The Problem Off Our Shore

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jan 26, 2018 2:43 PM
A fisherman moves fish from his boat to the stage (circa 1928). Courtesy of The Rooms (photo A 57-82)

Like his father before him, Ray Dalton is a fisherman. At the age of five he earned his first paycheque catching capelin, which he used to buy hockey equipment and school clothes. Growing up there was nothing Ray wanted more than to go fishing, and that passion hasn’t waned with age.

“Fishing has never really been like work to me. Thank God I was able to make a living out of it,” Ray says from his home in Witless Bay, NL. His life is committed to the fishery, but he isn’t sure where the industry is headed with the threat of climate change hanging over his head. “Our quotas are really diminished now compared to what we used to have. It has a lot to do with climate change. It’s all to do with it actually, I think.”

Fishermen are talking and worrying about climate change, he says. “It’s always coming up. And we see it, like with our crab and our shrimp. Our crab is diminishing every year ’cause the water's getting warm. Crab needs colder water, that’s what they reproduce in. And the water’s got to be a certain temperature and we’re not reaching those temperatures anymore.” He warns,”…if we lose the crab, that’s our fishery…we can’t make it.”

The Newfoundland and Labrador fishery has already faced near devastation. Years of overfishing the prime resource led to the province-wide cod moratorium in 1992, ending 500 years of fishing and putting about 30,000 people out of work. It forced a restructuring of the industry in order to save it. Now the focus is on climate change. 

“Everyone’s trying to figure it out, but I mean it’s just no one really knows because I guess we haven’t dealt with this before,” Ray says. In a province where approximately 5,400 people make their living from the fishery, climate change poses an environmental and economic disaster.

A Looming Threat
The reality of climate change is something that keeps Brett Favaro (pictured below) up at night, and during the day he studies it. He’s a research scientist at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of The Carbon Code: How You Can Become a Climate Change Hero.

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He’s not surprised that fishermen like Ray are worried. “People who live off the land are the first ones to see changes in the land. And it’s such a powerful thing when somebody was a multigenerational fishermen and they’re seeing these problems,” Brett says.

As the ocean heats up the ice melts, which increases the amount of freshwater in the ocean and causes water levels to rise. Warm water also takes up more space, so the ocean is also getting deeper. And through chemical reactions, the ocean is becoming more acidic.

“And that’s bad news if you’re a crab, because crabs, and all crustaceans, have a calcium carbonate exoskeleton,” Brett explains, “Which in English means something that dissolves in acid. So if the water gets more acidic, it gets really hard for them to form their shells. And that’s bad news if you like to eat crab, and it’s really bad news if you’re a fish and you eat crustaceans to survive, because your whole food web is disrupted.”

There’s also deoxygenation to contend with. Fish breathe oxygen like do humans, just with gills instead of lungs. “With climate change, it’s actually sucking the oxygen right out of the ocean,” Brett explains. So fish have to work harder to get that single breath. “They’ll move. They’ll try to find that cold water, right, because…fish aren’t stupid. They aren’t going to sit there and die.

“And that’s bad news if you’re a fisherman, because chances are that thing you were trying to fish is now moving further offshore, it’s moving away. It’s going somewhere other than where it was before.”

And what happens when fish have to work harder to get a breath, or a crab has to work harder to make its shell? The environment is changing faster than it has in the past and these creatures might not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. “Maybe a crab can survive acidification, but can it survive acidification and warming? Can it survive acidification and warming and a lack of oxygen? Can it do all these things while we’re fishing it?” Brett asks. “This is the issue.”

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Ray Dalton and his crew catch crab off the shores of NL. (Courtesy Ray Dalton)

Humans have had a huge impact on the health of the ocean, from the amount of fish that’s been caught to the plastic and carbon that’s ended up in the water. We can’t blame everything on climate change, he explains, but it does mean we have less room for error.

Brett recently wrote The Carbon Code, a guide for how individuals can confront climate change. People can reduce their carbon footprint through actions like eating less meat and biking to work, but he also wants people to talk about it, like telling people how great it is to bike to work and not have to pay car insurance. “You can get excited about this stuff. It’s not about ‘not’ doing things, it’s more about doing things, but doing them better,” Brett says. And it doesn’t have to be super expensive, it can be sound, sensible infrastructure investments that save money, like building houses with more insulation or using LED lights.

“I think just the most important thing here is whatever people are good at, whatever they do, whatever interests them; figure out how you can bring that skill to the climate fight. I don’t care if you write poetry, if you’re an engineer, if you’re a finance person. There’s something you can do better than a lot of other people, and you need to figure out how to bring that in because this is a siege.”

There’s no easy way to combat climate change; it’s going to require a huge societal change, from how we produce our food to transportation to energy production. “These are all things we’re going to have to reexamine if we’re going to make it through the next century with a high standard of living,” Brett says. 

- By Elizabeth Whitten