Moving forward: Adaptation

Adaptation involves both proactively preparing for expected climate changes, as well as adjusting to climate change or its impacts after they occur. Minimally, adaptation can serve to moderate the harmful impacts of change, or allow for positive outcomes by taking advantage of new arising opportunities. Both human and natural systems can adapt to climate change and/or to the impacts of climate changes. While natural ecosystems can only adjust to climate changes once they occur, human communities can plan by using climate predictions to anticipate the impacts and benefits of climate change. Successful adaptation actions will mean that the impacts of climate change could be reduced or be less severe than if no adaptations had occurred. For communities, successful adaptation may mean that adaptation strategies allow them to function (economically, socially, built environmentally, and institutionally) even after the disturbances occur.

Effective climate change adaptation requires a strategic stepwise approach that includes identifying climate impacts within the context of the MaPP region. This would include initial assessments of vulnerability and risk in order to prioritize adaptation actions, and an adaptation plan that fits the governance structure and communities at stake. Across Canada, awareness of climate change impacts and the necessity of adaptation planning is increasing [27]. In British Columbia, the provincial Adaptation Strategy [121] aims to prepare the province for the impacts of climate change to the environment and social systems. Under the BC Climate Action Plan, there are a range of actions that are intended to help increase resilience to climate change and reduce vulnerabilities. This adaptation plan is based on three key components: building a strong knowledge base with tools for decision makers to prepare for climate change, incorporating climate adaptation within policy decisions, and improving assessment and implementation of appropriate adaptation actions in especially vulnerable sectors [121]. While these reports and adaptation plans are encouraging and signify a shift in management and governance investment in climate adaptation, there has been until recently far less investment in adaptation research and planning for coastal management and fisheries sectors when compared to terrestrial areas and sectors such as forestry and agriculture [28].

Five full crab traps stacked in two piles on a dock with water and evergreens in the background.
Gitxaala Nation, Crab Fishing | Photo by Jessica Hawryshyn

Current adaptation policies and recommendations for adaptation

The overall goal of climate change adaptation is to reduce vulnerability and risk associated with climate change and its impacts. Adaptation to climate change can be either proactive or reactive. Reactive management includes responses to changes that have already happened, and proactive management prepares for changes before they occur. While acting earlier (more proactively) will generally increase management flexibility, there are also financial costs to implementing adaptation actions [122]. Finding the balance of adaptive and reactive actions to climate impacts and associated risk may be different for different sectors. Adaptation actions can include policy changes, improvements or changes in technology, behavioral or management responses, or adjustments to regulations that affect local and regional decision making: successful adaptation requires a flexible, adaptive management system. Adaptive capacity can be further enhanced or reduced by the governance and decision-making policies at play [123].

In BC, recent efforts to increase community involvement at both local (municipal) and regional scales has resulted in better incorporation of local interests and values in long term planning [25,85,112,121,124]. Local community-based planning has been a key mechanism for community members and stakeholders to evaluate and incorporate climate change effects in order to improve adaptive capacity. However, there are few examples of decision making processes, policies, or institutions that explicitly incorporate or consider climate change impacts within BC [25,125].

Climate change adaptation is a growing focus for the province of BC. Municipal governments have been particularly focused on issues of sea level rise and associated coastal flooding issues. Much of this work is ongoing in southern BC, outside of the MaPP region. Sea level rise and coastal inundation threatens much of low lying Metro Vancouver, where projects including extensive dike systems and sea level adaptation plans are either in place or in process [25]. These projects can serve as examples of potential future work for the communities of the MaPP region, especially as results of implementation become more apparent.

Adaptation to climate change can be either to respond to negative impacts or to generate positive benefits, for example:


  • Adapting to sea level rise by increasing shoreline protection;
  • Adapting to more intense coastal storms by developing emergency response plans.

Negative or positive:

  • Adapting to shifting fisheries species availability by changing fisheries regulations and management plans;
  • Adapting to longer and warmer growing seasons by supporting local agriculture and developing water conservation planning.

Sector level adaptation: Ecosystems, Fisheries and Aquaculture

Climate change impacts on ecosystems are diverse and cumulative. Managing for ecological resilience and adaptation to climate change will require integrative approaches that will also benefit ecological productivity and fisheries. Climate change impacts in the fisheries sector primarily demands management responses to protect or enhance existing fisheries and stocks. However, First Nations fisheries may have fewer options for adaptation, especially given the coast-wide dependence on marine resources for food security and cultural uses [25,67,92]. In these cases, traditional ecological knowledge may offer examples of adaptive strategies to enhance food security and thus community resilience in these systems. As an example, recent research on clam garden mariculture has illuminated the historical importance of First Nations aquaculture on this coast [126,127]. First Nations communities on the BC coast have a long and diverse history of traditional food production practices; learning from these techniques may offer adaptive strategies for communities now and in the future.

