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Shrinking of fishes exacerbates impacts of global ocean changes on marine ecosystems


Changes in temperature, oxygen content and other ocean biogeochemical properties directly affect the ecophysiology of marine water-breathing organisms1,2,3. Previous studies suggest that the most prominent biological responses are changes in distribution4,5,6, phenology7,8 and productivity9. Both theory and empirical observations also support the hypothesis that warming and reduced oxygen will reduce body size of marine fishes10,11,12. However, the extent to which such changes would exacerbate the impacts of climate and ocean changes on global marine ecosystems remains unexplored. Here, we employ a model to examine the integrated biological responses of over 600 species of marine fishes due to changes in distribution, abundance and body size. The model has an explicit representation of ecophysiology, dispersal, distribution, and population dynamics3. We show that assemblage-averaged maximum body weight is expected to shrink by 14–24% globally from 2000 to 2050 under a high-emission scenario. About half of this shrinkage is due to change in distribution and abundance, the remainder to changes in physiology. The tropical and intermediate latitudinal areas will be heavily impacted, with an average reduction of more than 20%. Our results provide a new dimension to understanding the integrated impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems.

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Figure 1: Projected changes in ocean conditions and the expected biological responses of fish communities in terms of distribution and body size.
Figure 2: Predicted mean assemblage maximum body weight (g) and its changes from 2000 to 2050 (20-year average) under the SRES A2 scenario.
Figure 3: Change in individual-level maximum body size of fishes in different ocean basins from 2000 (averages of 1991–2010) to 2050 (averages of 2041–2060).
Figure 4: Comparison of relationship between maximum body size () and habitat temperature predicted from the growth model presented in this study (filled dots, solid line) and observations (open dots, broken line).


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The contribution by W.W.L.C. is supported by the National Geographic Society and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences (CEFAS). D.P. and R.W. are supported by the Pew Charitable Trust through the Sea Around Us project. J.L.S. and T.L.F. are supported by the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) project at Princeton University, sponsored by BP. We thank L. Bopp for providing outputs from the IPSL-CM4-LOOP model.

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W.W.L.C. and D.P. designed the study. W.W.L.C. conducted the analysis and wrote the manuscript. J.L.S., J.D. and T.L.F. provided and prepared the outputs from the Earth System Models. R.W. provided the global catch data. V.W.Y.L. prepared the current species distributions. M.L.D.P. extracted the distributional and growth parameters from FishBase. All authors reviewed and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to William W. L. Cheung.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Cheung, W., Sarmiento, J., Dunne, J. et al. Shrinking of fishes exacerbates impacts of global ocean changes on marine ecosystems. Nature Clim Change 3, 254–258 (2013).

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