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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Nuclear War Could Take Big Bite Out of World’s Seafood

Scientists working to weigh the potential cost of damage in the event of a nuclear war have found that wild seafood, including salmon, tuna, and shrimp, would be caught in the crosshairs and see up to a 30% decline in availability.

(CN) — Scientists working to weigh the potential cost of damage in the event of a nuclear war have found that wild seafood, including salmon, tuna, and shrimp, would be caught in the crosshairs and see up to a 30% decline in availability.

In a new multiyear international study, led by Colorado University-Boulder professor Brian Toon and Alan Robock of Rutgers University and published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors warn that a nuclear war could result in significantly less seafood brought in by fishing boats, threatening food security worldwide.

Fish are a key source of protein, and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization have pointed to them as an important resource to ensure food security for a growing population. In fact, a 2015 study published in the journal Food Security found fish account for approximately 10% of the world’s food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization has been working to develop sustainable fishing practices to provide for this demand, but these efforts would see a major setback in this event.

“In a short span of time, in other words, those impacts could rival the toll that climate change is taking on fisheries across the globe,” said study co-author Nicole Lovenduski, an associate professor of atmospheric and ocean sciences at the CU Boulder. "It's similar to what's going to happen by the end of the century, and that's already concerning. To have something of the same magnitude happen over such a short period of time is really remarkable."

However, lead author Kim Scherrer, a graduate student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, assures that their findings show a bright spot: this is avoidable. With enough planning and preparation fisheries could remain successful even in the wake of a nuclear war, likely replacing land-based food sources. 

"This is the extreme example of how our technology has made us capable of influencing the oceans, and how that could lash back at us," Scherrer said.

This past September, on the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for the disarmament of all nuclear weapons, warning that "the world continues to live in the shadow of nuclear catastrophe." According to research, even a ‘relatively minor’ nuclear event would result in massive amounts of black soot in the atmosphere, darkening the sky and making it increasingly difficult for farmers to sustain crops.

This led Lovenduski to ponder if food was no longer viable on land, could the world still be fed by the ocean. To determine this, she and her team created computer simulations to test how the ocean’s inhabitants would fare in a nuclear war — specifically, plankton. This is because plankton are at the very base of the food web, feeding small fish and crustaceans, who then feed larger organisms. Furthermore, plankton thrive off sunlight, so they could potentially feel the effects of darker skies as much as crops on land.

"Because the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the ocean is reduced so much, the growth of plankton is also reduced," Lovenduski said. "Because the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the ocean is reduced so much, the growth of plankton is also reduced," she said.

Indeed, the researchers found that in the event of a worldwide nuclear war, the plankton population would see a steep decline of up to 40%. If this occurs, it would shift the entire balance of the ocean and — just like those of us on land — ocean inhabitants would endure food insecurity as well.

This is where humans come in. Normal fishing practices would no longer be sustainable in a world after nukes drop, and wild fish populations could decline anywhere from 3 to 30% within a decade. 

Fisheries already face day to day challenges due to climate change, and in turn the ocean has felt the effects of overfishing, pollution from fishing boats and more. Both sides could benefit from a shift to sustainable fishing practices. In fact, the authors estimate that with enough change, seafood could replace land-based protein by as much as 40%.

"I was surprised by how big those numbers were," Scherrer said. "It's a great challenge to effectively manage the world's fisheries, but this shows that beyond all the other benefits, strong management would also help to buffer against global food crises."

The authors say that this research holds more significance now following the Covid-19 pandemic, as stores everywhere at the beginning of the disaster saw a huge increase in demand for food and other necessities.

"It was terrifying to live in that world," Lovenduski said. "It made me wonder if we are prepared for a disaster like a nuclear war as a global society. I think the answer is no."

Categories / Science

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