Changing storminess and global capture fisheries

Author – Nigel Sainsbury, PhD researcher, Environment and Sustainability Institute

Potential changes in the frequency and intensity of storms over the world’s oceans could have a catastrophic impact on global fisheries, risking the lives, livelihoods, food security and health of billions of people around the world.

In a new commentary article published in Nature Climate Change, I argue, along with my co-authors from ExeterMarine, Cefas, Willis Towers Watson, Met Office and the University of Bristol, that a new global research effort into changing storminess and global capture fisheries is required to help fisheries adapt to this aspect of climate change. We outline a research roadmap encompassing aspects of climate modelling, fisher behaviour, marine ecosystems and fishery vulnerability and adaptation.

There is growing evidence that storminess will alter in the future with climate change. There are great uncertainties in both future predictions and reanalyses of historic storms, owing to a lack of historic data and the limitations of storm representation in climate models. Whilst the number of studies is growing in both number and coverage of the world’s ocean basins, research is required to develop projections of future storminess at local scales with significantly more confidence.

Storms have the potential to cause extensive socio-economic impacts on fisheries. It is estimated that every year, night-time thunder storms kill between 3,000 – 5,000 fishers every year on Lake Victoria. When Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008, 28,000 fishers were killed or missing and over 100,000 fishing boats were destroyed. Closer to where I am based, at the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus, the winter of 2013-2014, the stormiest on record, caused an estimated £7 million loss of income, £400,000 in lost fishing gear and £1.1 million in fisheries onshore infrastructure damage.

Our knowledge of how storms impact marine ecosystems is limited. There is evidence that storms damage mangrove forests, seagrass beds and corals and cause the redistribution of fish and mass fish mortality events. However, this is taken from a handful of studies. Research is required in different ecosystem contexts around the world to identify how storms will impact ecosystems and how this links to socio-economic impacts on fisheries.

Changing storminess differs from other climate stressors affecting fisheries, such as ocean warming and acidification, because it has a direct social dimension as well as causing ecological impacts on target fish species. Whilst a myriad of social and economic factors have been shown to affect fishers’ decisions about where and when to fish, the role of weather in fisher behaviour has received little attention. Exploring how fishers perceive weather risks and how the uncertainties of physical danger and financial outcomes factor in fishers’ decision making in different social and cultural contexts will be important to predict the future fishing disruption caused by changing storminess.

If the scientific community is to help fisheries adapt to changing storminess, research into the ecological, socio-economic and climate aspects of changing storminess must translate into assessments of fisheries vulnerability to this environmental change.  This will support national governments in assessing the threat their fisheries face and, if required, help them to prioritise where to focus adaptation efforts. Social scientists can also support this effort by identifying and evaluating adaption actions in different contexts. Financial mechanisms currently being used in terrestrial agriculture to improve farmers’ resilience to environmental shocks, such as drought, may offer potential. It must also be considered that fisheries in areas of projected reduced storminess may experience an increase in potential fishing days, bringing socio-economic benefits but also increasing the challenges of unsustainable natural resource use.

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