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Whitney, C. K., A. Frid, B. K. Edgar, J. Walkus, P. Siwallace, I. L. Siwallace, and N. C. Ban 2020. “Like the plains people losing the buffalo”: perceptions of climate change impacts, fisheries management, and adaptation actions by Indigenous peoples in coastal British Columbia, Canada. Ecology and Society 25(4):33.

“Like the plains people losing the buffalo”: perceptions of climate change impacts, fisheries management, and adaptation actions by Indigenous peoples in coastal British Columbia, Canada

1Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance, 2School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada, 3Kitasoo/Xai'xais First Nation, Klemtu, BC, Canada, 4Wuikinuxv Resource Stewardship, Wuikinuxv Nation, Wuikinuxv, BC, Canada, 5Nuxalk Stewardship Office, Nuxalk Nation, Bella Coola, BC, Canada


Rapidly developing and complex climate change impacts have profound implications for coastal communities, demanding adaptation actions for both social and ecological systems. Along the coast of British Columbia, Canada, Indigenous peoples developed a tightly coupled social-ecological system that was interrupted by the arrival of settler colonialism in the 1800s. Although both climate change adaptation and the impacts of colonization have been well studied, little research has examined how these themes interact, and the conditions that may support or prevent people’s ability to adapt to the social-ecological changes that emerge. Through a collaborative partnership with four First Nations and their umbrella organization for technical support, we examined people’s perceptions of social and ecological aspects of adaptation to climate change. Using semistructured interviews (n = 50), four key strategies emerged as critical for climate change adaptation: (1) strengthening Indigenous governance autonomy and authority, (2) promoting knowledge sharing for adaptation practices within and among communities, (3) promoting adaptive comanagement among governance scales, and (4) developing learning platforms for climate impacts and adaptive strategies. Actions typically proposed by non-Indigenous government, including marine protected areas and ecosystem-based management were not prioritized. We found diverse attitudes toward climate change impacts, indicating that people’s perceptions of adaptation strategies are strongly influenced by exposure to observable impacts, the social-ecological context in which they live, and perceptions of governance and self-determination. Our study suggests that supporting Indigenous peoples’ ability to adapt to climate change will require transforming the current governance model into one that acknowledges Indigenous social, cultural, and food needs and how these relate to marine resources and territorial management rights.
Key words: adaptation; climate change; fisheries; food security; governance; Indigenous stewardship; transformation


Indigenous peoples are closely connected to natural systems and particularly sensitive to climate change impacts (Wildcat 2013, Green and Minchin 2014; K. Whyte 2016, unpublished manuscript, Worldwide, they are already experiencing rapid changes in weather patterns, species distributions, and phenology of their food resources (Turner and Clifton 2009, Petheram et al. 2010, Savo et al. 2016, 2017). Climate vulnerability studies have informed planning and policy, yet often have perpetuated colonial biases by failing to acknowledge the Indigenous capacity for decision making at multiple scales (O'Brien et al. 2009, Cameron 2012, Mcleod et al. 2016). When unaware of this procedural weakness, research methods and processes can limit participation or omit important context, marginalizing Indigenous voices (Kelly and Adger 2000, Veland et al. 2013, McClanahan et al. 2015).

Postcolonial discourse has started to shift the framing of Indigenous peoples as victims of colonization who are vulnerable to environmental change to adaptable peoples occupying geographies of hope (Coombes et al. 2012, Whyte 2014a). Efforts to include Indigenous voices in adaptation and mitigation strategies are essential (Cameron 2012, Coombes et al. 2012, Whyte 2017) because climate change threatens not only Indigenous food security and economies (Savo et al. 2017) but also Indigenous culture, identity (Chisholm Hatfield et al. 2018), and health (Donatuto et al. 2014, Durkalec et al. 2015). Yet Indigenous voices, values, and worldviews tend to be underrepresented in climate research, policy, and decision making at all governance scales (Petrasek MacDonald et al. 2013, Ford et al. 2016, Maldonado et al. 2016).

