Climate Change and the Protection of Global Fish Stocks

It should come as no surprise that overfishing and pollution have depleted the ocean’s fish stocks; eighty-five percent of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited, over-exploited, or have collapsed.[1]  In the world’s oceans, climate change is expected to result in increases in sea surface temperature, global sea level rise, decreases in sea-ice cover, and changes in salinity, wave conditions, and ocean circulation.[2]  These impacts are likely to exacerbate existing stresses on marine fish stocks, notably fishing pressure, diminishing wetlands and nursery areas, pollution, and UV-B radiation.[3]

The increasing effects of climate change are creating a new wrinkle for the implementation of existing international agreements to protect fisheries and foster regional agreements among stakeholder nations.  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its subsequent Agreement Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks aims to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks through effective implementation of regional agreements,[4] the precautionary principle,[5] and cooperative enforcement[6] and data collection.[7]  However, these approaches are based on pre-climate change oceanographic models which assume some degree of predictability regarding fluctuations in fish stocks.

Studies show that as a result of rising ocean temperatures, many marine species have moved towards the poles and into deeper waters.[8]  For example, in the North Sea, the increased abundance of warmer-water species such as sea bass and red mullet create new fishing opportunities;[9] however, changes in migration and location patterns will ultimately challenge the effectiveness of regional agreements which govern fisheries in specific areas.  Agreements pertaining to fishing on the high seas can be rendered irrelevant as fish may shift from these areas to a given nation’s exclusive economic zone.  Encouragingly, there are proactive steps being taken to address climate change related concerns before they become unmanageable.  On April 29, 2013, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Russia, and the United States are scheduled to negotiate regulations for fisheries and fish stocks now exposed in summertime by the melting Arctic ice cap.[10]

For many developed countries, the incentive is there to continue to press for agreements that would allow for equitable distribution of resources through some sustainable fishing provisions.  However, the stakes are much higher for developing nations.  Though climate change will have an effect on developed and developing countries alike, fish contributes at least fifty percent of total animal protein intake in many small island developing states and least developed countries with ocean access.[11]  Economically, both direct employment in the fishing industry and related industries create export revenues reaching $24.6 billion annually.[12]  Developing countries with smaller shares in regional stock thus have less incentive to comply with regional conservation agreements than their developed neighbors with greater shares, as most of the benefits of conservation go to the larger stakeholders.[13]  Any decrease in fish harvest over the short term poses too much of a risk for countries dependent on fishing industries.

Ultimately, we must follow the precautionary principle when it comes to the uncertainties posed by climate change.  Proactive agreements are a good sign of things to come, but may need to give greater weight to the critical role developing nations have to play in creating a sustainable global fishing industry.

To access resources about sustainable seafood choices, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch site,










[1]Wild Seafood: Plenty of Fish in the Sea?, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, (last visited April 16, 2013).

[2] Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, Variability and Climate Change, Food and Agric. Org. of the United Nations, (last visited April 16, 2013).

[3] Id.

[4] Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.164/37 (Sept. 8, 1995) art. 2, 8, 9.

[5] U.N. Doc. A/CONF.164/37, art. 6.

[6] U.N. Doc. A/CONF.164/37, art. 14.

[7] U.N. Doc. A/CONF.164/37, art. 20.

[8] A. L. Perry, et al., Climate Change and Distribution Shifts in Marine Fishes, Science 308, 1912–1915 (2005); N. K. Dulvy, et al., Climate Change and Deepening of the North Sea Fish Assemblage: A Biotic Indicator of Warming Seas, J. Appl. Ecol. 45, 1029–1039 (2008).

[9] See N. Caputi, et al., The Effect of Climate Change on the Western Rock Lobster (Panulirus Cygnus) Fishery of Western Australia, Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 67, 85–96 (2010).

[10] Andrew E. Kramer, Accord Would Regulate Fishing in Arctic Waters, N.Y. Times, April 16, 2013, available at

[11] Media Centre, World Fisheries Must Prepare for Climate Change: FAO Releases New “State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture Report,” Food and Agric. Org. of the United Nations (March 2, 2009),

[12] Id.

[13] Rögnvaldur Hannesson, Climate Change Impacts on International Fisheries and Adaptation Strategies (June 10, 2010), available a

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