Australia’s coastal towns, many built around fisheries and tourism, are particularly vulnerable to climate change. South east and south west Australia are marine hotspots — they are warming much faster than the rest of the world. Fish populations are changing as the seas warm.
But a town’s vulnerability also depends on other factors — such as infrastructure, education, housing and employment.
In a new website launched this week, Coastal Climate Blueprint, I and others have brought together all these factors to score coastal towns on their vulnerability to climate change. The website also comes with a function to “Create a blueprint” for your own coastal town, by comparing data from your own region with state and national averages.
While most of this information is available, it has until now been locked away in vulnerability reports of fished species, in population census reports and in scientific papers.
For the first time we have brought this information to the fore, and to be readily accessible to communities wanting more control of their future.
There have been many Australian studies examining the vulnerability of key fish species by considering the projected change in climate change impacts (current systems, extreme events, increased rainfall, ocean acidification).
The most common impact has been the southern shift in the distribution of species, as well as declines in young surviving to breed in species such as the southern rock lobster. This has resulted in substantial declines in allocated catch.
What happens to the fish influences how vulnerable communities are that depend on ocean resources for a living.
For example, the average number of people engaged in fishing and aquaculture is substantially higher for Tasmania than the Australian average. If fishing or aquaculture is a key activity in a coastal town, it will be more vulnerable to changes in fish populations.
To understand the full ramifications of these changes on coastal towns, we need to know combined marine activities (commercial and recreational fishing, aquaculture, marine tourism including charter boat and diving operations) in the region and how important these are to each town and community.
The linkages extend to the accommodation sector, education, retail and underpinning of property values.
The ability for a community to cope and adapt to changes such as climate change or other stressors is linked to its natural, social, financial, human and physical assets or what is commonly referred to as capitals.
For example, a community could be relatively low in physical capital through a lack of coastal infrastructure for recreational and commercial fishing or aquaculture.
The community could also have relatively low financial capital with a high unemployment rate and low average wages, but have high social connectivity (social capital), healthy ecosystems and fish stocks (high natural capital) and a large population of working age people (high human capital).
On our website, each capital receives a score out of 10, and then averaged across all capitals to get a total vulnerability score, with 10 being the most vulnerable to climate change.
The project was developed around three case studies in St Helens, Tasmania; Geraldton in Western Australia and Bowen in Queensland.
Although these towns are in different regions and of different sizes, they were all experiencing the impacts of change and their fishing fleets had declined substantially (between 30 and 60%) over recent decades.
St Helens is located in one of the fastest warming regions globally (estimated at four times the global average) and is experiencing a transition from cool temperate to warmer temperate species.
Several of these species are providing opportunities such as the billfish, tunas and kingfish for game fishers, and snapper and King George Whiting for coastal recreational fishers.
In Bowen, both the fishing and tourism industries have been affected by the damage from cyclones which are predicted to become more intense as the world warms.
In Geraldton, increases in ocean temperatures have resulted in higher deaths of existing cooler water aquaculture and fished species although, like St Helens, warmer water species are benefiting.
So what does this all mean for a coastal community?
This project, and the resulting web site, will raise within communities awareness of what is happening to one of their most valuable assets — their coastal waters. It also raises awareness of predicted changes and which resources are likely to be most vulnerable.
This project was funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and carried out with the assistance of Professor Malcolm Tull and Dr Sarah Metcalf of Murdoch University, Dr Nadine Marshall of CSIRO Townsville, and Dr Ingrid Van Putten of CSIRO and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, Hobart.