This month the IPCC published its special report on the impact of climate change on our seas.
The report attempts to set out the scientific consensus on the likely impact of climate change on our oceans, life inside of them, and the potential for them to adapt to a warmer world. You can read a very quick summary of key findings here. They include highly confident predictions of declines in the abundance of fish in the North Atlantic, a very likely weakening of the system that runs the Gulf Stream and a shift in the geographic range of various species, impacted by both the effects of fishing and climate change.
We have already seen climate change impacting our seafood, with an increase in the amount of hake (a species similar to cod) found in our seas. Climate change has also been blamed for the decline in North Sea cod – although we maintain that setting quota beyond sustainable limits, consequent over-fishing, reports of ongoing discarding are major factors.
A figure taken from the report showing the vulnerability of marine ecosystems to climate change
Earlier this year Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency, and through both the Climate Change Act and the National Marine Plan the Scottish Government has an obligation to act in a way best calculated to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change. But what does this mean for fisheries management, and what can we do better?
Along with our partner organisations in Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (a coalition of international development and environment organisations, trade and student unions, faith and community groups who believe that the Scottish Government should take bold action to tackle climate change) we set out our views on the role fisheries management can play in tackling the urgent climate crisis during the Scottish Government’s recent consultation on its National Discussion Paper on fisheries management. Here they are in summary.
- Despite the Scottish Government recognising the climate emergency, the ‘Future of Fisheries Management’ discussion document mentioned climate only once where it defers responsibility for it to the National Marine Plan, and discusses the implications of it only when regarding the potential to develop new Atlantic Bluefin tuna fisheries. Whatever future fisheries management looks like, climate adaptation and mitigation must be at its heart and not an afterthought.
- Early research has found that around 18 mega tonnes of carbon are stored in the top 10cm of Scotland’s seas with around 7.2 mega tonnes sequestered every year. This compares with Scotland’s national emissions of about 51.2 mega tonnes of carbon (and equivalent gases) each year. This sequestration ability, and these stores, face several threats. However, research has found that “Threats to habitats where carbon is sequestered are important on a local scale for Scotland’s marine habitats (summarised for each habitat in Section 3). For the delicate organisms forming biogenic reefs, the main threat is due to physical disturbance from mobile fishing gear.” Such impact should be mitigated on our marine carbon stores and their sequestration potential enhanced. This means we need to look after and recover our maerl, muds, seagrass beds and the array of seabed habitats in our sea, just as we do with our peat bogs on land.
- Whilst emissions from Scottish agriculture have fallen by around 25% since 1990 (in line with a decrease in cattle numbers) our food system is still a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock production, including beef, dairy, poultry and pork, causes significant emissions (as high as 2,400 t CO2 per ton beef protein consumed). However, diets based on seafood are, on average, known to lead to significantly less climate impact – and are nearly equivalent to entirely plant-based ones. The impact depends on the type of fishing, and there is significant variation. Pelagic fish species, such as mackerel and herring, are widely considered to be very low emission sources of protein, alongside farmed molluscs, such as oysters and mussels. However, some fisheries have higher fuel demands and are considered to have a higher impact – some research even concludes that trawling for scampi has a higher climate impact than beef production! Future fisheries management regimes should therefore seek to establish low emission and sustainable sources of seafood, providing incentives to develop low emission fisheries, and recover them when in depleted state.
- In order to monitor and facilitate improvements in the carbon footprint of our fisheries we recommended Scottish Government report on annual fisheries emissions and fuel grant as part of their annual fisheries statistics.
The Government continue to consider their consultation and next steps for fisheries, but in the meantime climate action continues with the Scottish Parliament voting through its historic climate change emission reduction act yesterday too. Marine issues remain on the fringe of this debate, but are becoming more mainstream and we are particularly glad to see this act requiring Ministers to develop a Climate Change Plan which “must set out the Scottish Ministers’ proposals and policies regarding the consideration of the potential for the capture and long-term storage of carbon when designating marine protected areas”.
It is clear that a changing climate will have significant impacts on the life in our seas, and the way we use it. However, our seas can also provide many solutions, whether that be as sources of low carbon food or as habitats which suck carbon out of the atmosphere. What is fundamentally important is that we look after them and plan the way we use them in the future.