Climate change and the collapse of fisheries

This is the thiFishing down foodwebsrd article in the series that I’m writing for a Chinese magazine targeting wildlife conservation. As you may guess, they started with Panda conservation, so the magazine is called Giant Panda, but they are running a series on exploitation of natural resources. So far I have covered overfishing, trawling and longline fishing. In this current article we discuss the interaction between fishing and climate change. I say we, because this article was led by Charlee Corra, a postgraduate student of mine. Charlee really deserves the credit for this one!

The first article in this series discussed the effects of overfishing and how it causes degradation to the environment. However, changes to the environment also affect fisheries and their sustainability. In any ecosystem, the survival of a species is dependent on its ability to grow to maturity and reproduce, which is in turn dependent on many factors such as environmental conditions that support healthy physiological functioning. Temperature, salinity, and water quality are all examples of integral abiotic factors that can have the power to support life or pose a serious threat. Global climate change is rapidly altering these environmental conditions, and thus altering marine communities in a way that scientists, fishermen, fisheries managers, and policy makers must understand in order to predict future stocks and improve sustainable practices

How the environment affects plants and animals
Physiology:  Marine organisms differ widely in their tolerance of environmental conditions. Some animals can survive better under stress than others. These differences in biological responses determine where an organism can live. For example, in the intertidal zone temperature sets the upper limits of species distributions such that barnacles, mussels or oysters with a greater heat tolerance live higher on the shore than those with a lower tolerance. While almost every organism has the ability to withstand heat stress to varying degrees, most organisms are also adapted to the temperatures in their particular habitat. Thus, many species, and even populations, have different thermal limits beyond which survival is brought into question. As an extreme example, imagine that you grew up in the polar regions and summer for you only gets as hot as, say, 10°C and you were put in the desert in summer – you would be above your thermal tolerance and likely would die.

The water chemistry of our oceans also heavily affects physiological functions. Calcifying organisms, such as corals, oysters, mussels, and some crustaceans, rely on specific levels of CO2 (usually low) and several other chemical compounds (usually high) in order to induce the chemical reaction that allows them to make their skeletons and shells. Changes to the water’s chemistry can compromise the structural integrity of these essential parts. Of particular concern is that constant and increasing CO2 emissions are causing more CO2 to dissolve into the ocean, causing Ocean Acidification (OA). OA is already making it difficult for shelled organisms to make their shells in some parts of the ocean! You can do a small experiment to demonstrate this effect: put a small seashell or piece of egg shell into a glass of an acidic liquid like Cola or vinegar and watch it slowly dissolve (this can take a day or two).

Climate change and long-term climate shifts: Climate fluctuates and changes naturally across many different time scales from seasonal to multi-decadal and millennial. However, in the last two centuries industrial activity has begun to influence these cycles, mostly because of emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 into the atmosphere. Of particular concern is that in addition to causing OA this CO2 also causes the earth’s atmosphere to warm, in turn warming the ocean. Unless something is done to change this trajectory, CO2 levels will continue to rise, negative effects on the environment will become stronger, and the impacts on marine habitats and communities will become more visible.

Shifts in distribution of plants and animals: As environmental conditions change, and especially as oceans warm up, many species are predicted to move poleward to higher latitudes to live in more optimal conditions. These range shifts are not always consistent or predictable among organisms or across regions due to complex ecological interactions with other physical and biological factors such as currents and larval dispersal, competitors and predators. Importantly, as the distributions of different species change, the balance of ecosystems is upset and their function is degraded.

Just as with other species, climate change will invariably impact fish populations and dynamics. For example, fish populations may either get smaller where they currently are or move to a new area. Adjusting fishing practices and quotas to these changes is essential for the future of sustainable fisheries.


Photo courtesy of the NOAA photo library ( Photographer: Robert K. Brigham

Effects of climate change on fisheries
Range shifts represent a huge threat to the productivity and success of fisheries, especially when they occur to economically and socially important species. In addition to losing an important species as its range shifts poleward, fisheries may be further affected by the opening of a gap in the ecosystem that can become occupied by a new species. This ultimately changes the structure and function of the ecosystem, potentially reducing the productivity of not only that single fishery but also the ecosystem overall.