In the context of social-ecological systems, adaptation refers to actions that can reduce an impact or that use new opportunities that develop from observed or anticipated change (Smit and Wandel 2006). Adaptive capacity is a relative measure of the latent potential to adapt to a certain threat (Carpenter et al. 2001, Whitney et al. 2017). Research to date emphasizes that adaptation planning must consider the consequences people experience as a result of an adaptation action (Whyte 2014b), that people often have limitations (perceived or actual) in their capacity or authority to influence broader policies, and that values, beliefs, and worldviews influence their perceptions of change and future outcomes (O'Brien and Wolf 2010, Wolf et al. 2013). To identify and prioritize the adaptive actions that are most relevant to a community, therefore, it is important to explore perceptions from individuals with lived experience (Marshall and Marshall 2007, Petheram et al. 2010, Wolf and Moser 2011). Indigenous knowledge systems—collective, values-driven, typically place-based, connected bodies of knowledge, practice, and belief developed over generations—paradigmatically differ from “Western” worldviews (Berkes 2012, Simpson 2014). Indigenous peoples have also gained experience from and persisted through environmental change over long time scales to developed cultural practices and knowledge related to invasive species (Reo et al. 2017), floods (Brown and Brown 2009, Horne 2012), and changes in weather patterns (Cunsolo Willox et al. 2012, Turner and Spalding 2013). Because of this long-term, place-based knowledge, Indigenous peoples may have well-developed capacity to respond to novel environmental changes by adapting their way of life, and unique perspectives on adaptation planning.

The goal of this study was to document and examine the perceptions of four Indigenous peoples, the Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Kitasoo/Xai'xais, and Wuikinuxv First Nations of coastal British Columbia (BC), Canada, regarding climate change, changes to marine-based food security, and climate change adaptation strategies. The research was designed and conducted as a partnership between the University of Victoria and these First Nations, as coordinated by the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA), the umbrella organization they created to support their own initiatives regarding governance, stewardship, and research. The research objectives were to understand First Nations perceptions of climate change impacts, social and ecological adaptation actions (adapted from Whitney et al. 2017), as well as barriers, opportunities, and knowledge gaps for climate change adaptation. We review the social-ecological context of the area, including background on governance, fisheries management, and climate change impacts. We also describe our collaborative research methods and results based on semistructured interviews with community members and an iterative review process with the coauthor team and project partners. Our results are intended to inform adaptation strategies and highlight ways in which climate change adaptation planning could align with governance transformation to promote reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.


Coastal Indigenous peoples of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada

The Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai'xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv Nations live in communities ranging in population from approximately 80 to 1500 people (Fig. 1). Each Nation has its own dialect as part of three discrete language families (Gessner et al. 2014), which reflects their diverse cultures. Despite impacts from colonization and access to store-bought foods, these First Nations continue to depend upon the land and ocean for food security, trade, and cultural connection, harvesting and preserving food resources that include herring (Clupea pallasii), salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), herring eggs (i.e., roe on kelp), eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus), seaweeds, and many others (Turner 2003, White 2011, Jackley et al. 2016, Gauvreau et al. 2017). Daily life and culture, including language, ceremony, and stories, has revolved around the harvesting of these resources for thousands of years and continues to do so in a modern context (Frid et al. 2016, Gauvreau et al. 2017, Ban et al. 2019, Beveridge et al. 2020)

Overall, marine governance and management of marine resources along the BC coast has been shaped by colonization over the past century (Jones et al. 2004, Ommer 2007). Prior to colonization, First Nations managed both terrestrial and marine areas using well developed methods of stewardship that were embodied in social, cultural, and economic practices (Trosper 2003, Johnsen 2009). At the turn of the century, growing settler populations and their open access resource extraction practices began to override Indigenous laws and practices for resource management. At the time, the criminalization of traditional Indigenous management practices, e.g., banning of potlatches and Indigenous fishing methods such as weirs and traps (Jones et al. 2004) co-occurred with the rise of commercial fisheries and the ensuing and precipitous declines of marine species (Ommer 2007, Berkes 2015), including cultural keystone species such as salmon (Garibaldi and Turner 2004) and eulachon (Hilland 2013). Systematic privatization of fishing rights and access, combined with federal decision making and enforcement, diminished access to local resources for many coastal Indigenous peoples (Ommer 2007, Turner et al. 2008, Healey 2009, Berkes 2015). The legacy of these policies affected the well-being of First Nations, with lasting impacts on individual and community knowledge, stewardship practices, and culture (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 2015).

Current federal management of marine fisheries is under the jurisdiction of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). This federal agency also is responsible for scientific monitoring and research and for determining allocation for capture fisheries and aquaculture operations. Meanwhile, Central Coast First Nations have maintained their own Indigenous laws and management practices, and are in the process of reasserting jurisdiction by actively managing fisheries (Government of Canada 2019, Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative 2019), informed by living in place for thousands of years (Brown and Brown 2009, Johnsen 2009, Hilland 2013, Kirby and Kotaska 2018).

Climate change impacts

Along the BC coast, ocean temperatures are warming, and inshore waters are becoming less oxygenated, less salinized, and more acidic (Chandler et al. 2017). These changing ocean conditions are contributing to northward shifts in the distribution of species attempting to track their ecological niche (Ainsworth et al. 2011, Okey et al. 2014, Cheung et al. 2015). Marine fish and invertebrates important to First Nations are projected to decline by up to 64% by 2050 under the IPCC high emissions scenario (Representative Concentration Pathway [RCP] 8.5; Weatherdon et al. 2016). The five anadromous salmon species, which collectively are a staple for First Nations, are projected to decline by 12.1–46.8% by 2050 under RCP 8.5 (Weatherdon et al. 2016), which may severely affect First Nations access to essential nutrients (Marushka et al. 2018).


