Fish and Fishermen Already Moving to Survive Climate Change
By Amy McDermott
The Inuvialuit and Gwich'in peoples spend their summers fishing off the coast of Canada's Yukon Territory. For generations, they've trekked from towns around the Western Arctic to a spit called Shingle Point, where the Mackenzie River's braided flows spill off North America into the Beaufort Sea. The nutrient-rich waters at the mouth of the Mackenzie are fat with marine fish, drawn in by the brief abundance of Arctic summer. Indigenous families subsist on these fish and other wild resources throughout the warm months.
Arctic peoples still live by seasonal rhythms. Rhythms that are now shifting because of climate change. Fish are moving to new places as the water warms, and changing the timing of their arrival at Shingle Point. In the Canadian Arctic, and elsewhere around the world, fishermen have to change too.
What happens to fish, happens to fishermen. Flux in the ocean is playing out in parallel on land, in the lives of the people who depend on the sea. Both are caught in shifting tides.
The Yukon coast, near Shingle Point. Indigenous people have seen changes here for years. Patrick Potter / Arctic Coastal Dynamics / Flickr
As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, they trap heat like a blanket around Earth. Seawater absorbs the majority of this excess warmth, raising the ocean's temperature, especially near the surface.
Warming water puts fish on the move, said fisheries scientist Johann Bell of the University of Wollongong, Australia, and of Conservation International. Different species prefer different thermal ranges, he said, and some fish are already moving poleward, or into deeper areas, to find more comfortable climes. Changing temperatures can also tweak the timing of big natural events, like spawning.
Off northeast Tasmania, for example, water temperatures are rising fast. As the mercury climbs, some critters are moving in, while others move out. Warmth-loving shellfish, like urchins, have invaded in the last few decades, while the region's economically important rock lobsters have declined.
Climate change is a mixed bag of opportunities and losses for fishermen. They are adapting in a variety of ways as fish relocate to new areas, according to a 2017 study led by ethnoecologist Valentina Savo of Simon Fraser University and the Hakai Institute in British Columbia. Some fishermen catch new species, or diversify into other livelihoods, like farming, she said. Others follow their target species into new waters.
Chasing fish is risky, said systems ecologist Cedar Morton, a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University who coauthored the study. Following stocks into deeper, rougher waters can be dangerous, he said. It's a financial risk too, when fishing takes more time and fuel to go farther from home.
Morton would know. Before becoming a scientist, he was a commercial fisherman in British Columbia, off Vancouver Island. "When we had a storm out there," he said, "sometimes we'd be socked in for three or four days." Stuck in a cove, waiting out the storm, fishermen waste time and resources. "Having that happen more and more starts to have an effect on a fisher's livelihood," Morton said.
Climate change brings wins and losses for fishermen. In Tasmania, rock lobsters declined, and urchins invaded.iStock.com / brytta
On the Horizon
Out at Shingle Point, indigenous fishermen have noticed changes for decades. They've seen more freshwater species, fewer flounders and sculpin and unusual arrival times for some fish in the bay, according to a series of interviews published by the Canadian government in 2016.
"The timing of fish, char has changed since I started coming to Shingle," said one interviewee, who remained anonymous in the study. "Last couple years char is later in the season maybe early August late July."
Changes aren't limited to fish. Eighty percent of people in the study noticed the water getting warmer, and 47 percent said air temperatures seemed hotter too. They saw less sea ice and snow cover over the years, and fewer grazing caribou.
Consequences of climate change are far-reaching, especially in the quickly-warming Arctic. But climate is hardly the biggest problem for fishermen. Overfishing, mismanagement and poor regulation are all larger problems right now, Savo said.
"Many of these communities don't see things separately ... they understand that all these factors are linked together," she explained. Climate change is a bad guy, Savo said, but it's only one of the things affecting fish.
Fish and fishermen are interlaced, like the tributaries of a river weaving toward the sea. They flow together into the vastness of a hotter, less-predictable future.
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
- 9 Super Cool Facts About Sea Turtles - EcoWatch ›
- Sea Turtles Often Get Lost for Miles, but Always Find Their Destination ›
- 100% of Sea Turtles in Global Study Found With Plastics in Their ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The night sky has a special treat in store for stargazers this winter solstice.
- NASA Satellites Enable Scientists to Observe Climate Change ... ›
- Why Scientists Are Searching for Life in 'Alien Oceans' - EcoWatch ›
- To Save Endangered Species, Scientists Point Stargazing Software ... ›
By Dena Jones
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was sued three times this past summer for shirking its responsibility to protect birds from egregious welfare violations and safeguard workers at slaughterhouses from injuries and the spread of the coronavirus.
By Julia Conley
Conservation campaigners on Thursday accused President Donald Trump of taking a "wrecking ball" to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the White House announced plans to move ahead with the sale of drilling leases in the 19 million-acre coastal preserve, despite widespread, bipartisan opposition to oil and gas extraction there.
The Sheenjek River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alexis Bonogofsky / USFWS
- Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Ban Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ›
- Bank of America Promises It Won't Fund Arctic Drilling - EcoWatch ›
- Trump's Drilling Leases on Public Lands Could Lead to 4.7B Metric ... ›
- Trump Administration's Alaska Oil and Gas Lease Sale a 'Major Flop ... ›
- Will Oil Companies Drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ... ›
Hot, dry and windy conditions fueled a wildfire southeast of Los Angeles Thursday that injured two firefighters and forced 25,000 to flee their homes.
- 'Explosive' Southern California Lake Fire Spreads to 10,000 Acres ... ›
- A Gender-Reveal Party Started a Wildfire That Burned Nearly ... ›
- Wildfire in LA Burns 7,000 Acres During Record-Setting Heat Wave ... ›