Sustainable Fisheries

Fishing in new territory: climate change and a moving target

“Boiling Water” by Scott Akerman. Climate change is causing ocean waters to warm, and both fish and fisheries are in hot water—the topic of Malin Pinsky’s seminar talk at U. Washington, in which he discusses these circumstances and their consequences. Image shared on Flickr under CC by 2.0 license.

Post by: Hyejoo Ro and Grace Workman, UW Fisheries undergraduate students

Fish are adapting to climate change, but people have quickly fallen behind. Instead of maintaining “business as usual,” hindered by nostalgia, we need an adaptive fisheries management system in response to climate change. 

Fuller et al. (2015) suggest that implementing and maintaining thresholds on harvest is an effective management strategy, but we think local, state, and federal governments need to brainstorm and implement more long-term adaptive approaches to our rapidly changing environment. Adapting management efforts is essential to maintaining sustainable fisheries, and this largely political area is in dire need of an upgrade!

Dr. Malin Pinsky is an esteemed researcher and assistant professor at Rutgers University, and author of numerous scientific papers addressing hot topics. He mainly studies global marine ecology, and uses mathematical models and fisheries data to assess the impacts of climate change as a stressor on both fish and people. We appreciate that he recognizes the socio-ecological importance of fisheries, because as Fisheries majors, the emphasis on social aspects of science are often lost in the classroom. His work informs how to effectively maintain one of the world’s largest economic resources—fish.

Climate change is a hot topic in both terrestrial and marine environments, however aquatic organisms already face challenges such as limited oxygen and narrow thermal tolerances. Therefore a warming thermal regime presents new challenges, especially for marine fish and invertebrates.

One way species have adapted is by simply moving to a different location. In an interview with Dr. Pinsky, he emphasized the question “how much do we understand why they’re changing?” in regard to continuing research on shifting fish populations. One of Dr. Pinsky’s studies looks into how changes in climate velocity (the rate and direction of water temperature changes through space and time) helps us understand why fish are moving to the places they are at the speeds they are (Pinsky et al. 2013). This study was hopeful in the fact that they found that marine species are better equipped to adapt to the pace of climate change since they are able to rapidly disperse and colonize new areas. The caveat however is that the climate is changing so rapidly, that dramatic reorganization of species distributions could lead to problems with management of them, including catch boundaries.  

The American lobster is a species that shifted north as a response to climate change (Pinsky et al. 2013). This shift is likely to have occurred so that lobsters could find refuge in cooler temperatures. Another of Dr. Pinsky’s studies found many other species such as yellowtail flounder, summer flounder and red hake are also shifting northward. This is important because they are commercially valuable fisheries, and shifts in their distribution might cause territory disputes between neighboring states. Furthermore, current fisheries stock management (the management of any particular fish population) is set up by geographic boundaries which do often not align with climate driven shifts in fish populations. An updated management system would include more flexibility in how fishermen are able to move with targeted species. As stated in a quote Pinsky gave for a New York Times article highlighting his research, current fisheries management and regulations act as if there are “white lines” drawn to constitute oceanic boundaries, which the fish do not adhere to.


Selected from Figure 1A, in which Pinsky et. al (2013) plotted the latitude of detection of the American lobster over time; the black line represents the average latitude, red line represents the minimum latitude, and blue line represents the maximum latitude of detection. On average the latitude of detection for this species is getting higher (more northerly).

Since many marine species are changing their geographic range in response to climate change, humans must also “adapt” to the shifted regions of targeted species to continue utilizing these fisheries. Dr. Pinsky states that “fisheries have adapted for centuries,” although perhaps not as much as necessary in recent decades. Pinsky and Fogarty (2012) found that U.S. fisheries in the northeast only shifted 10-30% as much as their targeted species in the last 40 years, and suggest this lag is due to the economic and regulatory constraints of moving fishing effort to a new region. This means fisheries are not able to keep up with shifting fish populations, at least not with current management styles. Plus, you have the big tuna in the room: the regulations that are holding them back.

Northern U.S states that are typically home to cold water fish species are now seeing more warm water species that likely shifted from southern regions, while their usual fishery has also moved northward (Pinsky and Fogarty, 2012). Though you may consider this to be a balanced outcome for the fishermen, gear and infrastructure is often specialized depending on the type of fish they’re targeting. Thus, we suspect the “fish for a fish” idea is not economically realistic for most fishermen.