Research development

This research was interview-based and codeveloped over a year and a half by three non-Indigenous authors (CKW, AF, NB) from academia and CCIRA and four Indigenous authors from Central Coast First Nations (PS, BE, JW, IS). Additionally, stewardship directors from each of the four First Nations provided guidance prior to and during the interview phase. The research objectives, interview guide, and adaptation actions were developed among the author team with feedback from CCIRA and partner First Nations. The interview questions also were informed by a recent review of recommended actions for increasing adaptive capacity in coastal communities (Whitney et al. 2017). Community approval as well as approval from CCIRA was granted to CKW and NCB in advance of conducting interviews (in addition to university ethics approval).

Interview methodology

We carried out individual semistructured interviews with community members from four partner First Nations. Semistructured interviews allowed for spontaneous dialogue and insights that might not emerge during a more structured approach (Huntington 2000), and drew on the participants’ values and perceptions of climate impacts derived from those values (Wolf et al. 2013). We framed climate change impacts as changes in marine species distributions and availability and, using dialogue and printed index cards, asked participants for their perspectives on a set of proposed social and ecological adaptation actions that had been developed in consultation with project partners from each First Nation. Additional guiding questions explored perceived barriers, opportunities, and knowledge gaps for developing effective adaptation strategies (see Appendix 1 for the complete semistructured interview guide). During the interviews, which flowed based on each participant’s interests and lived experience, we also discussed likely impacts of climate change on marine species ranges (Weatherdon et al. 2016) with implications for Indigenous place-based food security and potential adaptation actions.

In one community (Bella Bella, Heiltsuk First Nation), we held a meeting with the hereditary Chiefs to introduce the project and to identify study participants. Elsewhere, we worked with stewardship staff and a local community liaison to identify participants. Some participants were identified through snowball sampling (suggested by other interviewees). We aimed to interview people across demographics; both men and women were included because they may have different roles and experience within the community in terms of food gathering, harvesting, and management (stewardship). We completed 50 interviews (39 men and 11 women) between May and August of 2018, including 17 participants in Bella Bella (Heiltsuk Nation), 10 in Klemtu (Kitasoo/Xai'xais Nation), 13 in Bella Coola (Nuxalk Nation), and 10 in Wuikinuxv (Wuikinuxv Nation). Interview participants had experience in at least one of the following activities: (1) commercial fishing, (2) fishing and/or food gathering for food and cultural purposes, (3) traditional food preparation, (4) local governance and management of marine areas.

On average, interviews lasted one hour (range ~30–90 min), depending on the range of dialogue beyond the baseline questions. We describe the participants based on the community rather than the Nation because four participants (8%) were non-First Nations; these people worked for a Nation in a planning capacity, e.g., fisheries manager and community planner, or were included because of their long-standing role in the community. Participant ages ranged from 25 to 85, with an average age of 53; we estimated ages for 19 participants who did not share this information. Not all participants responded to all questions, and therefore sample sizes vary by question.

Positionality statement and limitations

We acknowledge and recognize the inherent positionality that may influence this research. We codesigned the research with the four Nations and CCIRA, and their partnership in this research meant that there was community support. The authors include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars working at local and regional scales, which provided opportunities to share perspectives, experiences, and insights to adaptation planning. The interview process was led by a non-Indigenous scholar (CKW), who dedicated time and capacity to research the high priority issues of climate change adaptation with input from CCIRA and the four Nations. Aiming to understand perspectives of climate change adaptation across a region meant that the lead author could spend only up to two weeks in each community to conduct interviews; ethnography approaches would doubtless reveal a more nuanced understanding of the issues and context (Lyons et al. 2016). In each of the four study locations, she was assisted by Indigenous community liaisons who set up and participated in interviews (if appropriate). The Indigenous coauthors guided the interpretation of interviews and results, using their own lived experiences and insights on colonization, adaptation, and environmental governance.

We asked participants to prioritize adaptation actions for their social-ecological system from an initial list of options (from Whitney et al. 2017) and encouraged them to suggest others. By narrowing the range of actions considered initially, we may have obscured or de-emphasized other strategies (Loring and Hinzman 2018). Because we framed this research on climate change adaptation, we may have unintentionally missed other contextual or historical elements of the implications of governance and environmental change. Traditional harvesting practices, trade relationships, identity, and place-based traditional knowledge of native species are all connected to the land and sea, and thus may have been affected by both contemporary social-ecological drivers of change as well as climate change. Nonetheless, our research provides a first overview of Indigenous perspectives on climate change adaptation in this region.


