Pradnya Sawant: What the heat wave signals for B.C.'s coast

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      By Pradnya Sawant

      For British Columbians who are fortunate enough to regularly work and play alongside the ocean, the recent heat dome was especially heartbreaking. 

      Not only did the soaring 40°C+ temperatures wreak havoc on land by burning the town of Lytton, the coastal ecosystem suffered immediate effects, too. It’s estimated that billions of mussels, barnacles, and other shore organisms died, baking in the scorching sun waiting for the tide to come in. The intense June heat wave was too much for them to tolerate. 

      Losing mussels in such large numbers can be devastating to all marine life. They’re an ecologically important species that provides nourishment and shelter for other sea creatures. They also filter water and improve its clarity. Our coastal water quality could get worse without shellfish. More intense and frequent hot summers, as predicted in the latest IPCC report on climate change, will continue to put mussels under stress and may also wipe out BC’s mussel and oyster industries.

      Hotter summers aren’t the only climate change impact stressing our ocean. There are a number of cumulative factors slowly chipping away at the ocean’s health. 

      Excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning is dissolving into oceans, causing ocean acidification, making the waters more corrosive. Warming water temperatures are increasing the occurrences of toxic algal blooms. These blooms have already forced the closures of profitable West Coast Dungeness crab fishery, resulting in big losses to the fishing industry. 

      Pradnya Sawant believes that it's more important than ever for the province to create a coastal marine strategy.

      Scientists are worried about hypoxic and anoxic zones, also known as “dead zones”, coastal areas with low to no oxygen, where most marine life suffocates and dies. Although mostly naturally occurring, these areas appear to be getting bigger due to excessive nutrient input from human activity. Plus, of course, the increasing probability of stronger storms and floods are putting B.C.’s coastal communities at risk.

      The stress we’re putting on the coastal ocean is altering it forever, and as a result, impacting B.C.’s ecosystems that are tied to coastal health.

      Sadly, the B.C. government doesn’t have a strategic, unified plan and law to protect its precious coastal region. Instead, the coast is overseen by a hodgepodge of provincial laws, regulations, ministries and departments. This lack of coordination contributes to the risks that the coast faces. We need an integrated and adaptive approach to manage the health of our coasts and oceans.

      That’s why it’s more important than ever that the B.C. government follows through with its commitment to develop a coastal marine strategy. Developed jointly with First Nations, the strategy would be a “blueprint” for the coast that would unify the current disparate regulations, protect us from the damaging effects of climate change and resulting sea level rise, and ensure that coastal communities and marine life have the future they deserve. 

      A blueprint obviously isn’t a panacea for all the problems associated with a warming world, but it will be a step toward mitigating the impacts of climate change on our coast and giving the ocean a chance to recover.