Q&A with Christopher Costello of UCSB

fisherman looking at the ocean

Q&A with Christopher Costello of UCSB

How sustainable resource management can act as coastal communities’ first line of defense against climate change
S.E. IrbyMay 4, 2017

Fishing communities of the developing world can still defend themselves from the negative effects of climate change, but they have to act fast. These communities are arguably the most dependent on coastal waters for livelihood and the most vulnerable to climate change, and according to Dr. Christopher Costello, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Santa Barbara and Co-Director of UCSB’s Sustainable Fisheries Group, the most important step they can take right now is to improve their fisheries management.

A recent global analysis from the University of Santa Barbara, Environmental Defense Fund and Oregon State University found that “effective management reforms can lead, globally, to a nearly 90 percent increase in profits, a third more fish in the water and a more than 10 percent increase in harvest by 2100 in the face of climate change.” Rare caught up with Costello to dig into the urgency to improve sustainable fisheries management in the face of climate change, particularly in the coastal communities where Rare works.

What are the projected impacts of climate change on coastal fisheries, and the habitats and ecosystems that support them?

Basically, there are two major kinds of effects of climate change on any fishery. The first is that it affects the productivity of fish stocks, which can go up or down. For example, you hear a lot these days about coral bleaching and ocean acidification — these are effects that will decrease productivity. But the flip side is, in a lot of northern latitudes, you may have fish stocks become more abundant as a result.

The second effect is the movement of stocks themselves. There’s a temperature range that species can live in and its prey can live in, and if that range moves north, then the fish have to follow that. That can also have big effects — even if the productivity is not changing — just because the fish aren’t in your waters anymore, they’re in somebody else’s.

What is the time frame of these effects? Are we seeing these effects in a year? Ten years? Or is it already happening?

A decade ago, people talked about climate change as this thing for which we had good models, and if you believed in models, you believed that some day, something would happen. But now, it’s just really clear that we’re already seeing the effects, both in productivity and in range shifts. There are great examples from New England, where stocks are becoming much more productive in some cases, and in other cases, much less productive. Also, we see huge range shifts. For example, the Maine lobster are moving north at a really rapid rate and some projections suggest that this trend will continue, so there may be few lobsters left in the historical fishing grounds in Maine and the rest of New England within 20 to 50 years.

We’re already seeing these effects, so it’s not just hypothetical. The rate at which they’re occurring depends a lot on the region and the species. We just finished a global analysis of this, and if I had to generalize, I would say that most species are likely to see significant effects over the next 20 to 25 years. Some are already seeing them now, but in others it’ll take a decade or so before you really start seeing effects. But over the next 50 years, really, just about everything is going to experience some kind of shift. It’s not like climate change hurts everything, it’s that just about everything will be affected by climate change.

Why does fishing behavior matter in the context of climate change?

How you manage the fishery turns out to matter a lot. It matters a lot now, but it matters even more in a world of climate change. I think it’s particularly relevant to Rare when you think of spatial management of resources, like a TURF+ReserveRare’s core solution for sustainable fisheries management, integrating sustainable use into marine reserves. TURF+Reserves are extremely well-equipped — when they’re designed well — to deal with changes in productivity. The whole idea is that you get the community involved in management, and they’re monitoring their stocks, and they’re able to be responsive in how they harvest those stocks. From that point of view, TURF+Reserves look really good as a way to be resilient to climate change.

Rare specifically works in these areas, usually in the developing world, where a) people are the most dependent on fish and b) the most vulnerable to climate change. What’s the urgency for those communities to find ways to become more resilient?

Now you’re getting to what I think is actually the key issue in all of this. How do you think about where it is most important to intervene first, and how do you intervene there? You’ve given two very compelling reasons why the developing tropics generally would be a place where you’d want to intervene first. I’ll just add a third reason that I think also supports your conclusion: most of the negative effects of climate change, both in range shifts and in productivity, will occur in the developing tropics. 

These are places that currently rely on fish, and may be vulnerable to climate change for a whole bunch of other reasons. They are the places where climate change is likely to have the biggest negative effects, and they are the places that historically have been generally mismanaged, so their fish stocks tend to already be in worse shape. These are the places that stand to gain the most by fixing management now and as quickly as possible. That will allow them to become more resilient to climate change, but it has to happen quickly, because you could see more negative effects.

The best thing that a fishing community could do right now in order to become resilient to climate change is improve the management of that fishery in a way that we already know makes sense, even if climate change wasn’t a problem. It’s not like you have do something magical in anticipation of climate change. You have to get fisheries right, under current conditions, and if you do that, you’re going to be pretty resilient to climate change.

What does the “right” management look like, when it comes to building resilience?

You want to have a mechanism in place where the management system can respond to changes in the environment. A really bad thing to do would be to say, “we’re going to catch four tons of fish every year, no matter what happens in the environment.” A really good system would be, “we’re going to go out and look at how many fish are underwater, and if there are more fish, we’re going to catch more, and if there are fewer fish, we’re going to catch less.” We call that a harvest control rule. If you do something like that, you’ll be responsive to the usual kinds of fluctuations you see in fisheries, but you will also be responsive to systematic changes like those we anticipate under climate change. 

If resilience to climate change can potentially come with better fisheries management, what needs to happen in these communities to get their management in order?

It’s a hard sell, going to a community with tiny little fish — because they’ve overfished them — and saying, “Hey, you should really restore your fisheries, so stop fishing for five years.” It’s a tough sell now, and it’s going to get tougher with climate change. We need to come up with better solutions for getting people over that hump. I think Rare’s global fisheries solutions are one way to do that. It’ll have to be thought through very carefully.

Also, the nice thing about fisheries is that you can measure how much better you would do if you could get rid of coastal pollution, or if you could eliminate climate change. You can measure how much better you would do, and then what the value of improving management to take advantage of that might be. To me, that would be the strategy. If you go into the Philippines, to a community that has a lot of coastal pollution, and use science to assess, “well, if we could eliminate these sewage outfalls, here’s how much your fish stock and your catch could improve,” that should be part of the calculus that a community uses to determine how to tackle that, and how aggressively to tackle that. You use science and economics to make that trade-off in a sensible way.