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Signature of ocean warming in global fisheries catch

Nature volume 497, pages 365368 (16 May 2013) | Download Citation


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.

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W.W.L.C. acknowledges funding support from the National Geographic Society and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. R.W. and D.P. were supported by the Pew Charitable Trust through the Sea Around Us project. We are grateful to S. Pauly and D. Palomares for reviewing the manuscript and providing the Aquamap distributions from FishBase, respectively.

Author information


  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


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William W. L. Cheung.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Tables 1-5, Supplementary Figures 1-3 and additional references.

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