In addition to range shifts, decreases in abundance of fish may also occur simultaneously. For example, warming has already caused decreases in populations of Norwegian Cod, leading to a less sustainable fishery. In such cases, the fishermen must either change to another fishery or risk damage to the fishery, degradation of the ecosystem and going out of business.

Together, the combination of range shifts and declining abundance has the potential to be devastating to fisheries if vulnerable fish stocks are fished at the same intensity.  Particularly sensitive fish stocks could easily collapse under these combined pressures. Considering that over 80% of the world’s fisheries are either already fully fished or over-exploited, collapses will become more likely under future conditions. However, armed with more accurate knowledge of how fished populations will be impacted, fishing regulations could be fine-tuned to protect the viability of fished species and avoid such a bleak future.

Predicting future stocks
Knowing that these issues exist, a lot of research is currently being done to predict the trajectory of future fish stocks and assist in managing fisheries in a more sustainable way. Because we are trying to predict what will happen in the future, one of the common techniques is to use computer-generated models which use complex calculations based on as many environmental and biological variables as possible to predict the effects of climate change on fish populations. These models take into account the physiological effects of climate change (mentioned above) on the targeted species to predict parameters such as growth, survival, and reproductive output to determine the future supply of adults. Then, in combination with experiments to test the outputs of these models, managers and policy makers decide how many and what type of fish can be caught annually to avoid depleting populations but also to maximize profits and food security. Importantly, these models can, if used properly, help managers prepare for the future of fisheries and to hopefully avoid more fisheries collapsing. However, it is extremely important to remember that predictions are not certainties and models, while very powerful tools, are far from perfect. There will always be variability across regions and habitats due to the interaction of many different factors and projections might represent some outcomes but not all.

It is important to remember that we can formulate all the regulations that want, but unless we are also simultaneously making an effort to decrease or mitigate the impacts of a changing climate on the ocean and its ecosystems, fisheries will continue to decline. The ocean is an important source of food for humans. In many countries seafood is a way of life. Many smaller communities rely exclusively on fish and other marine organisms for protein.  Therefore, it is important for everyone to understand how climate change will impact on the ability of marine organisms to survive because our fate is inextricably intertwined with that of the marine environment.

Can nature compensate for human impacts?

Algal turfs dominating under acidified conditions at cold-water (temperate) CO2 seeps, which we use at "natural experiments". You can just see the fronds of a solitary kelp plant in the right of the photo, otherwise they are rare at the site (when they should be 8 - 10 plants per metre!).

Algal turfs dominating under acidified conditions at cold-water (temperate) CO2 vents, which we use at “natural experiments” to try and understand the effects of carbon emissions on our oceans. You can just see the fronds of a solitary kelp plant in the right of the photo, otherwise they are rare at the site (when they should be 8 – 10 plants per metre!). This is a system that has been pushed past its ability to resist or compensate for human activities.

One thing that humans are really good at is having an impact on the environment through their activities. The problem is that we generally don’t realise that we’re having an impact until something changes in a drastic way. We talk about things called phase-shifts, where the environment changes from one “phase” to another. Good (and unfortunately common) examples are the loss of kelp forests for bare reef, seagrass meadows for bare sand, or coral reefs for algal habitats. In all of these cases, the environment has been degraded to the point where it no longer functions as it should, meaning that biodiversity and productivity are massively reduced.

There are two questions to ask here, (1) why don’t we see these phase-shifts coming, and (2) does nature have any resistance to them? A new paper by one of my PhD students, Giulia Ghedini, shows that nature may actually try to resist human-caused stressors (such as increased nutrient pollution, ocean acidification, warming) by increasing the strength of compensation. In this case, Giulia found that the compounding effects of multiple disturbances increasingly promoted the expansion of weedy algal turfs (which replace kelp forests), but that this response was countered by a proportional increase in grazing of those same turfs by gastropods. This is a natural compensatory mechanism, but it has limits.

