Thought leadership

Navigating Shifts in Marine Biodiversity

School of fish swimming throughout a reef

March 6, 2024

Anticipating climate variability can help companies optimize production while protecting biodiversity 

Global climate change is causing substantial changes to marine biodiversity and the industries that rely on productive aquatic ecosystems for their operations. Specifically, wild fisheries are experiencing shifting population distributions and migratory patterns, meaning fishing operations often expend more time and capital to locate and reach target species. 

Similarly, fishing vessels may encounter novel aquatic species in their traditional fishing areas, creating new business uncertainties. While some novel encounters provide opportunities for new markets, others create challenges with increased bycatch of protected or unwanted species. Combined with disrupted predator-prey relationships and newly applicable or underdeveloped regulations for novel species, companies are finding themselves facing unfamiliar challenges.

Beyond shifts in established aquatic industries, concerns are also surfacing about the impacts on marine life from newer industrial operations such as aquaculture farms, offshore windfarms, shipping, and even seabed mining. The many unknowns as to if or how these entities could impact biodiversity are driving an increased demand for rigorous operational transparency and reporting, which is supported by newly developing regulatory and legislative actions. 

In the context of the Global Biodiversity Framework (signed by 188 countries at the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference, or COP15) and the recently enacted Supporting Healthy Interstate Fisheries in Transition (SHIFT) act, all industries, including aquatic industrial operations, can expect to face greater scrutiny over how current and new operations impact biodiversity, which is particularly challenging with changing climate conditions.


Wild salmon migrating upstream


Impacts of a changing ecosystem 

Increasing uncertainty in our present and future climate underpins the need for marine stakeholders to develop and leverage adaptive management tools and strategies that can both mitigate risk and ensure accurate reporting. As species' ranges shift in response to altered ocean conditions, whether temporarily or permanently, marine industries will need to better anticipate and manage these encounters.

Longer, more frequent, wide-ranging marine heatwaves have already been shown to alter marine ecosystems in both the short and long term, particularly via changes in how far species migrate and in the replacement of resident species by novel ones. The distributions and sensitivities of species and whole ecosystems are becoming more difficult to plan around since the ecosystems are themselves undergoing real-time shifts in their baseline states and variability because of climate change.

For instance, the 2014-2016 Pacific marine heatwaves led to "an explosion in the abundance of shortbelly rockfish" in Oregon, which quickly pushed Pacific hake fisheries up against their bycatch limits through the unintentional netting of the overabundant rockfish. During these same heatwaves, there was a sharp rise in humpback whale entanglements in Dungeness crab pots off Northern California, while the 2012 Northwest Atlantic heatwave is thought to have played a significant role in the decline of northern shrimp due to a predator (longfin inshore squid) expanding its range northward. In some cases, these and other encounters have led to temporary fisheries closures, which produce significant negative economic impacts for already-strapped fishing operations.

As physical conditions and species compositions shift during marine heatwaves, the predictable provisions of ecosystem services, including food and water quality, are also impacted. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's proposed offshore aquaculture areas in the Southern California Bight — a region that stretches along the U.S. West Coast through part of Mexico's Baja coastline and includes the Channel Islands — will likely experience shifts in resident fish communities. In turn, this could impact, and be impacted by, the presence of budding aquaculture operations. For example, an aquaculture operation anticipating potential interactions with a list of local species based on historical information may fail to assess potential risks to novel aquatic species under changing climate conditions. 

Emerging biodiversity standards 

Increased climatic variation and global biodiversity loss is accelerating the demand for industry to assess and report on the potential biodiversity impacts and risks to and from their operations. Emerging global standards from a variety of sources are driving this process. 

For example, 2024 started with the Global Reporting Initiative, introducing a stricter approach to its biodiversity standards. A few months earlier, the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), which was founded to provide industry with guidance on assessing and disclosing biodiversity-related dependencies, risks, and impacts, launched its final recommendations. Concurrently, Nature Action 100, a project aimed at aligning biodiversity priorities for investors to the companies they invest in, unveiled its first 100 focus companies for biodiversity reporting. The project's priority sectors include food and agriculture, land use, forestry, and fisheries, which, by some estimates, account for 60% of biodiversity loss and 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

This recent focus on biodiversity is about more than just climate change. Many exploratory commercial ventures are examining business opportunities with little-known impacts in the coastal and offshore marine environment. In addition to NOAA's development of aquaculture opportunity areas, offshore wind farms are already expanding along various segments of the U.S. coastline, and novel industries such as seabed mining may emerge quickly. Questions remain about regulations and best practices for each of these industries. Consequently, commercial operations that act now to assess their current dependencies, risks, and practices in the context of potential forecasts will be best positioned to respond to evolving regulations. 


Remaining agile in the face of climate change requires thinking proactively about future operations.


Finding opportunity in a shifting marine climate 

Remaining agile in the face of climate change requires thinking proactively about future operations. Fisheries that identify target species likely to shift range in the coming years can evaluate whether it's cost-effective to continue targeting those species or whether pivoting to another newly expanding (or projected to expand) species would be more profitable and sustainable. Additionally, marine operations, including site development of wind farms and impacts to routes for shipping lane operators, can take steps to work with regulators and build out provisional management plans that support preparing for real-time fishery forecasts. 

Climate-driven change can also create opportunities to develop new markets while mitigating biodiversity losses. Marine management forecast tools — such as the Habitat Compression Index (HCI) and the Temperature Observations to Avoid Loggerheads tool (TOTAL) — are emerging to help resource managers forecast vulnerable species entanglement and bycatch risk up to 12 months in advance, which is essential for fisheries focused on flexible strategies that maximize their organizational resources in the context of changing species locations.

Advanced ecological forecasting configurations can also help industries, governments, and communities evaluate how fish populations may shift into their regions based on projected range changes associated with marine heatwaves and longer-term oceanic and atmospheric fluctuations. Forward-thinking businesses equipped with this data could petition for new management regulations to be ready when potential shifts occur. Such organizations could also preemptively build out logistical plans to develop novel fishery sectors, approaching species shifts — such as northward expansions of market squid from California to Oregon or Pacific bluefin tuna populations from Baja California to Southern California (both of which occurred during the 2014-15 Pacific marine heatwave) — as opportunities to drive new harvesting and production that also protect marine ecosystems. 

Beyond navigating regulatory approvals and environmental impact assessments and aligning with emerging biodiversity reporting standards, marine resource managers can benefit from sophisticated population forecasting models, advanced statistical analyses of those forecasts, and an array of developing novel technologies to optimize profitability as they navigate potential ecosystem shifts.


What Can We Help You Solve?

Exponent's multidisciplinary team of ecologists, fisheries scientists, and environmental impact assessors can help businesses complete regulatory approvals, assess and report biodiversity impacts through standards such as the TFND and Nature Action 100, create and evaluate forecasts of potential shifts in marine ecology, assess potential opportunities, and develop plans for novel fisheries and markets.