Ocean Home – Swimming Fishes

By Jason Turnure and Jason Werrell
This lesson was originally written as a final project for the “Communicating Ocean Science to Informal Audiences (COSIA)” class at Rutgers University.  It was adapted for Classroom use, with the assistance of COSEE NOW member Laura Dunbar.

Synopsis of the Activity

MARE educators try out the activity by moving around the grid while holding their individual Fish Cards.

MARE educators try out the activity by moving around the grid while referencing their individual Fish Cards.

With the expected change in average ocean temperatures due to global climate change, many commercially and recreationally important fish populations will move in response. As a result, the distributions of some species’ populations will shift, either expanding or contracting due to physiological stressors. In this activity a human-sized board game will generally demonstrate how changes in water temperature may affect fish distributions and, ultimately fisheries.


Geared fo 10-15 year olds, but the activity is amenable to older teens and adults. The concepts are not difficult, but the instructions for the game may be hard for younger students to follow.


The primary objectives are

  1. demonstrate how fishes’ physiological constraints (cold-blooded) affect their response to changes in water temperature
  2. to connect fisheries to the broader climate change issue and develop a better understanding of how global physical processes have the ability to instigate local changes (i.e. economically, biologically)

Secondary objectives include:

  1. developing an appreciation for the dynamic nature of climate change
  2. adjusting the misconception that climate change only implies climate warming and not cooling effects
  3. developing an understanding of sea surface temperature data/mapping; touching on the concept of ecological niches (in this case, how ocean temperatures affect the niches of various marine organisms)

Conception Addressed

Fish are poikilothermic (“cold-blooded”) animals – Due to this physiological constraint, we will demonstrate that fish must change habitat, rather than internal body-temperature, to respond to increasing or decreasing water temperatures.

Misconceptions Addressed

  • Global climate change affects will only result in warming ocean temperatures – In fact, a change in the “Atlantic heat pump” or thermohaline circulation patterns and redirection of the Gulf Stream current may cause regional cooling, especially in the northeastern United States. Winters may be harsher and colder, although these effects may be mitigated by an increase in the greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent warming. To date, it is difficult to predict with climate models what regional cooling may entail. This activity will show that outcomes of climate change will be diverse and unpredictable and not just a static increase in global temperatures.
  • Life is evenly distributed in the ocean – The main premise behind the activity is to promote the idea that fish populations are moving in response to ocean temperature changes, with distribution shifts and species competition occurring as a result of these changes- thereby implying that ocean life is not evenly distributed but constantly shifting due to factors both physical and biological.
  • The ocean’s are infinite so pollution and other human activities do not affect ocean resources – This activity will convey the concept that climate change (human-induced) does in fact affect ocean resources (in this case fisheries).

Ocean Literacy Principles Addressed

  • The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate (Concept 3) – Through a brief ending discussion on the “Atlantic heat pump” concept, ocean circulation, and regional cooling, the point that oceans influence the climate is made.
  • The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems (Concept 5) – Implicitly, this activity shows the diversity of the oceans through the variety of fish species used as models.
  • The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected (Concept 6) – From oceans affecting climate, humans influencing climate change, climate change affecting fish distribution, and fisheries health influencing human economics and well-being, this activity prominently displays these interconnections.

Key Vocabulary

  • Fisheries – In general, an entity engaged in raising and/or harvesting fish, which is determined by some authority to be a fishery. Typically involves human (fishers), biological (fish), and physical (oceans) components.
  • Habitat – The ecological or environmental area that is inhabited by a particular animal or plant species. It is the natural environment in which an organism lives, or the physical environment that surrounds (influences and is utilized by) a species population.
  • Ecological niche – The relational position of a species or population in its ecosystem to each other
  • Cold-blooded (ectothermic or poikilothermic) – Organisms whose internal temperatures vary, often matching the ambient temperature of the immediate environment.
  • Temperate – In geography, temperate or tepid latitudes of the globe that lie between the tropics and the polar circles. The changes in these regions between summer and winter are generally mild, rather than extreme hot or cold.

