One result of Hurricane Sandy is that it injected some energy into the debate about climate change. The discussion even made its way into presidential politics. No one is saying that global warming caused the hurricane, but many scientists have pointed to the increasing severity of our weather as a general consequence of Earth’s warming. I’ve heard the expression “weather on steroids” used to describe the situation.
Severe weather can affect fisheries, which are the last major source of “wild” food. First of all, fish populations can be directly affected by severe weather like hurricanes. Storms can cause disruptions to migratory patterns and diminish reproductive success, and, if severe enough, may even kill some fish directly. And of course the fisheries themselves can be dramatically affected when boats, docks, and processing facilities are damaged or destroyed. Hurricane Sandy had a devastating impact on New Jersey’s fisheries. One of the first things Governor Chris Christie did after the hurricane was to petition federal officials to declare a fisheries disaster. This move would allow some financial relief for the fishing industry.
Hurricanes are not the only problem for fisheries. The most serious consequence for fisheries from climate change is the effect of warming oceans. Fish species, including Atlantic salmon in Maine and lobster in Long Island Sound, are being displaced because of increases in water temperatures in those areas. Ocean acidification resulting from increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is having a negative impact on west coast shellfish. Biologists fear that the rate of change of ocean temperatures is occurring too fast for the process of genetic selection to keep up.
We can’t blame climate change and ocean warming for all the problems with fisheries. Certainly overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss are greater and more immediate challenges. But climate change is making it harder for fish populations to recover. Warmer water is just one more stress that the fish have to deal with.
So as people in the northeast work toward restoring some normalcy in their lives, let’s also think a bit about the effects that climate change has on the other species around us. They get no help from FEMA or the Red Cross, but have to figure out a recovery strategy on their own. And this is becoming more and more difficult for fish when the ocean they swim in becomes increasingly hostile.