It is good to break one’s routines occasionally and go traveling to get a different perspective. After a long stretch of COVID-related travel restrictions, it is now once again possible, though still rather uncomfortable, to travel abroad. After three long years of communicating with loved ones only through text messages, emails and phone calls I just spent two weeks in Germany to visit with my family. Though the fear and images of the war in Ukraine are on everyone’s mind, Germany presented itself thriving, and I left with a feeling of gratitude and relief having verified that my family is doing just fine.
While the images from that Germany trip are still fresh in my mind I am looking forward to my next project, in which I will create teaching materials related to climate change and the northward migration of species in the Bering Sea. In biology and fisheries management, the question arises, which species will be able to adjust to and survive under the new conditions of a changing climate. Will these animals be able to find their new niche and be integrated into a new ecosystem, and how will those species that are there adapt to the newcomers? Climate related migrations of marine animals and conflict related migrations of people: are there any parallels?
Germany at the start of May is lush and green and pleasantly warm. We biked on splendid bike trails through winding river valleys with rows of flowering apple trees, fields of bluish green rye and yellow-green barley, interspersed with many fields of bright yellow flowering rapeseed which, processed and added to gasoline cuts down the countries’ dependence on imported fossil fuels. We stopped at little roadside stands selling fresh strawberries, which we ate as a snack before continuing our ride through picturesque villages and along forest trails ringing with the sounds of many birds. Then we rode trains, which are modern, well-connected and well-used. The recent, war-related surge in fuel prices has prompted the German government to subsidize this mode of transportation such that starting next month, a 10-dollar ticket can be used to travel anywhere in Germany by train for one month! At the same time, some roads are equipped with test equipment for the development of driverless cars and in cities, the majority of cars are small, often with electric or hybrid engines.
Back in Alaska but still traveling, with the jet lag making me sleepy and hungry at odd times, I find myself missing the fresh and healthy snacks and sandwiches from those German bakeries and to go snack stands. Those stands always have vegetarian and vegan food choices. Posters and educational advertising inform people about the environmental impacts of meat production and the health benefits of reduced meat consumption. In the last three years, the country I grew up in has implemented a number of new small steps towards living with and addressing the pressing issues of our time. In an environment of change I see forward thinking solutions and innovation.
Starting in 2015, Germany admitted about one million refugees into the country. During those years I visited multiple times. The people were at first housed in every building the government could assign for this purpose. At first, it was not always smooth, there were problems and many of the refugees did not know how to fit in or how to survive in the German culture. For an example, there is the story of the refugees in one of my brother’s rental units, who started a fire in the living room to dry their laundry, because they did not know how to operate a dryer. Quickly, Germany designed programs to teach these newcomers the language and the customs, as well as the life-skills necessary to fit in and eventually to naturalize and find work. An ingenious move by the prior German chancellor Merkel was the creation of the term “people with migration background” to replace the slightly negative term “refugees”. People with migration background have a story, life experience and something valuable to contribute. Now, Germany is a much more multicultural place and a variety of languages is spoken on the streets. In the bakeries where I bought my morning coffee or at the medical booth where I had to get a Covid test before traveling home there are people working who speak German with an accent. People with migration background, who are integrated into a new life and filling the countries need for workers.
I believe that this integration of people with migrant background owes its success largely to a combination of consistent government support and a lingering need to fill positions in the service, health care and production industries. Germany has an age structure that is leaning heavily, with fewer young people in the workforce supporting a social network with an increasing percentage of older and retired people, who are also benefiting from excellent medical care and living longer. Thus, the gap left by the lower numbers of young Germans compared to the older generations is now getting filled by people with migration background.
In biology, success of a migrant species depends on the conditions found in the new territory. In the case of crab or ground fish in the Bering Sea, the population success will depend on the resources available to the incoming animals: Food, shelter from predation, and the ability to grow successive generations. Will there be a role to play in the give and take of the newly found territory? Research is scrambling to provide answers to the multitude of questions relating to life history patterns in changing environments, trying to predict the effects of such ecosystem shifts.
But what if the commercially important species under the pressure of climate change and migration do not find a niche to thrive in? What if they, like the people with migrant background need assistance to fit in? What if their ecosystems are in need of help? Is there anything fisheries managers and political decision makers can do to assist? The answer is a muddy clear “maybe.” As a precedent to giving desirable populations of harvestable fisheries resources a leg up, we have experience with fish hatcheries and shellfish nurseries. These follow the principle of supporting vulnerable life stages to maximize survival and then boost the wild populations with an increased number of juvenile recruits. It only works if the bottleneck in survival of the species is indeed the recruitment of young life stages into the breeding population. If the adults run into trouble making a living and reproducing, it is not sustainable. The other method that comes to my mind is finding the most successful natural breeding grounds of the population and protecting those against any disturbance in order to maximize survival and recruitment in these areas, which can fuel larval drift to adjacent territories. This, too, only works if the ecosystem generally is able to support the adolescent and adult population.
As always, we are focusing in on one aspect of a large systemic change. A desirable outcome in one population may have adverse effects on other populations. Predicting the outcome of species range shifts is difficult, especially in little researched or very diverse environments. However, if you had told me fifteen years ago that the migrants that were crowded into all the temporary shelters in Germany would now be serving me meals in fancy restaurants, booking me into hotels or attending patients in Germany’s hospitals I would have thought it too optimistic. I will add this insight to the list of examples that you never can quite predict what the future holds, and sometimes change is a positive and amazing thing.
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