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New research predicts future impact of climate change on threatened UK marine species

News Item 2024

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) 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 forms part of the InCResiVul (Investigating Climate Change Resilience of Vulnerable Marine Species around the UK) project 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.

More information is available in the report. See also the full news item by Cefas.

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