Some people worry (with good reason) about fishermen losing their beloved fish to far away waters, but you should also be concerned about the amplifying effects of overfishing fish living in an unsteady climate. These rocky waters (no rocks, just climatic turmoil) have already made fish populations unstable, but add overfishing into the mix, and you’re sure to drive some fish populations to decline. Another aspect of Dr. Pinsky’s research is exploring the impacts of the interaction between overfishing, life history traits, and climate variability. For example, a study published in 2012 found that fast growing species, such as winter flounder, mackerel, and sardine, were most likely to collapse due to overfishing and seasonal climate variability (Pinsky and Byler 2015). It makes sense that diligent protection efforts are in place for slow growing species, such as enforcing catch limits on populations that may take longer to recover. They found that fast growing species can also be depleted due to seasonal environmental variability. This is due to the implicit assumption that fast growing species can produce large population sizes; thus, we tend to think we can take more, and that the fish will be fine. This flawed logic has led fast growing species to collapse under increased fishing pressure.


Disparity between fish distribution and fishing rights has taken livelihood from recreational and commercial fisherman alike, and has increased tension between neighboring states trying to meet their fishing quotas. Rising tensions have many stakeholders at their boiling point. Some fishermen are able to venture several hundred kilometers from their regular fishing grounds to catch the moving target fish. This is a costly adaptation, though, and fishermen who have specialized gear and/or inadequate boat technology are majorly constrained in their adaptation options, and risk the loss of significant investments if they don’t “follow the fish.”

Others that can’t keep up are left without any fishery at all and may try to fish for a different species—which may or may not have processing and market infrastructure in place. Dr. Pinsky urges that “how you let people move around fisheries needs flexibility,” which managers and politicians should keep in mind when creating adaptive management protocols. Another way to improve future fisheries management is setting up processing infrastructure that supports a variety of species and can adapt to what’s available to fisherman in the area. Furthermore, we think the public needs to rethink their picky preferences in fish meat. Consumers heavily drive what’s (successfully) sold in the seafood section of the market, and could support a more freestyle approach to purchasing fish, based on “catch of the day.”

One promising approach to improve fisheries management is ecosystem based management, which accounts for predator-prey interactions, human influence, the environment surrounding species, and other important factors. This is generally a more adaptive and integrative approach to managing fisheries resources, and seems like a promising direction. It is especially useful when driven by current, relevant research to inform management decisions.

Science and management is a collaborative effort that requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Dr. Pinsky’s lab group worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop the OceanAdapt website, which is a great resource for researchers, interested members of the public, and stakeholders to explore the existing data and see the status of fisheries for themselves.

Researchers like Dr. Pinsky are working to refine models that project the impacts of climate change on fisheries to determine the likely outcomes, and advise management techniques that can sustain fisheries. This is why managing fisheries are complex, and difficult to determine the “best” management technique that benefits all stakeholders. However, it is essential to revisit our current approach to fisheries management, and recognize that our changing climate impacts both the environment and the fish, as well as the people involved.  On a hopeful note, Dr. Pinsky says “science has not been sidelined,” despite concerns over this, and that “science’s influence on management is good for sustainable fisheries in the US.”

American lobster (Homerus Americanus) handled by fishermen. Source: NOAA


Fuller, Emma, et al. 2015 “The Persistence of Populations Facing Climate Shifts and Harvest.” Ecosphere 6(9): 1–16.

Goode, Erica. “Fish Seek Cooler Waters, Leaving Some Fishermen’s Nets Empty.” The New York Times, 30 Dec. 2016.

Pinsky, Malin, and L. Fogarty. 2012 “Lagged Social-Ecological Responses to Climate and Range Shifts in Fisheries.” Climatic Change 115(3): 883–891.

Pinsky, Malin L, and David Byler. 2015 “Fishing, Fast Growth and Climate Variability Increase the Risk of Collapse.” Proc. R. Soc. B, 282: 20151053.   

Pinsky, Malin L, et al. 2013 “Marine Taxa Track Local Climate Velocities.” Science 341(6151): 1239–42.


  1. Christina Morrisett

    I think it’s easy to say that the public is “picky” with fish and that consumers drive the market, but it’s also important to consider how the current market is driven by historic preferences and how the current market structure further limits opportunity for expanding consumer palettes.

    I think Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) can combat this structure – expanding consumer palettes based on what is available to local fishers while also allowing fishers the flexibility to sell fish that processing plants may not accept. I wonder what role CSFs could play in addressing harvester resilience to a changing climate.

  2. Malin Pinsky

    Nice summary! You mention our finding that marine species are generally shifting fast enough to keep up with climate velocity. One of the fascinating things, I think, is that there is a range of demographic mechanisms that could be driving these changes, including adults swimming or crawling, larvae dispersing, or new patterns of mortality and survival. The mechanisms likely vary from species to species, and aren’t yet well understood. From a fisheries perspective, do you think the demographic mechanisms are important to understand?

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