From Sticky Fish to Fish Sticks: Predicting the Future of Marine Fisheries

February 17, 2013

Sarah Gillig Sunu, MEM ’14, Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – Global climate change will bring far-reaching changes to the world’s oceans and their species in coming years, leaving researchers and fishermen alike to grapple with a common problem.

Where in the world are the fish?

Andre Boustany is working to provide answers.  Boustany is a research scientist and Senior Nippon Foundation-Nereus Fellow in the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.   His research focuses on the impacts of climate change on fisheries species distribution.

He will present an overview of his recent research in a presentation, “Habitat and Fisheries Interactions: Spatial Patterns under Climate Change,” at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science  (AAAS) in Boston.

His presentation at AAAS is part of a seminar highlighting the work of the Nereus Program, an international research initiative on the future of fisheries and the oceans, jointly led by the Nippon Foundation and the University of British Columbia.

Boustany’s s role on the Nereus team is to identify which variables will determine where fish are likely to be found in the future.

“It’s a natural progression from animal distribution, to trying to figure out why the animals are distributed where they are, and then looking at how those distributions are predicted to shift in the future under a changing ocean climate,” Boustany said.

“In certain areas, bottom topography is the most important variable in determining where fish are located, so the change in climate is not necessarily going to shift the distribution of the fish.  It’s going to potentially change the yield of those fisheries—they’re going to become either more productive or less productive as the water warms, but they’re not going to shift.  We call them ‘sticky fish’, or ‘sticky regions’,” he said.

Predicting the future location of fisheries that are not tied to bottom terrain is also an issue.

“In the open ocean, there is a belief that the distribution of fish is determined mainly by oceanography, and it’s not necessarily influenced by the bottom,” Boustany said, “But for some species in the open ocean, such as tunas and swordfish, we’re finding that ocean depth and slope are the most important variables in determining the main area of the fishery.” 

But one of the biggest factors that may shape the future of the world’s fisheries isn’t in the water at all, he noted.

“We have model outputs for what the climate’s going to look like, what the global ocean’s going to look like. But the big thing we don’t know is how policy is going to change over time,” Boustany said.  “That’s a big unknown."

The Nereus project team includes researchers at Princeton University, Cambridge University, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center, and the University of Stockholm, in addition to Duke, the University of British Columbia and the Nippon Foundation.   Boustany’s team members at Duke include Patrick Halpin, a Senior Nereus Fellow and associate professor of marine geospatial ecology, and Daniel Dunn, a Nereus Fellow and research associate.

The AAAS seminar was organized by Yoshitaka Ota and Villy Christensen of the University of British Columbia.

The moderator is James R. Watson of Princeton University.  Other presenters or discussants include Jeffrey Polovina of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center; Philippe Cury of the Center for Mediterranean and Tropical Fisheries Research;  Henri Osterblom of Stockholm University;  Ryan Rykaczewski of Princeton University;  Marc Metian of the Stockholm Resilience Center; and Chris McOwen of the United Nations Environmental Program World Conservation Monitoring Center

Contact Tim Lucas at (919) 613-8084 or