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A new international study has warned that millions of people dependent on fisheries in Africa, Asia and South America could face unprecedented hardship as a consequence of climate change.

Researchers examined the fisheries of 132 nations to determine which were the most vulnerable, based on the potential environmental impact of climate change, how dependent their economy and diet were on fisheries, and the capacity of the country to adapt.

Climate change can affect the temperature of inland lakes, the health of reefs and how nutrients circulate in the oceans, the researchers say.

They identified 33 countries as "highly vulnerable" to the effects of global warming on fisheries.

These countries produce 20 per cent of the world's fish exports and 22 are already classified by the UN as "least developed". Inhabitants of vulnerable countries are also more dependent on fish for protein — 27 per cent of dietary protein is gained from fish, compared with 13 per cent in other countries. Two-thirds of the most vulnerable nations identified are in tropical Africa.

The study, led by the Malaysia-based WorldFish Center, was published in Fish and Fisheries this month (6 February).

Using an approach developed from the International Panel on Climate Change's methods for assessing the vulnerability of nations to climate change as a whole, the authors determined that both coastal and landlocked African countries such as Guinea, Malawi, Senegal and Uganda; Asian countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Yemen; and Colombia and Peru in South America, are among the most vulnerable.

The 33 countries should be a priority for climate change adaptation efforts and, more importantly, their fisheries should be maintained or enhanced to ensure they can make contributions to poverty reduction, say the authors.

Edward Allison, director of policy, economic and social science at WorldFish Center and the paper's lead author, says that to ensure fisheries continue to support the poorest people policies should be implemented on two fronts: mitigation and adaptation.

But while mitigation can be valuable — because of relationships between emission reductions, energy saving and responsible fisheries — "the challenge of adaptation is both significant and potentially urgent", he says.

"Policy support for adaptation involves supporting measures to reduce exposure of fishing people to climate-related risks, reducing dependence of peoples' livelihoods on climate-sensitive resources, and supporting people's capacity to anticipate and cope with climate-related changes", he concludes.

Link to abstract in Fish and Fisheries