Nova Scotia

Canadian fishermen feel effects of climate change as world panel sounds alarm bell

The effects of climate change are being felt in the Maritimes' lucrative lobster fishing industry. Warming waters have brought more lobster, but also concerns for the future.

UN-backed report says ocean is warmer, more acidic and less productive

The effects of climate change are being felt in the Maritimes' lucrative lobster fishing industry on many different levels. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

When Stuart Beaton started fishing for lobster in 1971, the ocean waters off the northern coast of Nova Scotia and the marine creatures that lived beneath the waves behaved differently than today.

There is now less ice coverage in the spring, new species have arrived and lobsters are flocking to more northern waters amid rising ocean temperatures. His family, with three generations of lobster fishermen, have watched the changes in real time over half a century.

"In our business, we're very exposed to what happens. If two degrees kills the oceans..." said his son, Gordon Beaton, during an interview on a wharf in Ballantynes Cove, N.S., before his father added: "We're going to be the first to know."

Their comments come as a UN-backed panel of experts released a new study Wednesday about the ocean and the cryosphere — the frozen parts of the planet.

Compiled by more than 100 authors who examined 7,000 scientific publications, the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate emphasized that the ocean is warmer, more acidic and less productive.

It unequivocally warned that if carbon emissions are not slashed, marine life will suffer.

The effects of climate change are being felt in the Maritimes' lucrative lobster fishing industry on many different levels.

Dylan Beaton, left, Gordon Beaton, centre, and Stuart Beaton say their family has watched the ocean off Ballantynes Cove, N.S., change over time. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Stuart Beaton, 73, said during his 19 years of fishing in the '70s and '80s, the start of the spring season was delayed by ice coverage 13 or 14 times, sometimes for as long as 20 days.

But his grandson Dylan Beaton, 27, said the start of the season has been delayed only a couple of times during the seven years he's been fishing.

"The level of ice cover does seem to be lower," the third-generation fisherman said.

Striped bass, in particular, were unheard of here. In 1971, when I was here, nobody knew what a striped bass was. They're very prevalent around here now.- Stuart Beaton, fisherman

Stuart Beaton said warming ocean temperatures are also having an impact on the kinds of species they see in the Northumberland Strait.

"Striped bass, in particular, were unheard of here. In 1971, when I was here, nobody knew what a striped bass was," he said. "They're very prevalent around here now." 

Boris Worm, a professor of marine biology at Halifax's Dalhousie University, studies how climate change impacts the ocean and fisheries in particular. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Boris Worm, a professor of marine biology at Halifax's Dalhousie University, contributed science that was assessed in the new report.

Worm said if the world continues on the current path, there will be 17 per cent less marine life globally on average by the end of the century.

But he said the effects of global warming are manifesting differently in Canada's Atlantic lobster fishery. 

Nova Scotia, for example, is seeing more than average sea level rise, but the warming we see tends to be beneficial for some of the species we're fishing, such as lobster.- Boris Worm, marine biology professor at Dalhousie University

"Nova Scotia, for example, is seeing more than average sea level rise, but the warming we see tends to be beneficial for some of the species we're fishing, such as lobster," he said.

"Lobster, right now, is at a temperature where it's doing really well, and that's partly explaining the great catches that we've seen in recent years."

But he warned that local fishermen are not celebrating, as they watch lobsters move up from New England toward Canadian waters.

"You can anticipate that at some point what is at least in part of our region may get too warm to support large lobster catches," said Worm.

'Winners and losers'

He said there has also been a reduction in bait over the last few decades, such as herring and mackerel, partly because of overfishing but also because of climate change.

Gordon Beaton said that means bait, such as herring and mackerel, is becoming more expensive for fishermen.

"If those kind of bait fish or lower-on-the-food-chain fish can't survive, then the whole thing's over anyway," he said.

He said there were even talks of importing Asian carp from the U.S. to use as lobster bait, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in April that won't be happening right now.

Nova Scotia's lobster exports were $947 million in 2017, accounting for nearly half of all seafood exports from the province that year.

Beaton acknowledged there will be "winners and losers" when it comes to climate change.

For example, he said if the water temperatures off the coast of Newfoundland warm up a degree or two, lobsters may begin moving there in what could be the "future of the lobster industry."

"[If that happens] now all of a sudden it's prime real estate for lobster, where it was the coldest place they could live before," he said. 

"I think the planet is going to be the loser, either way, But short-term or mid-term, you can have those kinds of effects."

The report also showed that while sea level has risen globally by around 15 centimetres during the 20th century, it is currently rising more than twice as fast — 3.6 millimetres per year — and accelerating.

With files from Kayla Hounsell

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