How West Coast Fisheries Can Prepare for Challenges of Climate Change

PCFFAThe bad news about climate change is that nearly everything in our fragile ocean environment is about to shift, and indeed is already changing, in ways likely to be detrimental to our existing fisheries.

The good news, however, is that there are a number of things our fisheries managers—and our industry—can still do to prepare and be ready for those challenges.

In case you missed them, two thorough California Current climate change Vulnerability Assessments (VAs) have been released for Pacific Salmon & Steelhead (VA 2019) and Other Managed Species (VA 2023). The latter also includes salmonids.

Data and assessments from these documents, produced by National Marine Fisheries Services Science Center staff and other partners, are also being made available in other formats (e.g., the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Annual Status of California Current Ecosystem Reports). They’re intended for PFMC use in developing more resilient fisheries.

The analysis is not good: in the 2023 Vulnerability Assessment for “managed species,” 64 different PFMC-managed species were studied in detail, and overall, two-thirds of these species were judged to have moderate or greater vulnerability to climate change. Only one species (Arrowtooth flounder) was anticipated to have a positive response.

The “highly vulnerable” species category was dominated by salmonids (with complex lifecycles dependent on multiple habitats, including inland rivers) and long-lived rockfish (which have low reproduction rates).

Every salmon stock assessed was in deep trouble already, Most of them are now listed on the Endangered Species Act as a result—not surprising, given all the inland impacts on salmon habitat and fish passage that for decades now have been reducing their in-river juvenile survival rates (and closing down more and more of our ocean salmon fisheries as a result).

The VA 2023 report also noted:

“Species classified as Highly or Very Highly vulnerable share one or more characteristics including: 1) having complex life histories that utilize a wide range of freshwater and marine habitats; 2) having habitat specialization, particularly for areas that are likely to experience increased hypoxia; 3) having long lifespans and low population growth rates, and/or 4) being of high commercial value combined with impacts from non-climate stressors such as anthropogenic habitat degradation.

Species with low or moderate vulnerability are either habitat generalists, occupy deep-water habitats or are highly mobile and likely to shift their ranges.”

Adapting to What We Can’t Change

The science is very clear now that since excess carbon dioxide (CO2) is long-lasting in the atmosphere, and that excess carbon is the main driver of ocean warming, we have already “locked in” major changes in ocean ecosystems for the next 50 years at least—but what does that mean in terms of maintaining sustainable ocean fisheries?

Among the climate change-driven impacts our West Coast ocean fisheries must expect to have to deal with over the next 50 years are the following: (1) major range shifts in many species in response to rising ocean temperatures; (2) increasing ocean acidification; (3) increasing geographic coverage and severity of hypoxia events; (4) ocean food-web disruptions caused by shifts in upwellings and ocean current nutrient delivery systems; (5) rising sea levels—which also disrupt essential estuary spawning and rearing habitats, as well as threatening coastal town infrastructure, and (6) more severe weather, including more severe swings between extremes like El Niño and La Niña and other cyclic events.

Unfortunately, whatever our world civilization does over the next 50 years to reduce excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could help reduce (or increase) the severity of these impacts. Regardless, the climate scientists tell us in no uncertain terms that its now too late to avoid them altogether.

If we are still to have fisheries amidst climate chaos, we must adapt—and soon.

These ocean physical changes are no longer theoretical. Range shifts, increasing temperatures, declining pH, and other physical changes already occurring in the ocean are already leading to documented changes in productivity, mortality, or other vital rates that will impact abundance and biomass.

Marine “heat waves” like those that hit the West Coast in 2014-2015, and the severity of swings between El Niño and La Niña events also have increased. Impacts have already been observed from phytoplankton and fish to marine mammals, salmon, sharks and seabirds. Several recent major fisheries closures are directly linked to climate change impacts.

Species range shifts are especially troubling, since nearly all our current fisheries management systems are geographically based and limited by state and national borders. The 2023 VA Report found that 46 (72%) of the 64 PFMC-managed species studied have a high or very high likelihood of distributional changes in the ocean over the next 50 years.

Climate change models predict that in response to increased ocean temperatures alone, centers of distribution for fish species are expected to shift (mostly northward) on average about 30 to 59 km per decade—if these species can adapt at all. Many species, particularly shellfish and coral reefs, cannot migrate to save themselves.