The first author transcribed the recorded interviews completely, including references to humor and dialogue, e.g., laughter, aiming to capture the richness and context of the interview in an intermediate style between true naturalism and denaturalism (Oliver et al. 2005). We initially coded interview responses according to specific semistructured interview questions, e.g., values or adaptation actions, and then coded emergent themes in the overall interviews as a second pass coding process using NVivo 12. For the latter, each theme, or code, was defined in the initial coding, and subcategories were recorded as they arose to allow themes to emerge from the participants rather than from predetermined responses (Thomas 2006). We used descriptive statistics (frequencies) to describe and summarize coarse themes (e.g., values, concerns, and fears ascribed to climate change), and detailed responses (e.g., specific social and adaptation actions, barriers, and knowledge gaps for adaptation). We used R (R Core Team 2018) to visualize adaptation actions across communities in radar plots (using the “ggradar” package; Bion 2016). The key recommendations and ways forward were synthesized from the most common adaptation actions and barriers that were shared by the participants, along with insights from the qualitative coding, perspectives from the authors, and feedback with stewardship staff from the Nations over several feedback calls during analysis and drafting of the manuscript.

Our results include illustrative quotes from interviews. When granted permission, we attribute quotes to the persons who contributed them. Otherwise, quotes are presented as anonymous.


We need to adapt to these changes so that he could say to his kids, “let’s go fishing,” as opposed to saying well, “When I was two my dad took me fishing, but we can’t do that anymore.” Howard Humchitt, Knowledge holder, Heiltsuk Nation

Observations of climate change

All interview participants noted substantial changes in the availability and abundance of traditional marine resources in recent decades. Some participants acknowledged that species declines may also reflect fisheries and aquaculture mismanagement, and therefore climate change was not necessarily the sole driver of change (Quote 1, Appendix 2). Nearly all participants (49 of 50) shared observations of impacts that they attributed to climate change: earlier berry harvests, changing salmon migration timing such that salmon that used to spawn at different times are now spawning at similar times, rapid glacial melt, warmer and drier summers, more intense winter storms, and changing volume and timing of peak river flows (Table 1; Quote 2, 3, Appendix 2). These changes were seen as likely to disrupt and decrease the quality of salmon spawning habitat and also reduce the ability to access and harvest anadromous fish. Some also noted the interconnectedness of ecosystem function and climate change. “Lots [has changed]...! Because everything changes around the climate ... that cycle is out of line now, because of the climate” (Crystal Tallio, Marine Use Committee Member, Nuxalk Nation).

More than half (62%) of participants stated the importance of spending time on the water and land as the primary value in their way of life, particularly with a focus on food harvesting (Table 2). “In our way of life? Oh, the food...” (Hrwana [Eleanor Schooner], Elder, Nuxalk Nation). Younger participants shared that it is important to them to connect with their territory; as Charles Saunders (mid-20s Guardian Watchman, Nuxalk Nation) stated: “I just like being out on the land. Don’t have to worry about much, where you are going, or what you are doing.”

On the outer coast communities (Bella Bella, Klemtu) some participants noted that they now travel further north to access fish than in previous decades (Table 3). Many noted the impacts on their abilities to harvest (Table 3; Quote 4, 5 in Appendix 2). Concerns about the impacts of environmental change on social and cultural values were apparent throughout the interviews (Table 4). Many participants shared themes of cultural loss, as climate change impacts have already affected the seasonality and location of important food species, and how future changes in marine resources will further impact the ability of elders to pass on traditional knowledge (Table 4; Quote 6 in Appendix 2). The changing biocultural relationship between First Nations and their traditional territory was also a concern for participants as a harbinger of cultural loss (Table 4; Quote 7 in Appendix 2).

Adaptation actions for ecological and social systems

Many participants wanted to discuss climate change impacts and develop community-based strategies to manage those impacts. For instance, some commented that “It’s good that this research is happening,” and “We never talk about these things ... We need to, and this project is the beginning.” Several participants highlighted that particular actions cannot be implemented in isolation but must be part of a broader governance transformation. “At the end of the day, we have to find balance. There’s a very unbalanced ecosystem right now” (Kelly Brown, Stewardship Director, Heiltsuk Nation).

Participants had diverse opinions about the adaptation actions that we proposed, and many participants selected many actions rather than a single leading action. Perspectives on specific ecological and social adaptation action varied by First Nation (Fig. 2), which illustrates the diverse perspectives and context across the region. Across Nations, the primary ecological adaptation action identified was to improve fisheries management (44% of participants identified this as the most important action, n = 48 responded; Fig. 3), followed by the development of regional forums for education and training opportunities to support stewardship and monitoring practices among communities (23% of participants). A Guardian Watchman (member of the First Nations monitoring and stewardship program) from the Nuxalk Nation explained how monitoring practices within and among communities could be improved.

