Climate change has resulted in shifts in where and at what depths many marine species are found. These shifts have not been uniform, and sometimes have occurred at different rates and in different ways than expected. The leading explanation for these changes has been biological differences among species, but a new study suggests that the local climatic conditions are more likely causing these shifts.
In a study published September 13 in the journal Science, researchers
from the U.S. and Canada suggest that climate velocity – the rate and
direction that climate shifts in a particular region or landscape –
explains observed shifts in distribution far better than biological or
The team compiled four decades of data from research vessel
surveys of fish and invertebrates conducted around the continental
shelves of North America by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service
(NOAA Fisheries) and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
The surveys were conducted across nine regions, including the
Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Alaska and
Eastern Bering Sea, and off Canada’s Atlantic coast. Covering
approximately 3.3 million square kilometers (just over 2 million square
miles), these areas were sampled using research vessel bottom trawl
surveys that collected 60,394 samples between 1968 and 2011. The
surveys captured 128 million organisms from 580 populations of 360
species or species groups, collectively called taxa.
“This is the first time we’ve combined U.S and Canadian
fisheries data from the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts of
North America at this scale,” said study co-author Michael Fogarty, a
fisheries biologist at the Woods Hole Laboratory of NOAA’s Northeast
Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). “We also sampled a broad range of
ecosystem types, from sub-tropical to sub-Arctic. The shifts in
species distributions were not always intuitive, or what was expected
to happen. For example, individual species like American lobster
shifted north in the northeast U.S., while big skateshifted south on
the West coast, and Pacific cod in Alaska remained essentially the
Many marine and terrestrial species are not shifting in
response to climate change as expected. To understand why, study
authors measured range shifts, studied regional temperature changes,
and considered geographic constraints. For example, the Gulf of
Mexico has an east-west coastline that prevents a northerly or poleward
shift of species in response to warming ocean waters,. Species there
shifted deeper, into cooler bottom waters.
Previous studies that attempted to explain why the shifts
were occurring at different rates and in different directions than
expected did not have the data necessary to study changes in detail. By
looking at the larger data sets, researchers working on this study
could examine individual species and groups of species within a
geographic region, the temperature range inhabited by each species or
species group, and the impact of temperature changes over time. By
determining the preferred temperature for each species, where the
preferred temperatures moved, and then where the species had moved, the
researchers found that many of the species matched those shifts over
time in what they called "the complex mosaic of local climate
Across all taxa, 74 percent shifted latitude in the same
direction as climate velocity, and 70 percent shifted depth in the same
direction. Likewise, 73 percent of shifts to lower latitudes and 75
percent of shifts to shallower water were explained by climate
velocity. Local variations in the environment appear to be a much more
accurate predictor of species shifts than variations in the species
life histories and other factors.
“The world is changing, and that includes the ecology of the
oceans,” said Fogarty, who heads the NEFSC’s Ecosystem Assessment
Program. “Ocean temperatures are not the same from the surface to the
bottom. Study after study show that climate change is affecting global
fisheries, and we need to be aware of the changes and begin adapting to
The authors suggest that marine species may shift more rapidly
than species on land because there are fewer barriers to dispersal in
the marine environment and species can more completely seek out their
temperature, or thermal, niches. Rapid range shifts, however, will
fundamentally reorganize marine communities, resulting in fisheries
conflicts across borders and challenges to traditional management
“We will continue to see shifts in the range of marine
populations, and the shifts will change the ecosystem, those who fish
for these species in the ecosystem inbcluding the coasta lcommunities
supporting the fisheries, and the management systems regulating the
fisheries,” Fogarty said. “We can begin to forecast climate velocities
and use these forecasts as a tool in manging fisheries in the future.”
In addition to Fogarty, other authors of the study include lead
author Malin Pinksy, Jorge Sarmiento and Simon Levin of Princeton
University, and Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova
Scotia, Canada. Pinsky, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton,
recently joined the faculty at Rutgers University.
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