International climate change study focuses on risks to fisheries

(Photo: Franz Mueter; Credit: Todd Paris, UAF)
by: Lauren Frisch

Melting sea ice, ocean acidification and warming temperatures are among many risks that are currently threatening arctic and subarctic marine environments. For coastal community residents living on the edge of a changing ocean ecosystem, it is hard to predict which aspects of environmental change will most affect arctic and subarctic fisheries.

And while scientists have a growing body of knowledge about risks to ocean ecosystems, this doesn’t always mean the necessary information is being communicated to the managers and decision makers who influence how marine resources are used.

Franz Mueter, associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, wants to investigate how changes in arctic and subarctic marine environments will affect fisheries and seafood-harvesting industries. Over the next three years, Mueter will be working with a team of international researchers to synthesize studies on the effect of climate variability and change on arctic and subarctic marine ecosystems. They will use this synthesis to evaluate the potential impact of climate change on seafood-harvesting industries, communities, and countries.

The Belmont Forum, whose goal is to foster cooperation and coordination of global environmental change research, is funding the study. Three co-chairs lead the collaborative effort.  Sei-Ichi Saitoh, based in Japan, is the overall project leader. Mueter is the US research lead, and Ken Drinkwater is the Norwegian research lead.

The project’s main focus will be a series of workshops to evaluate the ability of seafood-harvesting industries in Japan, the United States and Norway to prepare for climate change.  The workshops will address how environmental risks vary among industries or activities, and what the user groups have already done to prepare for or respond to environmental change. These workshops will target groups that rely on marine resources for economic and cultural purposes.  One workshop will be held in each host country.

Representatives of every stage of commercial and subsistence fishing and seafood processing will be invited to the workshops, although the scope of each workshop will vary based on the composition of these different user groups in each country. The workshop in Japan will focus on challenges to the seafood supply chain and consumers.  In Alaska, the focus will be on both commercial fishermen and residents of coastal communities who depend on subsistence practices.  In Norway, the researchers are particularly interested in speaking with representatives from coastal communities who rely on commercial fisheries. In all three countries, fisheries managers will be invited to share their perspectives.

Each workshop will begin with a series of presentations on how climate change is likely to affect marine environments. Following this, workshop participants will discuss whether they have noticed any climate-related changes in their industry or activity, what they perceive as the greatest risks or opportunities associated with climate change, and if or how they plan to prepare for them.

The researchers want to pinpoint concerns and challenges for fishermen, processors, managers and others involved in the seafood industry, and identify whether any of these groups are already thinking about climate change when making decisions.  The research results will be made available to the public in a report or brochure that highlights possible ways to incorporate climate change considerations into decision-making and provides recommendations for future fisheries management strategies.

Mueter thinks the opportunity to work through the Belmont Forum will give the research team a chance to provide meaningful advice to northern communities reliant on seafood from arctic and subarctic seas.  He hopes this project will provide a new model for successful international collaboration that can be applied to additional arctic research projects in the future.

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