Dal biologists fish for government support

In the wake of climate change, many tropical schools of fish are migrating northwards to Nova Scotia’s colder waters, causing fishermen to change the way they monitor their catches.

“There are local temporary benefits of the changing water temperatures because there are more fish locally,” says Rebekah Oomen, a Dalhousie University PhD student in biology.

However, with a larger variety of fish, “the ecosystems are becoming unstable and unpredictable,” says Oomen, who is now based in Arendel, Norway, where she is researching Atlantic codfish.

As more fish swim to Nova Scotia, Oomen says it will be difficult to distinguish between areas of overfishing and fish populations on the move.

Using a combination of laboratory experiments and advanced molecular techniques, she aims to identify genes responsible for their different responses to temperature and to better understand how Atlantic codfish, and other marine fishes, are likely to respond to global climate change.

Oomen predicts the province will lose many of the species its fisheries and livelihoods are based upon, such as lobster.

“Nova Scotia is hugely reliant on fishers for its economy. It holds the largest export of fish and seafood in Canada. Fisheries are major drivers of the economy. If the fisheries don’t do well, than Nova Scotia won’t do well.”

Furthermore, she’s unsure how the new types of fish will respond to Nova Scotian temperatures.

The Toronto native is one of several members of the biology department at Dalhousie who are upset with the Canadian government’s lack of funding for climate change research regarding Nova Scotian fish.

“Part of the reason I’m based in Norway is because, for the project I’m working on, we weren’t able to get enough funding from the Canadian government and the usual Canadian funding agencies. We were funded, but at sort of a lower level than we needed.”

Oomen says most of the Canadian government’s current funding goes towards species with commercial value.

Basic scientific research would be fundamental towards sustaining Nova Scotia’s fishing industry, but that’s where the government has been cutting funds.

“I started working on Canadian cod populations and I had hoped to continue that, but it wasn’t possible in this country and in the current sort of science and government atmosphere,” says Oomen.

Jeffrey Hutchings, a biology professor at Dalhousie, says it will be difficult for Canada to adapt to climate change to the extent of other countries, like the United States, who are building scientific frameworks for climate change research.

“What were missing right here in Canada is an overall strategic framework for how we as a society, as fishing communities, as fishing industries, are going to adapt to climate change.”

In the meantime, Oomen says the fishing industry can still take action against the unpredictable nature of climate change.

“While we need to research how to predict some of the outcomes, the main thing we can focus our efforts on is increasing the resiliency of fisheries to whatever changes they may experience.”

She says conserving the genetic diversity within species is crucially important in helping fish adapt to changes in their environment.

Oomen, who spent the past weekend in Ottawa at the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research, encourages the public to check out Evidence for Democracy, a group that makes the public aware of the government cuts to scientific funding.

“It’s important for people to try to learn about these issues and actually know that they can do something about it.

“They can talk to their local MPs and ask what they’re doing to prepare Nova Scotia for the impacts of climate change on their fishes and fisheries, and making these issues of climate change and research funded.”

Rebekah Oomen feeding codfish and collecting their fertilized eggs for an experiment. (Photo: Espen Bierud/contributed)
Rebekah Oomen feeding codfish and collecting their fertilized eggs for an experiment. (Photo: Espen Bierud/contributed)