Models projecting the fate of fish populations under climate change need to be based on valid physiological mechanisms

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Abstract

Some recent modelling papers projecting smaller fish sizes and catches in a warmer future are based on erroneous assumptions regarding (i) the scaling of gills with body mass and (ii) the energetic cost of ‘maintenance’. Assumption (i) posits that insurmountable geometric constraints prevent respiratory surface areas from growing as fast as body volume. It is argued that these constraints explain allometric scaling of energy metabolism, whereby larger fishes have relatively lower mass-specific metabolic rates. Assumption (ii) concludes that when fishes reach a certain size, basal oxygen demands will not be met, because of assumption (i). We here demonstrate unequivocally, by applying accepted physiological principles with reference to the existing literature, that these assumptions are not valid. Gills are folded surfaces, where the scaling of surface area to volume is not constrained by spherical geometry. The gill surface area can, in fact, increase linearly in proportion to gill volume and body mass. We cite the large body of evidence demonstrating that respiratory surface areas in fishes reflect metabolic needs, not vice versa, which explains the large interspecific variation in scaling of gill surface areas. Finally, we point out that future studies basing their predictions on models should incorporate factors for scaling of metabolic rate and for temperature effects on metabolism, which agree with measured values, and should account for interspecific variation in scaling and temperature effects. It is possible that some fishes will become smaller in the future, but to make reliable predictions the underlying mechanisms need to be identified and sought elsewhere than in geometric constraints on gill surface area. Furthermore, to ensure that useful information is conveyed to the public and policymakers about the possible effects of climate change, it is necessary to improve communication and congruity between fish physiologists and fisheries scientists.

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