B.C. coastal First Nations’ intake of essential nutrients will have decreased by 31 per cent come 2050 if climate change mitigation continues as is, university professors from across Canada are projecting.
The projected drop in nutrition is based on the results of a questionnaire that surveyed coastal B.C. First Nations on what seafoods they depend on as part of their diet, along with the results of an ecological model.
The food frequency questionnaire, led by University of Ottawa professor Laurie Chan as part of a national First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study, was completed by 356 coastal First Nation respondents between 2008 and 2009.
The questionnaire determined the top 20 seafoods consumed by the six coastal First Nations that were represented in the study: Sliammon; Namgis; Nuxalk; Skidegate; Kitsumkalum; and Hagwilget.
For example, the questionnaire found that 62 per cent of respondents who said they consume seafood (351 out of the 356) include herring roe in their diet, at an average intake of about three grams per person, per day.
Then in 2016/17, University of British Columbia professor and fish biologist William Cheung developed an ecological model to predict the impact of climate change on the Pacific Northwest fish species cited in the food frequency questionnaire.
The model predicted that all species will decrease in abundance by 2050 relative to 2000, with the exception of kelp greenling.
For example, herring is projected to decrease in abundance by 48.7 per cent if climate change mitigation efforts stay the same as they are now.
Herring is the seafood projected to suffer the second-highest impact, behind shrimp and followed by salmon.
For the study published on Feb. 27, Chan and his colleagues then projected the potential changes in nutrient intakes, replacing the traditional seafoods expected to decrease in abundance with non-traditional foods such as bread, canned tuna and chicken.
All of the projections were published in an article on the peer-reviewed PLOS ONE website.
“It’s not looking good,” said Chan, the corresponding author of the article. “A lot of the good nutrients, like the omega-3 fatty acids, cannot be replaced.”
Even under “strong mitigation,” which Chan characterized as countries cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions rather than keeping them at current levels, projected climate change was still estimated to reduce the intakes of essential nutrients by 21 per cent by the year 2050.
“No countries are committed to cutting back really,” said Chan. “In fact most countries, including the U.S., are increasing emissions still.”
However, Chan said the Feb. 27 article was “really the first crack” at a long-term study.
He said it’s important for them to work with the coastal First Nations to find out if they are actually seeing declines in seafood, and if so, what courses of action they might take.
“We assumed that if people don’t have that fish they can replace it with either bread or chicken or canned tuna. These are the assumptions on this paper, because we had to assume something, not knowing what the reality is, but in reality it’s probably not true,” said Chan.
“Some communities would share fish from other communities for example, or they might buy seafood from elsewhere. We don’t know. Whatever communities’ response, we need to verify and make it more real.”
Chan said that due to funding constraints, they will be continuing to work with four of the six nations that originally participated in the food frequency questionnaire: Sliammon; Namgis; Nuxalk; and Skidegate.
He said he completed a funding proposal in partnership with the four nations and the First Nations Health Authority earlier this month to continue work on the study.
“Now we are working … to try to get information from the four nations and figure out if the harvest, the catch indeed declines as predicted, what might be the consequences in terms of food on the plate and what the communities can do to improve their food security,” Chan said.
“We need to work with the medical officers in the coastal health authorities to see if there’s deterioration of diet quality, then what do we do, because it will impact the health of the people.”
Chan also noted that while the Feb. 27 article projected average impacts on nutrition, in reality some people will be impacted more than others, such as single parents.
“These are the things we need to work out, how food is distributed, who might be more susceptible, who might be at high risk, and then what will the people decide, what programs can we develop to deal with these types of predicted changes,” he said.
Chan said he is hoping to get funding in the summer and restart work on the study in the fall.
“This is very new research and lots of people are very interested in our work, including colleagues from the U.S.,” he said.
“We hope that all the lessons that we learn in British Columbia and probably later on in Washington State can be learned and shared with all the coastal populations around the world.”
Skidegate First Nation is the northernmost nation participating in the study.
While Chan said the southern communities are expected to be impacted more than in the north, Skidegate chief councillor Billy Yovanovich told the Northern View he has seen seafood catch depleting “quite steeply.”
“When I was a kid I used to be up at the Charlotte dock all the time and the herring used to be right in there thick and they’d spawn on the pilings to be about a half of an inch, three quarters of an inch think,” Yovanovich said. “I’ve never since then seen a spawn in on the pilings there.”
Yovanovich said he figures the declines have been due to fishing pressures, but added that “the temperature has gone up substantially from when [he] was a kid.”
“There used to be snow, 2, 3 feet of snow in the winter all the time, extensive, longer winters,” he said, remembering having to pack water because the water lines would freeze. “Now we’re lucky to get just a little skiff during the winter season.”
Yovanovich was not able to comment on the study since he has not participated personally, but he said Skidegate has already started working on some food and nutrition security strategies.
To take advantage of the warmer weather they’re experiencing, he said they’re promoting garden boxes for people to grow their own vegetables and planting community fruit trees.
“There used to be fruit trees all over,” he said. “For whatever reason most of them are gone now, but we’re starting to plant a bunch of fruit trees.”
He said he and his partner got the idea after planting a couple apple trees last year for personal consumption.
“We had a couple dozen apples off of them and we thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good, we should mention this to our table,’” he said. “The table thought it would be a good idea to order some, so we’re planting I think it’s about 80 in our community, so people can have free fruit.”
Yovanovich said they plan to plant the fruit trees this year.