Gretta Pecl: Climate Change in Coastal Waters

Gretta Pecl, founder of the Redmap project, which aims to demonstrate tangible effects of climate change to Australia's fishing community

So often the effects of climate change are somewhat intangible to us; the weather may grow warmer, but it’s a slow and gradual process, which can seem entirely at odds with the alarm bells that things like the IPCC report seem to be constantly clanging. As such, demonstrating tangible environmental changes to a community whose livelihood may depend on such changes is a great weapon in the fight against the effects of a warming climate.

With this in mind, marine biologist Gretta Pecl founded the Range Extension Database and Mapping project, also known as Redmap. Redmap aggregates public sightings of fish to show shifts in the distributions of Australia’s marine species, including some that are crucial to our fishers. At the recent ASFB 2018 conference, I sat down with Gretta to talk about changes in marine species distributions, how they’ll affect Australia, and how they might help the public understand the effects of climate change.

Sam Perrin (SP): Can you take me through the concept of change in a species’ distribution and how it relates to climate change?

Professor Gretta Pecl, Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania (GP): All plants and animals have a pretty well-defined temperature range at which they function optimally. So as our waters warm, all our plants and animals are shifting location to keep pace with the environment that they prefer. We’re seeing plants and animals in the northern hemisphere move north, and in the southern hemisphere move south. They’re not changing the conditions that they like, they’re just shifting to stay in the environment that they’re comfortable in. It’s a pretty large scale movement, it’s the kind of thing we’d normally see over thousands of years, but we’re seeing it happen over tens of years. It’s literally a global redistribution of life on earth.

Part of the challenge is that not everything can or will move at the same pace, it depends on the mobility of an animal, or their lifespan for instance. It depends on a whole lot of factors. Some animals and plants are moving really quickly, and some are moving really slowly or not at all, and so all the connections in the food web, all the predator-prey relationships all get completely turned on their head. We end up with new combinations of animals existing where they didn’t coexist before.

…if you’ve got a new species in a new location, it becomes a new communication tool to use with the public, and a very powerful way of communicating the effects of climate change to people.

SP: What’s the difference between an invasive species and a species that is range shifting?

GP: So strictly speaking, an invasive species is something that has a very direct human mechanism behind its arrival in a new region. There’s a break in its distribution, and then it’s transported either by ballast water in a boat, or on the wheel of a car to a new location, whereas range extending species are species just extending their natural boundary further in a more continuous way.

I’ve got a paper in review at the moment with a colleague called Brett Scheffers from the University of Florida, looking at how we’ve defined species in the past in terms of native versus invasive, and what that means from a management context. There’s actually no consistency whatsoever. Some species are invasive and we protect them, on land and in the ocean, other things are native but we try and get rid of them. So there’s concern about what this change in distribution means for the way that we categorize and manage species.

SP: So these range shifts won’t be negative 100% of the time?

GP: Not always, no, it may even present opportunities. And it’s important that we do talk about these opportunities for two reasons. One is that we don’t want to give the impression to the general public that we’re all about doom and gloom. In many ways that’s justified, but the public don’t know that, and they see it as fear mongering. So I think it’s important for us, where there are opportunities, to mention them. Certainly don’t exaggerate them, but if they’re genuinely there, we do need to communicate that.

The second reason is that I think climate change will be overwhelmingly negative, so we need to make sure we are prepared for the opportunities, to maximise them. In Tasmania for example, there’s new highly prized recreational species that are moving into Tasmania, species like snapper and Yellowtail Kingfish. So the recreational fishing community down there are on the whole pretty happy about climate change. And then you’ve got commercial examples on the coast of Maine for example in the US, where they’ve had squid species moving up into that area in commercial quantities, in a very short space of time. So that’s a new commercial fishing opportunity for that community, however they have a declining opportunity with their lobster. And that means changing factories and processing plants and switching from one very dominant species in an industry to another one. So the more advanced warning we can give people of those changes, the more prepared they can be. They might need different boats or fishing gear, they might need different licences, so it’s important that we communicate those opportunities to the public so they can prepare.

Gretta and her two daughters, Amelie and Ruby, promoting Redmap

Gretta and her two daughters, Amelie and Ruby, promoting Redmap (Image Credit: Gretta Pecl)

SP: Speaking of public communication, the IPCC report has just come out. To say the least, it has faced backlash in Australia. Were the findings communicated well enough?

GP: The whole issue of climate change communication is so complex and confounded, with so many vested interests. I think that the climate denial presence is so strong now, that we could be doing the exact right thing and it wouldn’t make any difference. People are too ingrained into their views. The Australian industry is very strong on denial, so prominent now and so loud and so in the psyche of everybody.

