New Research: Extreme Climate Events Threaten US Fisheries, Fishermen, and Coastal Communities

Photo of two commercial fishermen hauling in a net full of crabs.
UNLOADING DUNGENESS CRAB In the face of this challenge, leaders in the crab fishery are committed to working with partners like The Nature Conservancy to reduce entanglements. © David Hills Photography

In the first-ever nationwide Federal Fishery Disaster database, scientists with The Nature Conservancy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography paint a startling picture foreshadowing disaster for domestic fisheries.  

Scientists with The Nature Conservancy in California and Scripps Institution of Oceanography published a new peer-reviewed study today examining 71 federally declared fishery disasters from 1989-2019, not including 11 that are still pending from 2020. These disasters resulted in over $5 billion in economic impact, but despite the scale and increasing frequency of disasters, the study concludes that the federal disaster assistance process is largely ad hoc, slow to deliver aid, and lacks sufficient detail to properly assess the impact of the program, its fairness, and community benefits and recovery. 

In “The rise in climate change-induced federal fishery disasters in the United States,” published in PeerJ, scientists developed the first-ever nationwide Federal Fishery Disaster database using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fishery disaster declarations and fishery revenue data to analyze 30 years of fishery disasters. Scientists Lyall Bellquist (The Nature Conservancy, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego), Vienna Saccomanno (The Nature Conservancy), Brice X Semmens (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Mary Gleason (The Nature Conservancy) and Jono Wilson (The Nature Conservancy, University of California, Santa Barbara) authored the paper. They conclude that as climate change drives higher rates of extreme environmental events, and as natural disaster assistance requests reach an all-time high, the federal system for fisheries disaster declaration and mitigation must evolve in order to effectively protect fisheries and their benefits to the food system and economy.

“Until now, we have had little understanding of the scale of the economic impacts, the spatial and temporal trends, and the causes of fisheries disasters in the United States,” said Lyall Bellquist, Senior Fisheries Scientist with The Nature Conservancy and visiting scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “At the same time there has been no clear understanding of the fisheries disaster assistance program’s effectiveness. These disasters have spanned every coastal state in the country, deeply impacting communities dependent on fishing, especially indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest who depend on healthy salmon fisheries. With extreme environmental events related to climate change increasing, it is essential that the program is strengthened.”

Nationwide, 84.5% of fishery disasters were either partially or entirely attributed to extreme environmental events from 1989-2019, a number that has greatly increased over the last five years, reflecting a shift over time from a mixed range of causes to those that are predominantly linked to climate change. 

“The shift toward climate-mediated fisheries disasters is cause for grave concern,” said Brice Semmens, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and co-author of the study. “Over the decades, the fisheries management community has made great strides in reducing disasters due to overfishing -- in short, we’ve gotten much better at managing fisheries. However, disasters driven by climate change require solutions beyond the traditional tools of fisheries management.” 

The federal fishery disaster assistance program has operated since the early 1990s to provide financial assistance to impacted fishing communities, but, until now, there have been no scientific assessments of the overall impact in the face of growing need. Unlike climate-related disasters in agriculture, there are limited financial mechanisms for assisting fishing communities when their season is devastated. On average, these communities wait over two years, and sometimes over four years, for federal assistance to arrive.

For example, Dungeness Crab represents one of the most valuable fisheries on the West Coast, but the harmful algae bloom caused by the marine heatwave in 2015 triggered emergency closures that lasted several months and cost the fishing and seafood industry at least $38.5 million in direct revenue loss. That economic hit led Congress to declare a fishery disaster and approved just $27.3 million in disaster relief to be distributed to fishing communities over three years after the assistance request was filed.

Richard Ogg, a commercial Dungeness and salmon fisherman who operates the F/V Karen Jeanne out of Bodega Bay, is very familiar with the fishery disaster process. 

“Back in 2008, fishermen in our area waited a couple years to receive federal assistance after a chinook salmon fishery disaster. But then around 2015, we experienced the hottest water anyone has ever seen in the region, which caused another salmon fishery disaster. It took almost five years to receive federal assistance in that case, which was long after fishermen had already made their financial decisions about necessary adjustments, or even leaving the fishery altogether,” Ogg said.

Commercial, recreational, and indigenous fisheries are critical to coastal economies and communities in the United States. Nationwide, wild-capture fisheries represent 91% of total US annual seafood production, and represent a total of 1.7 million jobs, $244 billion in annual sales, and $111 billion in value-added (GDP). Currently the disaster reporting process lacks sufficient detail to estimate the true magnitude and breadth of impacts. Strikingly, the system focuses primarily on disaster response, and less on incentive actions that can mitigate disasters in the future, such as climate-ready fisheries management or proactive assessment to avoid disaster altogether.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.