President Obama looks at salmon drying on a rack while meeting with local fishermen and their families in Dillingham, Alaska. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In barely three decades, a new study warns, Canada’s indigenous peoples will face a catastrophic loss in the fisheries that are the lifeblood of their communities and have helped sustain them for more than a millennium.

The study, released Wednesday, 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, authored by researchers at the University of British Columbia and published in PLOS One, half of these communities’ fisheries will be lost by 2050 unless global carbon emissions are mitigated and the pace of temperature change slowed.

“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 as a graduate student at the university. “This could have large implications for communities who have been harvesting these fish and shellfish for millennia.”

Estimates are that marine species will leave native fishing areas at a rate of six to 11 miles a year between now and the middle of the century. The availability of salmon along Canada’s western coast is expected to decline by nearly 20 percent. The study projects that the $28 million to $36 million in revenue the tribes derived from fishing between 2001 and 2010 would fall by up to 90 percent depending on whether future emissions are low or high.

First Nations tribes are descendants of 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.

From Canada’s 617 indigenous tribes, the study focused on 16 of the 78 First Nations along the north Pacific coast. The terrain there is a rich environment with “diverse coastal landscapes… shallow rocky reefs, kelp forests, sandy near shore areas and estuarine ecosystems” that offer complex and extremely productive marine food webs. That includes Pacific halibut, rockfish, flounder, crabs, scallops, clams and shrimp and prawns.

Weatherdon and her team “identified species’ preferences to environmental conditions that are defined by sea water temperature,” the study explains. They measured salinity levels, sea ice concentration and habitat types and looked at how the abundance of fish that preferred the areas was changing. Their projections were based on models drawn from that data.

“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 co-author William Cheung, associate professor at UBC and director of the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program there.


Young salmon are loaded into a floating net suspended on a barge at Mare Island, Calif. Because of the California drought, they were transported by tanker truck from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery and placed on the barge for release in San Pablo Bay. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Noted Weatherdon, who is now a researcher at United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Center, “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.”

Canada’s natives aren’t alone in facing a future without fish. A sustained drought in Oregon and Washington is contributing to the loss of salmon for tribes in those states.

“We’re very worried,” said N. Kathryn Brigham, chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore. The commission helps manage fisheries for the Yakama Nation and the Warm Springs, Nez Perce and the Umatilla tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

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 migrations 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 Brigham and state officials expressed alarm in July.

“The bleakest, most dire outcome is if this drought is sustained for a couple more years like California,” said Greg McMillan, science and conservation director for Oregon’s Deschutes River Alliance. Some salmon populations “could go extinct.”

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