How P.E.I.’s farming and fishing industries are adapting to the new normal

When Barry Balsom started growing apples at Arlington Orchards in 1993 he never considered peaches might one day be an option for him.

Then a few years ago he was at the Michigan Fruit Expo, where breeders and growers get together to exchange ideas and sell new varieties of tree fruits and berries. A breeder told Balsom he had a variety of peach, designed to grow on the prairies.

“He told me it would work in P.E.I. and I didn’t believe him. So we took the peaches and we planted them and I expected to lose everything,” said Balsom.

“We do that sometimes in farming. I don’t know why we do crazy things like that. And the damn things worked.”

Several factors had to come together to allow the growing of peaches on P.E.I., said Balsom. One was the work of breeders, creating new, hardier varieties that still tasted good. Another was new management techniques. Balsom prunes down his trees more than southern farmers would have to do, to reduce winter kill.

And the other is climate change.

“When I was growing up we’d have 30 below Fahrenheit [-34 C]. I don’t see that anymore,” said Balsom.

More wind, less cold, more heat

The climate record for P.E.I. shows that there are 20 per cent fewer days where the temperature doesn’t reach -10 C than there were a few decades ago. There are also more days where the temperature passes 25 C, and more windy days.

As the climate changes farmers have to adapt.

Ron Maynard, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, is optimistic about the ability of Island farmers to keep up with the changes.

Farmers are making adjustments to barns to help cattle avoid heat stroke. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

“If the change is consistent then we can probably adapt,” said Maynard.

Maynard himself, a cattle farmer, has already made some changes.

“Heat stress is an issue with cattle, and you need to address that,” he said.

Maynard has invested in fans for his barns, and replaced some walls with curtains to get more breeze blowing through. While these changes are costly, they are relatively straightforward. Other problems don’t have such simple solutions.

Cold winters have been a friend to farmers, says Ron Maynard. (CBC)

He has noticed less snow cover on the fields in recent years, and a tendency for them to ice over instead, a phenomenon connected to warmer winters. This can make it more difficult to grow winter cover crops or forage for the spring.

“That has been an issue for some of our alfalfa crops — forage crops that we like to have a good snow cover on for the winter. It protects them from winter kill,” said Maynard.

At Arlington Orchards, Balsom’s adaptations have involved more than peaches.

Barry Balsom shows off his peach trees at Arlington Orchards. (Atlantic Farm Day)

He is growing varieties of apples that might not have done so well in the colder weather of the late 20th century, and having to consider whether to continue growing other varieties that might suffer in the hotter summers.

Things you want winter to kill

Turning a corner into the face of a bitter north wind in Charlottetown you might be forgiven for wishing the coldest days of winter would end, but historically winter has provided an advantage for farmers.

“We have been fortunate here in Canada to have winter,” said Maynard.

“That is a natural control for a lot of pests.”

But it is not as much of an advantage as it used to be.

There are a couple of ways that climate change has increased the threat of insect pests, says Christine Noronha. (Submitted by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

Invasive species get a lot of attention in the media, and Christine Noronha, an entomologist and pest specialist with the federal Department of Agriculture in Charlottetown, said climate change makes them even more of a concern.

“Insects that used to come in from other places, you know, in cargo or however they get in, the winter would kill them in Canada, so we weren’t really all that worried,” said Noronha.

“But now our winters are not that severe. So because of that we are seeing more of these invasive species coming and then actually surviving.”

But the troubles caused by insects are not just about invasive species. Native species are also becoming a bigger problem.

“Generally, survival over winter is better,” said Noronha.

“The insects that come out in the spring, have a higher population that emerges in the spring.”

Milder winters make it easier for invasive species, such as brown marmorated stink bug, to survive. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

And the insects come out earlier, and survive later into the fall. That, combined with hotter days when they are out, means a population that might have gone through one or two generations in a season will now go through three or four, multiplying its population each time.

Balsom has had to adapt to these new threats from insects.

“We didn’t have the multi-generational attacks. We’re seeing a change in that, whereas we’re getting a longer season meaning more generations of potential pests in the orchard,” he said.

“Plus, we’re getting, ‘What is that bug and why is it eating my apples?'”

Record landings of lobster

Recent years, outside of the market crash caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have been good for lobster fishermen.

The lobster population is growing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and there have been record landings.

“Right now the southern Gulf is absolutely perfect in terms of conditions for lobster,” said Melanie Giffin, a marine biologist with the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association.

At the same time populations to the south, in Maine, are falling. Both trends are connected to climate change, said Giffin. As the climate changes and the water gets warmer, the optimum habitat for lobster is shifting north.

Changing conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have made it a better environment for lobster. (CBC)

The lobster aren’t moving, but the changed climate is making it easier for lobsters to survive in P.E.I. waters, and less easy off the coast of Maine.

“You’ll see that trend continue as climate change continues,” said Giffin.

There are a lot of small changes that have happened in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, says Melanie Giffin, and it is hard to know what the significance of them is. (Submitted by Melanie Giffin)

“Newfoundland should be seeing better catches at this point than what they have been in the past.”

While this change is predictable, other changes are less so, such as the appearance of right whales in the gulf. While the specific reasons for the change are not known, it is likely the whales, like the lobster, are responding to where the more favourable habitat is as the waters warm.

The arrival of the whales, an endangered species, has forced the curtailment of some activities in the gulf: speed limits on ships, and the closing of fisheries when whales are spotted so they don’t get entangled in gear.

‘Little things’

Giffin said there are regular, though small, indications of changes in the ecosystem in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“Little things that I sometimes notice around here, and doesn’t get a lot of traction, is the odd time when somebody catches a different species of mackerel that they’re not used to seeing,” she said.

The arrival of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has disrupted fisheries and shipping. (Peter Duley/NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center)

“Last year we saw a little bit more chub mackerel.”

It’s hard to know what’s going on under the water, Giffin said. You can’t just fly over in a helicopter and count species.

“It’s really difficult to understand marine biomass,” she said.

Rapid changes

One of the unpredictable facets of climate change is that the water in the Northumberland Strait is warming more rapidly than it is on the North Shore.

Giffin said this is connected to less ice cover on the strait than in previous years.

“It chills everything down.… They have to warm up from much colder temperatures in the summer,” she said.

“It definitely has negative effects on, for example, the scallop beds, which are very temperature sensitive. If it gets too warm the scallops start to struggle.”

While the impact on the commercial scallop fishery is known, there is much more than is not known about the impact of the rapidly warming water in the strait. As with anything under the water, it is difficult to track.

Climate change now on P.E.I.

The pieces in this four-part series:

  • Monday, Dec. 28: Our new reality in data form: More windy days, fewer cold days, more hot days on P.E.I.
  • Tuesday, Dec. 29: How daily work is changing on P.E.I. as wind and temperature patterns shift
  • Wednesday, Dec. 30: On the beach: Changes in weather patterns affect creatures big and small
  • Thursday, Dec. 31: How P.E.I.’s farming and fishing industries are adapting to the new normal

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