El Niño Could Cause a Major Seafood Shortage

El Niño is here—and it’s looking to get intense pretty quickly. But there’s more than just powerful, abnormal weather patterns to worry about. A chain reaction from El Niño could result in a major seafood shortage.

NASA’s Earth Observatory released these two photos of chlorophyll levels in the ocean, right now and this time last year. At first, it might not seem as though there’s much to be alarmed about in these serene blue-green images—but look a little closer and the problem becomes apparent. By measuring the chlorophyll levels on the ocean’s surface, researchers are looking to get a sense of the levels of phytoplankton in the ocean. The first image is last year’s levels; when you slide over to see what we’re looking at now, though, the drop is obvious.

Why are phytoplankton levels such a big deal? Because phytoplankton are a major food source for seafood, and their loss causes a domino effect. Fish eat phytoplankton and those fish are in turn eaten, both by other fish and entirely different animals. And it’s not just humans that will be feeling the shortage—researchers are also warning that we could see die-offs of penguins, seals, and other fish-eating animals.


In the highly similar El Niño of 1997, this seafood collapse is exactly what happened all along the Eastern Pacific—until 1999, when La Niña boosted phytoplankton levels, and fisheries were suddenly awash with fish. So, if we do see a fish market collapse this year along with El Niño, at least we can cross our fingers for a quick turnaround.

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We need 30% of the ocean to be designated as protected areas with no human intervention allowed to create a sustainable ocean environment for fish stocks to replenish.