~ Storm Frequency & Intensity

Climate change is altering the patterns, timing, and power of storms and storm-related weather. In the past two decades, there have been observed increases in the intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes and Category 4 and 5 storms (Carter et al. 2014), and more frequent and intense winter storms in the coastal Northeast and Northwest (Walsh et al. 2014). Although the factors that cause strong storms are complex, their greater frequency and intensity is partially linked to warming sea surface temperatures, and this pattern is expected to continue over the coming decades (Walsh et al. 2014). Areas such as the Southeast and the Gulf of Mexico that experience a high number of tropical storms are likely to be even more vulnerable to increased storm frequency and intensity over time (Needham et al. 2012).

Marine and coastal habitats under pressure from other stresses may be made more susceptible to damage from storm events. For example, coral reefs at risk from bleaching and acidification may be easily damaged by intense storms. Degradation or destruction of this habitat will affect reef-dwelling fish as well as the coastal communities that benefit from reefs’ ability to buffer shorelines against waves and storm surge (Anderson et al. 2013). In addition, critical coastal and nearshore fish habitats experiencing sea level rise will be more vulnerable to the impacts of intense storms; this includes mangroves and seagrass habitats in the Pacific Islands (Keener et al. 2012; Leong et al. 2014) and nearshore habitats used by Alaskan salmon (Johnson 2012; Chapin et al. 2014).

While increased storms may cause direct damage to some fish populations through habitat degradation, as well as catastrophic events (e.g., direct storm damage, scouring at spawning and nesting sites) and increased pollutant runoff (Anderson et al. 2014), some of the largest impacts will be to fisheries infrastructure. Increased storms could lead to direct destruction and disturbance of ports and boats and limit the number of active days for fishing operations (Needham et al. 2012). These effects will be felt strongly throughout the fishing sector. Subsistence and traditional fishing communities may be the most vulnerable to increasing storm frequency since these communities tend to use smaller boats, fish closer to home, and are less likely to be able to replace damaged boats or equipment. Greater storm frequency and intensity may also place additional economic stress on fishermen and boat operators by triggering rises in insurance rates due to increased risk (Daw et al. 2009).

Table 3. Potential impacts of increased storm frequency and intensity on fisheries.

Observed Changes

  • Number of Category 4 and 5 storms in the Atlantic basin has increased substantially since the 1980s
  • In the coastal Northeast and Northwest, increased intensity and frequency of winter storms

Projected Future Changes

  • Continued rise in intensity, frequency, and duration of storms
  • Southeast United States and Gulf of Mexico likely to be greatly affected by increased storms

Potential Impacts on Fisheries

  • Expanded habitat destruction (e.g., coastal flooding, coral reef damage)
  • Decreased fishing effort due to loss of fishing days and bad weather
  • Higher fishery insurance expenses
  • Greater economic risks associated with the fishing industry
  • Increased economic vulnerability of fisheries-dependent communities (subsistence, traditional fisheries) due to decreased fishing days and increased insurance rates
  • Direct disturbance to fishing operations and infrastructure

Key Compounding Factors & Impacts

  • Ocean acidification: Higher storm frequency and intensity could damage or destroy coral reefs, compounding the effects of bleaching and acidification
  • Pollution: Increased storms likely to lead to increased pollutant runoff
  • Sea level rise: The impacts of intense storms on coastal and nearshore environments that support fish (e.g. shallow coral reefs, seagrass beds, intertidal flats, mangroves) and fishing infrastructure will be even greater with higher sea levels