From fish to forests, conflicts to coffee: humans affected by species on the move

by April 1, 2017

A new international study in the prestigious journal Science has highlighted how humans are being affected by climate change-driven changes in the distribution of land, marine and freshwater species around the world. The study reveals for the first time just how extensive and pervasive the effects of these changes are and is a major call to action, from the village level to the international community.

Led by scientists from IMAS and the Centre for Marine Socioecology in Tasmania, Australia, the study explicitly recognises the role of indigenous knowledge in leading ecological restoration initiatives that can build resilience to species shifts and help reduce carbon emissions.

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Global ecological changes identified in the study pose a wide range of emerging challenges for communities and economies from the tropics to the poles. According to lead author IMAS Associate Professor Gretta Pecl, these include:

  • Resources: fish, forests, and crops are at risk as their environments change, with the principal coffee growing regions expected to shift, and valuable timber species such as Norway spruce making way for less valuable warm climate species;
  • Industries: tourism and recreational fishing are jeopardised as corals die, jellyfish infest waters used for recreation, and urchins destroy fish habitats in kelp forests;
  • Conflict: tensions are emerging as species move between economic zones, as with Iceland’s “mackerel wars”, or due to disputes over competing land uses;
  • Health: threats such as malaria are becoming more prevalent as rising temperatures allow the poleward spread of mosquitos into regions where people have not had prior exposure;
  • Indigenous culture: changes in distribution of fish and reindeer are impacting food security and traditional knowledge systems of Arctic peoples.

“Previous studies have shown that land based species are moving polewards by an average of 17 km per decade, and marine species by 72 km per decade. Our study demonstrates how these changes are affecting worldwide ecosystems and human health and culture in the process. While some species favour a warmer climate and are becoming more abundant, many others that humans exploit or interact with face depletion or extinction.”

“Human survival depends on other life on earth so the redistribution of the planet’s living organisms is a substantial challenge for people worldwide,” Assoc Prof Pecl said.

The Arctic is an area of particular concern in the study. With Arctic temperatures recently at 20°C above average and sea ice at its lowest recorded extent, in 2016 authors of the recent Arctic Resilience Report warned that rapid melting of Arctic ice could trigger polar ‘tipping points’ with catastrophic consequences worldwide.

However, as well as being a region of global concern, the new Science study identifies the Arctic as a major inspiration for efforts to curb and build resilience to climate change. In a Science first, the study highlights the work of indigenous Arctic communities such as the Skolt Sami, whose development of cultural indicators based on their traditional knowledge is helping restore the Näätämö River System in northern Finland and Norway. Another region referred to in the study is Kolyma in Siberia, home to iconic reindeer nomadism and an area where permafrost is melting, with global consequences.

Co-author of the new report and Director of the Snowchange Cooperative, Tero Mustonen, says the new study is a call to action for more Indigenous knowledge-led ecosystem restoration:

“For many Indigenous communities, climate change of today results from the past decades, even centuries of industrial uses of lands in their homelands that has caused environmentally negative consequences. Present resilience can be built, as has been demonstrated by the Skolt Sámi in Finland, through locally led efforts of ecological restoration in those areas where it makes sense. Indigenous knowledge has also proven to be a viable method of detecting change, such as arrival of new species to northern locations.”

The new Science article’s recognition of the positive ways scientists and indigenous peoples can partner and share knowledge is a welcome step towards greater collaboration, says Pauliina Feodoroff, President of the Saa’mi Nue’tt cultural organization:

“Most of the things we hear and learn are narratives of how serious the northern climate change is getting. This article and the work connected with it through the Näätämö Collaborative Management Project has allowed us to partner in new ways with scientists to detect changes. Most importantly, this new dialogue contains elements of restoring some of the damages that have already happened, helping to build our resilience. The project and the article demonstrate how exact and relevant our Indigenous Sámi knowledge is in assessing and responding to climate change, in partnership with science.”

Responding the new study’s findings, Mustonen is calling for a moratorium on those Arctic environments and territories where the preservation of carbon sinks can still slow the drastic impacts of climate change.

“Permafrost melt is a global event. Industries, like oil and gas have no role in these regions anymore. This is about global climate risk and climate security. Preservation of these marshmires, old-growth forests and tundra habitats, which have been governed for millennia sustainably by the Sámi and other Indigenous peoples, are our best bet for survival as the Arctic warms. They also contain the endemic species of the North, whose preservation has inherent value,” says Mustonen.

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(Lead) Tero Mustonen, Snowchange Cooperative & Co-author
Phone: +358 40 737 2424

Pauliina Feodoroff, Saa’mi Nue’tt