We are the frontline workers, and we have to notify our community with what’s going on and what resources we have.... I think we need a big reminder, tomorrow things could happen, and then we will get the blame, I think anyway, and that’s why we have to notify the community we see every day and have meetings every month or every two months. (Roger Harris, Guardian Watchman, Nuxalk)

Few participants considered marine protected areas (MPAs), ecosystem-based management (EBM), or developing and using more climate change projections in management to be priority actions. However, several participants seemed interested in MPAs if they were managed for, and/or by Indigenous peoples. For example, Randy Carpenter (Guardian Watchman, Heiltsuk Nation) stated: “I think they should be starting to close down some areas, just for food fish only.” Others expressed the inadequacy of current compliance monitoring and enforcement efforts for protected areas (Quote 8 in Appendix 2).

For 38% of participants (n = 47) the priority social adaptation action was to strengthen social networks, community groups, and intergenerational knowledge sharing. Other leading priorities were stronger Indigenous governance (self-determination; 19% of participants), and more Indigenous participation in regional and higher scales of management and decision making (19%). Frank Johnson (Elder, Wuikinuxv Nation) highlighted that, “It should be the other way around. Adapt their culture into ours, not ours into theirs.” Some participants prioritized community infrastructure improvements in preparation for sea level rise (13% of interviewees), and a need to develop alternative careers and economies (11% of interviewees). As Jennifer Walkus (Council member/Community leader, Wuikinuxv Nation) shared, “the only thing I can think of is if we start trying to push politically to try and make the changes to slow it [climate change] down, but we also need to prepare for the worst because I think it will come at some point.”

Emergent themes

Four additional actions emerged unprompted from the inductive coding of the interviews beyond the adaptation actions we asked about, along with some potential implementation strategies that have particular relevance both across scales and at certain scales of governance and management, e.g., federal and provincial governance, regional organizations such as CCIRA, First Nations governance (Fig. 4).

Strengthening Indigenous governance autonomy and authority

When discussing barriers for climate change adaptation, participants spoke to issues of self-determination, governance, and capacity for First Nations and Indigenous knowledge to influence decision making (38% of participants mention this unprompted, n = 47; Quote 9 in Appendix 2). “Our inability to be legitimized as knowledge keepers is a big factor ... Until they [Crown Government] understand the legitimacy and the importance of traditional knowledge, then we’re going to continue to have this struggle. I don’t have any answers except to say it’s really frustrating” (Councillor, Heiltsuk Nation). The social impacts of colonialism reduced Indigenous autonomy and self-reliance over several generations; recovery will not happen overnight. The legacy of colonialism from the federal government was something that some participants (14% of participants, unprompted) spoke to directly as something that must shift in order to enable efforts for climate change adaptation (Table 5, Quote #1).

Most participants (80%) shared long standing frustration with federal and provincial governments in the context of fisheries management and climate change adaptation. “All this stuff [marine resources], it’s just totally mismanaged. Totally. This is why I say they’re trying to wipe the Native people out ... A silent wake” (Cecil Moody, Elder, Nuxalk Nation). Nuxalk Elder Hrwana (Eleanor Schooner) explained her perception of the Federal government’s suppression of First Nations leadership: “We have to have a voice. We have to have concern.” However, many people we spoke with (52%, n = 50) expressed hope for either cultural revitalization, the potential to adapt to new food species, the ability of their community to work together for climate change mitigation, or a combination of those possibilities. “On that front we’ve tried to change it, with our hydro where we’re trying to change to more clean energy, trying to get away from the fuels, the fossil fuels” (Darren Edgar, Kitasoo/ Xai'xais Nation). Although the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing efforts to revitalize culture were a main focus, some participants framed the future in a positive light, highlighting that Indigenous peoples and knowledges will continue to adapt to a changing climate.

