Adapting to Climate Change on the Central Coast

With the full research paper published in the journal Ecology and Society, we share insights from CCIRA’s Charlotte Whitney and the Central Coast community members she interviewed about their perceptions and approaches
to climate change.

It’s not difficult to see impacts from climate change throughout the Pacific Coast. Warming ocean temperatures, winter storms of greater intensity and inshore waters that are less oxygenated and more acidic, these extensive changes are affecting marine species in myriad ways, and causing a general shift northward of species in search of new ecological niches.

Added to the devastating impacts of more than a century of resource mismanagement and over-fishing, and ongoing declines in salmon and other species that are vital for our Nations, climate change is an issue that simply cannot be ignored.

But perceiving these changes and adapting to them are two very different things, and there is a wide range of strategies for climate change adaptation—not just across the country but within coastal communities as well. As with resource management in general, Indigenous approaches to the climate crisis have often been overlooked by Crown governments and climate scientists alike. This is especially problematic considering how climate impacts disproportionately threaten First Nations communities, and the fact that Indigenous knowledge keepers possess a place-based understanding of long-term environmental change, passed down over many generations of first-hand observations.

To hear directly from community members about their various perceptions and approaches to climate change impacts on marine systems, Charlotte Whitney—CCIRA’s new Director of Fisheries Management & Science—undertook a comprehensive research project in 2018, which involved interviewing a diverse group of people from Central Coast Nations. Coordinated by Alejandro Frid, CCIRA’s Science Coordinator, the project was a partnership between the University of Victoria and the Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Wuikinuxv First Nations through the stewardship departments and supported by each Nation’s Marine Use Planners.

“At the end of the day, we have to find balance. There’s a very unbalanced ecosystem right now.”

Kelly Brown, Stewardship Director, Heiltsuk Nation

Interview participants had experience in a range of activities related to the marine environment, including commercial fishing, traditional food gathering and preparation, and local governance and management of marine areas. “Virtually all participants shared observations of impacts they attributed to climate change,” says Charlotte. “They described changes in the timing of salmon migration and spawning, rapidly melting glaciers, warmer and drier summers, and changes in river flows—all changes that have affected their way of life.”

Charlotte says the majority of climate impacts have a direct effect on food security and cultural well-being. “Participants anticipated that further climate change would disrupt or decrease the quality of salmon spawning habitat, and reduce access to traditional food harvesting,” she says, adding that many were also concerned about how climate change will affect the ability of Elders to pass on place-based traditional ecological knowledge.

“I think co-management is the way governments have to go… All governments have to learn, if you can listen to First Nations of the world, you’ll be in a better place…”

Wally Webber, Elected & Hereditary Chief, Nuxalk Nation

Several key themes and strategies emerged from the research, including a recognition of the critical importance of self-governance and the need for transformative change in resource management practices, which would support adaptive actions in culturally and socio-ecologically relevant ways. “There was a clear desire for more knowledge sharing within and among communities,” says Charlotte, “and for developing better learning and communication platforms for the Nations to consider climate impacts and develop adaptive strategies.” Many participants said that developing effective strategies for climate change adaptation would only be possible once real, tangible efforts toward reconciliation were implemented from Crown governments. Another shared perspective throughout the interviews noted the reality of First Nations’ resilience and ability to adapt to environmental changes over many centuries—including floods, past climatic shifts and resource decline.

Charlotte says there are great opportunities to build upon the research, especially given the clear call for more communication about climate adaptation strategies in each community. “Many locally-driven climate monitoring and mitigation programs are already underway, including via a team of climate action coordinators hired throughout Coastal First Nations and within the Central Coast,” she says. “One obvious conclusion from this project was that for any proposed climate change adaptation strategies to be effective, they must consider the values, knowledge and perspectives of Central Coast Nations.”

Click here to download the full paper (pdf), authored by Charlotte K. Whitney, Alejandro Frid, Barry K. Edgar, Jennifer Walkus, Peter Siwallace, Iris L. Siwallace and Natalie C. Ban.

Posted by CCIRA