Australia alert to looming fisheries climate threat but yet to act

As the US national fisheries service updates its climate action plans, conservationists say Australian regulators are alert to the “looming crisis” but yet to proactively manage the impacts of climate change on fisheries.

Climate change is a “top priority” for NOAA Fisheries, the US agency responsible for managing and conserving marine resources within 320 kilometres of the US coastline. 

The agency recently issued new regional climate action plans for six fishing regions stretching from the US east and west coasts to Alaska and the Pacific Islands.

The plans enable decision-makers to track changes, forecast conditions, assess risks, evaluate strategies, and prepare for change in response to climate impacts such as warming oceans, loss of sea ice, rising seas, extreme events, acidification, shifting species distribution and coral bleaching. 

Regulators cancelled the 2022-23 harvest of Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries after NOAA concluded crab stock declines were linked to warming ocean conditions, and a 2019 heat wave in the North Pacific.

Meanwhile in Australia, the impact of climate change on Australian fisheries has been the subject of two recent senate inquiries, and climate-related declines have led to a $24 million bailout for one major fishery.

Even so, Adrian Meder, Sustainable Seafood Program Manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, says climate change is not generally considered by Australian state and federal governments which often manage fisheries independently of one-another, even for the same population of fish.

“We are, at a leadership level, very alert to the looming crisis that we face. But there’s a long road before we are actively responding to it and managing it in our oceans and fisheries,” he says.

Some fisheries managers do take account of environmental factors, he says. South Australia considers the amount of water flowing down the Murray River in determining its Mulloway catch.

Meder says the recent $24 million bail out of Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery could have been avoided by listening to scientists.

He explains the Federal Government money to buy back licences in the fishery followed declines observed in Jackass Morwong fish stocks.

“For about 50 years until the 1990s … we were able to maintain catches of over 1000 tonnes. Then the stock started to decline. Back in the mid 2000s was when scientists first said this could be because of climate change, in combination with that fishing pressure.”

“We’ve had evidence that climate change might be impacting some of these stocks, in the meantime, but we haven’t done anything about it,” Meder says.

Recently governments had to close 15-20% of the fishery “because a bunch of fish stocks – in fact, most of them – are sort of spiralling out of control”, Meder says.

The Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery an important multi species fishery covering around half of the Australian fishing zone. 

Meder says the zone is located in a “global ocean heating hotspot”.

CSIRO modelling predicted stocks in the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery to decline by 20% or more by 2040.

But CSIRO’s Dr Alistair Hobday told a senate inquiry into the Fisheries Quota System: “the evidence of the impacts of climate change on fisheries has become much more apparent in the last five years […] it’s now standing out very strongly in the attention of fishers and managers. The signal is right in front of them. Ten years ago you had people like me who were looking into the future and describing what we might see by 2030 or 2040. Unfortunately, 2030 or 2040 has come now.” 

Another senate inquiry looking into the spread of climate-related marine invasive species will report by 31 July.

According to the CSIRO, Australian fish species are moving south in search of cooler waters in response to climate change.

CSIRO modelling of target fish species in state and Commonwealth waters found 70% have moderate to high sensitivity to climate change effects on abundance, spatial distribution and behaviour.

Species with high sensitivity in Commonwealth waters include: Scallops, Coral trout, Northern prawns, Tropical rock lobsters and Squid, Sharks, Blue Grenadier and Orange Roughy.

Blue grenadier, a species popular in fish and chip shops, is projected to decline by 30-40 percent by 2040, according to the CSIRO. Declines in prawns from northern Australian waters (10-20% decline) and sub-Antarctic toothfish (15-25% decline) are also expected.

For consumers who want to avoid adding pressure to already struggling fish stocks, Meder says the Australian Marine Conservation Society GoodFish guide and app provides independent sustainability assessments for most fish and seafood.

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