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As Our Climate Changes, We Must Base Our Policies in Sound Science

A Message from Richard Merrick, Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries
March 11, 2014

For some people, climate change is just a theoretical possibility. But ask fishermen, and many will tell you that climate change is well underway. Along the Atlantic Coast, commercially valuable species of fish, including silver hake and winter flounder, are moving north to stay within their preferred temperature range. In 2012, lobsters in the Gulf of Maine, spurred by high temperatures, started their summer migration a month early and grew to market size faster than usual. The result was a saturated market and a price collapse for Maine lobstermen. And recent research indicates that temperature changes might be contributing to the failure of Atlantic cod to recover from overfishing.

These are just a few examples from fisheries in the Northeast, but similar changes are happening all along our coasts. In many communities that depend on fishing and tourism, these changes can cost jobs and disrupt traditional ways of life.

The challenges aren’t limited to fisheries; climate change affects every field of work this agency engages in. Climate change and the associated problem of ocean acidification are increasing the vulnerability of many protected and endangered species. And in the Arctic, where scientists expect mostly ice-free summers two decades from now, vast new frontiers are opening to the energy, shipping, and fishing industries. Nowhere is the challenge of simultaneously using and protecting marine ecosystems so starkly revealed as in the relatively pristine but fast-changing Arctic.

The oceans have always been variable and dynamic systems. That’s why striking the right balance between use and protection has always been a complicated process, whether setting fishing levels, designating critical habitats, or permitting oil and gas exploration. But with climate change adding to that variability and making it less predictable, the challenge today is greater than ever. Sound science is the key to meeting that challenge, and three core capabilities are critical.

First, we can only understand changes in the ocean by holding up today’s events against the light of a long-term dataset. Therefore we need to continue our long-term ecosystem monitoring programs and their modernization with new technologies such as acoustic sensors and autonomous vehicles. Second, we must continue the basic research that allows us to understand how physical and biological forces in the ocean interact to structure ecosystems and shape coastal economies.

Finally, we must continue our efforts to integrate ecosystem monitoring and basic research into predictive models that give early warning of impending changes. These models will allow us to incorporate the effects of climate change into stock assessments for fish and protected species. They will also lead to better decision-making with tools that forecast the effects of environmental and policy changes on coastal communities.

These capabilities will also help us benefit from new opportunities. As fish species head north, others will move in to take their place, and as some fisheries fail to recover, others will grow. For instance, scientists predict that climate change will boost the Atlantic croaker fishery by 30 to 100 percent. We need to be nimble enough to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise.

Healthy ocean ecosystems provide jobs, food, and recreational opportunities, and they are a vital part of our cultural heritage. One of the core values that guide us in managing this great resource is sustainability. As we work to fulfill our mission in the face of a changing climate, we remain dedicated to this idea: that the American people will enjoy the benefits of a healthy marine ecosystem, today and in future generations. Basing our policies in the best available science—and constantly working to advance that science—is the key to making that idea a reality.

Richard L. Merrick
Director, Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries