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


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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Figure 1: Blue marlin M. nigricans with an electronic tag used to monitor horizontal and vertical habitat use.
Figure 2: Eastern Atlantic dissolved oxygen and habitat changes.
Figure 3: Blue marlin horizontal tracks and MDDs.


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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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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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Correspondence to Eric D. Prince.

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Stramma, L., Prince, E., Schmidtko, S. et al. Expansion of oxygen minimum zones may reduce available habitat for tropical pelagic fishes. Nature Clim Change 2, 33–37 (2012).

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