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Climate Change Threatens Coastal British Columbia First Nations Fishing Traditions

A new study says climate change threatens fishing traditions that have sustained First Nations along Canada’s Pacific coast for thousands of years.

“Climate change is likely to lead to declines in herring and salmon, which are among the most important species commercially, culturally, and nutritionally for First Nations,” said Lauren Weatherdon, who conducted the study when she was a UBC graduate student and is now a researcher at United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. “This could have large implications for communities who have been harvesting these fish and shellfish for millennia.”

The study examined the threat posed by climate change to the cultural, economic and food security of indigenous communities along coastal British Columbia. It found that climate change could reduce fish species such herring and salmon by up to 50 percent by 2050. And that “coastal First Nations communities could suffer economic losses between $6.7 and $12 million annually by 2050.”

The study, entitled Projected Scenarios for Coastal First Nations’ Fisheries Catch Potential under Climate Change: Management Challenges and Opportunities, was published by the journal PLOS ONE earlier this week. It was conducted by scientists at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.

According to press release issued by UBC:

The researchers modelled how climate change is likely to affect 98 culturally and commercially important fish and shellfish species between 2000 and 2050. The study examined the impact of changes in ocean conditions such as temperature and oxygen levels on habitat suitability for these species under two possible scenarios: a low-emission scenario, where sea surface temperature would increase by 0.5 degrees Celsius, and a high-emission scenario, where sea surface temperature would increase by one degree Celsius in the northeast Pacific by 2050.

The researchers found that most of the 98 species would be affected by climate change. They projected that fish would move away from their current habitats and toward cooler waters nearer the pole at an average rate of 10.3 to 18 kilometres per decade under the low and high emissions scenarios respectively.

While the climate change-induced decline is projected to hit southern communities such as the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth First Nations the hardest, the study found that “all communities are likely to encounter declines in traditional resources including decreases in catch by up to 29 per cent for species of salmon and up to 49 per cent for herring by 2050.”

According to the study, “climate change and the resulting range of biological responses, such as altered species distributions, phenology, physiology, and marine biodiversity, are likely to impact fisheries and the societies that depend upon them. In particular, projected changes in fisheries catch potential could result in, or exacerbate, socio-economic impacts on fisheries through reduced food and economic security…”

The study adds that “unprecedented climate change poses a considerable threat to First Nations’ food and economic security, cultural practices, and spiritual values through fisheries.”

“With unmitigated climate change, current fish habitats are expected to become less suitable for many species that are culturally important for British Columbia’s coastal communities,” said William Cheung, an associate professor at UBC and co-author of the study.

The researchers echoed the argument First Nation and environmentalists have made for decades – that the local and global effort against climate change should accommodate the concerns and proven knowledge of indigenous peoples.

According to the study, “First Nations situated along the Pacific coast of Canada are representative of Indigenous communities whose small-scale subsistence and commercial fishing practices and diversified harvest and storage of marine resources, such as salmon, have played essential roles in the development of their cultural complexity. These Nations have demonstrated exemplary resilience in the face of anthropogenic and environmental change for millennia, having occupied this region for more than 10,000 years. They have therefore attained considerable experience in accommodating environmental change and interpreting ecological indicators and relationships through traditional ecological knowledge.”

“The Paris Agreement acknowledges that our efforts to tackle climate change must reflect the concerns of indigenous people,” said Yoshitaka Ota, a co-author of the report who is leading an initiative to study indigenous fisheries around the world. “However, little is known about the impacts of climate change on coastal indigenous peoples. This study demonstrates the importance of understanding diverse socio-cultural interests.”

Cheung added: “Limiting global warming effectively to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century, as represented by the low emission scenario considered by our study, can substantially reduce such impacts.”

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Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow me on Twitter: @Obiemad

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