Responding to Climate Change Threats to Fisheries

PCFFAAlmost exactly a decade ago, in 2012, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations adopted and published a major policy statement explaining just what “global climate change” was all about, and why we as ocean commercial fisheries folks should be concerned.

That landmark policy statement “Combating Global Warming & Acidic Seas (2012)” ( still stands as a beacon of good sense in a world where the threat of climate change has gone from scientific theory to grim reality—and will with certainty get a lot worse before it gets better.

This column is to bring our fleet up to date on what is actually being done to help our industry continue to fish in the face of these scary (and sometimes seemingly overwhelming) worldwide changes. That 2012 policy statement was also intended to be a beacon of hope. The following are some quotes from that policy statement:

“Toward a New Fishing Industry Initiative:  It’s now time—perhaps long past time—for the world’s fishing industry to collectively take a firm stand against the economic and societal forces creating global warming and its related marine hazard of ocean acidification.

“Both of these new phenomenon—rapidly changing climates and more acidic oceans—are expected to hit the world’s fishing industry especially hard. Indeed, they already are starting to do so. A collective response from our industry is much overdue.”

And the PCFFA policy statement concluded:

“With massive climate shifts causing shifting global ocean currents, major changes in ocean ecosystems, as well as changing the oceans’ most basic chemistry, the future of our industry may indeed not look much like its past. But we can still assure that we actually have a future, by concerted actions as an organized industry to speak out on this issue, to make our voices heard in the halls of power, and to help with many others to redirect the world’s current destructive pathway away from impending climate crisis — and towards new opportunities.”

Climate-Driven Disasters Worsening Over the Last Decade

Unfortunately, the many climate scientists who predicted dire ocean as well as inland consequences from climate change more than 30 years ago have been spot-on right.  If anything, the then-existing models understated the impacts we have already seen.

Since that policy statement was written in 2012, ocean impacts from excessive fossil-fuel-originated CO2 in the atmosphere have accelerated both ocean warming and ocean acidification.  Some 90% of additional atmospheric heating caused by skyrocketing levels of greenhouse gases has naturally been absorbed into the heat sink of the world’s oceans (which cover, after all, 70 percent of the Earth), which has resulted in massive “ocean heat waves” like what hit the U.S. west coast in 2015-2016. In late 2013, a huge patch of unusually warm ocean water, roughly one-third the size of the contiguous U.S., formed in the Gulf of Alaska and began to spread south.

By late 2016, this massive ocean heat wave, (nicknamed “The Blob” after a 1958 horror movie) had blasted most of the U.S. west coast and Canada, disrupting fragile ocean ecosystems, triggering unprecedented toxic algae blooms (in turn producing domoic acid, a powerful neurotoxin).  Domoic acid surges closed down most of California’s and Oregon’s highly productive Dungeness crab fisheries, caused a massive die-off of many key prey species, drove more mobile animals (like whales) looking for food much farther toward shore than ever before—in California, driving them right into the only remaining Dungeness crab fishery, resulting in unprecedented numbers of fishing gear-whale entanglements.  By the time The Blob had mostly dissipated in 2018, a great deal of damage already had been done to our industry.

Ocean ecosystems on the U.S. west coast still have not fully recovered.  But make no mistake: The science is clear that The Blob and other ocean heat waves we have seen with increasing frequency and ferocity are a direct and expected result of too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, all cumulatively driving global warming trends and (perhaps permanently) changing our climate.

We are also seeing a doubling of sea level rise rates, triggered by massive and accelerating melting of ice caps at each pole.  Glaciers in Greenland, the Antarctic and elsewhere are disintegrating, pouring their fresh waters into the sea and changing deep ocean currents in ways that also will change ocean ecosystems as well as world weather patterns.

In short, over at least the next 50 to 100 years the Earth—and the west coast of North America particularly—is in for a wild climate-change ride!   

Tools for Adapting to Slow But Steady Change

Since many climate-change impacts (such as venting long-lived CO2 into the atmosphere) have 50-plus year consequences, the science also tells us that the ocean impacts we are seeing today were caused by actions decades ago, and that we are already too late to prevent many major climate changes for at least the next 50 years. But that same science also it tells us that – with speedy actions to decarbonize world civilization by 2050 – we can still avoid much worse impacts later down the road.

As a civilization, we suddenly find ourselves in a deep hole of our own making, but the first rule of getting out of a deep hole is “stop digging.” There are now many worldwide efforts to break our society’s addiction to fossil fuels, with the Paris Agreement of 2015 being our world’s current best hope.

The fishing industry worldwide should by all means strongly support those decarbonization efforts, while also making sure future non-fossil fuel energy sources are compatible with healthy ocean ecosystems supporting sustainable and productive fisheries. The current U.S. fad for massive offshore windfarm development, for instance, makes no sense unless it is developed in ways that are compatible with maintaining our fisheries as a major worldwide food supplier.

