Global warming: Goodbye to sea scallops?

A northward shift of the Gulf Stream could warm waters off the New England coast significantly, according to a new NOAA study. Graphic courtesy NASA.
Rapidly warming ocean temperatures off the New England coast are affecting many marine species. Graphic courtesy NASA.

New vulnerability assessment to help guide fisheries management

Staff Report

Rapidly warming ocean temperatures off the coast of the Northeastern U.S. are likely to have a big impact on nearly all fish and other marine life in the region. Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration carefully surveyed 82 species in a recent study, trying to identify which are the most vulnerable to global warming.

“Our method identifies specific attributes that influence marine fish and invertebrate resilience to the effects of a warming ocean and characterizes risks posed to individual species,” said Jon Hare, a fisheries oceanographer at NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and lead author of the study. “This work will help us better account for the effects of warming waters on our fishery species in stock assessments and when developing fishery management measures.”

The study included all important commercial species, along with recreational fish and fish listed or under consideration for listing on the federal Endangered Species Act, and a range of ecologically important marine species.

Generalist species like Atlantic cod and yellowtail flounder can use a variety of prey and habitat, and are ranked as only moderately vulnerable to climate change. By contrast, the Atlantic sea scallop is more of a specialist, with limited mobility and high sensitivity to the ocean acidification that will be more pronounced as water temperatures warm. Sea scallops have a high vulnerability ranking.

The method also evaluates the potential for shifts in distribution and stock productivity, and estimates whether climate change effects will be more negative or more positive for a particular species.

“Vulnerability assessments provide a framework for evaluating climate impacts over a broad range of species by combining expert opinion with what we know about that species, in terms of the quantity and the quality of data,” Hare said. “This assessment helps us evaluate the relative sensitivity of a species to the effects of climate change. It does not, however, provide a way to estimate the pace, scale or magnitude of change at the species level.”

Each species was evaluated and ranked in one of four vulnerability categories: low, moderate, high, and very high. Animals that migrate between fresh and salt water (such as sturgeon and salmon), and those that live on the ocean bottom (such as scallops, lobsters and clams) are the most vulnerable to climate effects in the region. Species that live nearer to the water’s surface (such as herring and mackerel) are the least vulnerable.

A majority of species also are likely to change their distribution in response to climate change. Numerous distribution shifts have already been documented, and this study demonstrates that widespread distribution shifts are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

A specific summary of results has been prepared for each species to help put the rankings into context. These narratives discuss what is known about the effects of climate change on the species and provide the foundation for future research.

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