Lonnie Snow photo

The temperature is rising in the Atlantic Ocean, both on the sea surface and in deep waters, giving the fishing industry a front row seat to the impact of climate change.

“We find it’s impacting virtually every day. That’s an exaggeration but we’ve seen frequency of storms and severity of storms we’ve never seen before over the past three years in particular,” says Stewart Lamont, managing director of the Tangier Lobster Company Limited.

Lamont said he has been in the same location on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore for 43 years and talks to many local commercial harvesters.

“All of them see signs of a changing climate, the likes of which we haven’t experienced, particularly ocean water temperature which is a real indicator. We did a study evaluating our incoming water temperatures over the last three years and it’s gone up 6.5 per cent in the last three years and that’s before we know the final data in 2023.”

Storms and ocean water temperatures are noticeably changing, said Lamont. “When I talk with fishermen they say they see things on the water that they’ve never saw before. We consider we’re on the front lines of climate change,” citing post-Hurricane Fiona and recent record rainfalls as “real tangible examples of the severity of the storms… all these incidents they might not have seen for 50 or more years we see regularly routinely and the question in the back of all of our minds is what’s going to happen next?”

For Osmond Burke, general manager at Victoria Co-op Fisheries in Neil’s Harbour, Cape Breton, his business is as prepared as it can be for what happens next, after being extensively damaged in September 2022 by post-Hurricane Fiona.

Burke said he and others have never seen a hurricane hit Cape Breton to that extent before.

“I’ve talked to people here that never seen it in their lifetime. They could not imagine how bad it was. It took 40-foot steel containers used for extra storage with 50,000 pounds of product in them and picked them up and moved them across the parking lot… The only thing that saved them from going in the ocean was they went through the building first and got stuck.”

Victoria Co-op has rebuilt, but putting it back the way it was wasn’t good enough, said Burke. “The insurance covers wood walls but we put it back with ICF with 12-inch concrete walls because we know what’s going to happen with the next storm. It’s going to be worse than last year. We need to be prepared for that. We can’t raise the building and the wharf, we’re faced with what we have, but we need to protect it as best we can. We always put barricades up but now we’ve got barricades that can’t be torn apart. Who would have anticipated we would have a highway bridge come off the highway, cross the harbour and smash into the building?”

With the threat of the first hurricane of the season looming, Burke said Victoria Co-op is “in the middle of having hurricane doors fabricated to put on all the openings in the processing facility and our lobster pound and our maintenance shop, and I talked to them this morning to try and hurry up so we can get at least one side of the building done in advance of this storm. It may miss us or it may not, but the reality about climate change is, and ask any of the fishermen who have been fishing for 50-plus years, I’m no youngster myself; the storms are happening more often, the intensity is greater, they are lasting longer, the wind speeds are unbelievable, the state of the seas, high tides, storm surges.”

Burke sits on both the Small Craft Harbours Maritimes Gulf regional committee and the national advisory committee.

“We have aging infrastructure along our coastlines in a lot of our harbours. About 10 years ago we had a report on climate change. As we get new facilities built and wharves in various coastlines around Atlantic Canada, we’re building them approximately a metre higher where possible for the very reason we can see here in Neil’s Harbour. We have one wharf that was built newer, one marginal section of wharf that stays above water, the rest is underwater when there is a storm surge combined with high winds so we’re having all those impacts here. Where we used to have a lot of drift ice it’s non existent at times. It comes later and it’s gone earlier so winter storms, everything is open to the impact of these winter storms. It’s not protected. Although you will get some damage from drift ice, you get far more damage from the ferocity of storms. It’s just unbelievable and these one in 20 to 30 year storms are more like one in less than five.”

Burke said whether people realize it or not, Nova Scotia to Newfoundland is “hurricane alley. When the hurricanes come up along they come right through Nova Scotia and down to Newfoundland and on but what has stopped them in the past is cold waters. It kind of shut down the impact of them. Well the waters are warming and we’re seeing the difference in the warming waters, we’re seeing the changing patterns in fish and whether it be feed species for the right whales or anything else, patterns are changing. We are seeing fish further up this way we never saw before and so when you combine that all together, the next 10 years look pretty bleak with intensity of storms.”

Burke said from a federal and provincial perspective “they need to do more planning than what they are doing now. We see roads, highways, communities cut off. We’re seeing the wildfires increasing. We either have drought or torrential rains… when they rebuild something they just can’t put it back way it was.”

Nationally, Burke said Canada is already facing a $600 to $700-million deficit on wharf infrastructure “and that would only build it back the way it was, not build it back better.”

Commercial fishing wharves are “highways for harvesters to get out to fish. Seafood is the biggest export we have, $2.6 billion in 2021 (in Nova Scotia). It doesn’t just land on your lap, vessels have to go out from small communities everywhere and it’s a major employer in rural Atlantic Canada but you need infrastructure to operate from. Safe harbours to depart and come back to. It’s not going to get better it’s going to get worse. Climate change is here and it’s here to stay. We have to respond to it.”

Lamont said five years ago, there were lots of climate change deniers. “You can’t be in denial anymore. I don’t know anyone in our industry who is a climate denier today…We just know we’re living in a very different environment.”