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‘Storminess’ Could Make Fishing More Risky as Climate Warms

Researchers say the effects of more frequent and intense weather would hit hardest in developing countries that rely on fishing for livelihoods and sustenance. But few have studied the potential catastrophic impacts on global fisheries – or the potential solutions.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Bad weather and high waves due to the transition from summer to the rainy season disrupted fishing activities and fish supply in Indonesia in 2017. Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Tens of thousands of people die every year trying to catch fish to eat or sell, and weather is one of the biggest hazards to lives and equipment. The International Red Cross estimates that 3,000–5,000 people, mainly fishers, are killed by intense thunderstorms on Africa’s Lake Victoria each year. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan destroyed some 30,000 fishing boats in the Philippines.

The dangers of fishing are no secret, but a warming planet could make the job even more risky. A team of researchers in England is calling for a closer look at how increasingly stormy weather will affect global fisheries.

In a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, they warn that nastier weather in the future will make fishing more dangerous for millions of fishers and, by reducing catches, could threaten the health and well-being of billions of people who eat seafood. The biggest challenge is that few have studied this question. Although there’s been plenty of research on how ocean warming could reduce fish catch in the next 50–100 years, they said, changing “storminess” could actually be a more immediate, catastrophic issue.

“We really want to encourage more research in this area, because we think it’s really critical for the future,” said lead author Nigel Sainsbury, a scientist at the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute.

Already, scientists have looked at how large storms can damage coral reefs, cause fish to evacuate large areas and flood estuaries with salty ocean water. Some storm systems may also benefit fish by strengthening ocean upwelling that allows phytoplankton and zooplankton – food at the base of the marine food chain – to thrive, according to research led by United States National Marine Fisheries Service scientists.

Fishers salvage remains of their fishing boat that was damaged by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. (Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

Sainsbury and his six coauthors, however, want to better understand how storms will affect the abundance and “catchability” of key fish species – as well as fishing economies and fisher safety. After reviewing the data, research and weather forecasting tools that exist, they concluded that the current lack of information will make it harder for fishing communities to adapt in the future. This will especially be true in developing nations, where there are many smaller fisheries and more people who rely on them.

“We expect the impact of changing storminess to hit the least resilient, most vulnerable countries the hardest,” Sainsbury said. “If, all of a sudden, they’re getting hit by really big storms more frequently, it’s going to devastate them, because they’re not in a position to keep fishing under those kinds of conditions. This will have huge potential impacts on health and nutrition and also on livelihoods.”

More than 3 billion people rely on fish for about 20 percent of their animal protein, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Additionally, 38 million people around the world fish for a living, and fishing and aquaculture help support the livelihoods of 12 percent of the global population. Predicting who is most vulnerable to increasing storminess could help focus resources, Sainsbury said.

The paper calls for using fishers’ logbooks to better understand fishing success before and after large storm events and using satellite tracking systems to see how fishers behave and where they go during significant weather events. It suggests improving warning systems – perhaps via social media or radio – to more effectively alert fishers to dangerous incoming weather. The authors cite Radio Monsoon, a forecast service that blasts weather alerts over a harbor loudspeaker in Kerala, India, as an effective existing example. Insurance modeled on programs for farmers and financial assistance for gear and equipment upgrades for those most at risk of stronger winds and rougher seas could also be of help.

A fishing boat in Alaska in a storm. (Jean-Erick Pasquier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

As the atmosphere warms and absorbs more heat, extreme storms will become more intense and more frequent, according to predictions from global climate models. But how this will play out locally can be difficult to forecast, according to the U.S. Climate Science Special Report. Current predictions, such as more frequent and intense storms in Western and Central Europe or more weather volatility in the East China Sea and Arabian Sea, lack the fine resolution necessary to take action to help threatened fishing communities.

“We just don’t know how storminess is changing and where, and we need to improve climate modeling to make these predictions more accurately,” Sainsbury said.

The Environmental Defense Fund released a report in 2017 outlining the many ways in which the planet’s changing climate is likely to disrupt fishing activity and the economies that rely on it. Particularly daunting, the report noted, was the regulatory and management challenge that will develop from “accelerated climate impacts within a rigid fisheries governance system.”

But a key element of uncertainty stems from human behavior. When the weather turns, whether fishing boats go out in a storm will vary based on idiosyncratic choices, types of fishing vessels and cultures.

Lisa Pfeiffer, an economist with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, is one of relatively few researchers looking at the issue. She has studied the effects of fishing management on people’s decisions to go fishing on any given day.

“Fishermen are always weighing the risks of going fishing versus the potential profits of going fishing – we know they take these things into consideration,” she said. The incentive to take a risk to go out in storms may be greater where people depend on catch directly for their diet, she noted.

A fisher secures his wooden fishing boat along the sea wall in strong winds as Typhoon Haiyan hits a city south of Manila on November 8, 2013. (Charism Sayat/AFP/Getty Images)

Pfeiffer published a 2016 paper demonstrating how catch share management systems can potentially save lives. These systems allow each fishing boat to own a portion of a total catch allowance for the season, whereas without them it was often a free-for-all of whoever catches the fish first. The incentive to take life-threatening risks essentially dissolves, since a fisher who chooses to sit out on a stormy day won’t necessarily lose out.

As a general rule, she said, fishing management systems “that restrict flexibility in how and when fishers fish” can increase risk-taking. “Regulations that increase flexibility are generally good,” she said.

Sainsbury is now studying how climate change and an expected uptick in storminess could affect fishing in the United Kingdom. “I’m looking at all of the U.K.’s fisheries and their vessels and how their landed catch varies with weather changes.” That, he added, will help scientists “understand the future economic impacts of storminess.”

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