk vulnerability was varied in these three communities, ranging from low in New Bedford to moderate in Point Judith and high in Newport News.

“Climate change and fisheries management considerations will change fishing opportunities, and that will require coastal communities to adapt,” Colburn said. “Communities that target a diversity of species may adapt more easily, while communities dependent on fisheries and with high social vulnerability may benefit from programs that help them adapt.”

“Many coastal communities, not just fishing communities, are being affected by climate change,” Colburn said. “The use and analysis of these social vulnerability indicators can improve ecosystem models and build a more integrated picture of climate change that will benefit policy decisions.”

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