Hot Topic: Effects of Climate Variability on Fisheries

The lab activity described here was created by Erin Bardar and Sarah L. Hill 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.

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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 different timescales.

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 market 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 an El Niño event. They will also consider whether La Niña events could influence squid populations.

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 2017 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 2018 World Wildlife Fund fact sheet Climate Change: Ocean and Fisheries (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Aug10 20) to learn about the potential long-term effects of climate change on the world's fisheries. They then look at how rising ocean temperatures have impacted two species. On the east coast, the red hake, and on the west coast, the Alaska pollock.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet ( and )
  • Student Reading: Climate Change: Ocean and Fisheries (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Aug10 20)

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.

If you would like your students to explore more ocean and climate change issues, Lab 7 of the Carbon module is devoted to ocean acidification. In the Corals module, Lab 4 examines corals' habitattemperature, depth, and chemistryand Lab 5 examines the changes to their ocean habitat from climate change.

Some of the readings could be assigned for homework to save time in class.


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

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