Fish Are Being Forced to Migrate to the Arctic

As the days get warmer, many of us retreat into the comfort of our air-conditioning and furiously apply sun lotion or aloe. But what if there is no retreat from the heat? What if it is constantly weighing down on you, making it hard to breathe, reproduce, and survive?

Our oceans are heating up. According to a report published this past January, “about 93% of the energy imbalance accumulates in the ocean as increased ocean heat content” and has led to increased rainfall, higher sea levels, the death of coral reefs, the melting of ocean ice, and declining levels of oxygen in the water. We often debate how this affects human coastal life and increases the intensity of severe weather. But what about the creatures stuck in the sea?

Marine life has no escape from the ocean. As the climate gets warmer, sea temperatures are rising significantly enough to impact multiple fish populations and marine species. In a recent study released in the ICES Journal of Marine Science in April, scientists found that marine species are going extinct twice as fast as land species are. To avoid their extinction, fish are being forced to migrate north to cooler waters to remain comfortable. While it may seem like a ready solution, there are many consequences to even the subtlest of shifts in habitat, especially a shift as far as the Arctic Ocean.

Firstly, there are the effects on the individual ocean ecosystems. Because of the human impact on climate change, marine habitats are being destroyed at an exponential rate. According to one report, “researchers last year predicted that nearly two-thirds of the species would shift location over the next 80 years, with some moving just a few miles, while others would likely travel a thousand miles or more.” For example, Atlantic cod are expected to “lose 90% of their habitat and move to cooler waters in Canada by 2100.”

Smaller fish are the first to feel the impact of higher temperatures, even as small as zooplankton, which are commonly called the ‘building blocks’ of the ocean. As they and other integral fish in the food chain shift to cooler waters, the delicate balance of prey and predator is upset. They may individually benefit in numbers without natural predators, but this could lead to overpopulation of fish, causing a strain on their food supply and causing predators to follow, further upsetting the balance of an ecosystem. Beyond this, fish are having trouble reproducing in the warmer temperatures, further affecting the species’ resiliency against surviving the shift in sea temperatures. And some species, like corals and anemones, simply can’t just move. Because their primary source of food – the zooplankton – has left, they are left to starve.

Secondly, the migration of fish has led to an upset in the human and land ecosystem. As fish migrate, they move away from the fishing communities they have always been linked with. One of the main threats to these fish is overfishing – what one scientist calls the “double-whammy” of climate change and overfishing. As fish populations move, they begin to appear in areas that do not have the appropriate fishing legislation to protect them and by extension the communities that rely on them. For example, the increased melting of sea ice in the Arctic makes these Arctic waters more accessible to fishing boats. With the migration of cod and halibut to this same ocean and without updated legislation protecting these species, countries could take advantage and exploit this lapse through overfishing. The fishermen who follow the migration by boat have to use more gas as they travel further distances and for longer periods of time. This could potentially cause further pollution of the ocean and contribute to the ecological footprint. Additionally, fish populations could see a decrease in their maximum sustainable yield, which is the level they can be fished without them becoming at risk of extinction. As they are overfished, they become even less resilient to the impacts of climate change as global warming continues.

Entire communities reliant on the fishing industry, the majority of which are in developing countries, cannot simply just pick and move to follow their migrating livelihood. These migrations could very well cause the collapse of their local economies. The fishing communities in the Arctic will be greatly affected by this shift to their waters as well. Many indigenous communities in the Arctic have their economy rooted in the fishing industry. If new commercial fisheries begin to move to the Arctic this could disrupt the current economic balance. According to the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment conducted by the Arctic Council, “the marked shifts in distribution patterns for many targeted fishes, from sub-Arctic to high latitude seas, will inevitably attract modern fishing fleets into hitherto pristine areas, and may conflict with extant subsistence livelihoods among indigenous peoples along the Arctic coasts.” Beyond this, many species of fish which are vital to the Arctic environment, are “particularly vulnerable” to the conventional commercial vessels of the sub-Arctic and could be totally destroyed with an influx of new commercial fishing vessels.

But what can we do? Governments have begun engaging in preliminary responses like the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, which aims to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in that ocean for the next 16 years. The United States signed this agreement this past October.

A permanent solution would require “buy-in at every level—from regulators to fishers, from processors to retailers, from chefs to eaters.” Individual fishing communities need to monitor themselves against overfishing by not taking advantage of fish migrations into new jurisdictions. As part of this, they should push the government to change the legislation as the fish populations move. Beyond this, they can increase their catch diversity, therefore not targeting specific populations but still making a living.

Obviously, the most important contribution would be to do what it takes to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This could manifest in individual sustainability goals, lobbying local governments to protect ocean habitats, or requiring businesses to conduct themselves with climate change in mind. Supporting the Arctic NGO Forum could help to rebuild marine ecosystems and protect the fish during the changing dynamics of the industry.

Finally, the biggest contribution would be accepting responsibility. Anna Lappé, an author and educator, once said: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” As consumers, we have the power to impact a capitalistic world by adjusting the kinds of business we invest in through buying their products. Even if you live in an area far from the water, your actions affect the carbon footprint that is causing such intense changes in marine ecosystems. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, 80 percent of ocean pollution comes from land pollution. The plastic we use, the oil we invest in, and what we teach future generations will all have an impact on our oceans. 

Photo by The Economist

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!