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Quebec Bulletin
February - March 2013/Volume 16/Number 1

Science at DFO
Adapting to Climate Change

Floating ice

We can no longer ignore the effects of climate change or the potential implications for the health of aquatic ecosystems. That said, the issue raises significant questions about the impacts on coastal communities and economies, particularly with respect to fishing, commercial navigation and tourism.

Although the overall aspects of climate change are increasingly well understood, there is currently too little documented scientific knowledge about specific aspects to enable governments and industry to comprehend all the implications. Certain activities will have to be adjusted to deal with new realities such as variations in water levels due to ice melting or altered distribution of fishery resources linked to changes in water temperature.

In 2011, Fisheries and Oceans Canada launched the Aquatic Climate Change Adaptation Services Program (ACCASP). Its objective is to support the research and development required to better integrate climate change considerations into departmental policies and decision making. This five-year program (to 2016) has three interrelated components:

1) Assessing climate change risks
Risk assessments were conducted in 2011 for four large Canadian aquatic basins: the Northeast Pacific basin, the Northwest Atlantic basin (including the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Estuary), the Canadian Arctic basin (including Hudson’s Bay) and the Central Freshwater Ecosystems basins (Prairies and Great Lakes). The assessments dealt with six risk factors associated with the Department’s various mandates:

  • Degradation of ecosystems and fishery resources;
  • Changes in biological resources;
  • Reorganization and movement of species;
  • Increased demand for emergency response;
  • Deterioration of infrastructure;
  • Changes in the accessibility and navigability of waterways.

Assessment of these risk factors is based on two syntheses of scientific information. The first deals with climate trends and projections for the affected aquatic ecosystems. It considers the historical data available and climate change modelling from the activities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Department’s regional modelling initiatives. The second synthesis assesses the impacts, vulnerabilities and possibilities resulting from climate change for aquatic species and the Department’s activities (infrastructure, navigation, emergency response). It considers the climate trends and projections from the first synthesis. A third assessment of socio-economic aspects is underway and is based on the scientific information from the first two assessments. These three documents will foster discussion at risk assessment workshops to be held during the winter of 2013 for the four large aquatic basins.

2) Understanding the impacts of climate change
Research projects are underway to deal with knowledge gaps concerning the impacts of climate change. The research is based in part on knowledge gaps identified in the course of the risk assessments but also on certain significant concerns. This is the case in particular for the Arctic, where major climate changes have been observed over the last few years. In the St. Lawrence marine ecosystem, research is being conducted in Quebec on the impacts of the acidification of the Laurentian channel’s deep waters; of the Laurentian channel; modelling impacts on physical processes and the production of phytoplankton; cod exposure to a lack of oxygen (hypoxia); and long-term trends in storm surges.

3) Developing tools for adapting to climate change
There will be a growing focus in 2013 and subsequent years on the development of climate change adaptation tools that can be integrated into departmental management and decision making. These tools will draw on new scientific knowledge and identify concerns with the highest risks. This will make it easier to target the needs for long-term adaptation in various programs. Two projects were created in Quebec in 2011: tools to assess waves and extreme water levels, and a tool for consulting, viewing and downloading a high-resolution relief chart to support the assessment of problems in coastal zones (erosion, wave propagation, storm surges, etc.) under conditions of climate change.

Seizing the opportunity

The results of the ACCASP will foster the integration of physical, chemical and biological changes in aquatic ecosystems into the Department’s activities. The strategy should prompt changes in DFO’s approaches to its management activities and long-term planning. It will ensure better support for the economic development of the industry and coastal communities that depend on Canada’s aquatic ecosystems. The program could ultimately make it possible to benefit from new development opportunities as climate change should not be seen as only negative, especially over the long term. Certain changes could promote the development of new sectors of activity or the expansion of current activities, thereby tempering some of the negative impacts.

Michel Gilbert
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