What do we do when fisheries stocks we depend upon move into other states, or to other countries? And what is the point of marine protected areas (MPAs) when the stocks these areas were intended to protect no longer occupy those areas? 

“State or nation-based controls, including the distribution of marine protected areas, may need to be revisited to consider likely future conditions. Further, fishing communities and individual fishermen accustomed to historical species distributions may find it necessary to travel further to access shifting fishing grounds or to cope with lower availability.” (VA 2023.)

It was the intent of the scientist-authors of these two Vulnerability Assessments that these results be used by fisheries managers and scientists for prioritizing the most vulnerable species for conservation or other actions, informing fishery and protected resource management decision-making and identifying priority areas of research and enhanced data monitoring.

But given the huge uncertainties involved, the VA Reports also urge the PFMC and state fish managers to take a very proactive and precautionary approach to maintaining sustainable fisheries. It is in our industry’s best long-term interests to support those urgent management changes.

Changing What We Can Change

The good news is that we humans still at least can mitigate (and eventually reverse) many of these impacts to give all these ocean species a better chance of long-term survival—if we only find the political will to do so quickly enough, facing a closing window of opportunity. After all, greenhouse gas-driven climate changes are human-caused impacts on the ocean (exacerbated by inland impacts on salmon habitat before they even get to the ocean) that as a world society we can control and reverse, including taking the following actions:

First Priority—Decarbonize the World’s Economy: The first step toward getting out of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions “hole” the fossil fuel industry has gotten us into is to stop digging. CO2 emissions account for 76% of global GHG emissions, and CO2 is very long-lived in the atmosphere. Our climate change disaster will only get better, even 50 years down the road, if we decarbonize as quickly and as completely as possible as soon as possible.

Any “carbon capture” scheme by any industry that purports to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere while still allowing more CO2 to be put into the atmosphere is doomed to failure—and dooming future generations. But we can buy some time by cutting back industrial emissions of other virulent greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4 -16% of global GHG emissions), nitrous oxide (N2O—6% of global GHG emissions) and various fluorine-based industrial chemicals that have much higher warming potential than CO2, though much shorter atmospheric decay periods.

Protecting and Restoring Fisheries Habitat—The need for programs that protect and restore fish habitats is more critical than ever in the face of abrupt climate change. By protecting habitats critical to these species we can maintain population size, biological diversity, geographic distribution—and in general make these species more biologically resistant to adverse impacts generally.

The VA 2019 Report, which was all about climate change risks just to salmonids, specifically notes:

“Most, if not all, Pacific salmonid habitat in the western U.S. has diverged significantly from historical conditions and processes. Where dams block passage and interrupt ecological and physical processes, dam removals will likely result in habitat that diverges less from those seen historically. This is likely to reduce impacts of climate change for fish at all life stages. As demonstrated by recent dam removals and restoration activities that reconnect floodplains, physical and ecological responses can be rapid and can effectively reduce habitat constraints on these systems. Thus, we may be able to provide some relief to the extensive climate change risks highlighted in this vulnerability analysis.” (pg. 34)

This is precisely why the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources) spend so much time and effort working to restore salmon habitat, recently including the removal of the four salmon-killing Klamath Dams that are due to all come out by the end of 2024 in the largest dam removal and salmon habitat restoration project in history.

Reducing as many of the existing inland stressors on salmon as possible (including restoring fish passage and clean, cool water flows) are instrumental in their future survival against more hostile ocean conditions.

For purely ocean-bound species habitat, a major benefit would be cleaning up and eliminating future inland pollution that makes its way to the oceans. Added stressors from this inland-sourced water pollution make all the other problems worse. Inland-origin pollution reaching the ocean also contributes greatly to massive “dead zone” hypoxia regions, disrupts ocean food chains and exacerbates ocean acidification.

Making better use of and putting some legal teeth into implementing better protections for PFMC-designated “essential fish habitat” and related sensitive ocean habitats is also a key buffer against climate change impacts. This can include additional marine protected areas, provided they’re structured and managed along the lines of the PCFFA Policy Statement on Marine Protected Areas (see Fishermen’s News, April 2023:

More consideration should be given to adaptive management-adjusted “mobile MPAs” intended to protect key ocean ecosystems and species that will likely migrate in response to increasing ocean temperatures and acidity.

