POLICY COLUMN: Climate Change and Fish

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference recently concluded in Paris, and developed countries are now charged with implementing an environmental agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a perfect setting for us to ponder how well positioned “we” might be for change that might be reflected in U.S. fish programs. With a clearer vision of global intentions, do we have a process to sharpen our priorities? Are we ready to act with conviction, and quantify our needs to finish a job we’re just starting? This column shares observations based on querying a few federal agencies and listening to backscatter for years. I am more comfortable than I expected, hopeful that efforts underway before the Paris conference will now be energized with strategic action by the next presidential administration. I also feel AFS efforts in the science arena will contribute significantly. We can quibble about details, but I choose to be cautiously optimistic about the coming years.

My first “research” on this column led me to the U.S. Department of the Interior (USDOI), prompted by concerns that at least some U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) programs were at risk from climate change. A late 2015 report piqued my interest. Turns out the USDOI Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a group charged with assessing how well the department deploys its budget and staff, listed climate as one of the top nine “most significant management and performance challenges” for the third consecutive year. Perhaps as important, climate implications permeate other priorities on the OIG list—public safety, disaster response, water programs, and operational efficiencies.

The annual USDOI Inspector General’s report (USDOI 2015) reflects “continuing vulnerabilities and emerging issues” across departmental offices. After three years on the list, and with concern increasing, climate might be both continuing and emerging. Indeed, several conversations with USFWS leaders revealed some serious planning as they prepare for inevitable actions. As one example, USFWS is using 50-y projections from the long-standing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to create “climate-matching” analyses to estimate when in a changing climate the most opportunistic species in other nations might become established in our aquatic ecosystems. This tool is used by the USFWS’s Risk Assessment and Mapping Program (RAMP) to provide a useful view of one issue that is likely to complicate our efforts to manage aquatic systems. Read more at USFWS (2015).

Climate is also a recognized worry in our oceans. Meandering currents, shifting sea levels, and new hydrologic cycles rank as agency priorities, but the issue that caught my attention is ocean acidification (NOAA 2015a). This seemingly subtle worry, also known as “OA,” threatens ocean ecosystems in sinister ways. OA is the term given to the chemical changes resulting from increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Greater emissions translate into more CO2 absorbed in seawater, a lower pH reflecting increased acidity, and dire implications for marine food chains. Essentially, greater CO2 absorption means microscopic creatures with calcium and silicon shells could dissolve. You may not be worried about protozoa at the base of our food chains, but the food shortage will eventually affect larger species deemed precious to humankind. This may already be happening, as evidenced by recent trends in shellfish aquaculture operations (NOAA 2015b).

These priorities are not random. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (2015), with its eye on all government programs, also recognized climate as a high risk, although they were thinking more broadly than fish and wildlife.

For the typical Fisheries reader, this trend is no surprise. Federal agencies are preparing for the inevitable. I’m certain states are too, but my “research” didn’t probe that deeply.

Perhaps you noticed stories on the AFS website about Society efforts in this arena. In cooperation with Cornell University’s Human Dimensions Research Unit, AFS has been engaged by the USDOI/U.S. Geological Survey’s National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center to conduct fiveyear reviews of the eight USDOI Climate Science Centers (USGS 2015). We’ll be right there on the front line, offering fish expertise.

These are scary but exciting times. Let’s watch closely as the Paris accords trickle down and individual efforts percolate up.


NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). 2015a. PMEL Carbon Program – ocean acidification: the other carbon dioxide problem. Available: pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/ Ocean+Acidification. (December 2015).

———. 2015b. PMEL Carbon Program – ocean acidification’s impact on oysters and other shellfish. Availble: pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/ Ocean+Acidification’s+impact+on+oysters+and+other+shellf ish. (December 2015).

USDOI (U.S. Department of the Interior). 2015. Report by the Office of the Inspector General. Report No. 2015-ER-068. Available: doioig.gov/sites/doioig.gov/files/2015ER068Public.pdf. (December 2015).

USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). 2015. Fish and aquatic conservation – invasive species prevention: keeping risky aquatic species out of the United States – how we are working with industry and state partners. Available: fws.gov/injuriouswildlife/ Injurious_prevention.html. (December 2015).

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2015. GAO high-risk list: limiting the federal government’s fiscal exposure by better managing climate change risks. Available: gao.gov/highrisk/ limiting_federal_government_fiscal_exposure/why_did_study. (December 2015).

USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). 2015. National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center. Available: nccwsc.usgs.gov. (December 2015).

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