Signature of ocean warming in global fisheries catch

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Marine fishes and invertebrates respond to ocean warming through distribution shifts, generally to higher latitudes and deeper waters. Consequently, fisheries should be affected by ‘tropicalization’ of catch1, 2, 3, 4 (increasing dominance of warm-water species). However, a signature of such climate-change effects on global fisheries catch has so far not been detected. Here we report such an index, the mean temperature of the catch (MTC), that is calculated from the average inferred temperature preference of exploited species weighted by their annual catch. Our results show that, after accounting for the effects of fishing and large-scale oceanographic variability, global MTC increased at a rate of 0.19 degrees Celsius per decade between 1970 and 2006, and non-tropical MTC increased at a rate of 0.23 degrees Celsius per decade. In tropical areas, MTC increased initially because of the reduction in the proportion of subtropical species catches, but subsequently stabilized as scope for further tropicalization of communities became limited. Changes in MTC in 52 large marine ecosystems, covering the majority of the world’s coastal and shelf areas, are significantly and positively related to regional changes in sea surface temperature5. This study shows that ocean warming has already affected global fisheries in the past four decades, highlighting the immediate need to develop adaptation plans to minimize the effect of such warming on the economy and food security of coastal communities, particularly in tropical regions6, 7.

At a glance


  1. Changes in catch species composition in relation to ocean warming and the resulting changes in MTC.
    Figure 1: Changes in catch species composition in relation to ocean warming and the resulting changes in MTC.

    Species distributions are related to ocean temperature (coloured bars) and temperature preferences of the exploited species (grey curves). Increase and decrease in abundance due to ocean warming are indicated by green curves and the reduction in area under the grey curves, respectively. The vertical black and red arrows represent MTC in the initial and subsequent decades, respectively. ΔMTC represents the difference in MTC relative to the initial decade. Species local extinction and invasion because of warming are indicated by red and green dotted curves, respectively. The expected changes in MTC over time are shown on the right.

  2. Changes in MTC and SST of 52 LMEs between 1970 and 2006.
    Figure 2: Changes in MTC and SST of 52 LMEs between 1970 and 2006.

    Change over time (xaxis; years between 1970 and 2006) in MTC anomalies relative to the mean of the time series (yaxis; °C). Rate of SST change is shown by the colour scale. a, Eurasia; b, the Americas; c, Asia and Oceania. Red lines represent tropical LMEs. To highlight the nonlinear trends of MTC anomalies in this figure, each MTC time series was fitted with a spline smoothing function using GAMM: grey line, mean; shaded area, 95% confidence interval.

  3. Relationship between rates of change in MTC and SST between 1970 and 2006 in 52 LMEs.
    Figure 3: Relationship between rates of change in MTC and SST between 1970 and 2006 in 52 LMEs.

    a, Rate of change of MTC was calculated from the ensemble GAMM in each LME (slope of linear regression, P<0.005, R2 = 0.19 (coefficient of determination)). The black line shows the mean and the grey lines delineate the 95% confidence interval. b, Changes in MTC (red) and SST anomalies (grey) in tropical LMEs. The dashed lines are fitted with asymptotic and linear models for the MTC and SST anomalies, respectively.

  4. Comparison of MTC calculated from fisheries catch data and relative abundance calculated from scientific survey data.
    Figure 4: Comparison of MTC calculated from fisheries catch data and relative abundance calculated from scientific survey data.

    MTC is expressed as an anomaly relative to the mean of the time series, and relative abundance is expressed relative to the average between 1970 and 2006. The type of data used had no effect on the rate of change in MTC (ANCOVA, P>0.1).


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  1. Changing Ocean Research Unit, Fisheries Centre, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • William W. L. Cheung
  2. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Taroona, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • Reg Watson
  3. Sea Around Us Project, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Daniel Pauly


W.W.L.C. and D.P. designed the study. W.W.L.C. conducted the analysis. R.W. and D.P. provided the fisheries catch and effort data from the Sea Around Us project. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

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