But fishing industry folks are very resourceful and creative, always looking for ways to adapt and prosper. And adapt and prosper we can! Here are some of those efforts currently underway.

Using Best Available Science to Plan Ahead: The earlier we get advance warnings of likely ocean fisheries impacts, the better we can adapt. There are many groups working to create climate models that predict future climate-change impacts on land, but to date too little has been done to bring these terrestrial models to bear on far more complex ocean ecosystems. One effort doing just that, which PCFFA’s sister organization IFR is participating in, is the Climate Change Adaptation Tools for California Current Fisheries (CATCCH) Project  ( It’s exciting work. These scientists are making progress on adapting the world’s most up-to-date, highest resolution computer climate models to project how ocean ecosystems will most likely respond over the next several decades to climate change. Knowing this information may mean the difference between having managed fisheries in the future versus random guesswork! Yet these ocean ecosystem climate change modeling programs remain seriously underfunded.

Climate-Change Proofing Coastal Infrastructure: Sea level rises are already occurring and now accelerating along our coastlines, particularly in southern California. Everywhere in the world, local and national governments need to prepare for relatively rapid average sea level rises over the next several decades, coupled with more intense storms.

Local governments and planning authorities need to “storm proof” local coastal and port infrastructure and protect seaports from storm-caused beach erosion. All these are good steps anyway—but now should be taken with climate change driven sea level rises firmly in mind.

Managing Fisheries Based on Real-time, not Past Data:  The new “ecosystem-based management” models for managing fisheries are a step in the right direction of flexibility, because they are based on collection of real-time data. Since past data is no longer representative of likely future conditions in a rapidly changing ocean, having real-time data collection is more important than ever in managing both fisheries and markets.

Building in More Management Flexibility: Speaking of flexibility, the trend in recent years has been to make fishery management ever more rigid, piling on restrictions based on timing, area, gear type, state-by-state permitting, fixed permit numerical quotas, etc. But in the face of rapidly shifting fish migration patterns, the fish you have permits to catch in one area and time may not even be there anymore!

I would like to see mobile and multiple fishery permit systems as well as “reciprocity agreements” worked out between states that allow permit holders from neighboring states to fish on a temporary basis within that new state so long as there is available biomass, and so long as they land their catch in that sister state, thus benefiting that local economy.

Geographically fixed marine protected areas (MPAs) also may become obsolete as fish migration patterns and coastal ecosystems rapidly change. Ocean ecosystem protections need to become much more flexible as well as more mobile. The pros and cons of MPAs are outside the scope of this article, but see PCFFA’s 2002 Policy Statement on MPAs at:

Ramping Up Protections for Fisheries Habitat: Every harvestable species depends on the ecological health of certain habitats for its existence. One of the mandates of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) under the Magnuson-Stevens Act is to identify and protect “essential fish habitat (EFH).” Protecting fish habitat has also been one of PCFFA’s strongest priorities, particularly badly damaged inland habitat for salmon.

Anything we as an industry can do to reduce negative impacts anywhere in the life cycle of the species we depend upon, including restoring watersheds and estuaries, putting more water back into depleted rivers, cleaning up water pollution and removing fish-killing dams will help these species – and our industry – weather the upcoming storms of global climate change.

Figuring Out Better Ways to Survive Fisheries Closures: Fisheries biomass naturally varies, sometimes radically, from year to year.  There are also occasional total or near-total fishery failures.  But unlike in farming, there is still no such thing as a federal fishery “crop insurance” program, so obtaining federal fishery disaster relief is a disaster itself.  Two to three years is way too long to wait for federal fishery disaster assistance, and currently each disaster assistance plan’s funding has to compete with every other federal budget priority, often getting whittled down in the process to the point where it’s very little compensation for a lost season.

PCFFA has long advocated for the creation of a permanent funding mechanism for NOAA fishery disaster relief funds, perhaps through a poundage surcharge on foreign seafood imports.  The administrative mechanism actually already exists in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, thanks to past PCFFA lobbying—just not the funding!

Crafting Brighter Futures

Climate change, like every major change, will present our industry with both problems and opportunities. But few things come easily in the fishing business, and we at PCFFA have seen this industry weather many shifts. We have full faith and confidence that our industry, with its many innovative and resourceful fishing families, will continue our long tradition of service though these changes as well. 

Glen Spain is the Northwest Regional Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). He is also the PFMC-appointed Commercial Fisheries Representative to the council’s long-standing Habitat Committee. He works primarily out of the PCFFA/IFR Northwest Regional Office, PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, and can be reached at (541) 689-2000 or by email:

Useful Resources on Adapting West Coast Fisheries to Climate Change

Climate Change and Alaska Fisheries, AK Sea Grant Program (2016), available at:

Readying California Fisheries for Climate Change, CA Ocean Protection Council (June, 2017), available at:

Oregon Ocean Acidification & Hypoxia Action Plan (2019-2025), available at:

WA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife Information Page on Adaption to Climate Changes, at: