Letter | Published:

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

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 254258 (2013) | Download Citation


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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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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  1. Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • William W. L. Cheung
    • , Vicky W. Y. Lam
    • , M. L. Deng Palomares
    • , Reg Watson
    •  & Daniel Pauly
  2. Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Program, Princeton University, 300 Forrestal Road, Sayre Hall, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Jorge L. Sarmiento
    •  & Thomas L. Frölicher
  3. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 201 Forrestal Road, Princeton, New Jersey 08540-6649, USA

    • John Dunne


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William W. L. Cheung.

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