MPAs now geographically fixed in place will be useless once the species or ecosystems they are intended to protect have moved elsewhere.

There are also emerging new threats to ocean species habitats that must be dealt with, including: (a) unchecked plastic pollution, which now threatens whole ocean food chains; (b) the emerging threat of deep sea mining, with all its related pollution issues; (c) proposed industrialization of nearshore key fish habitat areas for commercial aquaculture and offshore wind energy development, none of which are adequately regulated and all of which will eliminate fish habitat; (d) the proposal by Big Oil to abandon dozens of obsolete offshore oil and gas platforms instead of cleaning up their toxic messes as originally promised, and (e) cleaning up or biologically isolating various toxic pollution “hot spots” up and down the coast, but particularly in the harbors of Los Angeles (DDT dumpsite), San Francisco (radioactive waste dump near the Farallon Islands, as well as estuary pollution) and Puget Sound (multi-chemical and PCB pollution).

Assuring Climate-Shifted Sustainable Fisheries

The many fisheries scientists behind the two recent climate change Vulnerability Assessments all emphasized the need for a much more precautionary and proactive fishery management approach by the PFMC and state agencies in order to weather the probable climate shift-driven changes coming at our industry. We offer the following as key elements of this approach:

(a) Manage future fisheries to maintain maximum biological diversity, but on an ecosystem (not species-by-species) basis. Protecting both individual species’ genetic diversity, and also overall ecosystem food chain diversity, maximizes ecosystem resilience.

(b) Fisheries should target species that are identified in the VAs as less vulnerable to climate change generally, minimizing impacts (including bycatch) as much as possible on non-target species that are most vulnerable.

(c) Moving forever to abundance-based management systems, based on annual and real-time data, and as much as possible away from the fixed quota-type systems of the past. Quota systems based solely on past harvest performance may be dangerously misleading.

(d) Build in more fleet structure flexibility. When a fishery collapses, it should be easier for professional fish harvesters to apply for and receive permits in other fisheries and states, preferably with some sort of “seniority preference,” rather than face bankruptcy.

(e) Implement in-season adaptive management based on real-time data.  This of course requires more emphasis on improved real-time data collection systems, including better and more stable funding for fisheries-related data collection generally, as well as improved modeling.

(f) Upgrade fishery disaster assistance programs now in place. The fishery disaster assistance fund set up by the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) should be much better funded, given higher likelihood of future unanticipated fishery collapses, and there should be much faster delivery of such support (today it can take years). There also should be something akin to farmers’ federal “crop insurance” programs for professional fish harvesters.

(g) Invest much more in fisheries-supporting port infrastructure (ice plants, fuel depots, harbor dredging, off-loading docks, etc.). Adopt more legal and land-use planning policy supports to maintain “working ports” (e.g., CA Public Resource Code Sec. 30703 protecting commercial fishing harbor infrastructure).

(h) Establish and better fund programs for retrofitting existing fishing boats with electric engines and/or adapting gear as needed to switch fisheries.

(i) Support efforts to conduct in-depth socio-economic studies on the impacts to local ports likely to occur with climate changes (See for instance Koehn, L.E., et al., 2022, link below).

(j) Support, at both state and federal levels, and help fund work to “harden” coastal port infrastructure to protect those ports from the negative effects of climate change, including sea level rise.

(k) State and federal governments should fast-track climate-change ocean impacts research, including applying high-resolution modeling to ocean ecosystems. Climate change ocean impacts modeling efforts are presently grossly underfunded.

Taking these steps would go a long way toward adapting our fisheries to upcoming climate change challenges. This is an urgent need, but only some of these measures are underway, and all need to be fast-tracked and better funded. The one thing that is certain is that the status quo will not save us.  

Glen Spain, J.D., is the Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, as well as their General Legal Counsel.  He is also the PFMC-appointed Commercial Fisheries Representative to the PFMC’s Habitat Committee. He can be reached by email at and by phone at the PCFFA/IFR Northwest Regional Office, (541) 689-2000.  PCFFA’s website is  IFR’s website is