Climate change impacts on mismatches between phytoplankton blooms and fish spawning phenology

Rebecca G. Asch, Charles A. Stock, Jorge L. Sarmiento

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

101 Scopus citations


Substantial interannual variability in marine fish recruitment (i.e., the number of young fish entering a fishery each year) has been hypothesized to be related to whether the timing of fish spawning matches that of seasonal plankton blooms. Environmental processes that control the phenology of blooms, such as stratification, may differ from those that influence fish spawning, such as temperature-linked reproductive maturation. These different controlling mechanisms could cause the timing of these events to diverge under climate change with negative consequences for fisheries. We use an earth system model to examine the impact of a high-emissions, climate-warming scenario (RCP8.5) on the future spawning time of two classes of temperate, epipelagic fishes: “geographic spawners” whose spawning grounds are defined by fixed geographic features (e.g., rivers, estuaries, reefs) and “environmental spawners” whose spawning grounds move responding to variations in environmental properties, such as temperature. By the century's end, our results indicate that projections of increased stratification cause spring and summer phytoplankton blooms to start 16 days earlier on average (±0.05 days SE) at latitudes >40°N. The temperature-linked phenology of geographic spawners changes at a rate twice as fast as phytoplankton, causing these fishes to spawn before the bloom starts across >85% of this region. “Extreme events,” defined here as seasonal mismatches >30 days that could lead to fish recruitment failure, increase 10-fold for geographic spawners in many areas under the RCP8.5 scenario. Mismatches between environmental spawners and phytoplankton were smaller and less widespread, although sizable mismatches still emerged in some regions. This indicates that range shifts undertaken by environmental spawners may increase the resiliency of fishes to climate change impacts associated with phenological mismatches, potentially buffering against declines in larval fish survival, recruitment, and fisheries. Our model results are supported by empirical evidence from ecosystems with multidecadal observations of both fish and phytoplankton phenology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2544-2559
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Chemistry


  • earth system model
  • marine fish reproduction
  • phenology
  • phytoplankton blooms
  • species range shifts
  • trophic mismatches


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