How Climate Change Could Decimate Millenia of First Nations Tradition

October 6, 2020 0 By HearthstoneYarns

Climate change poses a significant threat to the fisheries that have sustained First Nations communities along Canada’s Pacific coast for thousands of years, according to a new study published Wednesday. 

The paper, published in PLOS ONE, projects that the First Nations fisheries’ catch could decline by nearly 50 percent by 2050, decimating a traditional food resource and leading to economic losses up to $12 million. 

“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 University of British Columbia (UBC) graduate student. “This could have large implications for communities who have been harvesting these fish and shellfish for millennia.”

To assess how climate change—specifically, a warming ocean—is likely to affect 98 culturally and commercially important fish and shellfish species between 2000 and 2050, the researchers modeled 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.

They found that under both scenarios, the vast majority of species (87 of 98) would move away from their current habitats and toward cooler waters nearer the pole at a rate of six to 11 miles a year between now and the middle of the century. The research team found that while southern communities such as those of the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth First Nations are likely to be most severely affected, the decline would affect all communities in traditional resources, including decreases in catch by up to 29 percent for species of wild salmon and up to 49 percent for herring.

The study notes that while many studies have examined the impact of climate change on large commercial fisheries, few have yet focused on indigenous communities. Yet such fisheries, it continues, “are of critical importance to food security and poverty alleviation worldwide.”

And for Indigenous populations, the changes can be particularly impactful, said Weatherdon. “The shifts in the distributions of these stocks are quite important because First Nations are generally confined to their traditional territories when fishing for food, social, and ceremonial purposes,” she explained. 

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