Like other indigenous First Nation communities throughout Canada, the Tla-o-qui-aht people are survivors. Over a century of cultural genocide, Christianisation, forced assimilation, land alienation and re-settlement reduced their numbers tenfold and pushed them to the brink of extinction. But despite environmental, social and cultural upheavals, the Tla-o-qui-aht are slowly but surely strengthening their ability to cope with social and environmental challenges, including climate change.
In Chapters 1, 2 and 3 of this six-part series, Adjunct Research Fellow Gleb Raygorodetsky of the United Nations University Traditional Knowledge Initiative sets about visiting the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht — widely known as Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia — to understand the challenges and triumphs their people have faced. Today we learn that salmon were once abundant and how the impact of overfishing, clear-cut logging, climate change and open-net aquaculture have caused stocks of salmon and other fish to dwindle.
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The late afternoon sun bounces off a rapeseed-yellow slide as we approach a solitary wooden dock jutting out from the shoreline of Cannery Bay, during this last stop of my tour with Joe. The spiral-shaped kiddie slide looks quite odd this far away from a playground or a water park. Some distance inland, the skeletal remains of a long-abandoned structure protrude from the thick brush. But this little cove at the mouth of the Lower Kennedy River flowing from Kennedy Lake into Clayoquot Sound, is such a warm, sheltered spot that there is no doubt why someone dragged the slide all the way here and nailed it to the edge of the crumbling dock. It is a perfect diving spot!
“The place’s called Ook Min, ‘a calm place’,” says Joe, standing next to the slide. “It’s always calm and beautiful here, in any weather. Doesn’t matter if it’s blowing southeasterly or westerly, it’s always calm. In the old days, our people had fish weirs from here all the way up the Kennedy River,” Joe says, pointing in the direction of the Kennedy Lake. “Like right now, there’d be all kinds of fish jumping around.”
“In the old days,” says Joe Martin, “Our people had fish weirs fall the way up the Kennedy River.”
Traditional Nuu-chah-nulth fish weirs were built by driving long poles into the silty bottom of a stream to create a fence that would direct the migrating salmon into a trap as they pushed upstream along the shore. “The fishermen would just paddle over to the trap and take what they needed,” describes Joe. “Most of the time the weirs just stayed open so that the fish could pass through. But when they needed the fish, they’d close the trap and catch as much fish as they needed. Afterwards, they’d open it up again.
“See that big bush by the river over there?” Joe asks. “My grandparents had a house right there. I’d come and stay with them when I was a boy. We caught a lot of sockeye and would smoke it for the winter. We used every part of the fish, from head to roe,” describes Joe with a smile. “Many families would move here in the summer because there was so much fish. Some would go to other places, like up the Tranquil Creek or Kennedy Lake. There was lots of fish everywhere. They’d cook, smoke, or dry it for themselves, share it with each other and use it for their dogs.”
In 1902, the Tofino-based Clayoquot Sound Canning Company opened a cannery here, at the mouth of the Kennedy River. At the time, the place was brimming with sockeye salmon heading upstream in the summer.
“All they had to do was just take a boat, go out there with a net, and bring the fish here to process and can it,” explains Joe pointing to the opposite shore, closer to the river mouth. “That’s all they did, so they called this place Cannery Bay. But what a waste of fish that operation was!” Joe shakes his head in exasperation. “Just like today’s fishermen. Holy, they throw a lot away! Like all those great big sacs of eggs, they’d just toss them in the water. It’s such a delicacy fried or boiled, very nourishing, it can be dried and used as a snack on a long trip. Such a waste to throw it all away…. Just terrible!
“And when they’d fillet a fish, they’d leave about this much meat on the tail, and just toss the rest out!” Joe pinches the top digit of his index finger with his thumb to indicate the thickness of wasted meat. “A lot of them cut the belly fat off too, and threw it out. That’s just crazy! But hey,” he says sardonically, “the cannery was, of course, more important than our fish weirs. So, they banned us from using our weirs around Kennedy Lake and destroyed the lot of them.”
With the increase in canneries and more and bigger boats, the stocks of salmon and other fish began to dwindle. “Then the logging came,” continues Joe, “and wherever there was clear cutting, it pretty much destroyed the spawning streams”, the eroded silt washed down by rains reducing the water quality to a point where the fish could not survive. “And now there is no salmon fishery here in the Sound. Not like it used to be. It all kinda collapsed and the cannery was shut down and abandoned.”
There are many, often related, reasons for the continuing decline of wild salmon in Clayoquot Sound, around Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Overfishing, clear-cut logging and, more recently, climate change (warming streams and drier summers) are considered to be the most significant factors. Some efforts to arrest or reverse the decline are aimed at a holistic revival of the entire system and have shown some promise. One example is the work taking place just upstream from Ook Min, at the northwestern edge of the Kennedy Lake around Kennedy Flats. This is the site of a project to restore streams where clear-cutting led to the erosion of the riverbanks and wood debris dammed up the streams. A couple of salmon hatcheries have also been operating in the area, each year releasing tens of thousands of young salmon in the streams to help re-build the stock’s numbers.
Converting protein and nutrients derived from fish stocks being depleted in one part of the world into a supermarket-ready slab of artificially-coloured pink flesh “salmon” is economically — never mind ecologically — indefensible.