Guiding Questions


  • Have you ever taken your body temperature with a thermometer? Do you remember what it was?
  • Does anybody like to eat fish?

Prior Knowledge

  • How do you think fish might be affected by a changing global climate?
  • Do you think fish are warm-blooded or cold-blooded?
  • Can you name some fish which you would consider cold-water, warm-water, or temperate species? (Fish seen while on vacation in Florida or the Caribbean vs. fish near Maine)

Steps of the Learning Cycle (as it pertains to this activity):

  1. Invitation – Talk about internal human temperature using a body thermometer as a tool; introduce concept of “cold-blooded”; discuss the various ocean habitats in terms of temperature (warm-water, cold-water) and ask them to think of how some species they know might be categorized; ask participants to think about/predict what might occur to fishes if the oceans were too warm.
  2. Exploration – Participate in the “Warming Oceans, Swimming Fishes” game
  3. Invention – An extension of the exploration phase, constructing a histogram of the fish distributions before and after the warming events will begin concept invention.
  4. Application – Ask questions to determine if learners can describe the consequences of warming oceans on any fish species or other types of organisms they know based on what they’ve learned.
  5. Reflection – Ask learners if they think global climate change can be a “local” event


  • Large tarp
  • Duck tape
  • Flip Chart – to help explain rules, provides the visualization of the game board to show participants the different rounds of play with the accompanying “sea surface temperatures”
  • Fish Playing Cards (representing red, yellow, and blue-type species)
  • Sea surface temperature map (as example)
  • Swedish fish candy (to be used as prizes for the winners of the game)
  • Ocean Home Activity Explanation (optional follow-up slides)

Set-up Procedure

  1. Use table to place activity props (such as fish cards, fish photos, sea-surface temperature maps, candy, etc.)
  2. Lay out large tarp with subdivided squares in front of table

Activity Description

Students are going to play a game where they act out the role of a fish. For concept exploration and as a broad question to unpack misconceptions, ask if they have ever taken their temperature. Then ask them to explain how a human and fishes internal body temperature differ. Use these analogies to build the concept that fishes are poikilothermic (“cold-blooded”) animals that cannot self-regulate their internal body temperature and must consciously choose environments that are within their preferred temperature range.

Once these concepts are discussed, ask them to describe the different temperature environments that fish might live (cold-water, warm-water, tropical) and if they can think of any fish species that might live there.

Finally, we will ask the participants to hypothesize about what would happen if ocean temperatures were too warm and ask further questions to gain more specifics into their understanding (i.e. “Will fish move northward, southward, or stay in the same general area if the ocean temperatures shift?”)

The tarp that is in front of the table will be divided into a 9×4 grid. The nine numbered rows represent different temperature regimes and represent “southern” (lower numbers) and “northern” (higher numbers) waters. The lettered columns will denote the paths that players must move in during their turns. There can be a total of twelve players and a minimum of six players.

Before the game officially starts, each player must randomly select a card which will assign them to be a certain type of species (warm water, cold water, temperate)- the “type” of species it is will be denoted on the card. On each card there will also be colors representing at least two temperatures that the species needs to live in order to survive, a photograph, the common and scientific name, a “fun-fact” for each species, and the starting position on the board. Each player holds their card throughout the game for reference.

Logically, the northern-type species will start near the top of the board, the southern near the bottom, and the temperate in the middle. The participants will use a stylized drawing of the tarp on the flip chart sheets to see what temperature their current rows are. These temperature regimes will be predetermined and previously prepared by the facilitators.

The directions and rules are as follows:

  • Use the Ocean Home Activity PowerPoint to walk through the activity with the students.
  • During each round (representing ten years time), the temperature regime will change- the first decade represented will be 2000 and will continue to 2100 or until all players are eliminated, whichever comes first.
  • The initial “starting” map shown on the flip chart will represent ocean temperatures where all fish species can survive.
  • Each player can only stay in a cell for two consecutive rounds.
  • There can only be one person in a cell at a time.
  • During a change in temperature, if a player is found within a row with a color that is not on their playing card, they are eliminated.
  • Before each new round begins, the facilitator will check to see who has been eliminated and ask them to leave the board.
  • At the end of ten rounds, the players still remaining will win the game.

