Pacific Northwest Fisheries and the Impacts of a Changing Climate Van Alen Climate Council Trip – Summer 2019

What would make a group of engineers, architects and landscape architects travel from around the country to visit the fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest? Well, beyond tasty seafood dinners and extremely fresh oysters, the answer lies with a collective drive to understand the causes and impacts of a changing climate.

The Van Alen Climate Council convened for their third investigative trip in August to continue researching connections between climate change and design. This trip brought the group into the Pacific Northwest, shifting from the agricultural cornucopia of California’s Central Valley to one of the largest fishing industries in the world located in and around the Puget Sound in Washington.

Pamela Conrad, CMG Principal, joined the Council in early 2019, and shares insights from the multi-disciplinary excursion:

What are some of the issues impacting the Pacific Northwest Fishing Industry?

Global fish populations and the fishing industry face great threats due to a changing world. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is absorbed by water but increased levels of CO2 create toxic levels of ocean acidification, CO2 + H20 = H2CO3 (carbonic acid). When there is too much carbonic acid in the water, shellfish are unable to form shells and reproductive problems occur in a variety of other fish species.  

That same increase of CO2 causes higher atmospheric and ocean temperatures. Warmer water temperatures lead to the decline of fish populations and water molecule expansion is causing sea level rise. (Ice melt is also causing sea levels rise, but currently at a less predictable rate)

Warmer temperatures means there is less snow forming, and therefore less snow melt. The low running rivers are too shallow for salmon to migrate and swim up-stream and spawn, which is contributing to their population decline. Sedimentation caused by adjacent land impacts such as construction or mining operations also contribute to this issue.

Human consumption is also a major threat. The World Resources Institute published global research in 2016 showing that people eat more protein than they need. In fact, most protein that the human body needs can come from plant-based proteins and in the US & Canada, we are eating three times more animal-based protein than we need (World Resources Institute, 2016). This overconsumption is another contributing factor to the fish population declines.

Why does it matter?

These issues affect everyone. The indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest now have less available food resources, lower incomes and are being forced to relocate their coastal tribal homes. This is not something that will happen in the future, it is happening now.

What is the Pacific Northwest doing that is innovative in response to these issues?

A sustainable sushi bar in West Seattle called Mashiko is serving up what they call “trash fish” to help alleviate the demand on at-risk species. Typically, fish accidently caught in nets cast for a more in-demand species are discarded but Mashkiko takes these fish and transforms them into tasty meals. High demand seafood are the ones we all know and love – salmon, yellowfin tuna, shrimp etc. However, due to the demand, these species are overfished and are at-risk. In the case of shrimp, not only are they coming from unsustainable sources, but also a slave-labor industry thousands of miles away. So, be brave, instead of ordering your “go-to”, request the local special instead. You might be surprised at how good “trash fish” can taste.

To help prevent the effects of ocean acidification, researchers at the University of Washington supported by the Paul Allen Family Foundation are studying how kelp farming can help extract CO2 out of the oceans. Kelp farming could also provide a viable source of biofuel for jets. Other “blue carbon” environments include sea grasses such as eel grass and salt marshes which are found here in the San Francisco Bay area, along with mangroves that typically occur in more tropical environments.

Habitats also need to be restored before fish populations can recover. The Seattle Waterfront Vision is being constructed with light wells to encourage salmon migration and food source habitat. Because of tremendous public support for an environmentally innovative and high quality public realm, private philanthropy contributed millions of dollars to the project that shows increased salmon migration since completion.

Communication is also key to the climate crisis, and doesn’t have to come directly from scientists or researchers. One PNW artist, David Eisenhour, has dedicated time and resources to his art in hopes of helping to educate others on the impact of carbon on our environment.

What can landscape architects do about it?

Our projects, our offices, and the way we live our lives has an associated carbon footprint. If we can reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere through conscious decisions about those choices we make, we can:

  • reduce increased rates of ocean acidification that is impacting the fishing industry.
  • reduce the intensity of sea level rise, community displacement, and fish population decline.

When we put chemicals on the land, they end up in the water and harm fish populations. Using organic fertilizers on landscapes prevents harmful nitrate migration into our waterways.

In coastal projects we design, we can improve the public experience while improving habitat for the marine environment. They can go hand in hand, and in Seattle, the public is demanding it. What we put into the air and on the land is impacting our oceans. The sooner we recognize how the systems of the earth are connected, the sooner we can get ourselves out of this mess.   


Related links:

How Ocean Acidification Affects Seafood Security in Puget Sound