Models Project Northward Distribution Shifts Using Temperature, Estuarine Habitats as Key Factors
NOAA scientists continue to develop and improve the approaches used to
understand the effect of climate change on marine fisheries along the
U.S. east coast. Their latest study projects that one common coastal
species found in the southeast U.S., gray snapper, will shift northwards
in response to warming coastal waters.
In a study published online December 20 in the journal PLOS ONE,
researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and
the University of North Florida developed projections of gray snapper
distribution under several climate change scenarios. Gray snapper (Lutjanus griseus) is an important fishery species along the southeast U.S. coast.
Associated with tropical reefs, mangroves and estuaries, gray
snapper is found from Florida through the Gulf of Mexico and along the
coast of Brazil. Juvenile gray snapper have been reported as far north
as Massachusetts, but adults are rarely found north of Florida, leading
researchers to look at estuarine habitats as a key piece of the
"Temperature is a major factor shaping the distribution of marine
species given its influence on biological processes," said Jon Hare,
lead author of the new study and director of the NEFSC’s Narragansett
Laboratory in R.I. "Many fish species are expected to shift poleward or
northward as a result of climate change, but we don’t fully understand
the mechanics of how temperature interacts with a species life history,
especially differences between juvenile and adult stages."
Hare and NOAA colleague Mark Wuenschel, a fishery biologist at the
Center’s Woods Hole Laboratory, worked with Matt Kimball of the
University of North Florida to project the range limits of gray snapper,
also known as mangrove snapper, using coupled thermal
tolerance-climate change models. Kimball also works at the
Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Florida.
Gray snapper was chosen for this study given previous temperature
and physiological studies by all three authors, providing a foundation
upon which to build. Hare and colleagues believe their approach
applies more broadly to other fishery species that use estuarine areas
during their life history. Those include a large number of commercially
and recreationally important species such as summer flounder, black
sea bass, weakfish and pink shrimp.
Unlike earlier studies on climate change and its impact on species
like Atlantic croaker, Hare and colleagues developed a model based on a
specific hypothesis that is supported by laboratory experiments and
field observations. Their new study is based on laboratory research
that determined the lower thermal limit, the temperature at which a
fish can no longer survive. This limit is expressed as cumulative
degree days below 17°C (about 63°F). The team then equated these
limits to estuarine water temperatures. Prior research has shown that
estuarine temperatures are closely related to air temperatures, so the
team then linked the thermal limits to air temperature. Projections of
coastwide air temperature were then extracted from global climate
models and used to project changes in the distribution of thermal
limits for juvenile gray snapper.
The researchers made climate projections for winter water and
temperatures for 12 estuaries from Biscayne Bay in south Florida to
northern New Jersey. Data collected in previous studies from the
Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve
nearJacksonville, Florida, along with temperature data from the Jacques
Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserves in New Jersey, provided
valuable background information.
The results indicate that gray snapper distribution will spread
northward along the coast into the future. The magnitude of this spread
is dependent on the magnitude of climate change: more CO2 emissions
resulted in greater northward spread.
The uncertainty in the study’s projections was also examined by the
researchers, who looked at multiple global climate models and the
uncertainty in each model’s estimates of lower thermal limit.
Surprisingly, biological uncertainty was the largest factor, supporting
calls for more research to understand and characterize the biological
effects of climate change on marine fisheries.
This latest study by Hare, Wuenschel, and Kimball joins a growing
number of studies that predict climate change is going to affect marine
fish distribution and abundance, creating challenges for scientists,
managers, and fishers in the future.
"Further, this works supports the conclusion that along the U.S.
east coast, some species will be positively affected by climate change
while other species will be negatively affected." Hare said. "There will
be winners and losers."
"In the past we have assumed that ecosystems were variable but not
changing. Now we understand that they are both variable and changing,"
said Hare. "That complicates the big picture since each species and
each ecosystem is different."
"The challenge facing scientists, managers, and fishers alike is
identifying the potential effects of climate change and developing a
response that will increase the long-term sustainability of resources,"
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