Like I said, our people are really adaptable. ... It’s been since time immemorial where people have amended their way of life to the resources that are coming ... and making a part, an intricate part of who we are as a people, and that’s what’s been built over time ... I think different resources that are coming here, the exotic species that enter our waters, definitely our people would consider utilizing those resources ... I mean, that’s, that’s the kind of stuff that our people adapt to very quickly. (Kelly Brown, Heiltsuk Nation)

Trade and knowledge sharing as adaptation

While Indigenous communities have always adapted to environmental change, participants expressed concern and uncertainty about how they will adapt to rapid climate change impacts on their coastal culture. Participants identified opportunities for developing adaptation actions and practices, including increasing capacity within and among these First Nations to understand and act on climate change adaptation (Quote #2, Table 5). They also spoke to the need to develop avenues for sharing harvests to mitigate declines in the abundance and distribution of traditional foods, as few participants (29%, of 41 responses) thought that fishers would travel further north to track the redistribution of target species (Quotes 11 and 12 in Appendix 2). The reasons included access restrictions such as fuel costs, lack of fishing vessels, territorial boundaries among First Nations (Quote 13, Appendix 2), and lack of institutional support for adaptive management of area-based commercial fishing licensing. Sharing or trading fisheries resources could be part of the solution to changing access to marine food species. As Jennifer Walkus (Council member/Community leader, Wuikinuxv Nation) explained, “ for what we need has always been a part of First Nations culture and I think that’ll continue.” Some participants shared that increasing trade among First Nations might be an adaptive response to access traditional foods as marine species shift north: “Just have to go further for it, or trade for it, eh?” (Rick Neasloss Sr., Fisher, Kitasoo/Xai'xais Nation). Other participants highlighted that existing trade relationships are based on traditional food species, not novel ones; of the participants who responded (n = 42), 62% thought that trade will likely decline as traditional foods decline. This potential impact of climate change will affect more than just food availability, as trade relationships are tied to marriage, management, and inter-Nation politics (see Quotes 14 and 15 in Appendix 2).

As traditionally available food species shift north, novel species, which some participants called “invasive,” will be more readily available near communities. Some people said, “we will adapt” and harvest other species “within reason” (39% of 41 responses; Quote 19 in Appendix 2). Others (22%), however, thought they would not target novel species, resulting in lower marine harvests; reasons included disinterest and disgust in novel species, although some respondents suggested that education around harvesting and preparation of novel species might influence people’s decision to harvest such species.

Adaptive comanagement among governance scales

Nearly half the participants (49% of 45 responses) thought that First Nations local governance was the most effective governance scale for adaptation planning and decision making: “I think it would be your local government because people back east, they don’t grasp what’s happening out here” (Alex Chartrand, Wuikinuxv Nation). Prior to colonization, community-wide stewardship practices included managing how people use and access resources within each First Nation’s territory in the long term, as depicted in traditional use agreements among neighboring First Nations. These self-sufficient community-based stewardship practices were reflected in the participants’ perspectives of the importance of environmental monitoring and marine management for climate change adaptation (Quotes #3-5, Table 5; Quote 16 in Appendix 2).

Participants highlighted challenges caused by competing interests and industries that have affected Indigenous access to their territories and harvesting rights (Table 3) and a need for collaboration if climate change adaptation is to be effective: “I think comanagement is the way governments have to go ... All governments have to learn, if you can listen to First Nations of the world, you’ll be in a better place, but if you try to do it all on your own, you’ll screw up supremely. You can’t dig yourself out of it” (Wally Webber, Elected & Hereditary Chief, Nuxalk).

Education platforms for climate impacts and adaptive strategies

Participants highlighted the need for more education and communication about climate change (Quotes #6-7, Fig. 3). They suggested sharing platforms to educate community members as to how climate change is affecting Indigenous peoples around the world, thereby broadening perspectives (Quotes #8-10: Table 5). This sentiment of self-reliance and the need for proactive planning was shared by many who felt that change can come from within the Nation via education, learning, and investment in adaptation strategies. “I think it [adaptation] has to come from the community ... I really believe that people should be empowered to know that they can make, make those changes” (Ernie Tallio, Guardian Watchman, Nuxalk Nation). Others specified that this is something that local stewardship offices should be focusing on more (Quotes #11-12, Table 5; Quote 17 in Appendix 2). Specific education and learning platforms around harvesting novel species and developing alternative livelihoods through mariculture (shellfish aquaculture) were also proposed (Quotes #13-15, Table 5).


Across the four First Nations of BC’s Central Coast, people are worried about current and projected climate change impact on their communities, expressing consistent frustration with the decline of cultural keystone foods, particularly salmon, and the role of poor fisheries management in that decline; climate change presents further cumulative impacts to marine species. Priority actions that emerged from the perspectives of coastal First Nations included strengthening Indigenous governance, promoting knowledge sharing for adaptation strategies, implementing comanagement of fisheries, and creating education and learning platforms for climate change and adaptation initiatives. Other actions that are often proposed by Western science and management, such as marine protected areas, ecosystem-based management, or improving the resolution and accuracy of climate projections, were not prioritized. Although these broad themes of cogovernance are reflected in the social-ecological adaptation literature (Whitney et al. 2017), participants expressed the complexity of climate change adaptation in the context of colonialism, and some considered reconciliation a prerequisite to implementing effective adaptation actions for climate change. Legacies from the colonial history of the Canadian government emerged as barriers to proactive climate change adaptation, and participants expressed a strong desire for self-determination and cultural revitalization as related to both management and harvesting practices. This included trade, which has always been an important part of First Nations culture (Brown and Brown 2009, Turner 2016) and continues to be today (Moody 2008). These findings highlight that addressing climate change adaptation requires recognition of the diverse and cumulative challenges facing Indigenous peoples worldwide (Huntington et al. 2019) and provide insights for proactive strategies to support Indigenous ways of life. Maintaining Indigenous peoples’ access to traditional lands, waters, and resources is critical to both reconciliation and the adaptive capacity of Canada’s Indigenous and coastal communities (Bennett et al. 2018).

