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Climate Change and Seafood Supply: Developing Countries Most Vulnerable to Ocean Acidification

Picture of fishing nets
Photo: MyShot

 

The following piece originally appeared at ClimateProgress.org.

By Tom Wittig

Developing countries that rely on nourishment from the oceans will soon find their sources of food and way of life threatened, according to an Oceana study released last week. The report, Ocean-Based Food Security Threatened in a High CO2 World, ranks the top 50 nations most vulnerable to climate change and ocean acidification in the context of their seafood and fish consumption.

Not surprisingly, those nations topping the list are among the least responsible for historic emissions of carbon dioxide.

The Comoros claimed the dubious distinction of most threatened, followed by Togo, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, and Eritrea. Other notable countries in the top fifty include Pakistan (8), North Korea (25), China (35), and South Africa (46). The United States did not make the list.

Just how big is this threat? Over a billion people rely on seafood as their main source of protein. Before mid-century, global population is expected to reach nine billion, creating further demand for ocean-based food. Many nations struggling with nutrition will be further challenged, and citizens of some developing nations will likely turn to inferior foods. The authors elaborate:

Losing [seafood] may mean more dependence on less healthy processed foods that are imported from abroad. Communities that have recently made a shift from eating traditional seafood items to importing cheap, processed foods have suffered widespread health problems. For example, in Pacific Island nations about 40 percent of the population has been diagnosed with diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or hypertension.

The combined rankings were based on three factors: exposure to climate change and ocean acidification, rates of seafood and fish consumption, and adaptive ability. It then predicted these conditions into mid-century for each country.

The report also considers the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification separately. The Maldives are the most threatened based solely on climate change predictions. The Cook Islands, which did not fare much better in the combined rankings, came in at number one in the ocean acidification rankings.

Scientists have already observed disturbing trends in ocean acidification and climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, ocean pH has decreased by roughly 30 percent. The change in pH spells serious trouble for coral reefs and shellfish that rely on calcium to grow. In increasingly acidic waters, less calcium is available.

Ocean temperatures are also rising dramatically in numerous regions. This change is forcing some marine species to move closer to the poles or into deeper waters. Many fish species are predicted to shift towards the poles at a rate of around 20 miles per decade. Poorer nations do not possess the industrial fishing fleets to chase these moving populations.

Although the United States didn’t make the list, it isn’t safe from these changes. Atlantic cod have shifted farther north to compensate for increasing temperatures, and lobster populations are becoming increasingly vulnerable to disease as waters warm, wreaking havoc on seafood markets. Oceana stresses the effects climate change may have on American fisheries in its report:

Millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue are at risk if there are substantial losses in the capture, processing and sale of U.S. seafood due to regional climate impacts. Due to rising temperatures, the continental U.S. is projected to lose an average of 12 percent of its fisheries catch potential.

According to the Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post, ocean acidification is also endangering America’s fisheries. Despite not being the sexiest issue, ocean acidification is receiving increased attention as its effects become more pronounced. Eilperin notes that falling pH is putting pressure on America’s shellfish fisheries. In regions like the Alaska and the Chesapeake Bay, hits to seafood and fish harvests are not just a threat to industry, but a threat to culture.

While the U.S. still lacks the political will to make the necessary changes to adapt and slow climate change and ocean acidification, at least we have the technology and economic resources. The nations atop Oceana’s list do not. Their citizens will have little hope if the seafood and fish they have relied on for generations disappear.

Tom Wittig is an intern with the Ocean Program at the Center for American Progress.