Climate change means ‘unprecedented hardship’ for 33 fish-dependent nations

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People in the tropics and subtropics will suffer most, because fish are so important in their diets and because they have limited capacity to develop other sources of income and food

With climate change threatening to destroy coral reefs, push salt water into freshwater habitats and produce more coastal storms, millions of struggling people in fishery-dependent nations of Africa, Asia and South America could face unprecedented hardship, according to study published in the February issue of the peer-reviewed journal Fish and Fisheries.

The study, by a team of scientists at the WorldFish Center, the University of East Anglia, Simon Fraser University, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the University of Bremen, and the Mekong River Commission, is the first to identify individual nations that are “highly vulnerable” to the impact of climate change on fisheries.

Countries that need the most attention, they said, are not necessarily the places that will experience the greatest environmental impacts on their fisheries. Rather, they are countries where fish play a large role in diet, income and trade yet there is a lack of capacity to adapt to problems caused by climate change — such as loss of coral reef habitats to the bleaching effects of warmer waters and lakes parched by an increase in heat and a decrease in precipitation. For example, fish accounts for 27 percent or more of daily protein intake in vulnerable countries — compared to 13 percent in non-vulnerable nations, and there are scant resources for alternative sources of protein.

Both coastal and landlocked countries in Africa, including Malawi, Guinea, Senegal and Uganda, four Asian tropical countries—Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan and Yemen — and two countries in South America, Peru and Colombia, were identified as the most economically vulnerable to the effects of global warming on fisheries. Overall, of the 33 countries that were considered highly vulnerable, 19 are already classified by the United Nations as “least developed” due to their particularly poor socioeconomic conditions.

The world’s fisheries provide more than 2.6 billion people with at least 20 percent of their average annual per capita protein intake, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The “highly vulnerable” countries identified in the WorldFish study, which was funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), produce 20 percent of the world’s fish exports (by value).

“From a strictly environmental perspective, countries in the higher latitudes will see the most pronounced impact from climate change on fishing,” said Edward Allison, the paper’s lead author. “But economically, people in the tropics and subtropics likely will suffer most, because fish are so important in their diets and because they have limited capacity to develop other sources of income and food.”

“We believe it is urgent to start identifying these vulnerable countries, because the damage will be greatly compounded unless national governments and international institutions like the World Bank act now to include the fish sector in plans for helping the poor cope with climate change,” he added.

Two-thirds of the most vulnerable nations are in tropical Africa, where in many countries fish account for more than half of daily animal protein consumption and where research indicates that fish production in both coastal and inland waters is highly sensitive to climate variations.

In the vulnerable countries of South Asia, the potential problems include increased bleaching of coral reefs, caused by a rise in ocean temperatures. In addition, changes in river flows, resulting from reduced snowfall, and melting glaciers, present dangers to freshwater habitats.

In northern South America, the concern is that climate change will alter coastal upwellings, which sustain huge catches of anchovies, sardines and other varieties of small, “pelagic” fish.

“The problems driven by climate change are bad enough by themselves; what will make them much worse are the economic and institutional weaknesses of the vulnerable countries identified in this study and their fishing communities,” said Steve Hall, director general of WorldFish.

“Fisheries are already under tremendous pressure from overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and a range of other factors. Climate adaptation measures must go hand in hand with efforts to confront other threats if these countries are to succeed in building sustainable livelihoods for fish-dependent people.” 



  • If the world’s total fish catch were shared
    equitably amongst this madding, human crowd
    of 6.7 billion people, less than a tenth of
    the daily protein requirement per person could be
    realized. Assumptions: 14-20% of the weight of
    a fish is protein, we excrete 25-30 grams of
    urea per-day, 100 million tonnes of fish
    harvested per-year, 1/5 to 1/6 of protein is
    nitrogen by weight. With the increased warming and
    acidification of the oceans, this quotidian fraction of a tenth will decrease. Clear cut
    and charcoal Amazonia for soy-bean production to
    replace this decreasing largesse of protein from
    our sullied oceans.