Fewer fish, worse health: the climate effect

Over the next two decades of climate change, there’ll be less seafood to eat, and this could threaten the cardiovascular health of First Nations people on Canada’s Pacific coast, a study finds.

Over the next 25 years, reduced intake of marine food resources due to climate change will likely have a negative impact on the cardiovascular health of First Nations on Canada’s Pacific coast, a new study suggests.

According to modelling based on climate projections, the reduction in seafood consumption can be expected by 2050 to increase the risk of heart attack in this population by 1.9 to 2.6 per cent for men and 1.3 to 1.8 per cent for women.

For people aged 50 or over, the increase would be between 4.5 and 6.5 per cent.

These numbers come from a recent study that used data from the First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study (FNFNES), a joint project of the Assembly of First Nations, Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa.

The study was published in January in the journal Facets.

Traditional diets at risk

In British Columbia, the traditional diets of coastal First Nations include a wide variety of marine foods such as fish, shellfish, seaweed and marine mammals. These resources are important sources of protein, micronutrients and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are low in fat.

However, due to the climate crisis, seafood is becoming increasingly scarce. In fact, one half of respondents surveyed in the study said the quantity is already insufficient. For example, the various species of salmon are among the fish most sensitive to climate change, and they are the main source of fatty acids for First Nations.

"From an epidemiological point of view, we know that omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a reduction in heart disease," said UdeM nutrition professor Malek Batal , one of the lead researchers on the project.

"But sources of these ’good fats’ are dwindling year by year, and the other options are often of poor nutritional quality, such as highly processed foods," said Batal, an expert on the environmental, social, economic and cultural determinants of food choices.

In addition to the lack of alternatives, First Nations people must contend with severe food insecurity (which affects 65 per cent of the population), sedentary lifestyles and discrimination.

"All these factors increase the risk of cardiovascular disease," said Batal, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Health Inequalities.

The right to a healthy diet

The study highlights the urgent need for strategies to improve access to seafood for coastal First Nations, he added. In addition to promoting nutritional and cardiovascular health, seafood enables people to "develop strong cultural bonds, to socialize and to be active, which also improves mental health."

Climate change is not the only barrier to seafood consumption. Lack of time, equipment and traditional knowledge to obtain the resource and commercial fishing are also obstacles.

Batal believes efforts must be made to distribute traditional foods, organize fishing expeditions and offer workshops on how to source and prepare new species. Fish farming, which is contributing to the decline of wild species, needs to be better regulated, in his view.

"Traditional food systems are essential to First Nations; there are no nutritionally and culturally equivalent resources," said Batal. "Implementing solutions such as the ones we propose in the FNFNES should be part of political, as well as individual, efforts towards reconciliation and decolonization."