Influence of climate change on fisheries resources in the Arab region

4 May 2015

The current world phenomena of climate change affect directly and indirectly fisheries resources and consequently coastal fishing communities. Low-lying coastal areas are particularly vulnerable and entire communities may become “climate refugees”.

Fishing communities in such areas, including areas in the Arab region, are subject not only to sea-level rise e.g. the Egyptian Delta region, but also flooding and increased water levels. In order to  mitigate and prepare countries to adapt to the negative impact of climate change, concerned international organizations has been holding conferences in over a decade the latest of which is the United Nations 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) lately held (1-12 December 2014) in Lima, Peru were negotiators from around the world convened to discuss this phenomena in an effort to find solutions and reach concrete steps towards a global deal on curbing rising global temperatures and to sketch out the broad outlines of a climate change pact to be passed in December 2015 in Paris.

According to the Intergovernmental (IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will be severely affected by the physical effects of climate change such as i) high temperature increases, ii) significant decline in precipitation, and iii) projected sea level rise.

The UN Population Division estimates that in 2015 the population of the Arab states will reach 385 million people and is projected to rise to 604 million people by 2050. This means that more resources will be needed to cope with the increase especially that the Arab countries import a major portion of their food commodities and are a net importer of seafood commodities.

What is climate change

The International Panel on Climate Change was established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988 with the mandate to provide the world community with the most up-to-date and comprehensive scientific, technical and socio-economic information about climate change. Several approaches to a definition of climate change have been taken. However, climate change is generally described as rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification leading to radically altering aquatic ecosystems. Climate change is modifying fish distribution and the productivity of marine and freshwater species. This has impacts on the sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture, on the livelihoods of the communities that depend on fisheries, and on the ability of the oceans to capture and store carbon (biological pump). The effect of sea level rise means that coastal fishing communities are in the front line of climate change, while changing rainfall patterns and water use impact on inland (freshwater) fisheries and aquaculture.

Climate change usage refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. This usage differs from that in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, where climate change refers to a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. Climate change results from the collection of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from humans burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas), which causes the earth to warm.

Effects of climate change on fish resources

The rising ocean acidity which is mainly due to the rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere leading to a decrease in the pH (a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution) makes it more difficult for marine organisms such as shrimps, oysters, or corals to form their shells – a process known as calcification. Many important animals, such as zooplankton, that forms the base of the marine food chain have calcium shells. Thus the entire marine food web is being altered – there are ‘cracks in the food chain’. As a result, the distribution, productivity, and species composition of global fish production is changing, generating complex and inter-related impacts on oceans, estuaries, coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds that provide habitats and nursery areas for fish. Changing rainfall patterns and water scarcity is impacting on river and lake fisheries and aquaculture production. Warming has already affected some fish species. As the water warms, fish need more oxygen to perform daily activities, like feeding. Change in temperatures, therefore, will change fish body size and fish distributions.

Climate change effects on coral reefs in particular are heavy because these are havens for biodiversity and crucial for the economies of many coastal communities. Also they are very sensitive to changes in ocean chemistry resulting from human activity. Recent studies have shown a reduction in individual coral growth in some areas around the world among them the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf both areas of which border the Gulf Cooperation Council States (GCC). However, coral reefs have been around for millions of years, but are likely to become a thing of the past unless action starts to protect them. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on this planet. They are home to numerous species of marine life and offer a plethora of benefits both to natural ecosystems and to the human population. Coral reefs bring in enormous funds to coastal countries through tourism, fishing, and discoveries of new biochemical and drugs.  Numerous studies have been conducted to investigate the impact of increasing CO2 levels on corals, and they all arrive at the conclusion that high CO2 levels make it difficult for marine organisms to create their calcium carbonate shells.

What will shrinking fish mean for marine ecosystems? Smaller fish produce less offspring than larger fish and therefore less productive fish populations. Fishermen will catch smaller fish. This will in turn reduce the global fish supply. This adds to the problems fisheries face from overfishing, pollution, and habitat degradation. In addition to warming, climate change makes the oceans more acidic.

