The world’s climate is changing at an increasingly rapid rate due to greenhouse gas emissions from human industrial activity and population growth. While these changes are global, the ramifications occur at all scales, and decisions for adaptation must be made. Governments, regions, and communities need to understand what is happening, what knowledge gaps exist, and how they may be able to respond. Coastal regions are unique and especially vulnerable to climate change, and the impacts are diverse and often cumulative. Identifying how these changes are already starting to occur, and could occur in the future, is important for planning appropriate management responses. 

This project was developed in collaboration with the Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP), whose planning region is similar to the geographic area known as the Northern Shelf Bioregion (NSB). This report is intended to be a tool to help guide future research and climate change adaptations in the region, specific to the interests of MaPP. It outlines the current available knowledge on climate change projections with associated impacts, exposure, and risks to the coastal social-ecological system of the ‘MaPP region’, also referred to as the Northern Shelf Bioregion.

This report focuses on climate-associated impacts, exposure, and risks to four key sectors of the coastal social-ecological system in the NSB: 

  1. ecosystems;
  2. fisheries and aquaculture;
  3. human communities;
  4. marine infrastructure.

Key climate change projections for the MaPP region are included based on the literature and expert interviews, with information provided specific to the four MaPP sub-regions where possible given the scale of the data. In particular, we focus on highlighting the differences and similarities among and between the four MaPP sub-regions, if and where feasible given the data available. 

Through this work, we also aimed to identify gaps in knowledge and ongoing adaptation actions that have been implemented in the region, as well as recommend further adaptation actions based on the literature. As well, we include recommendations for future research on climate change impacts, vulnerability (including exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity), and risk, in this region, as well as mention any ongoing and planned climate change research pertaining to the key areas of interest to MaPP to help guide future adaptation work. 

A cluster of red strawberry anenome with clear tendrils sticking out from their circular centers.
Strawberry Anenome


This report is based on an extensive literature review and a series of discussions with experts involved in relevant research within the coastal region of British Columbia. Information was collected within the constraints of the scope, budget, and time for the component of the project. Research and discussions focused on issues of relevance to climate change impacts and adaptation planning in British Columbia, Canada, and specifically the Northern Shelf Bioregion when possible. 

This report is not a comprehensive assessment of climate change impacts in British Columbia’s coastal marine environment, nor does it offer new analyses or model outputs projecting climate impacts within the Northern Shelf Bioregion. Rather, this report focuses on a baseline assessment, or scoping exercise, of known climate impacts and risks to the Northern Shelf Bioregion, in order to determine the strategic next steps that could be taken to address the needs of coastal communities within the Marine Plan Partnership region in terms of climate change adaptation and adaptive capacities. 

The literature in this field is wide ranging and growing rapidly, and much of the work is ongoing or in progress and therefore not published or readily available. Researchers do not tend to share ongoing research or early results prior to publication. Thus, while this report and information is integrally based on available peer reviewed literature and government agency reports (federal and provincial), and informed by the insights offered by several key experts, the baseline information expressed in this report is entirely the responsibility of the authors. 

The carved face of a totem pole. The negative space is unpainted red, and the facial features are painted red and black.
Klemtu Totem | Photo by Doug Neasloss

Climate Change Threats

A breaching humpback whale with only their tail in the water. There is a blue sky and evergreen covered mountain in the distance.
Humpback Whale | Photo by Janie Wray

Global climate change is now widely recognized as the singular greatest threat to the world’s ecosystems, cultures, and economies. Increasing anthropogenic emissions over the past century have changed oceanic conditions, impacted marine ecosystems, and negatively affected the ecosystem services and resources that they provide to human society. The effects of climate change are already being felt within Canada’s economy and communities, with impacts ranging from decreasing air quality, increasing extreme weather events such as flooding, degrading infrastructure from increased weathering, increasing water stress, declining fisheries and agricultural productivity, and a host of associated health effects. The impacts of extreme weather events and increasing temperatures are growing, especially in recent years and for coastal regions. Severe storms, coastal flooding, rising ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification are among the changes that have already been observed, with numerous resulting impacts to coastal social-ecological systems.

So far, international efforts to mitigate climate change by meeting emissions reductions targets have not been successful, and it seems certain that global temperatures will continue to rise. The next few decades will bring increasing impacts and challenges, as global air temperatures are anticipated to increase by 2-5⁰ C by 2100 [1]. 

All economic sectors and communities in Canada will be affected by the impacts of climate change. Coastal regions and remote communities are particularly vulnerable to changes because of their dependence upon marine resources, a high level of exposure to many climate effects, and sometimes low adaptive capacity. However, regional, First Nations, and community governments can be adaptive and are place-based, and therefore are especially well situated to make proactive decisions to manage the risks and associated impacts from climate change. 

This scoping report is aimed at guiding the next steps for research and implementation of climate change adaptation strategies for the MaPP region (Figure 1) of coastal British Columbia, Canada. 

A subsequent report also authored in 2018 by Conger and Whitney reviews existing frameworks and tools for carrying out vulnerability and risk assessments. It includes strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to applying existing vulnerability and risk assessment frameworks and tools to the MaPP region.  

The Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast

A group of Steller sea lions sits on a rock outcropping on the coast on a sunny day, with mountains in the background.
Steller sea lion | Photo by Scott Harris

Through the Marine Planning Partnership, now Marine Plan Partnership (MaPP), provincial and First Nations governments in BC are working towards sustainable development, improving economic opportunity, and supporting ecological integrity for the North Pacific Coast. This collaborative government to government partnership is an agreement between the Province of British Columbia (BC) and 17 member First Nations represented by the Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative, Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance, the Council of Haida Nation, the Nanwakolas Council, and the North Coast-Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society. 