What does this mean for our understanding of phase-shifts? First, it means that nature is stronger at resisting than we realised. BUT, because it is extremely difficult to either see or quantify this resistance we generally don’t realise it is happening…. until it stops. Then, once we push the systems past their ability to compensate for the increased pressure we place on them we see a sudden shift. It’s like watching a duck on a river – it may look extremely calm on the surface, seemingly stationary, but underneath it is paddling extremely hard. At some point the current strengthens too much and it can’t paddle harder and so, seemingly suddenly, the duck begins to float down the river.

Unfortunately, when put together, this means that more systems may be more stressed than we realise, and the only way to stop detrimental phase-shifts is to take the conservative approach and start to reduce our impacts on these systems. For example, we know that nutrient pollution, carbon emissions, overfishing and many other activities have damaged marine ecosystems, why not begin to reduce our impacts before we add more systems to the list of those we didn’t realise were at breaking point?

Relevant experimental scales for Ocean Acidification

Degraded reef where kelp have been replaced by algal turfs

Degraded reef where kelp have been replaced by algal turfs

In a few of my posts have discussed the potential effects of ocean acidification (OA), caused by the dissolution of CO2 into seawater, on marine ecosystems. What I haven’t really discussed yet is how we make these predictions, because quite frankly attempting to predict the effects of OA is a difficult prospect. There are a couple of different ways that you can make such predictions, but for me one of the most obvious and effective ways is to identify the key species’ in a particular marine ecosystem and then experimentally expose them to elevated CO2 based on the various emissions scenarios. On the surface that sounds simple…… but it turns out to be quite hard. The most simple way to do it is to bring organisms back into the lab and do the experiments there. True, it’s easier to manipulate the CO2 by bubbling mixed air with elevated concentrations of CO2 under lab conditions, but invariably you end up with a situation where you’re looking at the physiological responses of organisms. This is a very valid thing to do, but you can also be in for some surprises when you try to scale up to identify ecological effects. For example, based on

laboratory based experiments we have predicted that algal turfs will replace kelp forests and corals under

Healthy forest of the kelp Ecklonia radiata

Healthy forest of the kelp Ecklonia radiata

future OA conditions (picture to the right; link to the kelp study) because these algal turfs use the extra CO2 as a resource and grow faster. This conclusion, based on physiological changes, was and still is quite valid. HOWEVER, when we scaled up our experiments to mesocosms (literally “medium” experimental environment or ecosystem) and included the kelp we discovered that the kelp were able to resist a lot of this effect by suppressing the growth of the turfs. But, realising that this mesocosm study was also limited because it only occurred over one generation of kelp, and you may need to study multiple generations because the adults may not be the “weak point”, we took this work up to the next scale, field experiments at naturally occurring CO2 vents – currently our best “ecosystem” approach to understanding OA.

But we were interested in not only the larger, system response, but also how well our other experiments may predict ecosystem outcomes. We tested this thought by combining laboratory and field CO2 experiments (which is difficult but possible) and data from ‘natural’ volcanic CO2 vents. Interestingly, and to our great

Coral reefs are structurally complex and "cemented" together by Crustose Coralline Algae.

Coral reefs are structurally complex and “cemented” together by Crustose Coralline Algae.

relief, we found that algal mats showed the same direction of response to elevated CO2 (i.e. they grew more) across all scales of experiments but that the strength of response was modified by the ecosystem complexity. Basically, the things that either eat or suppress the growth of algal turfs slow the rate at which they will come to dominate the systems. BUT, we did find that these turfs have enhanced productivity and more expansive covers in situ under projected near-future CO2 conditions both in temperate and tropical conditions.; that is, our original predictions from the laboratory experiments that these weedy turfs could come to replace kelps and corals seems to hold up, it’s just that the rate of change will be a bit slower.


Digital library links for:
Lab based kelp study (Russell et al. 2009)
Kelp resisting turfs (Falkenberg et al. 2012)
Need to study multiple life stages (Russell et al. 2012)
Field manipulations of CO2 (Kline et al. 2012)
Ecological outcomes across different experimental scales (Connell et al. 2013)

Don’t forget to remember the past

I have recently returned from the 10th International Temperate Reefs Symposium in Perth. It was great to spend a week talking good science

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow. Photo: Owen Burnell

Seagrass may increase their productivity in the future as they use CO2 for photosynthesis.
Photo: Owen Burnell

with a vibrant group of great scientists. There was an array of talks from classical marine ecology (which is great to see!) to novel modelling approaches and plenty of discussion of human impacts in marine systems. In the rare moments of quiet since my return I’ve been thinking about the main message that I took away from the meeting, and it’s this: anthropogenic climate change may be new to the planet, but we were studying the effects of human activities on ecosystems for several decades before we even realised that climate change was happening. So why is it that we seem to have abandoned ecology in our race to understand climate change?

