Fishermen around the world in trouble from climate change

  • Published on January 9th, 2019

Making a living as a fisherman has always been a challenge. With the climate changing, it is rapidly becoming even more challenging.

dead end salmon fishing

By Partnership for Responsible Growth

Fisherman Darius Kasprzak of Kodiak, Alaska, has been fishing commercially since 1983. “I have gone from averaging 100,000 pounds of cod every year at 40 cents a pound, and this year I caught two cod,” he told Robert Lee Hotz of The Wall Street Journal. From his small boat he now catches rockfish, a whitefish that can fetch 6 cents to $1.25 a pound, depending on the variety. “It’s been five years since my last good cod season, and I had to travel 400 miles to get that.”

Hotz’s extensive reporting from Alaska and the East Coast led to a front-page story with the header “The Price of Climate.” Climate’s impact on the global commercial fishing industry has been significant already and is widely expected to increase.

“We are definitely seeing changes in what’s happening out on the ocean,” said Doug L. Christensen, president of Arctic Storm Management Group in Seattle, a company that harvests about 90,000 tons of fish yearly from the Bering Sea. In pursuit of pollock this year, his ships have been traveling 60 or 70 hours out of Dutch Harbor, he told Hotz, instead of 20 hours or so as in years past, adding an extra 5,000 gallons or so of fuel to complete each voyage.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia concluded in 2016 that climate change will cost the global fishing industry $10 billion per year within a few decades. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study found that changes in ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen and sea ice levels, and other conditions will significantly drive down the number of various marine creatures in the coming years. In addition to pushing species into new environs, the team said, rising temperatures may also cause many of the fish we rely on to become smaller–further driving down the maximum catch potential.

The recent Fourth National Climate Assessment by 13 federal agencies outlined the economic impacts the nation may experience as a result of unruly weather, changing climate and sea level rise. The report foresees “declines of species that support some of the most valuable and iconic fisheries in the Northeast, including Atlantic cod, Atlantic sea scallops, and American lobster.”

Though most people chasing fish are likely to see their income decline, the migration of species in response to rising water temperatures will create some winners, at least for certain periods. The U.S. catch of Illex squid, usually used in calamari, tripled between 2016 and 2017, and fishermen off the coast of Rhode Island are benefitting. Richard Fuka, who builds boats and repairs commercial fishing vessels in Point Judith, says he has seen business thrive as a result. “The huge winner in warming waters,” he told Hotz, “is the squid fisherman of Rhode Island.”

Jimmy Ruhle is catching some of those squid. The bad news is that he has to travel from Virginia to do so. As he explained to Hotz, over the last 25 years, he has seen summer flounder and black sea bass shift their range 600 to 700 miles or so north from where he once caught them as a young man, in response to warming water temperatures and shifts in the Gulf Stream. To stay profitable, Ruhle has shifted northward too, and that means higher fuel costs. As a result, Mr. Ruhle has branched out into harvesting squid off the coast of Rhode Island, which he can unload locally.

“We had to travel 1,300 miles in 11 days to get the catch we were allocated,” he said. “All of the fish we caught this year could easily have been taken off Virginia 25 years ago. It has been that significant a shift in those species.”

Concerned about a decline in the Dungeness crab fishery offshore from California and Oregon, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations went to court in November. The PCFFA is suing 30 companies, mainly oil producers, charging that the fossil fuel industry must be held accountable for recent warming-related damages to the famed $445 million crab fishery.

Since 2014, the northeast Pacific Ocean has experienced several dramatic marine heatwaves, NPR’s Alastair Bland reported. The higher temperatures have caused blooms of toxic algae that, by producing the neurotoxin domoic acid, can make Dungeness crab and other shellfish unsafe to eat. In the fall of 2015, state officials delayed the opening of crab season by several months, until testing finally showed that domoic acid levels had dipped back to safe levels. Several similar closures have occurred since.

“We’re out fishing all the time, and it’s obvious the oceans are getting warmer,” said John Beardon, who fishes for Dungeness crab out of Crescent City, California, and spoke with David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News. “That’s bad for crabs and other fish, and it’s bad for those of us who make a living on the water. The last three years have been really hard. Our community came together and held a fish fry to help our crew members. But fish fries and disaster relief are no solution to these closures we’re now seeing year after year after year.”

Of course, the fishing industry is not alone; virtually every line of business will be affected by climate change. It’s time for Congress to put an honest price on carbon so that we can minimize the damage to our economy.

(At the Partnership for Responsible Growth, we work with federal leadership on the hill and beyond to promote the message that a carbon fee is the the most effective policy tool currently available in order to raise revenue and mitigate climate risk. Carbon pricing is market-based and predictable, which is good for business, and it has the potential to be the next great bipartisan agreement, which is why we connect with members and their constituents about the issue.)

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