Urgent action needed for small-scale fishers to withstand the climate crisis says new WWF report

Posted on 02 September 2020

(2 September 2020) – The climate crisis is having significant negative consequences for the majority of fish species caught by small-scale fishers, including some of the most commercially important species like sardines, anchovies and tuna. Many fish species remain vulnerable to losing their habitats and food sources. The livelihoods of millions of people and vulnerable communities are at risk if the small-scale fishing sector is not equipped to adequately adapt to the climate crisis, according to a new WWF report.

The study examines the effects of the climate crisis to small-scale fisheries in developing countries combining scientific climate models with social science approaches that incorporate local ecological knowledge. The assessment focuses on the impacts of and potential adaptation strategies to climate change for small-scale fishers in mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, South Africa and the Philippines. 

The report, by WWF, Agrocampus Ouest (France), University of British Columbia (Canada), Charles Darwin Foundation (Galapagos) and Instituto Nacional de Pesca (Ecuador), warns that communities in developing countries who depend heavily on fishing are severely threatened by the climate crisis, as fish biomass is expected to decrease by between 30 to 40% in some tropical regions by 2100.

Severe effects, even at 1.5˚C of global warming

Philipp Kanstinger, marine expert at the WWF, says: "The study shows that climate change has significant negative consequences for the majority of fish species caught by small-scale fishers, including some of the most commercially important species like sardines, anchovies and tuna. Even if global warming were limited to 1.5 °C in the most favourable scenario, many fish species remain at risk of losing their habitats and food sources. In the coming decades, many fish species will be coping with temperatures that exceed comfortable limits for them to thrive, affecting their populations and distribution patterns. Fewer fish means less food and less income for people whose livelihoods are tied to our seas. The small-scale fishers, who account for half of the world's fish production, will be disproportionately affected by the consequences of a warmer ocean."

Tuna disappears from the Philippines

The study finds that fisheries in countries nearest to the equator will be the most heavily affected by warmer and more acidic seas.

"In some countries, catches will be halved by 2050. Of the countries studied, the Philippines will be hit particularly hard: in traditional hand-line tuna fishing, large decreases in the amount of fish caught are foreseen. These losses are difficult to compensate with other fish species, both in terms of the nutritional value of other species in the region and the trade value of tuna to international markets. If the tuna disappears from the coasts of the island state, people who depend on these and other fish will simultaneously lose a vital source of food and income, threatening their livelihoods. Climate adaptation strategies and plans for their implementation must urgently be developed and supported by all relevant stakeholders,” he says.

Fishers confirm: the climate crisis is already here

Small-scale fishers are already strongly affected by the climate crisis, according to case studies developed for this report. Among the most frequently cited observations are unusually high sea temperatures, decreased availability of fish either due to lower abundance of fish or changes in fish distribution, and changes to species being observed. Fishers also reported a greater frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as floods and strong winds. All three countries are already affected by declining catches, either due to reduced fish stocks or altered fish distribution as species move further away from the coast or into deeper, cooler waters where they are no longer accessible by small-scale fishing gear. Fishers are also concerned about changes they have witnessed to marine ecosystems, especially to coral reefs that are dying or have already perished, as they serve as crucial fish spawning and nursery grounds. The cumulative effects of these changes are particularly devastating for coral reefs, which are home to 25% of all marine life.

The socio-economic consequences of the climate crisis are unprecedented. Fishers fear shrinking incomes due to dwindling fish stocks, and worry about their personal safety as they must travel further to find fish in seas where extreme weather conditions are increasingly frequent. 

"If our greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing, we can anticipate a mass extinction of species in the oceans. Many marine ecosystems will collapse. If we remain inactive with regard to fisheries and the climate crisis, this will lead to dramatic losses. Millions of people will lose their livelihoods and go hungry,” says Kanstinger.

Better fisheries management and fighting the climate crisis

The WWF study concludes that the small-scale fishing sector is not currently equipped to adequately adapt to the climate crisis. Marine ecosystems are experiencing dramatic changes at a rapid pace as fisheries continue to depend on them. If the sector fails to adapt to these changes, it will collapse. However, scientists estimate that globally sustainable fisheries' management could actually increase fish biomass in the oceans by 60%, but only if global warming is kept within the limit of 1.5 °C. Urgent action is required to steer both oceanic and social scenarios to more thriving and resilient outcomes. 

Kanstinger warns: "With a human population of nearly 10 billion anticipated by 2050, we will need more marine resources than ever before. This cannot be met under the current circumstances. Only by shifting to sustainable management of fish stocks, reducing discarded catches, increasing consumer demand for small and fast-growing fish species, transitioning to sustainable aquaculture and accounting for the changes the climate crisis is already delivering to our seas and societies can the situation improve."

WWF recommendations for better fisheries management and control strategies, as well as for climate adaptation practices, call for the fisheries sector to become more responsible, adaptable, participatory, precautionary and social, including gender equality. Better and more effective monitoring and control of fishing activities, together with investment in better equipment and scientific data are urgently required. 

"It is important that consumers choose sustainable fish and seafood products while consciously consuming less seafood, especially when sustainable choices are not available. Only sustainable fisheries and sustainable aquaculture can help ensure conservation of the ecosystems and species which support the livelihoods of 800 million people around the world and keep some of our favourite food items on our dinner plates,” he says.

For further information contact Mandy Jean Woods mwoods@wwfint.org
The climate crisis threatens the livelihoods of 800 million people who depend on fish as the main source of protein.
© Alo Lantin / WWF Philippines