While I was writing my talk for the conference I realised that, in general, research into the effects of climate change in marine ecosystems has been hampered by not looking at the literature on other human impacts. For example, there is a rich and abundant literature on how excess nutrient loads degrade ecosystems and change their structure and function. Yet, it is only recently that we have realised that CO2 is a “nutrient” or resource in marine systems. This seems logical; after all, plants use inorganic carbon for photosynthesis.  However, the story isn’t that simple, with different algae and seagrasses using different forms of carbon for photosynthesis. Even more confusing is that it looks like the “weedy” species will benefit by switching to the most abundant source of carbon and start to dominate ecosystems (see some of my papers and Harley et al. for the ecosystem effects and Raven & Hurd for the physiological aspects)! But I digress….

The point is that for some reason we don’t seem to draw on this older literature for the general principles of what we may expect to see as CO2 concentrations increase in the oceans. We’re starting to catch up, but the lost time is frustrating – let’s not make the mistakes of past generations but rather learn by them.

Digital library links for: Connell & Russell 2010

Recovery of seagrass from overgrazing depends on species morphology.

Above: A meadow of seagrass (Amphibolis antarctica) that has been heavily grazed by sea-urchins to the point where only dead shoots and detritus remain. Below: A moderately dense meadow of Posidonia sp. with aggregations of sea-urchins (Amblypneustes pallidus). This genus of seagrass appears to have a much greater capacity to recover from grazing than Amphibolis antarctica. Photo credits: Andrew Irving (Above), Owen Burnell (Below)

Above: A meadow of seagrass (Amphibolis antarctica) that has been heavily grazed by sea-urchins to the point where only dead shoots and detritus remain. Below: A moderately dense meadow of Posidonia sp. with aggregations of sea-urchins (Amblypneustes pallidus). This genus of seagrass appears to have a much greater capacity to recover from grazing than Amphibolis antarctica. Photo credits: Andrew Irving (Above), Owen Burnell (Below)

Following on from my last post on how sea-urchins alter how much they eat in response to nutrients and CO2, here Owen Burnell describes his latest paper (in as many months!) that shows why Amphibolis antarctica and other morphologically similar species of seagrass may be so susceptible to grazing.

Sea urchins are important marine invertebrates, which in many parts of the world can shape sub-tidal habitats via their grazing. In South Australian seagrass meadows the short-spined sea urchin Amblypneustes pallidus generally occurs in low densities, however, population increases of the species have recently been documented by researchers at The University of Adelaide.

It was observed that the grazing activity of these urchins was impacting seagrass meadows, in particular the species Amphibolis antarctica, when compared with adjacent Posidonia spp.  By manipulating urchin density to measure seagrass loss and then simulating urchin grazing to study seagrass recovery, we found that while urchins grazed equally upon both seagrass species, Posidonia sinuosa recovered much faster from simulated grazing than Amphibolis antarctica. It appears the different morphology of these two seagrass species, in particular the meristem location (or centre of growth) of Amphibolis spp., which is elevated within the canopy and thus exposed to grazers, is likely to be the cause of these asymmetric grazing impacts. In essence, if the urchins eat the meristem that seagrasses grow from they don’t recover as quickly!

While sea-urchins are by no means a rampant force destroying local seagrass meadows, population expansions such as these are important to document, particularly if they have deep seated connections with changing trophic interactions or urchin fecundity. In many marine systems worldwide population expansion of macro-grazers such as urchins can be linked to over-exploitation of their predators (e.g. fish or crustaceans, or before their protection, sea otters!) or changes to temperature that affect their reproduction and metabolism.