Proactive management options aim to increase the resilience of a fishery, fishers, or ecosystem, based on predicting the effects of change. In some cases, reactive management approaches may be suitable or successful given that predictive modeling of future environmental conditions and associated fisheries may be uncertain [122,128,129]. Proactive management for supporting fishery-based economies and coastal communities can support the resilience of fishers and the communities that depend upon fishing. As fish distributions and abundances shift with climate change, fisheries will have to adjust by changing target species, fishing areas, fisheries openings, and processing locations [122,130].

Proactive management approaches for supporting fisheries and ecosystem health

1. Scenario planning to identify management options despite uncertainty. These can be simplistic or highly technical. 
Examples: Descriptive scenarios to identify options for management to move fisheries or add value to fishery products; simulation modeling.

2. Marine reserves/Marine protected areas: Support functional diversity of an area or ecosystem. 
Examples: Protect current and future habitats of protected species, protect core areas of stock distribution through time by modifying reserve boundaries, manage dynamic reserves based on environmental conditions over time, e.g. dynamic ocean management (DOM).

3. Management that promotes adaptive capacity of fish species and populations. Aim to improve or maintain genetic diversity of fish species and populations by reducing stressors, protecting populations with high genetic diversity, or highly tolerant populations (e.g. high temperature tolerance). Avoid targeting populations at the edges of species distribution. 
Examples: Area based fishing closures, increase research on genetic diversity and plasticity of populations.

4. Protect fish population age structure, especially old females to increase population resilience to changing conditions. 
Examples: Increase marine protected areas, use maximum size limits, modify fishing gear to prevent capturing large fish, increase post-release survival, use area-based or temporal fishing closures to limit catching large individuals.

Examples of protection-related adaptation actions include:

  • Reducing fisheries harvest rates;
  • Increasing habitat protection and ecosystem restoration; and
  • Improving regulations to manage fisheries and freshwater rearing systems, which are especially important for salmon species as marine ecosystems [25].

Other sectoral responses may include increasing hatchery production and aquaculture development, although these changes have other ancillary tradeoffs that may not contribute to overall ecosystem health.

Adaptive management techniques for fishers and the fisheries sector include:

  • Diversifying fisheries regulations and harvest licenses before available species change, to allow fisheries and fishers to target new species and exotics as current targeted species decline in abundance or shift northwards [25,122,128].
    Examples: Rights-based fisheries management; community based quota systems.
  • Insure fishers to provide stability to fishers in low income years and decrease overfishing. 
    Example: Analogous to crop insurance. Premium-based regional or federal insurance system to support fishery-based communities.
  • Potentially relocate fisheries infrastructure as major fishing grounds change locations [122].
  • Increase flexibility in the processing and supply chain for fisheries to reduce impacts to local fishing economies when fisheries change rapidly.

Reactive management approaches for fisheries and fishing-based communities include:

1. Flexible and adaptive management systems that reward innovation, coordination, and collaboration between regions and management bodies. Increased monitoring and use of indicators can help to prepare managers and planners as conditions change and management needs shift. 
Example: Dynamic ocean management (DOM): Dynamic spatial closures to adjust fisheries activity based on real-time data on environmental conditions and distribution of fish species.

2. Adjusting fisheries reference points often to reflect changes in species or stock abundance. 
Depends on high quality monitoring data of fisheries and environmental variability.

3. Adjusting fisheries allocations after species distributions or abundances have changed. 
Depends on high quality monitoring and modeling of species distributions and abundances, and clearly defined allocation rules based on indicators of change.

4. Adjusting fishing practices or fishing gear once fish communities change. As fish species distributions and abundances shift in response to climate impacts, fishers could adjust their fishing practices or gear to reduce interactions with non-target stocks or protected species. 
Can have negative tradeoffs based on economic costs, and changes to social structure of communities. Depends on involving fishers early in management discussions.

A cluster of white gooseneck barnacles and black mussels.

Sector level adaptation: Human communities

The front of a wooden long house with four animals (two birds and two mammals) painted in red and black on either side of the door. There is also a wooden sculpture in the center. There is a rocky road in front and a blue sky behind.

In order to build adaptive capacity at the scale of the region and sub-regions, it is important to build on existing programs and attributes. Governments and communities need to remain open to communication and collaboration in order to develop tools and resources to enable regional and sub-regional decision making for effective adaptation action. They need to adopt integrated and adaptive management practices that increase access to and distribution of resources such as allocating roles and responsibilities, distribution of relief goods and provision of relief services; developing early warning and evacuation systems; creating education and awareness programs; and making arrangements for secure shelter and food, and access to health care, education, economic and social resources [75,131–134]. In addition, through adaptive management practices, higher sectoral, institutional, and stakeholder representation can be achieved in decision-making processes [132].

