Predicting the future of fish

Payne, M.R., Danabasoglu, G., Keenlyside, N. et al. Skillful decadal-scale prediction of fish habitat and distribution shifts. Nat Commun 13, 2660 (2022).

Fish are friends and food

Fish are an important part of diet and culture worldwide. For nearly 3 billion people, fish provide up to 15% of their daily protein consumption; this number skyrockets to 50% for people of small island nations like Indonesia and the Philippines. In addition to protein, fish are a source of fatty acids and essential micronutrients like Vitamin D and B12. Fisheries and aquaculture supply jobs to about 60 million people, making many reliant on the health and viability of their local fishery. Indigenous coastal communities are connected to their fishery not only as a food source, but also for cultural and spiritual rituals. For all these reasons, fish are a critical resource that must be better understood.

Traditional island-based fishing using nets in the Philippines, by Bernard SpraggCC0 1.0

How not to fry a fish

Given their importance, fisheries must be studied to understand how they will react to climate change. Climate change will alter marine habitats, causing species to migrate or die off in response to new environmental conditions. Species that were once fished may no longer have fishable stocks, and new species may take their place, causing conflicts among stakeholders in the fishery. If fishermen and government agencies had reliable predictions on changes in fish type and amount, then fishing techniques, regulations, and even culture could adapt to prepare for the coming change.

Predicting the fisheries’ future

Recently, scientists used climate data to predict how fish species will respond to changing environmental conditions. To make these  predictions, scientists made a model that incorporated climate data and habitat data, like preferred water temperature, type of food available, and water salinity, to then predict fish habitat change. These predictions were made for three species of fish in the North Atlantic: Atlantic bluefin tuna, Atlantic mackerel, and blue whiting, which are all commercially and culturally important fish.

Bluefin tuna, caught in the Northwest Atlantic, from NOAA

Scientists found that for bluefin tuna and mackerel, sea surface temperature was the most important environmental predictor shaping their habitat. For blue whiting, ocean salinity during spawning season was the strongest predictor of habitat and distribution. These predictions were accurate for both short- and long-term planning purposes.

This research shows that models can be used to predict how fish will adapt to climate change.  For developing and island nations that will be disproportionally impacted by climate change, this information will be necessary for the livelihoods of their citizens, especially those reliant on the local fisheries. And for all of us that just love eating fish, we can use this to know if our favorite food will still be on the menu years in the future.

 Cover photo: “Fishing vessels in Choshi” by Takashi(aes256), licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


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