A central theme was the importance of Indigenous self-determination in order for First Nations to engage and contribute to climate change adaptation. This colonial legacy persists in Central Coast First Nations and was previously described by Turner et al. (2008) as an indirect lost opportunity for proactive planning. A lack of trust between governments may limit collaboration on the transformative change necessary to engage in effective climate change adaptation actions. The cumulative impacts of external problems and policies related to colonization have constrained the ability of Indigenous peoples to engage in resource management decision making (Turner et al. 2013). In coastal BC, place-based Indigenous knowledge systems have persevered in many First Nations through cultural revitalization programs (e.g. ReDiscovery youth camps,; Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards [SEAS] program, These programs provide hopeful examples of how Indigenous peoples may reclaim self-determination and lead their own adaptation pathways (Turner and Spalding 2013, Eckert et al. 2018, Reid 2019).

Specific climate change adaptation actions included sharing knowledge of traditional harvesting practices and stewardship of traditional territories. First Nations in this area are already seeing the impact of changes that can be attributed to climate change, and in some cases are adapting accordingly. Declining access to seafood was a recurring theme, and participants feared the future loss of food security due to the synergistic effects of climate change and poor fisheries management among other social-ecological phenomena (Cheung et al. 2013, Asch et al. 2018). In many cases, Indigenous people on the Central Coast can no longer travel to harvest marine foods because they have fewer boats or cannot afford the fuel due to economic hardship so have limited access to their traditional territories. Indigenous peoples in this region historically tended landscapes in ways that increased the abundance of traditional foods, including clam gardens, which increase shellfish productivity (Groesbeck et al. 2014, Jackley et al. 2016). Re-establishing such practices could support both food sovereignty and autonomy (Menezes 2001), while helping First Nations engage in place-based monitoring practices, e.g., Gitga'at environmental monitoring (Thompson et al. 2019).

As traditional marine food species shift north with warming ocean temperatures (Weatherdon et al. 2016) and warm adapted species move north into the region, some First Nations may be willing to adapt and develop new harvesting practices applicable to novel species. In contrast to what has been observed in the East Coast fisheries (Young et al. 2019), not all First Nations in the Central Coast have the capacity to travel further north to access target species. Developing learning platforms for harvesting and preparation practices for novel species may be effective as part of adapting to climate change. Globally, human communities have developed novel harvesting and food production practices over millennia, which illustrates the human capacity for both ecological transformation and the potential for human adaptation to ecological change (Boivin et al. 2016). Although non-native or novel species are typically perceived as a negative impact on natural and human systems, reframing this narrative to consider the potential benefits of novel species, including economic, conservation (Schlaepfer et al. 2011), and food security benefits, is an important first step.

Many of the climate change adaptation actions perceived to be effective related to governance and policy changes, including a need for a governance transformation that enables fisheries comanagement. For example, in BC, salmon fisheries have declined in recent decades, which has in turn affected coastal and Indigenous communities (Turner et al. 2008, Walters et al. 2019); as Cullon (2017:307) explains, “no longer are salmon the basis of well-being for a community.... People speak of a fear that their grandchildren will not know a life with salmon.” In recent years, the culture of Canadian federal fisheries management has started to shift toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Examples of this include joint technical working groups between Fisheries & Oceans Canada and First Nations for a variety of species including salmon and crab, perhaps signaling the beginning of a new governance paradigm, and the forthcoming Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement on the North and Central Coast (Government of Canada 2019). Further south, First Nations and DFO have engaged in a lengthy process to develop the Fraser Salmon Management Council, a cogovernance structure for Fraser River salmon management ( Also for salmon, the almost 15-year old national Wild Salmon Policy is guided by principles including honoring the importance of salmon to First Nations and including First Nations in salmon governance, management, and conservation (Irvine 2009). Very little progress, has been made to implement these strategies (Price et al. 2017) although an implementation plan was recently developed (Fisheries and Oceans Canada 2018).