The coastal community context is especially relevant within the MaPP region. Adaptive capacity building at the community level should be supported by national, regional, and sub-regional institutions and policies. Regional and sub-regional management should understand how local communities and local institutions function and are managed in order to support local adaptation actions and community resilience to major change. Remote communities may already possess attributes of resilience through their sociocultural context that may improve their adaptive capacity to climate change. A transparent knowledge- and data- based climate change adaptation process can enhance existing adaptive capacities [129,132,135–137]. Particularly, by empowering local organizations (e.g. First Nations offices), socio-economic groups that are already vulnerable can be included in decision-making processes [134,138].

Building adaptive capacity and resilience in remote communities is dependent on a variety of factors, including: 1) existing local and regional institutional capacity; 2) local socio-economic development; 3) infrastructure development and condition; and 4) local experience with extreme weather events and other environmental or socioeconomic stress [132,139]. Other factors that can contribute include social networks and cohesion, income diversification, and self-reliance [25,140]. However, current social and economic stressors are likely to reduce the capacity for remote communities to undertake or even consider climate change adaptation. Many coastal communities within the MaPP region already experience economic hardship and are limited in their capacity to undertake new initiatives or projects, even if the long-term benefits are relevant. Building on initiatives that are already in place to address environmental and economic changes and incorporating considerations of the impacts of climate change should be more effective for those communities [25].

Especially for First Nations communities, past experiences with historical social, cultural or economic changes can offer lessons for adapting to climate change. For example, in southern Vancouver Island the W̱SÁNEĆ people share a historic story involving rising sea levels and community adaptation responses which may offer insight into adaptation actions for communities in response to climate change in the present day [141]. Key attributes of social adaptive capacity such as social capital and community networks are often already evident in place-based communities and community ties. However, for effective adaptation planning, climate change impacts and adaptation needs to be seen as relevant for present-day local community planning and management [25,124].

A man in a rubber apron standing outdoors and holding a net with many Eulachon fish hanging from it. There are evergreens in the background.
Chief Don Roberts Fishing Eulachon | Photo by Kitsumkalum Nation

Sector level adaptation: Marine infrastructure

The ocean is in the foreground, and there are two boat moored to the right and two small wooden house stand in the background in front of a forest of evergreen trees.
Compton Island, Blackfish Sound | Photo by Scott Harris

In BC, the provincial government has conducted vulnerability assessments for highway systems and continues to monitor and assess sea level rise. The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is one of the first jurisdictions to require infrastructure design work for the ministry to include climate change implications. However, infrastructure operators in BC have primarily been responding reactively to failures, rather than anticipating and proactively preparing for projected changes or impacts [74]. This approach typically results in impacts being more costly or severe than if proactive adaptation actions had been taken.

Across the infrastructure sector, proactive approaches such as integrated vulnerability and risk assessments that incorporate climate projections, using effective guidelines for data interpretation by managers and decision-makers, could improve adaptive learning and decisions. Incorporating the results of climate change vulnerability and risk assessments into planning and adaptation efforts for the marine transportation sector would reduce the risks from climate impacts and improve the likelihood of adaptation. Proactive climate change adaptation can foster environmentally and socially responsible planning strategies, that protect communities, built environments, and marine infrastructure. Responsible planning strategies can be limiting to human activities and development in vulnerable areas, preserve and enhance coastal ecosystems that provide flooding and erosion protection [142], or support communities to retreat from hazardous areas.

While attributes of resilience may exist inherently, the impacts of climate change challenge long term adaptive capacities through rapidly rising sea levels and coastal storms, new impacts that threaten coastal communities who are dependent on vulnerable infrastructure and a lack of essential relief services [25]. Limited economic resources and support to cope with increasing impacts, and the lack of land use planning that considers climate change, also affects the adaptive capacity of coastal communities.

To date, most climate change related adaptations have been reactive responses to unpredicted events, such as extreme forest fires or the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Planning for climate change seems to compete with a host of other priorities for the limited capacity of local and regional governance, as only one of the many stressors that affect the ecosystems, industries, and communities of British Columbia. For these reasons, cumulative impacts assessment [143–146] may be highly appropriate for regional (and/or sub-regional) adaptation planning.

Proactive adaptation examples for coastal marine infrastructure include:

  • Investments in early warning systems, particularly for storm surge related activities, as well as other disasters such as tsunamis;
  • Planning in emergency management, such as planning for alternative routes for evacuations; and
  • Identifying infrastructure under risk roads, docks, rail routes, etc., and planning phased programs to either mitigate impacts, or retreating and relocating options.
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