Hot Topic: Effects of Climate Variability on Fisheries

The lab activity described here was created by Erin Bardar of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

Changes in ocean temperature and wind patterns can alter fish migration patterns, spawning sites, and the availability of stocks for commercial fishing, causing potentially devastating disruptions in the food chain. In this lab investigation, students will explore how climate variability on both short- and long-term timescales affects fisheries.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • understand climate variability on multiple time scales;
  • explain how climate variability effects fish populations; and
  • explain how the future of fish populations can be predicted using global climate change data.
Open the Student Lab »

Context for Use

In this final lab exercise of the Fisheries Unit, students will explore how changes in climate can affect fish populations and the fishing industry. Students will consider climate variability on timescales of years and

The entire investigation should take about two 50-60 minute class periods.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

In Part A, students learn about the El Niño phenomenon and examine California squid landing data to explore how this species has historically responded to El Niño events. They read passages from NASA about ocean and weather conditions during a normal year and during an El Niño year.

In Part B, students explore the 1972 collapse of the Peruvian anchovy fishery as an example of how El Niño effects on fish populations can be exacerbated by additional stresses such as overfishing. They interpret a graph of Peru's anchovy catches from 1950 to 2000 and then read about the factors that contributed to the 1972 collapse (

In Part C, students consider long-term effects of rising ocean temperatures on fish habitats, migration patterns, and the entire marine food chain. Students read the World Wildlife Fund report Are we putting our fish in hot water? (Acrobat (PDF) 1MB Nov20 07) to learn about the potential long-term effects of global warming on the world's fisheries. They then look at a specific example of how rising ocean temperatures have impacted the Alaska sockeye salmon.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet (PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 37kB Dec3 07) and Word (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 20kB Aug7 18))

Teaching Notes and Tips

It may be helpful to begin the investigation with a class discussion of what students know about climate change and its effects on the world's oceans.

The Quicktime movie Visualizing El Niño can be used as a supplement to Part A to help students visualize the complex coupling of the oceans and atmosphere that produces El Niño.


You can assess student understanding of topics addressed in this Investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think questions.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Additional Resources

Background Information

« Previous Page