Climate change, tropical fisheries and prospects for sustainable development


Tropical fisheries substantially contribute to the well-being of societies in both the tropics and the extratropics, the latter through ‘telecoupling’ — linkages between distant human–natural systems. Tropical marine habitats and fish stocks, however, are vulnerable to the physical and biogeochemical oceanic changes associated with rising greenhouse gases. These changes to fish stocks, and subsequent impacts on fish production, have substantial implications for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In this Review, we synthesize the effects of climate change on tropical marine fisheries, highlighting the socio-economic impacts to both tropical and extratropical nations, and discuss potential adaptation measures. Driven by ocean warming, acidification, deoxygenation and sea-level rise, the maximum catch potential of tropical fish stocks in some tropical exclusive economic zones is projected to decline by up to 40% by the 2050s under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario, relative to the 2000s. Climate-driven reductions in fisheries production and alterations in fish-species composition will subsequently increase the vulnerability of tropical countries with limited adaptive capacity. Thus, given the billions of people dependent on tropical marine fisheries in some capacity, there is a clear need to account for the effects of climate change on these resources and identify practical adaptations when building climate-resilient sustainable-development pathways.

Key points

  • Tropical oceans will be where many of the first anthropogenic signals in physical and biogeochemical variables will exceed natural variability, with resulting impacts on socioecological systems.

  • Maximum catch potential in some tropical exclusive economic zones is projected to decline by up to 40% by the 2050s under continued high greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Climate change impacts on tropical fisheries will affect sustainable development of both local economies and communities, and extratropical regions through ‘telecoupling’ of human–natural systems such as seafood trade and distant-water fishing.

  • The key impacts for developing tropical nations will be reduced capacity to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals related to food security (SDG2), poverty alleviation (SDG1) and economic growth (SDG8).

  • Effective and practical adaptation solutions for both small-scale and industrial fisheries, built on the involvement of all appropriate stakeholders and supporting policies, are needed to sustain fisheries productivity in the tropics.

  • Many substantial predicted biological and socio-economic impacts on tropical fisheries would be prevented if greenhouse gas-mitigation actions keep global atmospheric warming below 1.5 °C relative to pre-industrial levels.

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Fig. 1: Telecoupling linkages between tropical marine fisheries and extratropical regions.
Fig. 2: Climate change impacts on fish habitats and coastal fisheries.
Fig. 3: Climate change impacts on maximum catch potential and maximum revenue potential.
Fig. 4: Economic telecoupling of tropical fisheries.


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The authors thank S. Heron for advice on the effects of ocean warming on corals, C. Reid for assistance with information on the value of tuna exports and catches from Pacific Island fisheries and G. Reygondeau for providing concept and design on the figures. V.W.Y.L. acknowledges funding support from Nippon Foundation Nereus Program and the World Bank. E.H.A. acknowledges funding from Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Program, CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems and the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong, for a visiting professorship. J.D.B. acknowledges funding support from the Moccasin Lake Foundation. W.W.L.C. thanks the Hans Sigrist Foundation and the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research for financial support for his residence at the University of Bern. W.W.L.C. also acknowledges funding support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Social Sciences (Discovery Grant), Humanity Research Council of Canada through the OceanCanada Partnership, the Nippon Foundation–University of British Columbia Nereus Program and the Killam Research Fellowship. T.L.F. has received funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation (PP00P2_170687) and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 820989 (project COMFORT, Our common future ocean in the Earth system — quantifying coupled cycles of carbon, oxygen, and nutrients for determining and achieving safe operating spaces with respect to tipping points). M.A.G. acknowledges support from CNPq (Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) and FAPESP (Sao Paulo Research Foundation). U.R.S. thanks the funding support from Social Sciences (Discovery Grant), Humanity Research Council of Canada through the OceanCanada Partnership and the World Bank.

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All authors contributed to writing the article. In addition, V.W.Y.L. and J.D.B. researched data for the article, V.W.Y.L., E.H.A., J.D.B. and W.W.L.C. contributed to discussions of its content and V.W.Y.L., E.H.A., J.D.B., J.B., W.W.L.C., T.L.F., M.A.G. and U.R.S. participated in reviewing or editing of the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Vicky W. Y. Lam.

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Landed value

The value of marine fish catches when removed from vessels in domestic or foreign ports.

Exclusive economic zones

(EEZs). A 200-nautical-mile region from a nation’s coast over which a country has the sovereign right to explore and exploit, conserve and manage living and non-living resources in the water column and on the seafloor, as prescribed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Strong CO2 emission mitigation results in falling greenhouse gas concentrations and total radiative forcing of 2.6 Wm−2 by 2100 (relative to 1750), leading to global increases in mean surface air temperature of 1.3–1.9 °C.


No CO2 mitigation leads to total radiative forcing of 8.5 Wm−2 by 2100 (relative to 1750), increasing global mean surface air temperature by 4.0–6.1 °C, an outcome resembling the A1F1, A2 and A1B scenarios included in previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.

Maximum sustainable yield

The highest possible annual catch that can be removed from a population while keeping the maximum growth over a long period of time. The maximum sustainable yield refers to a hypothetical equilibrium state between the exploited population and the fishing activity.

Maximum catch potential

(MCP). The potential of the fish stocks to provide long-term fish catches; it is considered a proxy of the maximum sustainable yield.

Species turnover

The number of species locally extinct and newly established in a particular area, used to represent the extent of changes in the species assemblage.

Representative Concentration Pathway

(RCP). Four climate change scenarios are included in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Only scenarios with the highest (RCP8.5) and lowest (RCP2.6) radiative forcing are mentioned in this Review.

Maximum revenue potential

(MRP). Landed values at the maximum catch potential.

Human development index

A summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and a decent standard of living.

Provisioning services

Includes tangible products from ecosystems that humans make use of, such as fish and seafood, agricultural crops, timber or fresh water.

Regulating services

The benefits people obtain owing to the regulation of natural processes, such as carbon sequestration and storage, erosion prevention, waste-water treatment and moderation of extreme events.

Supporting services

The services that are necessary for the maintenance of all other ecosystem services including biomass production, life-cycle maintenance for both fauna and local, element and nutrient cycling.

Cultural services

Tourism, recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits.

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Lam, V.W.Y., Allison, E.H., Bell, J.D. et al. Climate change, tropical fisheries and prospects for sustainable development. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 440–454 (2020).

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