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Warming seas may scramble North America’s fishing industry

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In a warmer world, boats targeting Atlantic cod, such as this one, might have to head farther north to find the fish.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo

Get ready, seafood lovers: Climate change may complicate efforts to net your catch of the day. That’s because warming seas will force many of North America’s most valuable fish and shellfish stocks north in coming decades, a major new modeling study finds, potentially creating headaches for the fishing industry and government regulators. Some species could see their ranges shrink by half, whereas others are poised to expand into vast new territories more than 1000 kilometers north of their current homes.

“Basically, climate change is forcing species to move, jumbling up ecosystems,” says ecologist Malin Pinsky of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who led the study with postdoctoral researcher James Morley, now at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “That’s not necessarily bad news. But we’ve already seen that even much smaller shifts in the distribution of marine species can cause real economic disruption, political friction, and challenges to fisheries managers. And here we are talking about potentially big shifts.”

Researchers have already shown that on land and in the sea, plants and animals are shifting their ranges in response to rising global temperatures. Trees that thrive in warmer climates, for example, are spreading into areas where frigid winters once made survival impossible. And species that need cooler weather are retreating from areas that have become too warm.

For the fishing industry, such shifts are beginning to have practical consequences. In some cases, boats must travel farther to fishing grounds, driving up costs. Processing facilities have had to move, causing job losses in some communities. Valuable stocks have also shifted to waters controlled by other countries, sparking conflicts over who has the right to lucrative catches.

To get a sense of how such range shifts might play out along North America’s coasts, Malin, Morley, and colleagues tapped a vast trove of data from research trawlers that made more than 136,000 trips in U.S. and Canadian waters between 1970 and 2015. Those and other data, including water temperature, depth, and seafloor composition, helped them identify the preferred habitats of 686 marine species. The researchers then used 16 climate models to assemble two scenarios for each species: one in which global


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