The National Wildlife Federation just released a major report this week on the challenges our fresh water fish are having with Climate Change. Here’s their opening argument:
Changing climate poses new risks for our treasured freshwater fish resources. Warming waters mean lost habitat for cold-water species, the likely encroachment of species typically found in warmer areas, and exacerbation of existing stressors such as habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, and disease. More extreme weather events—especially longer and more intense droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and floods—mean increased likelihood of fish mortality. Shorter winters with less snow and ice cover mean shifts in stream flow and water availability through the spring and summer months, as well as lost opportunities for ice fishing. (Page 1, Swimming Upstream |Fresh Water Fish in a Warming World |National Wildlife Federation
Trout fishing is a major recreational activity in New York that constitutes a large part of our economy. Last year in New York, freshwater anglers spent $1,212,000 and freshwater fishing expenditures amounted to $895,763,000. (Page 2, Ibid.) Without long-term planning, we are not going to be able to save cold water fish—unless we are willing to refrigerate large sections of our lakes and streams. Long before we get to that unfeasible point, we’ll have decided to cut our losses. What’s more frightening is that, like the polar bear in an ice-free Arctic, cold water fish in New York State may already be doomed because we did not act to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change long ago. Because of the nature of greenhouse gases (GHG’s), especially carbon dioxide, they will continue to blanket our planet for decades to come, making a lot of warming inevitable even if we stopped putting them in our atmosphere right now.
To save trout and many other wildlife species (some of which we need to retain a healthy ecosystem, not just a healthy fishing environment), we will have to mitigate Climate Change. That means not only bringing down the concentration of GHG’s in our atmosphere, but bringing down the temperatures by reversing this heating trend. We’ll need to increase stream cover to cool streams and rivers by planting more shade trees. That will also increase stream bank stability and stop soil drainage during flooding events that will be coming more often.
Coldwater fish in many New York streams and shallow lakes currently require coldwater refuges provided by shaded stream banks, upwelling groundwater, and lakes with sufficient depth to stratify (maintain a stable zone of cold water) during summer. Any reduced availability of these refuges during warm summer conditions will reduce the future distribution and abundance of coldwater fish in New York (Page 183, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID) (November 2011)
We’ll need the collected public will to remove damns that block the fish’s ability to move to cooler places in our streams and rivers. We’ll have to figure out how to sustain insect populations that trout eat—but we hate. Some brainy soul will have to figure out how to keep fish eggs from getting battered about because of the loss of protective ice covering. (Sorry, we can’t wait to evolve a warm-water trout, it would take too long.) And, we’ll need to decrease other stresses on fish populations by stopping fertilizer runoffs, improving filtering of storm and sewage drains, stop pesticides and herbicides from poisoning aquatic wildlife, and decrease water withdrawals, as less water mean it’s easier for water to warm up. All this is going to take a lot of public education and money.
Some of the challenges that reports on wildlife and Climate Change don’t mention are these media unmentionables: How much of our public efforts and money to save wildlife during Climate Change will be gobbled up by fighting the pesticide, herbicide, and fossil fuel companies—that treat our water bodies as their toilets? How much of our money will have to be spent fighting the climate deniers in public office and mainstream media?
Some may already be thinking (to themselves, at least) “Oh brother, I don’t even like fishing and hunting, all this is going to cost too much.” But, as is the case with Climate Change, it’s not just about fish. It’s about everything. The federal agency that protects our wildlife gets it, “It is worth noting that climate change is not a new mission; it is the lens through which we must accomplish the mission we already have.” (Page 13, Rising to the Urgent Challenge| Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service‘s mission “to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people” cannot be accomplished without a substantial proportion of our population behind them. It took thousands of years for trout to evolve in the pristine, frigid rivers created by our glacial waters and if we wish to keep them around we, not just those who love fishing, must get around the forces trying to stop the rest of us from stopping Climate Change. Getting the information packed in climate studies to a media unencumbered by climate denial, one capable of efficiently and cheaply passing on critical information in the public interest, would be a good start.
To fully address Climate Change, we would have to plan in such a way that we anticipate all environmental cause and effect relationships during an incredibly fast warming. Each day that passes that we don’t stop Climate Change is another step past a tipping point in saving some species or our chances to actually adapt to the future.
Some final thoughts about trout or any New York State wildlife species: What wildlife do we actually need to maintain our environment—as it warms? What species will we have to say goodbye to because we were too short-sighted to see their demise long ago?