Because the temperature regimes are predetermined, there will be a general northward shift in the distribution of the remaining species regardless of their original starting positions. As current predictions show, there will be an overall warming trend throughout the 100 years (10 rounds) of the game, but one round will show a cooler decade than the others. As a possible scenario to create this cooling trend, we are pretending that a volcano erupted in Alaska and temporarily changed the climate of the planet.

To relate back to the original discussion, we will ask the participants what they see in final distribution of the players on the board. Ideally, the graph will show a distinct northward shift in the numbers of fish on the board as time progressed and the oceans became warmer.

As a check for their conceptual understanding and as part of the application and reflection of the activity, we will discuss what this trend may do for our current fisheries and ask what other types of organisms will be affected by this change in global climate. Discussion of other human factors climate change’s influence on fisheries can also be addressed. To reflect on the concepts, we will see if the players have changed their perception of what “global” climate change means to them. To do this, we will lead discussion on whether they think climate change will also influence their “local” life- especially in terms of the concepts, like fisheries, they have just been introduced to.

Check for Understanding/Reflection

  • Are there any fish species you know that might be affected by global warming? How do you think they will be affected?
  • What other organisms, besides fish, might be affected by a changing climate
  • Can global warming be a “local” event and cause “local” change?
  • What other problems are exacerbating our current fisheries besides global warming?  Here is where we can discuss other human-induced issues such as overfishing, habitat degradation/destruction, and invasive species.

Learners should also come in with a reasonable understanding of climate change issues. The goal of our activity is not to promote the idea that climate change is a result of human activity; rather, we would like to spend our time developing their understanding of one of the many indirect effects of ocean temperature changes.

Background and Additional Resources

Parts of this activity were created in conjunction with Katie Gardner, an Educator at Liberty Science Center (Jersey City, NJ), and based partly off a similar activity developed by her titled “Survivor: Open Ocean- Habitat Changes and Fish Migration.” Other resources used in learning, developing, and promoting the concepts in this game included:

  • Cheung, William W.L. et al. (2009). Projecting global marine biodiversity impacts under climate change scenarios. Fish and Fisheries, v.10 i. 3 pp. 235-251.
  • Cheung, W., V. Lam, J. Sarmiento, K. Kearney, R. Watson, and D. Pauly. The capacity and likelihood of climate change adaptation in the world’s fisheries. Fish and Fisheries. February 13, 2008
  • Conover, D.O. Effects of climate changes on fisheries. Written testimony from congressional hearing: Effects of climate change and ocean acidification on living marine resources. May 10, 2007
  • Moyle, P.B. and J.J. Cech, Jr. Fishes: an introduction to ichthyology. 4th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000.
  • Rothschild, B.J. “How bountiful are fisheries?” Consequences. 2.1 (1996)
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s “Common Misconceptions about Abrupt Climate Change

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2 Responses to Ocean Home – Swimming Fishes

  1. Laura Dunbar October 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm #

    I was excited about using this activity with my students, so I actually jumped right in and had them do it on the 1st day of school (I had these same students last year, so I didn’t need to set my routine with them). Working through it, I found that 10 rounds was a little too long. I might try to cut it back to 7 rounds next year. Also, my spatially-challenged students had trouble understanding the temperature changes ~ they couldn’t transfer what they saw on the whiteboard to the gameboard on the floor. One of my students came up with the idea of also using colored construction paper to place at either end of each row of the gameboard to show the water temperature for that row. Overall, it was a great introduction to using color to represent temperature. When we moved on to looking at SST maps and discussing how the ocean temperaturs change with the seasons, they all understood.


  1. Swimming Fishes Game « NEwswave - September 21, 2009

    […] Swimming Fishes Game Posted on September 21, 2009 by neosec COSEE-NOW presents Swimming Fishes, a human-sized board game appropriate for 10-15 year olds, that demonstrates how changes in water temperature may affect fisheries distribution. Visit Swimming Fishes […]

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