Researchers release global database to understand climate impacts on ocean predators

New information on ocean predators’ diets could help scientists understand how climate change is affecting vital food fish worldwide.


U of A researchers teamed up with colleagues in the United States to create an open-source database that will help scientists worldwide understand how top ocean predators like the albacore tuna will respond to climate extremes and changing prey over the coming decades. (Photo: Getty Images)

A cross-border science collaboration has yielded a global database that will help researchers understand how climate change is affecting ocean predators like the albacore tuna — which also happens to be an important food source for people around the world.

“Climate change is shifting where species can live, and the pace of change is most intense in the ocean,” says Stephanie Green, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Global Change Ecology and Conservation.

“Our big questions are where will marine species go, and what will it mean for communities that rely on the fisheries they support?”

To tackle these questions, researchers at the University of Alberta are collaborating with colleagues in the United States to discover how top predators will respond to climate extremes and changing prey over the coming decades.

Wind and currents in the Pacific Ocean make the west coast of Canada and the United States an attractive feeding ground for migrating predators like tuna where they support lucrative fisheries, and also a hotbed of climate impacts.

The team honed in on albacore tuna, a torpedo-shaped predator known to eat hundreds of different species around the world and whose harvest is regulated by a treaty between the United States and Canada.

Diverse diet — but similar traits

The buffet of prey albacore consume makes it tough for scientists to predict where their populations will go as climate change worsens. To address this challenge, the science team shone a different light on the snacking habits of this ocean predator by looking at the common characteristics or traits of the foods they eat.

“Just like we choose foods based on what we like — be it a salty pretzel or sweet, crunchy apple — ocean predators make decisions based on the characteristics of the prey they are faced with,” says Green.

To figure out what traits are important to ocean predators, the researchers created a database categorizing more than 30 traits including fat and protein content, shape, colour, size, and behaviours that make ocean species potentially tasty to predators, including albacore tuna.

“Our goal is to better understand when and where the most desirable prey will be found as the climate changes,” says Green.

Just like we choose foods based on what we like ... ocean predators make decisions based on the characteristics of the prey they are faced with. Our goal is to better understand when and where the most desirable prey will be found as the climate changes.

Stephanie Green

Stephanie Green
(Photo: Supplied)

“What we’re finding is that albacore tuna are quite adaptable; from among the hundreds of species they could eat, they seek out prey that have all the characteristics they prefer and focus on them,” explains research associate and study lead author Miram Gleiber.

Through the use of trait-based studies, the group hopes to create a new way to understand how ocean predators are adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Big data, open for ocean discovery

Oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the planet, yet are less explored than space. The research team, including seven U of A students, put in more than 10,000 hours to generate 155,000 unique pieces of information on the traits of 521 species of fish, crustaceans, squids, octopus and more found in ocean environments. While many species are important prey for top predators like tunas, sharks, salmon and many others in ocean systems worldwide, other animals the team documented are known only from a handful of specimens.

The global database includes commercially valuable northern anchovy (top left), Pacific herring (bottom centre) and market squid (bottom left); deep-sea lanternfish (top centre) and squids (bottom and top right); and open-ocean tuna crab (middle). Many of these animals are rarely seen by humans. (Photo: Supplied)

The trait database is also available for international scientists to support learning about how systems are changing, Green notes.

“Large datasets like this one are created to support statistical models that look at the distribution of ocean species and how interactions between ocean species, such as between predators and their prey, might look in the future.”

“We’re getting lots of interest from scientists elsewhere who are using the information we’ve gathered, which is really exciting and rewarding for us to see,” says Natasha Hardy, a research associate who led the global diet synthesis.

Outlook for the oceans

Findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate the planet’s average temperature will increase by at least 1.5C in the next two decades, with some of the greatest changes occurring in Canada’s coastal waters.

U of A scientist Alana Krug-Macleod creates the fuse for a “bomb” used in a calorimetry experiment. The device uses combustion to measure the energy content of ocean animals collected from trawl net surveys in the Pacific Ocean conducted by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Photo: Supplied)

The influence of climate change on ecosystems is complex, including more extreme weather events like heat waves that drastically alter marine environments. Marine heat waves are masses of superheated water many degrees warmer than normal that form in the ocean, disrupting the natural cycle that species in the ocean rely on for tracking their food, spawning and migrating.

“Scientists are finding some species hundreds of miles from where we’ve ever seen them before, and that’s likely wreaking havoc on the system,” says project co-lead Larry Crowder, a professor of oceans at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability who's based at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. 

Some species are mobile and can adapt to changing environments, but many live close to the edge of the ranges in temperature, acidity and other stressors they can endure, causing some species to lose entire habitats, Crowder says.

The team is sharing their work this week at the 9th World Fisheries Congress, a global meeting of scientists and policy-makers focused on sustaining ocean and freshwater fisheries in the face of climate change and other pressures.

The research was supported by funding from the Lenfest Ocean Program and done in collaboration with scientists from Stanford University, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of California and Oregon State University.