Research Paper

Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 581-613

First online:

Potential impacts of global climate change on freshwater fisheries

  • Ashley D. FickeAffiliated withDepartment of Fish, Wildlife, & Conservation Biology, Colorado State University Email author 
  • , Christopher A. MyrickAffiliated withDepartment of Fish, Wildlife, & Conservation Biology, Colorado State University
  • , Lara J. HansenAffiliated withWWF Climate Change Program

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Despite uncertainty in all levels of analysis, recent and long-term changes in our climate point to the distinct possibility that greenhouse gas emissions have altered mean annual temperatures, precipitation and weather patterns. Modeling efforts that use doubled atmospheric CO2 scenarios predict a 1–7°C mean global temperature increase, regional changes in precipitation patterns and storm tracks, and the possibility of “surprises” or sudden irreversible regime shifts. The general effects of climate change on freshwater systems will likely be increased water temperatures, decreased dissolved oxygen levels, and the increased toxicity of pollutants. In lotic systems, altered hydrologic regimes and increased groundwater temperatures could affect the quality of fish habitat. In lentic systems, eutrophication may be exacerbated or offset, and stratification will likely become more pronounced and stronger. This could alter food webs and change habitat availability and quality. Fish physiology is inextricably linked to temperature, and fish have evolved to cope with specific hydrologic regimes and habitat niches. Therefore, their physiology and life histories will be affected by alterations induced by climate change. Fish communities may change as range shifts will likely occur on a species level, not a community level; this will add novel biotic pressures to aquatic communities. Genetic change is also possible and is the only biological option for fish that are unable to migrate or acclimate. Endemic species, species in fragmented habitats, or those in east–west oriented systems will be less able to follow changing thermal isolines over time. Artisanal, commercial, and recreational fisheries worldwide depend upon freshwater fishes. Impacted fisheries may make it difficult for developing countries to meet their food demand, and developed countries may experience economic losses. As it strengthens over time, global climate change will become a more powerful stressor for fish living in natural or artificial systems. Furthermore, human response to climate change (e.g., increased water diversion) will exacerbate its already-detrimental effects.

Model predictions indicate that global climate change will continue even if greenhouse gas emissions decrease or cease. Therefore, proactive management strategies such as removing other stressors from natural systems will be necessary to sustain our freshwater fisheries.


Climate change Freshwater Fisheries Physiology Socioeconomic