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How Climate Change Could Decimate Millenia of First Nations Tradition

Study predicts declines in herring and salmon, 'which are among the most important species commercially, culturally, and nutritionally for First Nations'

First Nations salmon fishing at Moricetown, a Wet'suwet'en village in Central British Columbia, Canada. (Photo: Tom/flickr/cc)

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. 

As Larry Pynn writes for Hakai Magazine, "Annual salmon runs are critical to many of B.C.'s aboriginals. Frozen whole, canned, smoked, or dried on wind-blown racks such as those in the semi-arid Fraser Canyon, they provide an economic and nutritional food source lasting all winter. With less salmon, Indigenous communities may have to resort to more expensive and less healthy store-bought foods or turn to other wild foods such as deer with unknown consequences on those populations."

The study makes a strong case for reducing global emissions, said William Cheung, associate professor at UBC and co-author of the study. "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," he said.

"The Paris Agreement acknowledges that our efforts to tackle climate change must reflect the concerns of indigenous people," added Yoshitaka Ota, co-author and policy director at the Nereus Program, an international research team led by scientists at UBC's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and supported by the Nippon Foundation in Japan.

"However, little is known about the impacts of climate change on coastal Indigenous peoples," he said. "This study demonstrates the importance of understanding diverse socio-cultural interests."

The study authors created the following infographic:

Climate change could cut First Nations fisheries’ catch in half

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