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Climate change impacts on our oceans forcing marine species out of their homes


An article recently published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper here in Australia reported that “…the giant kelp jungles in the waters off south-east Australia are gravely threatened by climate change…”. The situation is now so serious, with some kelp forests in Tasmania reduced by 95%, that the Australian environment Minister has listed the entire ecological community of kelp forests as endangered under federal environment law.

This situation has arisen because the East Australian Current has strengthened as a result of climate change, leading to an unprecedented warming of southern waters, and forcing many marine species to go further south in search of colder waters. With kelp forests only found in small parts of southeast Australia, the kelp doesn’t really have anywhere else to go as the water temperature rises.

When I read this article, I immediately thought of the rich kelp forests of the British Columbia coast that support an incredible diversity of marine life – from sea otters to long-lived rockfish, and many different invertebrates like crabs and abalone. I can’t imagine what our Pacific Coast would be like without these underwater “rainforests of the ocean”.

A recent report jointly prepared by CPAWS and WWF Canada that was three years in the making has painted a picture of what Canada’s Pacific coast could look like as climate change intensifies. While we have not yet experienced the kind of dramatic changes being observed in Australia, all the signs point to similar future issues. We are already seeing many southern species move north, such as sardines and Humboldt squid. The iconic Pacific salmon of the B.C. coast are also shifting north, in the search for colder waters.

In Australia, the listing of the kelp forests as endangered will help to protect them by placing restrictions on other activities that can exacerbate the impacts of climate change, such as overfishing and land uses that cause siltation into the forests. By reducing the vulnerability of the kelp forests to these other impacts, the hope is that they will have a better chance of surviving.

In Canada, we must also look at various measures to reduce the vulnerability of marine species and habitats that will be affected by climate change. These measures include reducing pressures from a variety of human activities, and ensuring that we have a network of marine protected areas on the coast that protects refugia for fish and other species.

We can learn a lot from Australia and their recent announcement to establish a national network of marine protected areas that will amount to 36 % of Australian waters protected and 13 % that is totally off limits to all fishing and industrial uses. These areas will help to ensure that marine life has refugia from activities that will undermine the ability of ocean ecosystems to withstand the impacts of climate change.