If we were starting from scratch now and we had a bit of an inkling of what might happen, I think we could probably do a better job of it. There are lots of scientists doing a very good job of communication, but there are of course always ways to improve. I think that scientists would do better to understand that although scientists connect and communicate with data and graphs, the public generally doesn’t. It would also help if scientists spent more time communicating the significance of their work, why it’s important to them.

I think the Australian government would not be listening to the IPCC report no matter what we did, really. Maybe we could have communicated it a bit better, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

That’s one of the reasons I started the Redmap project… people can log on to Redmap and realise it’s not just them who’s seen something new… They recognise it as a trend, not just a sighting.

SP: You mentioned that 10 years ago, you faced overwhelming doubt from some of the stakeholders that you worked with in regards to climate change, but that has since turned around a bit. Was there a eureka moment?

GP: In 2009 we surveyed commercial fishers, and around 80% of them said climate change was something they either didn’t believe in or something that we made it up for the money. So we brought them all together in a workshop scenario. We asked them to forget about climate change, and just tell us about some of the changes they’d seen in the environment. They had a list as long as your arm of all the impacts and changes in the environment they were seeing. All of them were changes that we either knew were a function of climate change, or were entirely consistent with what we’d expect of climate change. It was great, watching them gel everything together. One of them would note a change, and then the others would concur. You could see this emerging sense in the room that maybe they weren’t individually noting weird one-off occurrences, they were seeing trends.

That’s one of the reasons I started the Redmap project. I realised that we should be getting more of these observations and collating them together. Now people can log on to Redmap and realise it’s not just them who’s seen something new, there are 50 other people who have seen the same new species. They recognise it as a trend, not just a sighting. It makes them aware without being in their face about climate change.

We’ve also got another study that looked at cognitive dissonance in people’s awareness of climate change. That study showed that when fishers think a change is good, they’re more likely to attribute it to climate change. If they see a change and it’s negative for them, they will blame it on anything else, from commercial fishermen to seals taking their catch. So if climate change is good, people are more likely to accept it, but because it’s mainly big and scary, they’re reluctant to acknowledge it.

SP: What’s the engagement on Redmap like in terms of age brackets?

GP: One of our most prolific observers is a 17 year old woman on the NSW coast, who has contributed to all sorts of citizen science projects. She got an external grant to come down and do her grade ten work experience with the Redmap team. She came down and stayed with us for two weeks, and she’s actually got a talk at a conference in NSW in November. She wrote an abstract from her perspective, about what scientists could do better to engage younger people. She’s one of our main contributors.

Then we’ve got a weird mix. Most people are between 20 and 50, with more males than females. In terms of active contributors, there are as many female scuba divers as males though. We have different demographics around the country. In Tasmania we have almost 50/50 fishers and divers, but many of the fishing reports we get from Victoria and NSW are actually scientists, or ex-scientists, or people peripherally involved in science in some way. Some of the fishers in regions where they are not happy with the management think that if they report an observation to Redmap it will lead tightened fishing restrictions, which won’t happen at all.

Gretta started Redmap after a workshop in which a group of fishermen realised that what they thought were one-off sightings of new species turned out to be a trend they had all witnessed

Gretta started Redmap after a workshop in which a group of fishers realised that what they thought were one-off sightings of new species turned out to be a trend they had collectively witnessed (Image Credit: Gretta Pecl)

SP: John Koehn was talking about how people were more accepting of climate change when we had the drought here in Australia, and that acceptance has abated since the drought ended. How do we make sure people remain vigilant?

GP: That’s part of the idea of Redmap. It’s very hard, if you’re monitoring temperature or acidification, to demonstrate a change to people. But if you’ve got a new species in a new location, it becomes a new communication tool to use with the public, and a very powerful way of communicating the effects of climate change to people.

Now having said that, we don’t often put a lot of really direct climate change information on Redmap. We’ve only just started recently. Before it was more just demonstrating changes than making the link. The message was there, but it was buried. We were trying to get engagement and participation before we started shoving climate change messages down people’s unreceptive throats. Now we’ve posted the last IPCC report, and we’ve posted about sea-level rise recently, but every single time we do that, people unlike the page. And we get quite interesting comments. We had someone say “sea-level rise is because there’s more boats on the water”.

It’s a very interesting space. We need to be factual, and we need to not be deceptive about the issue. But trying to generally raise everyone’s awareness that things are changing long-term, and then trying to slip in climate change every now and again, is a very challenging space.