The impacts of climate change on aquaculture, which is growing at a rate faster than capture fisheries, is believed to add stress due to increased temperature and oxygen demands; uncertain supplies of freshwater; extreme weather events; sea level rise; increased frequency of diseases and toxic events; uncertain supplies of fishmeal from capture fisheries and global climate change is believed to definitely has an impact on diseases and affects food quality and losses as well as increases the imports bill. In contrast however, there are some positive impacts of climate change on aquaculture including increased food conversion efficiencies and growth rates in warmer waters and increased length of the growing season.

Overview of Arab fisheries

There are 22 Arab states that border two oceans: the north-east Atlantic Ocean and the north-west Indian Ocean; the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea; the Red Sea; the Arabian Sea; the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf as well as several rivers and inland lakes. FAO reports that the combined total fish production of the 22 states from all sources in 2012 reached 3.9 million tonnes of which 1.1 million tonnes (28.2 %) from marine and freshwater aquaculture.  The combined total imports of seafood commodities in 2011 reached 961,000 tonnes valued at US$ 2.32 billion while the combined exports were 721,000 tonnes valued at US $ 1.69 billion resulting in a substantially negative trade balance. The per capita of seafood consumption is around 10 kg/annum while the international average is 19.2 kg/annum. Although fisheries and aquaculture do not contribute significantly to the over-all economies of most Arab states, but it provides significant employment, food security and livelihood to many scattered fishing communities in coastal areas. The negative impact of climate change on fisheries resources is already evident in the declining catches from capture fisheries. The artisanal and small scale fisheries sector which land over 85 percent of fish will be severely affected by climate change in their coastal areas especially that they inhabit about 18,000 km of 34,000 km the total length of the coastal zones in the Arab region.

Arab coastal areas most affected by climate change

Egypt’s Nile Delta with its coastal front on the Mediterranean is considered vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In addition to expected rise in sea-level, shoreline erosion, stresses on fisheries and saltwater intrusion in groundwater create major challenges. Fragile and unique ecosystems such as the mangrove stands in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, which stabilize shorelines and provide a habitat for many species, may also be threatened. The northern Egyptian lakes are also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Since the lakes are relatively shallow, climate change can lead to an increase in water temperature, which could result in changes in the lakes ecosystems and changes in yield.

Consequenses of climate change on fisheries

The adverse influence of climate on future fisheries production may be severe. Responsible planning needs to take into account the time scale over which such influences could occur on areas most at risk. Fish stocks fluctuate in abundance, distribution, and productivity under the influence of changes in their physical and biological environment.

How quickly can climate change affect fisheries? This depends on the rate at which climate changes and on the sensitivity of particular fish species or marine systems to such changes. Ocean climate and terrestrial climate vary in much the same way, and it is difficult to distinguish between “natural” climate variability and the additional changes brought about by anthropogenic.

Call for action     

The message is clear: climate change threatens marine fishes and the stability of global fisheries including fisheries resources in the Arab region. This underlines yet another reason to urgently reduce carbon emissions and utilize clean energy to power the future. Climate change impacts such as more frequent and severe floods and droughts will affect the food and water security of many people. The impact and consequences of climate change on aquatic ecosystems, fisheries and aquaculture - and on the people that depend on them - remain uncertain and less well-known. The traditional fisheries sector operates in coastal areas therefore a call for action to minimize the effects of climate change on Arab region’s fisheries resources is urgently required. This call for action also requires full support from relevant Arab official institutions to the bodies operating in the region dedicated to protect the sustainability of the fisheries resources and the environment. The major organizations include FAO established bodies: Regional Commission for Fisheries (RECOFI) of which the GCC States are members; the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) in which membership includes Arab states bordering the eastern and southern shores of the  Mediterranean, the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA) headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as well as the relevant national and international fisheries and environmental organizations concerned. Support to these bodies will contribute in stabilizing and reviving the depleting fisheries stocks and save the resources for future generations by employing responsible fisheries operation.

Climate change is only one of much security, environmental and developmental challenges facing affected countries. Its impacts will be magnified or moderated by underlying conditions of governance, poverty and resource management, as well as the nature of climate change impacts at local and regional levels. Climate change is a compounding factor that regional fisheries managers cannot ignore that fishermen, fish farmers and fishing communities, particularly those in coastal areas, are vulnerable. It is not surprising; therefore, that the subject of climate change has been recognized as a fundamental development challenges that require special attention by policy and decision makers.

Author: Izzat Feidi, Fisheries Consultant 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of FAO and GLOBEFISH

For more relevant information, please visit the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department Climate Change website