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Understanding changes in fisheries due to warming in the North East Atlantic to inform industry, policy and management decisions

Recent research has shown that some species of fish are increasing in the North East Atlantic Ocean in response to warmer water. These findings are informing decision makers in both industry and government as they prepare to adapt to these changing environmental conditions.

Dr Steve Simpson, a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology and Global Change at the University of Exeter, led the research team that conducted the research that has fed directly into the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) Report Card 2013.

The report card, which was released online in November 2013 and summarises the policy-relevant findings of some 150 scientists, was sent to all members of the UK Parliament as well as the Scottish MSPs and members of the Welsh Assembly. It makes the very latest science on climate change and its impacts on the UK marine environment accessible to decision-makers and puts it into the context of the Government’s vision for UK seas.

Simpson was the invited lead author on the chapter of the extended MCCIP report that considered the impact of climate change on fish, due to the research he conducted in 2011. Simpson and his colleagues investigated how an increase of 1-1.5 oC in temperature in the North East Atlantic over the last 30 years has affected some of the most commercially important fish stocks in the world - finding that some species are declining, while others, surprisingly, are increasing in abundance.

“If I had been told at the beginning that we would find most species were affected by warming, my prediction would have been for a negative response,” said Simpson. “However twenty-seven, more than half, of the fifty most abundant species increased in relation to warming, while only nine species decreased.”

Cold-water species such as, cod, haddock and whiting – all favourite food-fish and mainstays of the UK fisheries – declined in abundance. Less familiar, warmer-water species, such as John dory and red mullet, increased.

“Studies such as this give forewarning of what industry and policy-makers might have to contend with in the future,” said Dr John Pinnegar, Programme Director for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science’s (Cefas) Marine Climate Change Centre. “The industry is already thinking about targeting new species that are moving in, but this will also require a drive to educate the public to eat species that UK consumers aren’t used to.”

Modelling future climate change is complex and filled with inherent uncertainty, but Simpson’s predictions based on the latest Met Office climate models suggest significant further changes in the species inhabiting the North Sea. The UK's location on the European continental shelf situates it in what is sometimes called the ‘cauldron of climate change’. Shallow water, semi-enclosed seas, and the mid-northern latitude all contribute to accelerating the effects of global warming in this region. Indeed, temperatures in the North and Baltic Seas have risen five to six times faster than the global average over the past 25 years, making this region an important case study for understanding change on a global scale.