Climate change could cut First Nations fisheries’ catch in half by 2050

Climate change is threatening to reduce First Nations fisheries’ catch by nearly 50% by 2050, according to a new study on the impact of climate change to the food and economic security of indigenous communities along coastal British Columbia, Canada.

The study, conducted by a research team of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and released last month, predicts that the wild salmon and herring the First Nations tribes use for food, ceremonies and trade will swim north with dozens of other species as the climate changes, the waters off the coast of British Columbia warm and the fish pursue colder areas. According to the report, half of these communities’ fisheries will be lost by 2050 unless global carbon emissions are mitigated and the pace of warming slowed. (Washington Post, Jan. 13)

“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. This could have large implications for communities who have been harvesting these fish and shellfish for millennia,” said Lauren Weatherdon, who conducted the study as a graduate student at the university. (Science Daily, Washington Post, Jan. 13) The study finds that coastal First Nations communities could suffer economic losses between 6.7 and 12 million Canadian dollars annually by 2050, the Science Daily reported.

Although many studies examine the impact of climate change on large commercial fisheries, few focus on indigenous communities, according to the Science Daily. The study was supported by the Nippon Foundation in Japan.

If First Nations fisheries’ catch as sharply as the study warns, it will become difficult for these native people to maintain ceremonies and traditional lifestyle as well as their life and economy. They usually do not move north out from their traditional territories when fishing for food, social and ceremonial purposes, to chase salmon, herring and other fish because they are moving north as water temperature rises. This poses serious problems, they study team has said.

The latest study focused on 16 of the 78 First Nations along the north Pacific coast, out of Canada’s 617 indigenous tribes. First Nations tribes are descendants of native people who lived in Canada thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Like Native Americans in the United States, they were mislabeled as Indians by explorers who mistook the New World for India. Those along the coast live off the ocean, and fish they harvest animate their religious customs and traditions. (Washington Post, Jan. 13)

Some 540,000 are registered as Canadian Indians, accounting nearly 1.8% of the Canadian population. Of them, 55% live in reserves, specially designated for the indigenous people, according to the Canadian government information Website.

The researchers modelled how climate change is likely to affect 98 culturally and commercially important fish and shellfish species between 2000 and 2050, and examined the impact of changes in ocean conditions such as temperature and oxygen levels on habitat suitability for these species. The researchers found that most of the 98 species would be affected by climate change, and 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 kilometers per decade when water temperature rises between 0.5 and 1 degree C. (Science Daily, Jan. 13)

The study also found that while southern communities are likely to be most severely affected, all communities are likely to suffer declines in traditional resources including decreases in catch by up to 29% for species of salmon and up to 49% for herring by 2050. It projects that the C$28 million to C$36 million in revenue the tribes derived from fishing between 2001 and 2010 would fall by up to 90% depending on whether future greenhouse gas emissions are low or high. (Science Daily, Washington Post, Jan. 13)

The same Washington Post article reported: “Last year, an estimated quarter-million salmon – more than half of the spring spawning run up the Columbia River – perished as a result of diseases in water that warmed during their migration to and from the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound. Cool streams in the river basin were 13 degrees warmer than the 60 degrees preferred by salmon when N. Kathryn Brigham, chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore., and state officials expressed alarm in July.”

Climate change is affecting people’s lives in many various ways in Canada, as well as globally. It seems that in Canada, indigenous peoples are always among those who are affected most seriously by climate change as various other cases of effects of global warming are reported such as the one in which native people are forced to relocate because of rising water levels from melting glaciers.


By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, Senior Consultant, TOCS

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