Commercial fishery disturbance of the global ocean biological carbon sink

Plankton drive a major sink of carbon across the global oceans. Dead plankton, their faeces and the faeces of plankton feeders, form a huge rain of carbon sinking to the seabed and deep ocean, reducing atmospheric CO2 levels and thus helping to regulate the climate. Any change in plankton communities, ecosystems or habitats will perturb this carbon sink, potentially increasing atmospheric CO2. Fishing is a major cause of ocean ecosystem disturbance affecting all trophic levels including plankton, but its potential impact on the carbon sink is unknown. As both fisheries and the carbon sink depend on plankton, there is spatial overlap of these fundamental ecosystem services. Here, we provide the first global maps of this spatial overlap. Using an upper quartile analysis, we show that 21% of the total upper ocean carbon sink (export) and 39% of fishing effort globally are concentrated in zones of intensive overlap, representing 9% of the ocean surface area. This overlap is particularly evident in the Northeast Atlantic suggesting this region should be prioritized in terms of research and conservation measures to preserve the high levels of sinking carbon. Small pelagic fish dominate catches here and globally, and their exploitation could reduce important faecal pellet carbon sinks and cause trophic cascades affecting plankton communities. There is an urgent need to recognize that, alongside climate change, fishing might be a critical influence on the ability of the ocean to sequester atmospheric CO2. Improved understanding of this influence, and how it will change with the climate, will be important for realizing a sustainable balance of the twin needs for productive fisheries and strong carbon sinks.


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Authors: Cavan, Emma L., Hill, Simeon L. ORCIDORCID record for Simeon L. Hill

On this site: Simeon Hill
1 February, 2022
Global Change Biology / 28
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