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Climate Change Effects on Oceans, Impacts to Fish Stocks and Contributions to Global Food Insecurity
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By Monique Baskin

Global food insecurity is the result of a ‘perfect storm’ of issues facing the international community today. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a perfect storm as “a critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors”, however, within the context of this paper, the perfect storm is defined as the combination of population growth, climate change and sociopolitical environment issues that further exacerbate limited to no access to seafood. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence - National Intelligence Council posited that one of the four mega-trends that will change the face of the international environment is the food, energy and water nexus. They also determined that change will be determined by six game changers. They include: the role of the US in the international arena, governance, global economy, regional instability, technology and increased conflict. All of these game changers have a direct effect on food, water and energy resources notwithstanding added pressure from global population increase, climate change and environmental practices that are unsustainable. Due to the enormity and complexity of these issues, this article will concentrate solely on the effects of climate change on oceans, its impacts to fish stocks and its contribution to global food insecurity and briefly deal with the issue of governance and the execution of laws to mitigate and adapt to an ever-changing ocean environment.

Population Growth and Fish Demand

The worlds’ population growth rate has slowed down dramatically over the past fifty years due to rapid demographic transitions to older populations and lowering of fertility rates (low birth rates). Despite the slowing down of the world population growth rate, the United Nations’ (UN) World Population Prospects: 2002 revision estimated that global population would increase to 8.9 billion from 6.3 billion by 2050 and its most recent determination has estimated that by the year 2300, the worlds’ population will reach 8.97 billion. What is not captured, however, is the diversity of population change among various regions and countries. The UN has discovered that less developed nations are still rising at nearly six times (1.46 percent annual rate) when compared to developed country populations (0.25 percent annual rate), and the population of 49 of the least developed countries are rising at an annual growth rate of 2.4 percent.

As a consequence of global population growth, the demand for fish has also increased. In the June 2014 report from high-level panel experts on food security and nutrition, they indicated that in 2012, 158 million tons of fish were produced and of that, 136 million tons was used for human consumption. They also predicted that production and consumption rates would increase an average of 2.5 percent per year and even stronger still among highly populated countries. Garcia and Rosenberg (2010) found that about 400 million poor people critically depend on fish for their food and fish provides approximately 1.5 billion people, 20% of their average intake per capita intake of animal protein. The implications with the rise in global population and increased consumption is the potential for fish production to become even more exploited than already is, creating a chronic and long-term shortage situation, a situation that could quickly deteriorate into major public health and incite regional or even global security conflict.

The stress on fish stocks is not only a by-product of an increase in global population density; the effects of climate change also cause it. Researchers have generally concluded that climate change or the general warming of the earth is caused by a rapid increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs, which include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and sulfur oxides) in the atmosphere. Of all the GHG emissions, methane (CH4) gases are considered the most potent, however the most concern lies in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted because of its ability to remain in the atmosphere for upwards of 150 years versus CH4, which remains in the atmosphere approximately 12 years. The remnants of pollution in the air function like a blanket to trap heat energy and warm the earth. The ocean helps to mitigate GHGs in the air by absorbing these pollutants (approximately 30 percent of atmospheric CO2 is accumulated in the ocean) and directly affects the climate by swapping heat, freshwater and carbon with the atmosphere.

Ocean Acidification

In the Working Group I (WGI) contribution to the 5th assessment report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), they found that over the last 50 years, the ocean has absorbed about 93% of the earth’s excess heat energy and this absorption (among other variables) has caused it to warm. Some of the climate change effects (among others) on oceans include temperature changes; sea level rise; changes in sea salinity; and pH levels (acidification).

Oceans temperature between the depths of 0 to 700 meters, have increased consistently over the period of 1971 to 2010. This increase in temperature has been more dramatic in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the number of Southern Hemisphere oceans and that they are warming contributes to the earth’s atmosphere warming. The implication for the oceans transferring its heat to the atmosphere is increased and rapid melting of the glacier ice and Arctic ice (part of the cryosphere). Ice lost from the melting of the cryosphere could affect ocean circulation and marine ecosystems, ocean productivity and regional climate as well as directly impact water resources and habitability of populated areas due to rising oceans. Jon Barnett (2011), in his study on climate change and its effects on food production and security in the Pacific Islands, found that temperature and rising sea levels affected coral reef mortality (which causes shoreline erosion) while an increase in CO2, handicapped the growth ability of reefs. Both of these could have an impact on fisheries and may be a factor in ciguatera fish poisoning (food poisoning from ciguatera toxin that may be found in large reef fish, such as grouper, red snapper, sea bass, and Spanish mackerel). In addition to nutritional consequences, Barnett argues that livelihoods are affected as well in the way of more time and fuel expended as fish stocks are depleted.

The ocean, through subduction (downward movement of water or recycling), regulates its salinity (the weight of dissolved salts in a kilogram of seawater). The ability to do this means that there is a constant exchange of freshwater through evaporation and precipitation. Areas in the ocean that have a high surface salinity tend to be the areas where surface ocean water evaporates more than precipitation falls and vice versa. Over time, research indicates that mid-latitude ocean areas that are dominated by evaporation have become saltier and areas that are more precipitation dominant (such as the tropics and Polar Regions) have become less saline with more frequent and violent rainfall. This change in salinity is enough to cause changes in marine development and productivity.

