Letter | Published:

Expansion of oxygen minimum zones may reduce available habitat for tropical pelagic fishes

Nature Climate Change volume 2, pages 3337 (2012) | Download Citation


Climate model predictions1,2 and observations3,4 reveal regional declines in oceanic dissolved oxygen, which are probably influenced by global warming5. Studies indicate ongoing dissolved oxygen depletion and vertical expansion of the oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) in the tropical northeast Atlantic Ocean6,7. OMZ shoaling may restrict the usable habitat of billfishes and tunas to a narrow surface layer8,9. We report a decrease in the upper ocean layer exceeding 3.5 ml l−1 dissolved oxygen at a rate of ≤1 m yr−1 in the tropical northeast Atlantic (0–25° N, 12–30° W), amounting to an annual habitat loss of 5.95×1013 m3, or 15% for the period 1960–2010. Habitat compression and associated potential habitat loss was validated using electronic tagging data from 47 blue marlin. This phenomenon increases vulnerability to surface fishing gear for billfishes and tunas8,9, and may be associated with a 10–50% worldwide decline of pelagic predator diversity10. Further expansion of the Atlantic OMZ along with overfishing may threaten the sustainability of these valuable pelagic fisheries and marine ecosystems.

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The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) provided support as part of the Collaborative Research Center SFB-754 (L.S., M.V., D.W.R.W., P.B. and A.K.). Support for the biological part of the study was provided through the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, The Billfish Foundation and the Adopt-A-Billfish Program (E.D.P.). Additional support was provided through the NOAA Climate Program Office and the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (S.S.). Support for J.L. and J.P.H. was provided by the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS), a Cooperative Institute of the University of Miami and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cooperative agreement NA1RJ1226.

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Author notes

    • Sunke Schmidtko

    Present address: School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK


  1. Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences IFM-GEOMAR, Düsternbrooker Weg 20, 24105 Kiel, Germany

    • Lothar Stramma
    • , Martin Visbeck
    • , Douglas W. R. Wallace
    • , Peter Brandt
    •  & Arne Körtzinger
  2. National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, 75 Virginia Beach Drive, Miami, Florida 33149, USA

    • Eric D. Prince
  3. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

    • Sunke Schmidtko
  4. Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami, Florida 33149, USA

    • Jiangang Luo
  5. Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami, Florida 33149, USA

    • John P. Hoolihan
  6. Canada Excellence Research Chair, Oceanography Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4R2, Canada

    • Douglas W. R. Wallace


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L.S., E.D.P. and S.S. designed the experiment. E.D.P. and J.P.H. contributed biological expertise and biological data sets. S.S. and J.L. carried out the oceanographic and biological computations and did the art work. M.V., D.W.R.W., P.B. and A.K. contributed data and Atlantic Ocean expertise. E.D.P., L.S., J.P.H. and S.S. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. L.S., E.D.P. and S.S. are equally contributing first authors.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Eric D. Prince.

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