For more information, check out the abstract (below), journal website (subscription required), or link to the full manuscript

The persistence of seagrass meadows reflects variation in factors that influence their productivity and consumption. Sea urchins (Amblypneustes pallidus) can over-graze seagrass (Amphibolis antarctica) to create sparse meadows in South Australia, but this effect is not observed in adjacent Posidonia sinuosa meadows despite greater densities of inhabiting urchins. To test the effect of urchin grazing on seagrass biomass, we elevated the density of urchins in meadows of A. antarctica and P. sinuosa and quantified seagrass decline. Urchins removed similar amounts of biomass from both seagrass species, but the loss of leaf meristems was 11-times greater in A. antarctica than P. sinuosa. In a second experiment to assess the recovery of seagrass, we simulated urchin grazing by clipping seagrass to mimic impacts measured in the first experiment, as well as completely removing all above ground biomass in one treatment. Following simulated grazing, P. sinuosa showed a rapid trajectory toward recovery, while A. antarctica meadows continued to decline relative to control treatments. While both A. antarctica and P. sinuosa were susceptible to heavy grazing loss, consumption of the exposed meristems of A. antarctica appears to reduce its capacity to recover, which may increase its vulnerability to long-term habitat phase-shifts and associated cascading ecosystem changes.

Eutrophication offsets sea urchin grazing on seagrass caused by warming and OA

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow. Photo: Owen Burnell

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow.
Photo: Owen Burnell

The title to this blog seems a bit counterintuitive, almost like eutrophication is a good thing. Don’t believe that for a second! In a recently published paper, Owen Burnell of the University of Adelaide presents some interesting data on the interactions between eutrophication (an all too common local stressor), ocean acidification and warming (both increasingly alarming stressors of global origin). As I keep discovering, interactions between these stressors never seem to turn out the way we expect:

The accumulation of atmospheric [CO2] continues to warm and acidify oceans concomitant with local disturbances, such as eutrophication. These changes can modify plant– herbivore grazing interactions by affecting the physiology of grazers and by altering the nutritional value of plants. However, such environmental changes are often studied in isolation, providing little understanding of their combined effects. We tested how ocean warming and acidification affect the per capita grazing by the sea urchin Amblypneustes pallidus on the seagrass Amphibolis antarctica and how such effects may differ between ambient and eutrophic nutrient conditions. Consistent with metabolic theory, grazing increased with warming, but in contrast to our expectations, acidification also increased grazing. While nutrient enrichment reduced grazing, it did not fully counterbalance the increase associated with warming and acidification. Collectively, these results suggest that ocean warming and acidification may combine to strengthen top-down pressure by herbivores. Localised nutrient enrichment could ameliorate some of the increased per capita grazing effect caused by warming and acidification, provided other common negative effects of eutrophication on seagrass, including overgrowth by epiphytes and herbivore aggregation, are not overwhelming. There is value in assessing how global and local environmental change will combine, often in non-intuitive ways, to modify biological interactions that shape habitats.

Digital library

The sins of the parents…..

Are not necessarily visited on the children, at least not with ocean acidification.Clownfish

There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years about the ability of plants and animals to adapt to ocean acidification. Some researchers are adamant that the rate of change is so fast that no animals will be able to adapt. A recent study by Miller et al. suggests that this may not be the case. In fact, they show that nature may just be a little more resilient than we give her credit for (or at least some species will be).

Professor Phil Munday and his team from James Cook University has been working on this concept for a while. The difficulty is that it is hard to raise multiple species of long-lived animals (or plants) in the lab to conduct these experiments. Miller et al. show that it’s worth trying. They exposed breeding pairs of cinnamon anemonefish to different levels of ocean acidification (OA) for two months before the breeding season. The astonishing thing is that their offspring weren’t negatively affected by this OA, whereas other juvenile fish coming from “normal” seawater were. What does this mean? That there was some sort of non-genetic adaptation within one generation!

We don’t know the underlying physiological mechanisms for this adaptation, or what other long-term trade-offs it may have (e.g. reduced reproductive output in the offspring?), but it is a promising outcome. Now all we need are more long-term, multi-generational research and we may begin to put a picture together on how our oceans will (or won’t) adapt to ocean acidification!