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The Pacific Ocean may be vast, but human decisions will influence the future of fish stocks and coastal communities. Pictured is Carroll Island off the Washington Coast.
Photo: Ron Clausen via Wikimedia Commons

A look at future ocean conditions and how they could affect coastal communities

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Scientists tell us that climate change is probably increasing the frequency of extreme events, such as hurricanes, droughts and wildfires. As time goes on, we might expect even more dramatic shifts in the ecosystem, as some species move to more suitable locations and others die out.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing along the West Coast, has launched an effort to become more nimble and responsive to changing conditions with regard to estimating fish populations and approving sport and commercial fisheries.

The future of West Coast fish stocks could be determined by human decisions. // Image: Center for Environmental Visualization and Robert Francis, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington

One effort is to describe how the ecosystem could change over the next 20 years and how those changes could affect coastal communities dependent on fishing. A new document titled “Scenarios for West Coast Fisheries – 2040” (PDF 1.4 mb) was recently released in draft form and will be the subject of discussions during next week’s meeting of the fishery council.

“The general idea of scenario planning is to develop descriptions of alternative plausible futures,” said Kit Dahl, staff officer who is leading the effort for the fishery council. “It’s not a prediction per se but a way of describing what we know with imagination as we look to what the future might hold.”

As Kit explained it, four scenarios were developed to represent the full range of future conditions that might be experienced. More than 80 experts participated in a series of six workshops during May and June to scope out the scenarios, based upon two fundamental uncertainties:

  1. Will the effects of climate change — including temperature and ocean acidification — come on gradually with infrequent surprises, or will we see extreme variability with ecological upheavals and uncertain weather conditions?
  2. Will ecological changes result in an increase or a decrease in fish stocks commonly harvested along the West Coast?

The four separate scenarios were developed and given interesting names. The discussion in the report, which includes future prospects for marine mammals, fish stocks and human communities, opened my eyes to a number of possibilities. Here’s just a sampling from the four scenarios:

Fortune and Favor: Gradual changes, good fish stocks

Under this most-favorable scenario, climate change is not as extreme as predicted in 2020. Fish stocks are gradually moving north to maintain favorable temperatures.

As the U.S. comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, cyber conflicts grow more intense. The fishing industry becomes less international with broad-scale efforts to promote domestically produced seafood.

A younger generation takes a long-term, ecosystem-based perspective that includes removing dams, restoring wetlands and recovering endangered species. Serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gases began in the 2030s. By 2040, the U.S. economy is on a firm path to a carbon-free future.

Coastal communities re-embrace fishing identities, as community-based fishing, processing and marketing takes hold with new technologies. Changing attitudes and advanced technologies, such as carbon-neutral propulsion, leads to a rebirth in sport fishing.

An ecosystem-based approach constrains catch for individual fisheries, which frustrates fishermen, but the overall catch increases. Technological innovations and institutional changes offer hope for solutions.

A Blue Revolution: Gradual change, but fish decline

A warming climate and ocean causes familiar fish stocks to decline, but subtropical and tropical fish find favorable conditions along the West Coast. A more open, global economy seeks inexpensive ways to supply protein, and wild-caught fish struggle under the pressure.

Throughout the 2030s, public sentiment has increased to address carbon emissions, leading to offshore energy supplies based on wind, currents and thermal properties of ocean water. Public values move away from animal protein to seafood and plant-based proteins.

Aquaculture puts competitive pressure on large-scale commercial fisheries, but coastal communities maintain some of their character with the help of federal investments in infrastructure — including rural broadband that supports remote office work. Recreational fishing sees a resurgence but with lower catch limits.

Increasing aquaculture creates conflicts with the commercial fishing industry, and fishery management councils take on new roles in regulating offshore aquaculture.

Harmful algal blooms increase in frequency; the ecosystem becomes less productive; and marine mammal populations decline. While wild salmon have less pressure from predators, lower ocean productivity reduces their numbers. Improved hatchery practices allow for continued salmon production.

Box of Chocolates: High climate variability, good fish stocks

In this scenario, we view “a world of environmental surprises and extremes, but where stock levels increase on average” with fishermen seeing “regular boom-and-bust cycles for some key stocks.”

Species rarely seen in the Northern Hemisphere show up suddenly, allowing for harvestable levels of unusual fish. New technology becomes the key to keeping up with less predictable conditions and allowing the exploitation of available fish. Seafood marketing becomes more difficult due to the high variability in seafood supplies, but consumers seek wild-caught fish for health and emotional reasons.

In some areas, salmon fishing may be good at times, but sport fishermen cannot depend on catching fish at their old reliable fishing spots.

Snowpack melts early except in the highest elevations. California enters a prolonged period of drought, which contributes to the extinction of many wild salmon stocks.

Dams on the Klamath and Snake rivers are removed, improving prospects for wild stocks. Widespread development of alternative energy supplies continues to fuel the debate about removing dams on the mainstem of the Columbia River, but the need for water storage blunts the argument as droughts become more frequent.

Hollowed Out: High climate variability, and fish decline

Unpredictable and extreme shifts in ocean conditions upsets the traditional food web along the West Coast. Only a few stocks of fish remain at harvestable levels, and commercial fisheries practically disappear except for highly specialized commodity fisheries and part-time operations. Wild-caught fish have become a high-priced delicacy.

Recreational fishing exists but continues on its long decline. Some rural fishing communities are abandoned. Others become focused on shipping, tourism or urban waterfront homes. Because of persistent, damaging storms, waterfront communities are fortified against unprecedented waves.

Economic downturns, climate change and marine pollution become more worrisome around the globe. In many ways, the market for seafood never recovers from the economic shocks of the 2020s. People worry about species extinction and ecosystem services, putting more emphasis on protecting species and producing alternative protein sources like algae, hemp and laboratory-grown “meat.”

Even aquaculture struggles to survive, as coastal areas are seen as too polluted to produce healthy foods, and struggling facilities are battered by high winds and waves. Some land-based, closed-system aquaculture facilities provide fish to a high-end market.

Salmon are devastated by the conditions. Even with a decline in marine mammals, the combination of poor freshwater conditions and poor ocean productivity have driven many salmon stocks to extinction, while others struggle to survive.

Next steps

While these scenarios can help us visualize four different options for the future, it is important to understand that the visualizations are only as good as the assumptions that go into them. We are dealing with a multitude of both natural functions and human actions, some of which can literally change the ecosystem as well as the society in which we live.

Some things are beyond human control, but a first step toward achieving a desirable future is understanding what we can control. After that, we can go about taking actions to set the stage for the world in which our great-great-grandchildren will live.

Anyone interested in these scenarios may submit comments to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The next step will be to identify specific challenges to particular communities, regions and people involved in the fishing industry. From those discussions will come proposed actions that could help people prepare for a better future.

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