Other approaches, however, further erode the integrity of the Clayoquot Sound. Particularly worrisome is the modern open-net-pen aquaculture, which allows free exchange between the pens containing farmed salmon and the surrounding marine environment. This approach sees the Clayoquot Sound ecosystem — the cradle of the once abundant wild Pacific salmon — as nothing more than a “feedlot” for farmed Atlantic salmon. On our way to Ook Min, Joe had taken the boat past a couple of these floating rafts of net cages — a floating prison and a feedlot wrapped into one with barbed wire. Some of these contraptions can cover the surface as large as four football fields and contain between 600,000 to a million salmon at a time.
The Clayoquot Sound has been growing increasingly attractive to the ever-expanding salmon farming industry — which arrived in British Columbia (BC) in the 1970s and, after some failed attempts by locals to raise Pacific salmon, was monopolized by Norwegian companies still farming Atlantic salmon here today. Most environmental organizations, First Nations, tourist companies and the wild salmon fishing industry vocally oppose the expansion, calling for a ban on the open-net fish farms in BC. Still, there are over twenty open-net salmon farms in the Clayoquot Sound today, the majority of them owned by the Norwegian industry giant, Cermaq, that operates in Canada, Chile, Scotland and Vietnam, annually producing 25,000 tones of salmon in BC alone. These open-net fish farms bring into the natural system all the problems that come with intensive livestock feedlot operations — effluent, feed and antibiotics polluting the Sound’s ecosystem, already compromised by a legacy of clear-cut logging and overfishing.
“I think salmon could still come back in a healthy way,” says Joe, “but the fish farms are definitely in the way.
Having a dual mandate of both looking after the wild salmon as well as promoting fish farming, the government agencies in BC turn a blind eye to the real threat that open-net salmon farms pose for the wild salmon stocks. Sea lice — parasites that bloom in the open-net cages — rain down on the passing wild Pacific salmon smelt, as they swim by on the way to the ocean. The salmon feedlots also are incubators for infectious diseases, such as piscine reovirus (PRV), Heart and Muscle Inflammation (HSMI), and others that can reach epidemic proportions quickly and at any time in such monocultural environments. This happened in Chile in 2007, when a 3-year long outbreak of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA — a type of influenza) led to millions of farmed salmon being killed, thousands of jobs lost and major financial problems for the fish farming industry. In addition to the diseases and parasite infestation, there is also the need for predator control, with over 7,000 seals and sea lions shot and killed between 1990-2010 in BC, to stop them from taking salmon from the open-nets.
Still, there are more fundamental ecological issues to be considered in farming a predatory fish like salmon, which is high on the food chain and thus an inefficient protein source. Depending on the source of information, it takes between 1.2 and 10 pounds of fish feed and fish oil to produce one pound of salmon. Converting protein and nutrients derived from fish stocks being depleted in one part of the world into a supermarket-ready slab of artificially-coloured pink flesh “salmon” is economically — never mind ecologically — indefensible.
“I think salmon could still come back in a healthy way,” says Joe, “but the fish farms are definitely in the way. Not only do they bring diseases and sea lice, they also suck up baby salmon in their water pumps when they harvest the fish from the open-net cages. The nets cannot stop the small salmon from swimming into the holding pens and so they get pulled up with the big fish.
“Some people I know work there and they’d tell me, ‘You should see what’s happening. Every night we have two or four big totes of small salmon that get killed when we’re harvesting.’ Holy smokes! And they don’t report it? And we’re not allowed to go watch their operation either.”
On the way back to Tofino, we briefly stop at Opitsaht, whose brightly-coloured houses we had seen that morning on leaving the town. This is a traditional winter settlement where Tla-o-qui-aht families would gather to re-affirm their bonds between different houses, or clans, after spending previous several months hunting, fishing, and gathering in different corners of the territory. This, too, has changed, for today, come winter or summer, the village of Opitsaht is full of adults, elders and kids.
Two local boys — dusty T-shirts and faded camouflage shorts flapping loose over skinny limbs — run by the brick-red community hall and past a few cows of the same colour meditatively grazing on a patch of greenery. Fishing rods held up at the ready in one hand like spears and tackle boxes in the other like shields, the kids clatter down the ramp to the end of the pier and, dropping the shields down on the boards, enthusiastically cast their lures. Every couple of throws they reel in a green clump of seaweed and drop to their bruised knobby knees to rummage in their tackle boxes. Loudly egging each other on to catch the first fish, they sort through their shiny lures hoping to find the one that would get them some fish instead of seaweed.
I wonder if there is anything the boys could actually catch here today. Once the backbone of the local economy, the wild salmon are no longer as abundant as they used to be even when the boys’ parents had fished around the Clayoquot Sound. To catch salmon today, Joe needs to travel 3-5 miles away from the shore, out into the open ocean, intercepting them as they migrate to the Fraser River near Vancouver, or to the Columbia River on the US side of the border. On the beach in front of the village, several 30 foot-long wooden fishing boats are slowly decaying, half-buried in the sand, a few scales of bleached paint still clinging to their sides. They look like the carcasses of spawned-out salmon — a reminder of dramatic changes in the region.
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This article is part of the Healing the Earth project of the Conversations with the Earth (CWE) initiative, a multimedia platform that brings indigenous voices on climate change to the global audience. It is supported by Land is Life. Follow CWE on Facebook or Twitter @ConversEarth.