New Report Details How Climate Change is Harming Freshwater Fish

Urgent Action Needed to Protect America’s Outdoor Heritage

09-04-2013 // Miles Grant

Freshwater Fish in a Warming World Report cover

America’s coldwater fish habitat could decline by 50 percent within the lifetime of a child born today thanks to climate change, according to a new report released today by the National Wildlife Federation. Swimming Upstream: Freshwater Fish in a Warming World details how climate change is warming lakes, rivers and streams and making existing stresses worse, creating an uncertain future for America’s freshwater fishing traditions and the jobs that depend on them.

"More extreme heat and drought are already causing big problems for fish that rely on cold, clean water - and the warming we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Doug Inkley, National Wildlife Federation senior scientist and one of the lead authors of Swimming Upstream. “We can protect America’s outdoor heritage, but only if we act now to cut industrial carbon pollution, invest in clean energy, and make communities and habitats more resilient to the impacts of climate change."

Climate change is warming our lakes, rivers and streams causing:

  • Habitat loss for many cold-water species
  • Exacerbation of existing stressors, such as habitat loss, polluted water, invasive species and disease
  • Increased competition from warm-water species

"Temperature increases of even a few degrees can have dramatic impacts, harming iconic game fish like salmon, trout and walleye and giving a leg up to destructive invaders like sea lamprey,” said Jack Williams, Trout Unlimited senior scientist and one of the lead authors of Swimming Upstream. “We need to manage our water resources in a way that ensures that both people and fish have the clean, cool, and abundant water they need to survive."

Climate change is affecting seasonal patterns and loading the dice for extreme weather:

  • Warmer, shorter winters with less snow and ice cover can shift stream flows and water availability in the spring and summer. Reduced ice cover also means many lakes are too thin for safe ice fishing, a popular recreation in many northern locales.
  • More extreme weather events —especially more intense droughts, heat waves and wildfires — can increase fish mortality.
  • More frequent droughts reduce stream flows and kill streamside vegetation which helps to cool streams. Less water during droughts reduces available habitat and the remaining water warms faster, leaving fewer cool or cold-water refuges for fish.

"Here in North Carolina, fishing is a critical economic driver. More than a million anglers spent over $574 million on freshwater fishing in 2011,” said Kelly Darden, North Carolina Wildlife Federation board member. “For North Carolina sportsmen, it’s not about politics. It’s about a simple question: What’s your plan to confront climate change and protect our outdoor heritage?"

Rainbow Trout- Curtis Fry

Swimming Upstream outlines actions needed to address climate change and ensure a thriving fishing tradition. To confront the climate crisis’ threats to fish, wildlife and communities we must:

  • Address the underlying cause and cut carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030.
  • Transition to cleaner, more secure sources of energy like offshore wind, solar power and next-generation biofuels while avoiding dirty energy choices like coal and tar sands oil.
  • Safeguard wildlife and their habitats by promoting climate-smart approaches to conservation.
  • Help communities prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels, more extreme weather, and more severe droughts.

"Sportsmen are on the front lines of conservation. They’re already seeing changes where they fish and they know we can’t leave this problem for our children and grandchildren to deal with,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “We need action on the local, state and federal levels to cut industrial carbon pollution, invest in clean energy, and make communities and habitats more resilient to the impacts of climate change. President Obama’s plan to act on climate is a major step in the right direction."

Read the report at NWF.org/FishAndClimate. Get more National Wildlife Federation news at NWF.org/News.


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