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Marine Science


New report sheds light on impact of climate change

A new report published by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), supported by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and funded by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), is shedding light on the future impacts of climate change on marine species across the United Kingdom.

The study, which focuses on 21 marine species listed as ‘threatened’ or ‘declining’ ranging from sharks and rays to seahorses and oysters, aims to help policymakers and conservationists understand which UK species will be most vulnerable to the future impacts of climate change and human pressures.

Predictive models were used to forecast the impacts of climate change on ‘habitat suitability’ – the degree to which a particular environment provides the necessary conditions for species to thrive and reproduce. Factors such as sea temperature, salinity, and seabed sediment type were used to assess whether climate change would lead to an ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’ in the amount of suitable habitat available around the UK over the coming century.

The study found that:

  • Of the 21 species studied, the majority showed an overall increase in suitable habitat by the end of the century with many species projected to shift northwards over the next 50 years. However, the picture varies for specific locations, with increases of certain species in some areas but decreases in others.
  • Overall, there was an increase in suitable habitat for species such as seahorses, basking shark, spurdog, thornback and undulate ray, and native oyster, while suitable habitat for slender sea pen, ocean quahog, sea fan, and fan mussel showed a significant decrease.
  • Those species distributed around the central and northern North Sea, such as the native oyster, were more likely to experience an increase in suitable habitat. Species found in the south and west of the UK, and southern North Sea, such as the sea fan and ocean quahog, showed a decline in suitable habitat.

While the impact of climate change on commercial fish stocks is widely recognised, this study is one of the first to analyse the potential impacts of climate change on habitats of important and vulnerable conservation species in UK waters.

Climate change, alongside human activities, is already disrupting marine habitats, with the potential to impact marine ecosystems and food webs. The seas around the British Isles, and in particular, the southern North Sea have been identified as marine climate change ‘hotspots’ – one of 20 sites globally that have warmed the fastest over the past 50 years. Assessments by the UK Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) Programme, project that sea water temperatures in the UK will increase between 0.25°C and 0.4°C per decade in the future.

Understanding how species may shift their distributions within and beyond UK waters will be crucial for informing future management and conservation efforts, and deciding where adaptation measures might be best targeted.

The study suggests that if undisturbed by human activities, some marine species may be relatively resilient to climate change and take advantage of new habitats becoming available. Seahorses, for example, which are generally found in Mediterranean waters, are projected to experience a 100% increase in suitable conditions  by the end of the century due to warming seas around the UK.  Some species of seahorse, normally found only on the south coast, have already been observed in the central North Sea and the west of British Isles.

By contrast, the habitat of sea pens – a type of soft coral typically found at the bottom of the ocean in cooler waters – is projected to shrink by around 40% by the end of the century.

For species facing a decline in suitable habitat, the study highlights the need to ensure ‘habitat connectivity’, such as through marine protected areas or habitat corridors to allow species to move through the marine environment.

Bryony Townhill, Marine Climate Change Scientist and lead author said: “We know that climate change is having a huge impact on our ocean – with evidence suggesting that 70% of UK fish species have responded to warming seas, however, much less is known about the impacts of climate change on other types of marine species in the UK, which are not only important from a conservation perspective, but also important for supporting the wider marine ecosystem.

Our study suggests that for some species, substantial changes in suitable habitat may take place in the next 20 years, so it’s important we continue to monitor where these changes are happening, and ensure that we protect and manage our marine environment so that species can continue to thrive.”

The study, in partnership with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), forms part of the Investigating Climate Change Resilience of Vulnerable Marine Species around the UK project (InCResiVul) which aims to generate evidence in support of the UK government’s Marine Strategy, and OSPAR North-East Atlantic Environment (NEAE) Strategy. The UK Marine Strategy aims to achieve “clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas” by managing human pressures and ensuring the diversity of species and habitats around the UK are maintained or recovered.

Source: https://www.cefas.co.uk/news-and-resources/news/new-research-predicts-future-impact-of-climate-change-on-threatened-uk-marine-species/