Say Good-Bye to Fish and Chips

Researchers find haddock and other popular fish will start to disappear as climate change warms their North Sea habitat.

(Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Apr 15, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Ah, Britain...the land of Doctor Who, Big Ben, Stonehenge, and that most delicious and ubiquitous of meals, fish and chips.

Well, scratch that last one.

Yes, the iconic British food staple could soon be a thing of the past. According to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change, some of Britain’s most popular fishy foods could disappear over the next 50 years. It’s news that could devastate not only English palates but also endanger the livelihoods of fishers throughout the region.

Diners in the United Kingdom won't be alone in their grief. Fish from the North Sea are exported to three dozen countries around the world, including the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and most of Europe. Fishers from 20 countries ply their trade in the North Sea.

The study examined some of the most popular fish caught in the North Sea, including haddock, plaice, and lemon sole. These are coldwater fish that live and feed near the bottom of the ocean. They’re also, as lead author Louise Rutterford of the University of Exeter called them, “close to our culinary hearts.”

The fish, though, are caught between a rock and a warm place. The North Sea is warming up four times faster than the world’s other oceans, and according to climate-change models, it’s going to get even warmer over the next 50 years. That’s too much heat for the fish, which in ideal conditions would be able to move farther north into colder waters.

That’s not possible in the North Sea, however. The ocean to the north of where these fish swim is deeper and rockier, making it inhospitable for the species, all of which have already started moving north in response to warming seas. Soon they’ll run out of room and find themselves constrained to a fraction of their previous range.

“For some of these species,” Rutterford said, “the consequence could be a reduction in abundance.” In other words, there will be a lot less to catch and eat. That will present a major change to the diets in the region and the revenues for local fishermen, considering that these fish accounted for more than two-thirds of all commercial landings in the North Sea between 1980 and 2010.

Rutterford said the study revealed that anticipating the effects of climate change requires looking at not only temperature but also habitat suitability.

Not every species will suffer. The study found that several other fish species are moving north into the North Sea, including hake, red mullet, gurnard, sardines, and anchovies. These are popular food species in Southern Europe, and fishers may need to start planning to catch more of them if they hope to survive. “For sustainable U.K. fisheries, we need to move on from haddock and chips and look to Southern Europe for our gastronomic inspiration,” coauthor Steve Simpson, also of the University of Exeter, said in a statement.

Anchovies and chips, anyone?