Ocean acidification is the change in chemical balance of seawater due to the uptake of CO2. The IPCC reported that there has been a consistent decrease in the pH level of the ocean since the late 1700’s. However, as CO2 has increased in the ocean, oxygen (O2) has decreased. The combination of a warming ocean and a decrease in oxygen has led to a reduction in movement of dissolved oxygen from the surface to further beneath the ocean. So although the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 has served the global population, possible ramifications from ocean acidification and warming has meant that fish could potentially migrate to other oxygen rich areas. Cheung et al. found that fish will move to higher latitude and deeper waters and shift their distributions according to the change in climate and even though there are estimates that fish production will increase, there were will be varying differences by region. They predict that there will be a productivity decreases in the North Pacific, the Southern Ocean and around the Antarctic continent; and increases in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, Arctic and the northern edge of the Southern Ocean regions. An increasing population, increasing fish demand, overexploitation and by-catch, etc., coupled with the inability of marine life to regenerate itself due to climate change effects, will result in a significant and compounded damaging effect on fish stocks. In addition to these implications, the CNA Military Advisory Board, in the May 2014 National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change Report (confirming earlier referenced studies), warned that melting of the Arctic ice would open the region to an increase in human activities and exploitation such as resource extraction, tourism and shipping; activities that the region is not particularly accustomed. They also mention the potential challenges of resolving international disputes without the ratification of international level governing laws.

Sustainable Fisheries

Livelihoods will be affected and from an international perspective, the ability to develop, govern and implement laws regarding potential changes in exclusive economic zones (EEZ) will be a major factor in trying to mitigate and adapt to change. Sumaila et al. (2011) suggest using events such as the 1997-1998 El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), (during which there was a 50% decline in Chilean and Peruvian marine landings resulting in a loss of about $8.2 billion), to study economic effects on fisheries. Studies such as these may also be helpful to develop, augment and strengthen international laws already in place.

As is summarized in the sustainable fisheries and aquaculture for food security and nutrition report, governance is composed of formal and informal rules; the process by which they are established and contributed to; and its implementation and monitoring mechanism. The following four elements are crucial for sustainable fisheries management:

  1. Measurement of fish stocks and status of resources;
  2. Attribution and recognition of rights over fish, water and land resources;
  3. Management of the system; and
  4. Determination of a supportive environment for stakeholders.

However, these elements do not consider climate change issues. Perhaps establishing an inclusive definition of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and using that as the framework from which to develop international, regional and state governing laws could be beneficial for promoting and advancing sustainable fisheries governance.

The CRS Marine Protected Areas report, defines MPAs as areas reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment; however, there are debates about whether enough sea has been given the highest level of protection and whether those highly protected areas include a representative selection of all necessary habitats to include land. Sumaila et al. (2011) seem to agree when they report that given the problems with overfishing, habitat degradation, pollution runoff, land-use transformation, competing aquatic resource uses and other anthropogenic factors, development and application of institutions and governing mechanisms are imperative for achieving effective adaptive fisheries management. Johnsen (2014) provides an innovative and interesting theoretical framework for fisheries governance by way of an Interactive Governance approach. This is where governance matches the complexity and dynamics of fisheries by being a continuous developmental process, essentially two distinct systems: ‘the system-to-be-governed’ and ‘governing system’ are constantly changing, adapting and interacting with one another. Given that this approach is not static, there is a degree of complexity. However this seems to be the integrated and holistic perspective, which is needed to take into consideration resilience, sustainability and the ecosystem.

Global food insecurity is a complex problem with a myriad of factors to consider, from health issues to marketing systems and economic and governing issues. Although land based agriculture has been the target for many food security centered organizations, fish stocks also play a vital role in food security. This article briefly focused on how climate change impacts the ocean and its possible implications for fish stocks. It is my recommendation to bring more focused attention to this because unless more attention is given to this area and a globally integrated approach is deployed, effects could be devastating for human life. In this instance, part of that global concerted effort has to be dealing with the ability to mitigate and adapt to change through the use and development of effective international, regional and state governing laws regarding ocean use. Competent implementation, monitoring systems and innovation are needed to potentially mitigate the possible economic fallout likely to occur from declining fish stocks.

IA Forum Student Writing Competition Semi-Finalist Monique Baskin is an International Affairs Masters and Environmental Health Science and Policy Graduate Certificate Candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs and Milken Institute School of Public Health. 



National Intelligence Council, http://globaltrends2030.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/global-trends-2030-november2012.pdf

United Nations’ World Population Prospects: 2002 revision. United Nations Population Division, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2002/WPP2002-HIGHLIGHTSrev1.PDF

Garcia, S. M., et al. "Food Security and Marine Capture Fisheries: Characteristics, Trends, Drivers and Future Perspectives." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 365 (2010): 2869–2880. Web of Science. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

CNA Military Advisory Board, National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change (Alexandria, VA: CNA Corporation, 2014)

IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.

Barnett, Jon. "Dangerous Climate Change in the Pacific Islands: Food Production and Food Security." Regional Environmental Change 11 (2011): 229-37. ProQuest. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Cheung, William W. L., et al. "Large-Scale Redistribution Of Maximum Fisheries Catch Potential In The Global Ocean Under Climate Change." Global Change Biology 16.1 (2010): 24-35. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Sumaila, U. R., et al. "Climate Change Impacts on the Biophysics and Economics of World Fisheries." Nature Climate Change 1.9 (2011): 449-56. ProQuest. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

HLPE, 2014. Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture for food security and nutrition. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome 2014.

Johnsen, Jahn P. "Is Fisheries Governance Possible?" Fish and Fisheries 15.3 (2014): 428-44. ProQuest. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Marine Protected Areas: An Overview CRDC-Id: CRS-2009-RSI-0164 Document Date: February 06, 2009 Agency: Resources, Science, and Industry Division (CRS) Agency Publication Number: RL32154 Length: 25 p.

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