The interest in learning and sharing platforms for adaptation strategies by interview participants suggests an opportunity for Indigenous peoples to develop adaptation options across geographies and governance scales. The rapid and recent rate of change, and the enormity of the challenge, may be why education and communication arose so often. Developing visualization tools for climate change and climate change adaptation in Central Coast First Nations could increase awareness and therefore adaptive capacity (e.g., Sheppard et al. 2011). Some of the First Nations collaborating in this project aim to incorporate climate change adaptation into their resource stewardship and management programs. For example, one of the consistent statements from the Heiltsuk community is that “we have always adapted”; “Adapting to Change” is one of the articulated Heiltsuk “Fundamental Truths” (Fundamental Truth #7, Brown and Brown 2009). This perspective is reflected in stories that describe Indigenous resilience through periods of past environmental change, such as floods (Brown and Brown 2009, Horne 2012), past climatic shifts (S. Brown 2018, personal communication), and resource decline.

Indigenous communities have adapted to environmental, social, and cultural change for hundreds and thousands of years. Things are different now; change is faster and harvesting success more unpredictable (Turner and Clifton 2009, Fernández-Llamazares et al. 2015). The growing discourse around Indigenous peoples and climate change is uneven by geographic region and population. These differences are influenced by variation in political circumstances, the perceived level of risk (i.e., much focus on the Arctic), and the extent of involvement by Indigenous communities in climate change research and adaptation planning (Ford et al. 2016, Belfer et al. 2017). In a multiyear project across six regions in the southern hemisphere, sharing adaptation responses to shifting species ranges due to climate change revealed insights into cultural values of adaptation, and the value of participatory methods for developing adaptation strategies (Hobday et al. 2016). Modern management considers only the past several decades, thus obscuring long-term social-ecological trends; in contrast, considering local knowledge, diverse knowledge systems, and longer management time scales in coastal fisheries management may lead to better outcomes that are ecologically sustainable and socially just (Savo et al. 2017, Lee et al. 2019).

Conclusions and future directions

Future work can build on our results in several ways. First, given the key theme of communication that emerged across the four communities, we recommend developing information tools in the format preferred by each community. A potentially useful model developed and tested in Australia uses stepwise “adaptation pathways” to guide coastal communities through adaptation initiatives while including diverse perspectives, complexities, and uncertainties. A key result of this project was that, to be effective, adaptation strategies must consider the complete set of community values (Lin et al. 2017). Second, many interviewees discussed the need to develop locally driven climate change monitoring programs; other communities in coastal BC (Gitga'at First Nation; Thompson et al. 2019) and elsewhere have begun to pursue these types of initiatives (Thompson et al. 2020). Since completing our interview research, climate action coordinators are in the process of being hired across the Coastal First Nations region, including within the Central Coast. Finally, throughout this research we found a clear theme of self-governance and the need for transformative change in management practices in order to support Indigenous peoples in developing their own adaption actions that are culturally and social-ecologically relevant, with support from other governance scales.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


CKW, AF, NCB conceived and developed the research with the input of BE and PS. CKW and AF carried out the research with support from IS, PS, BE, JW. CKW completed analyses, drafted key findings, and wrote the manuscript with guidance and input of all coauthors.


We are grateful to the members of the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai'xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv Nations who generously shared their time and knowledge with us for this project. Thank you, Giaxsixa, 'Ntoyaxsn, Stutwiniitscw, Gianakci - this would not have been possible without your support and participation. In particular, thank you to those who were able to put time into helping to plan and in some cases, conduct interviews. An overall huge thank you to the community-based stewardship staff and marine use planners with those same Nations for helping to set up this research. We thank Coastal First Nations/Great Bear Initiative (CFN/GBI) and the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA) for their support and guidance of this work during development. We also thank Dominique Saheed and Rosie Simmons for helping to transcribe interviews. This research is sponsored by the NSERC Canadian Healthy Oceans Network and its Partners: Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and INREST (representing the Port of Sept-Îles and City of Sept-Îles). CKW was also supported by the National Science and Engineering Research Council through a Canada Graduate Scholarship, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the OceanCanada Partnership, and a PEO Scholar Award.

Ethics approval for this research was obtained from the University of Victoria Human Research Ethics Board (#17-252) and the project was approved through the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA) through a formal Research Agreement developed and written with CCIRA and the four Nations involved in this work.


The data that support the findings of this study may be available on request from the corresponding author, CKW. These data are not publicly available because of agreements with the participants and collaborating First Nations, who have ownership over this information indefinitely as determined by both research agreements with the Nations and CCIRA, as well as university ethics approval. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by the University of Victoria Human Research Ethics Board, #17-252.


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Address of Correspondent:
Charlotte K. Whitney
Po Box 1700 Stn CSC
Victoria, BC
V8P 5C2
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