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Fish on Fridays: Hurricane Sandy, Climate Change, and the Future of Fish

Hurricane Sandy aftermath

SOURCE: AP/Julio Cortez

Brian Hajeski, 41, of Brick, New Jersey, reacts as he looks at debris of a home that washed up on to the Mantoloking Bridge the morning after Hurricane Sandy rolled through, Tuesday, October 30, 2012, in Mantoloking, New Jersey.

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Hurricane Sandy’s terrible toll in lost lives and decimated communities is still being measured. But as we start to sort out the pieces, it’s also worth noting that the storm sent shockwaves through the mid-Atlantic region’s fishing industry. Harbors and infrastructure were pummeled and in some cases destroyed along the New York and New Jersey coastlines, and the Garden State Seafood Association has already asked Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) to formally request a federal fisheries disaster declaration.

In the aftermath of the storm, the link between our changing climate and increasingly extreme weather is coming into greater focus and being called out by an increasingly large caucus. (For more on the link between climate and extreme weather events in North America, see this new column by the Center for American Progress.) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was among the first to link Sandy’s fury to the “reality” of climate change. Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover story under the banner headline, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid,” which called out the increasing spate of corporate voices accounting for climate change in their business models. And the magazine’s namesake, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cited climate change as the tipping point that led to his much-ballyhooed endorsement of President Barack Obama for reelection.

Just as Sandy’s fury cannot be separated from the effects of global climate change, fishermen have already noticed the effects of global climate change on their work. As our last wild capture industry, fishing businesses are arguably more reliant on natural forces than any other profession. It’s a centuries-old vocation, inherently dependent on knowledge passed down from one generation to the next, so when species distribution patterns evolve, even subtle change becomes readily apparent.

As ocean waters have warmed, fishermen have been finding some species that their grandfathers and even their fathers never dreamed of seeing. A 2009 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center found that about half of the species it studied were shifting their range further north or into deeper water in search of colder water, including Atlantic cod, haddock, and hake species—the keystones of New England’s iconic groundfishery. The commercial lobster fishery has all but disappeared in the waters of southern New England. And on the Pacific northwest, oyster farming is threatened by ocean acidification, a phenomenon caused by higher carbon concentrations in seawater.

In the Businessweek story, Eric Pooley, senior VP of the Environmental Defense Fund, adapted an old analogy first articulated by National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Jerry Meehl. “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther,” Pooley said. “Now we have weather on steroids.”

A similar theory can be applied to climate change’s impact on fisheries. Not that ocean warming and acidification has led to fisheries on steroids—the general decline in world fish populations certainly counters that interpretation, and we should be careful not to blame climate for the decline in populations. Overfishing, coastal pollution, and habitat degradation are far and away the greater factors there. Rather, climate change is increasing the degree of difficulty fishermen and regulators face in rebuilding depleted fish stocks now that the overfishing has, at least in the United States, largely been ended. We can’t say climate change has prevented any one species from rebuilding, but climate change sure made it harder and take a lot longer.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs U.S. fishery management, requires overfished fisheries to be rebuilt to sustainable levels within 10 years, and mandates catch limits be set low enough that this target can be achieved. This means fishermen are forced to catch less and leave more fish in the water to increase reproduction rates and replenish their population. But when warmer water temperatures or increased ocean acidity prevent those populations from growing, the only recourse regulators have is to make those cuts more severe, meaning fishermen end up not only paying the price for their past overfishing but also for the damage our fossil fuel habit has inflicted on the world’s oceans.

Lawmakers in Congress have already begun debating changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which will be due for reauthorization in 2013, and one faction has coalesced around the need to weaken the statute’s scientific underpinnings and provide managers more flexibility to set higher catch limits. Many of the loudest supporters of this concept are members who deny either the existence of climate change or mankind’s role in creating it.

To be clear: Any action that short-circuits the role of science in fishery management, including the establishment and enforcement of annual catch limits, would be a grave mistake. But as data continue to emerge linking human-induced global climate change to the health of fish populations, lawmakers, scientists, and managers must come together to determine how to account for its effects in their rebuilding plans.

If Congress is serious about enacting meaningful reforms that account for the economic needs of the fishing industry and the environmental needs of fish populations, it is going to have to acknowledge climate change as one of the fundamental environmental forces. That may make some climate zombies uncomfortable, but perhaps the sudden uptick in the climate dialogue brought about by Hurricane Sandy can help remove the scales from their eyes. Perhaps their fishing constituents can shine a little light on the greatest threat to the future health of the world’s oceans.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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This is part of a regular column: Fish on Fridays

For more from the same column, click here