Cod Gadus morhua and climate change: processes, productivity and prediction
Environmental factors act on individual fishes directly and indirectly. The direct effects on rates and behaviour can be studied experimentally and in the field, particularly with the advent of ever smarter tags for tracking fishes and their environment. Indirect effects due to changes in food, predators, parasites and diseases are much more difficult to estimate and predict. Climate can affect all life-history stages through direct and indirect processes and although the consequences in terms of growth, survival and reproductive output can be monitored, it is often difficult to determine the causes. Investigation of cod Gadus morhua populations across the whole North Atlantic Ocean has shown large-scale patterns of change in productivity due to lower individual growth and condition, caused by large-scale climate forcing. If a population is being heavily exploited then a drop in productivity can push it into decline unless the level of fishing is reduced: the idea of a stable carrying capacity is a dangerous myth. Overexploitation can be avoided by keeping fishing mortality low and by monitoring and responding rapidly to changes in productivity. There are signs that this lesson has been learned and that G. morhua will continue to be a mainstay of the human diet.