A National Standard for Climate-Ready Fisheries

The grandson of a longtime shrimper empties a net of shrimp off the coast of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, August 2019.

Tomorrow, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release the first “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.” This report will compile the most advanced science on the severe consequences of climate change for the ocean and the millions of people who depend on ocean ecosystems. But fishermen across the United States don’t need to wait until tomorrow to see the effects that a warming world has on their livelihoods—they are living the effects of climate change every day.

Sixty-five percent of fishermen surveyed by CAP in 2015 believed that climate change could limit their profits and ultimately force them out of their fishery, and recent evidence supports their belief. For example, the Atlantic northern shrimp fishery has been closed for years because the population is below target levels due to warm water in the Gulf of Maine. Meanwhile, the lobster population from the once-thriving southern New England lobster fishery has dropped below minimum threshold levels, causing trap reductions and season closures, among other management measures. Dungeness crabbers on the West Coast experienced such severe losses linked to climate change in 2016 that they have sued fossil fuel companies.

To sustain the industry, fishermen need to be able to sustainably harvest the stocks near their coasts. Unfortunately, some stocks have consistently failed to rebuild, rendering the prospects of reopening fisheries to fishermen—and the communities that are dependent on them—out of the question. For example, Atlantic cod was a significant economic driver in New England for the past 400 years, but in recent decades the population dropped so low that the fishery was significantly curtailed by closures, reductions in harvest, and other management efforts to rebuild the population. Despite management efforts, the cod population has failed to rebuild to expected levels, and research now shows this to be partially due to warming waters in the Gulf of Maine. Off the coast of Alaska, blue king crab has failed to rebuild despite being closed to harvest since 2002, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has linked to warming and acidifying waters. Fishermen in Alaska who rely on harvesting the red king crab population are also starting to see worrying signs such as low recruitment and large portions of the population huddling in small areas with “prime conditions” of cooler, less acidic water.

Fishery managers have a responsibility to address these concerns to preserve America’s living marine resources for the economic and environmental benefits that healthy marine ecosystems provide to all Americans.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act

Thanks to the visionary Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA)—the law that primarily governs U.S. marine fisheries—American fisheries are considered to be some of the best-managed fisheries in the world. However, managers have been slow to incorporate climate change adaptation into fishery management. Part of the reason for this is that fishery quota allocations have traditionally been based off historic catches, and that approach is increasingly strained as the ocean rapidly warms. The American fisheries management system needs to better recognize and adapt to the changes happening ever more quickly in the ocean.

The MSA has 10 national standards which outline the touchstone concepts used in modern fisheries management such as preventing overfishing through use of optimal yield; using best scientific information available; allocating fair and equal fishing privileges; including local communities in decision-making; and preserving life at sea. NOAA is tasked with producing guidance that the regional fishery management councils use to design fishery management plans in accordance with the MSA’s national standards. Under these guiding standards, U.S. fisheries have seen real success; numbers of rebuilding stocks are up, and overfishing occurrences are down. While the national standards state that quota allocations should be made fairly and that “best scientific information available” must be used to predict how many fish should be caught, there is not currently a specific national standard that addresses how fisheries should adapt and become more resilient in the face of climate change.

An 11th national standard for climate preparedness

The lack of a national standard that would provide some minimum standards for how managers should address climate change has led to differing approaches by the eight fishery management councils. The result is a haphazard matrix of climate-ready and not-so-climate-ready fishery management plans around the country.

Five councils—North Pacific, West Pacific, Pacific, mid-Atlantic, and South Atlantic—have at least addressed climate change through ecosystem-based fishery management. These councils have implemented ecosystem-based fisheries management plans to create more resilient ecosystems in the face of climate change. The Pacific council has also held workshops on climate change which resulted in the creation of the Climate and Communities Initiative to help prepare the region for future conditions resulting from climate change. However, the New England, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico councils are struggling to implement ecosystem-based plans. In 2019, for example, the New England fishery management council’s Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management Committee began drafting a sample ecosystem-based plan for managing Georges Bank. But as the sample plan notes, while climate effects are important, it will remain “in question” how they are taken into account in management. With the Gulf of Maine warming faster than 99 percent of the ocean, it is puzzling how climate effects could not be taken fully into account. In the absence of climate-informed fishery management plans, fish populations are shifting, fishery seasons are opening without the fish being present, and overfished fisheries are simply not responding to rebuilding plans.

Meanwhile, NOAA has made some progress in issuing various climate guidance products on the federal level. In 2015, NOAA Fisheries released the “Climate Science Strategy,” a document that suggested objectives for the United States to increase production and use of scientific climate information. This strategy was designed to be implemented in regional plans throughout U.S. waters over three to five years. However, this was done by broad region (e.g., Southeast, Northwest) as opposed to by fishery management council and is focused on research such as developing stock assessment models that can account for warming waters. Additionally, many of the action outlined in the regional plans—such as developing new management strategy evaluation tools that account for climate change—would require additional resources to implement. More recently, in November 2018, NOAA released another climate-focused technical guidance product, “Accounting for Shifting Distributions and Changing Productivity in the Fishery Management Process: From Detection to Management Action,” which details the management steps needed to better account for and respond to climate effects on fisheries. This report calls for conducting workshops for managers and scientists to discuss what information is needed as well as developing standardized methods for communicating scientific climate information to managers and for managers to consider changing conditions when creating and evaluating management strategies. However, not all councils have implemented these recommendations.

Managing for climate change should be a top priority of fishery managers to ensure the health of stocks, ecosystems, and communities that are dependent on fishery resources. Despite federal guidance pledging better scientific data, the need for fishery management to adapt to climate change continues to be a leading concern for stakeholders, Congress, and scientists. This is not a scientific question but a management question. Scientists have shown that northern shrimp, New England lobster, Atlantic cod, king crab, and many other valuable fisheries have been struggling due to climate change. At a minimum, every fishery management plan should account for and adapt to climate change effects, and this should be coordinated across federal and regional management bodies. One way to do this would be to amend the MSA to include an 11th national standard requiring fisheries to be managed for climate change resilience and effects.

An 11th national standard on climate change resilience and effects would put the full force of the MSA behind including climate effects in all fishery management plans. By mandating that all stocks be managed with climate-readiness as a priority, federal agencies could prescribe more actionable guidelines for addressing climate change, and each council would have to take more significant management actions such as accounting for climate change in each fishery management plan. The inclusion of a climate national standard would also help NOAA advocate for much-needed funding for climate-ready fishery management.

Climate change will not affect every region in the same way, but there is no reason that the United States cannot establish minimum standards for ensuring climate-ready fisheries for every region. An 11th national standard could strengthen American fishery climate adaptation, safeguard vital marine living resources for continued sustainable harvest, and ensure that the United States continues to set the standard for successful fishery management. With a dedicated standard and appropriate guidance from the agency, the councils will be better prepared to meet this challenge.

Alexandra Carter is a policy analyst for Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.