Marine planning through MaPP started in 2011, and four sub-regional marine plans for the North Coast, the Central Coast, North Vancouver Island, and Haida Gwaii were completed in the spring of 2015. Together, these sub-regions make up the MaPP region, which aligns with the Northern Shelf Bioregion (NSB; Figure 1). Subsequent to the development of the sub-regional marine plans, MaPP produced the Regional Action Framework (RAF) in 2016 to establish regional MaPP actions that are best implemented at a regional scale and also support sub-regional strategies. As part of its planning work, MaPP Partners also completed a series of current conditions and trends reports for the four sub-regions.

Ecosystem Based Management (EBM) is the ‘foundation’ of the MaPP sub-regional plans and the RAF. EBM is a framework that aims to define management strategies for entire systems, rather than managing for individual components, and, importantly, recognizes humans as an explicit component of that system. The MaPP EBM framework was developed by federal, provincial, and First Nations governments in collaboration with stakeholders through the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA) initiative [2]. In the context of MaPP, the marine EBM framework seeks an adaptive approach to management that ensures the co-existence of functioning ecosystems and human communities. 

For the MaPP EBM recommendations to be successfully implemented across the region, it is important to consider both the short and long-term effects of climate change. Currently, the MaPP RAF has outlined actions that support monitoring, risk assessment, blue carbon sequestration, education, and public awareness of climate change. Each sub-region has also identified particular objectives and strategies for adaptation to climate change.


Figure 1: The MaPP region (i.e. the Northern Shelf Bioregion), showing the boundaries of the four sub-regions and main communities. The sub-regional boundaries follow the Northern Shelf Bioregion boundary, except for a small area near the western tip of North Vancouver Island.

Social-Ecological Context and Management: BC and the Northern Shelf Bioregion

In BC, the productive coastal marine food web supports rich First Nations and non-First Nations communities, cultures, and economies. Human communities have lived in this region for thousands of years, supported by abundant terrestrial and marine ecosystems and resources. These also shaped human socio-cultural values, as exhibited by the close co-existence that First Nations cultures have with the landscape and the place-based stewardship that still exists today, despite the modern history of colonization.  

The BC coast is managed at a range of scales including bioregions, eco-sections, and habitats [3]. The four bioregions include: 1) Offshore Pacific; 2) Northern Shelf; 3) Southern Shelf; and 4) Strait of Georgia [3]. This report focuses on the MaPP planning region, which is largely the same region as the NSB, with some exceptions (Figure 1). The NSB is one of Canada’s five Large Ocean Management Areas (LOMAs) that are used to implement Canada’s Oceans Act and is the focus of ongoing initiatives for marine resource and marine conservation planning in BC. The NSB assumes the same footprint as the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (PNCIMA)[2]. Existing and ongoing research in the NSB has fewer research initiatives than the other southern bioregions in BC [4], but the combination of ongoing management and planning in the NSB suggest that this could change. 

Ecologically speaking, Canada’s Pacific coast is a highly dynamic and complex transition zone where three large ocean currents converge: the upwelling (southward flowing) California Current, the down welling (northward flowing) Alaska Coastal Current, and the eastward flowing North Pacific Current (Figure 2). In addition, the California Undercurrent transports warm ocean waters from the tropical latitudes to intersect with southern Vancouver Island, and a wind driven coastal countercurrent – the Davidson Current – flows seasonally northwards into BC waters from Mexico [5]. These currents are important drivers of marine nutrient richness and ecological diversity in BC’s waters. 

Recent summaries of the ecological status of the marine coastal system of BC emphasize that the ecological complexity and diverse species dynamics within the region are supported by high primary productivity and highly variable oceanography, hydrology, and geomorphology [5,6]. Ecological productivity in the NSB is driven by upwelling and down-welling patterns that vary seasonally and episodically; variable seasonal patterns of freshwater and tidal mixing also affect oceanographic conditions. Regional bathymetry also affects marine ecological conditions, as deep-water troughs and canyons separate shallow banks in the center of Hecate Strait [5]. Oceanographic conditions are also influenced by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The El Niño phase of the ENSO tends to enhance the flows of southern warm currents that tend to correlate with the arrival of southern tropical marine species in these waters [5,7,8]. El Niño also affects the natural variability in air temperature in BC, and year-to-year and decade-to-decade variability in climate and weather across the province may mask observations of long-term climate change during some periods and in some regions [9,10]. The PDO is a long-term pattern of Pacific climate variability that affects oceanographic conditions across the Northeast Pacific. The variation in the PDO (warm/cool) patterns can affect the region for a decade or longer. 

Along the coast of BC, ocean water temperatures are warming, and nearshore waters are becoming less salty, less oxygenated, and more acidic (a chemical process resulting from them becoming enriched in carbon dioxide) [11]. These changes are contributing to biological changes such as shifting species distributions [12,13]. In order to understand and anticipate climate change impacts, a range of modeling approaches have been used to characterize and predict ecological and biological responses along the BC coast and the surrounding marine area. Research focused on and within the NSB has included descriptions of the ecological communities and context, trophodynamic modeling, and the effects of climate change on fisheries and ecosystems [14–20].


Figure 2: Coastal region of British Columbia showing the main current patterns and ocean dynamics. From Okey et al. 2014, “Effects of climate change on Canada’s Pacific marine ecosystems: A summary of scientific knowledge.”
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