The Beacon

Record-Setting Water Temps Changing Marine Ecosystems

Map showing shifts in distribution of many fish stocks in the Northeast U.S. (Credit: Janet Nye, NEFSC/NOAA)

The oceans are heating up, and marine ecosystems are changing because of it. Long before climate scientists realized the extent of impacts from carbon dioxide emissions, ocean scientists were taking simple temperature readings. Now those readings are off the charts, showing an ocean thrown out of balance from human-caused climate change. Sea surface temperatures hit a 150 year high off the U.S. East Coast from Maine to North Carolina during 2012. 

These abnormally high temperatures are fundamentally altering marine ecosystems, from the abundance of plankton to the movement of fish and whales. Many marine species have specific time periods for spawning, migration, and birthing based on temperature signals and availability of prey. Kevin Friedland, a scientist in NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Ecosystem Assessment Program, said “Changes in ocean temperatures and the timing and strength of spring and fall plankton blooms could affect the biological clocks of many marine species, which spawn at specific times of the year based on environmental cues like water temperature.”

We have seen these changes happening already. Over the last four decades, many commercially valuable fish species in the Northeast have been steadily moving northward toward Canadian waters. Many fish species are moving into colder, deeper waters, often toward the poles. These changes are especially concerning for tropical island nations, which are predicted to lose fish. These nations, which depend largely on fishing for their livelihoods and protein, often do not have the resources to chase fish into deep and distant waters.

Oceana released a report ranking nations’ vulnerability to climate-related impacts on their fisheries and food security. As the report demonstrates, not all of the world’s fisheries and nations have the capacity to adapt to big changes in seafood abundance due to climate change.

These increases in ocean temperatures are caused by carbon dioxide emissions, which we must cut, not expand. If we have any hope of saving the oceans, we are going to need to leave much of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. Big oil companies, however, want to search for even more oil and gas off the East Coast using harmful seismic airgun blasts. These noisy blasts will injure 138,500 whales and dolphins, and impact an area twice the size of California. Please sign this petition to the President by actor and Oceana board member Ted Danson to stop seismic airgun testing and new offshore drilling in the Atlantic. With your help we can transition away from fossil fuels, to help keep the oceans from heating further, and protect Atlantic marine life from dynamite-like blasts and oil spills.


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