Climate Change and the First Nations of the Great Lakes Region

Empty nets, the loss of native species, and a lost way of life. As climate change continues to impact populations across the world it has begun to threaten the Native American population that has called the Great Lakes home for thousands of years.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency the average temperature in the Great Lakes Region has risen by 2.0˚F over the last 100 years. This rise in temperature may seem small but when coupled with the fact that ice coverage on the Great Lakes has fallen by 71% since 1973 it means that the lakes and the Native American population living in the region are feeling the effects of anthropogenic, or human caused, climate change.

“I can tell you that climate change already is a big issue for a lot of our people,” explained Dylan Jennings. “Many of our tribal communities are already starting to see the effects of what is being done to treaty protected resources throughout the ceded territories and on reservation.” Jennings, the Public Information Director at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, knows all too well the effects climate change has had on the 11 Ojibwe tribes the GLIFWC represents. “Wiigwaasaatigoog, which stands for paper birch, is showing a trend of moving northwards and the harvesting of its bark is a big traditional practice.” The paper birch has many uses for the Ojibwe tribes from being used to create canoes to bowls to housing and is a vital part of this culture’s traditional way of life and as its population begins to dwindle the nearly 200,000 members of the Ojibwe tribes in the US are losing a part of their culture.

In addition to paper birch, the fish of the Great Lakes region are also susceptible to the effects of climate change. As Jennings reported, “walleye,” a native species of predatory fish, “and some of the other lake species are suffering a decline in their population…and what was found was that climate change was at the root of this with the heating of the water.” This potential change in the population size of native fish species could spell disaster for First Nation communities which rely on fishing, not only to preserve ancient practices, but for economic security. First Nations people have the right to commercially fish in the Great Lakes since the region was ceded in 1836. Throughout the region First Nation operated fishing boats such as the Eagle, based out of Ludington, Michigan, can be seen floating peacefully at dock with nets neatly folded within the completely enclosed hull, awaiting the next frantic morning’s expedition to continue the tradition that has been part of the Ojibwe culture since its creation. However, if climate change continues to decrease fish populations these boats may no longer have the ability to carry on the tradition that dates back to the use of canoes long before the arrival of Europeans.

Climate change isn’t the only factor that can affect fish populations though. As Dr. Jim Diana Ph.D. expressed, “walleye are very popular to catch and eat while its competition aren’t eaten as often so it could also be an angling effect.” Dr. Diana, a professor at the University of Michigan is an expert on the native fishes of the Great Lakes region and is hesitant to jump to the conclusion that climate change is the sole factor in the decline of native fish species. “Even in mid-summer when the lakes are at their warmest, the deep water is going to be cold and the cold-water species are going to be down there anyways.”

Diana does however feel that commercially viable alternatives can be introduced to the region that do not rely on natural population of fish species which are susceptible to the effects of climate change. He is a strong advocate of the introduction of aquaculture to the region and remarks, “we’ve got species that are really valuable, we have large amounts of water and an agricultural background, everything that could make aquaculture work.” In addition to this, aquaculture is a method of food production that Diana claims is viable for rural, low income areas and is something that Native Americans could pursue under their treaty rights. This presents an opportunity for Native American communities to maintain a stable source of fish in the future despite the effects of climate change and could be the only choice for these tribes which wish to preserve their native species.

With the effects climate change is having on the Great Lakes a whole culture that dates back thousands of years is being threatened. Their culture is a major part of the history of the Great Lakes region, a region that is now home to millions and continues to be one of the natural wonders of the world, and a threat to their culture is a threat to the Great Lakes’ entire being.


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