Contributed Rainbow trout.

Surviving climate change

New $4.4 million research study to determine which genetic strains of trout have best chance of survival in altered environments.

The impact of climate change on B.C. freshwater fisheries is the subject of a groundbreaking genetic study.

The $4.4 million research study will be carried out over the next four years with a team of natural and social scientists, led by Patricia Schulte, a zoology professor at UBC in Vancouver.

The study is funded in part by Genome BC and Genome Canada along with other stakeholders such as B.C. Freshwater Fisheries Society, federal and provincial government agencies, Pacific Salmon Foundation and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

“In some ways, salmon tend to get all the attention but the freshwater trout fishery in B.C. is very important economically,” said Schulte. “While we often talk about the commercial fishery, the overall impact of the recreational fishery in B.C. is substantially bigger.”

According to a study commissioned by the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. in 2013, the freshwater fishery direct economic impact was $55 million in tax revenues and an overall economic impact measured at $957 million to the province.

Researchers will be fanning out across the province to gather freshwater fish and use genomics tools to assess their genetic diversity with an objective to improve the effectiveness of fish stocking programs and use the genomics science to develop policy recommendations to sustain B.C.’s recreational fisheries.

“Any fisher will tell you that trout in one location are different from trout in another location,” said Schulte. “This study can provide a genetic data backup to what fishers already observe, and quantify the differences in their genetic makeup from one lake or region to another.”

The environment is changing so there is a need to better understand what genetic strains of trout are more adaptable perhaps that others, given that the province currently stocks more than 800 lakes, she noted.

“The climate is beginning to change and will continue in the future. The challenge is to try and get ahead of the problem now rather than waiting until we start to see fish not surviving in lakes like they used to.”

What places trout in trouble due to climate change is a warming temperature of the water and water alkalinity, the capability of water to neutralize acid content. Within the next 50 years, more than 30 per cent of habitat for cold-water fish is projected to be negatively impacted by climate change.

Schulte said while climate change is a politically charged topic these days, she said the science community acknowledges that our environment is changing even as there is public debate as to what exactly is causing it.

“It is being caused by human activity,” she said. “It’s not just because of more CO2 but also our agriculture, forestry and other land use practices that impact our wildlife and fisheries.

“All these things coming together at once are going to impact our environment as we move into the future. We are already seeing that in historic rainfall and snowpack patterns changing.

“My perspective as a biologist and biological scientist, the question we want to address is how do we adapt to these changes and mitigate the impacts. How do we plan for the future so we can maintain a vibrant freshwater fishery for our children and our grandchildren.”

Any stakeholders in the province who wish to be involved in this research can contact Patricia Schulte via email at tschulte@zoology.ubc.ca.

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