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Humans Affected by Shifting Species

A study published in Science has reported that communities and economies from the tropics to the poles are already being affected as species respond to climate change. “Human survival depends on other life on Earth, so the redistribution of the planet’s living organisms is a substantial challenge for people worldwide,” said study leader A/Prof Gretta Pecl of The University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies. “As their local environment changes, many plants and animals are responding by moving to higher altitudes, greater depths in the oceans or towards the poles.

“Previous studies have shown that land-based species are moving polewards by an average of 17 km per decade, and marine species by 72 km per decade. Our study demonstrates how these changes are affecting worldwide ecosystems and human health and culture in the process.

“While some species favour a warmer climate and are becoming more abundant, many others that humans exploit or interact with face depletion or extinction.”

Pecl said that as humans rely on natural ecosystems for food, industry, health and culture, they’re affected by changes in species distribution in many different ways.

  • Fish, forests and crops are at risk as their environments change, with the principal coffee-growing regions expected to shift and valuable timber species such as Norway spruce making way for less valuable warm climate species.
  • Tourism and recreational fishing are jeopardised as corals die, jellyfish infest waters used for recreation, and urchins destroy fish habitats in kelp forests.
  • Tensions are emerging as species move between economic zones, as with Iceland’s “mackerel wars”, or due to disputes over competing land uses.
  • Threats such as malaria are becoming more prevalent as rising temperatures allow the poleward spread of mosquitos into regions where people have not had prior exposure.
  • Changes in the distribution of fish and reindeer are impacting food security and the traditional knowledge systems of Arctic peoples.

Study co-author Roger Griffis of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said current global goals, policies and international agreements do not sufficiently consider species range-shifts in their formulation or targets. “A dynamic, multi-level legal and policy approach is needed to address the impacts across local, national and international boundaries,” he said.