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As go the salmon, so goes the Coast

By: Jack Knox
Times Colonist (Victoria)
June 15, 2008

You can't talk about the future of Echo Bay, or the coast, without talking about salmon. "We're very much wild-salmon based," says Alexandra Morton. The fish are the traditional lifeblood of the coast and its economy. Even tourism depends on wildlife -- eagles, bears, whales -- that are themselves dependent on salmon.

Morton, well-known as an environmental activist, believes salmon stocks can rebound if allowed to escape sea-lice infestations associated with fish farming.

But Billy Proctor, 60 years a commercial fisherman, thinks it's too late. Blame overfishing, predation, habitat loss from logging. There simply aren't enough salmon for all those competing for them. You can see it in the way animal behaviour has changed, he says. Seals now chase fish far upstream. Eagles hunt seagulls, have even killed a couple of loons in front of Proctor's house. Bears -- a grizzly can eat 1,600 pinks a year -- have been reduced to digging through creek beds for salmon eggs.

"The ecosystem's going to hell," says Proctor, launching into an assessment that is simultaneously sobering, frightening and infuriating.

Stocks have dropped so low that Gilford Island's Scott Cove salmon hatchery, which Proctor has run since 1982, couldn't find brood stock this year. And it's not just salmon: Cod are scarce, and this is the first year local natives haven't been able to find enough oolichans to make the oil traditionally extracted from the smelt-like fish. Fishermen helped kill that golden goose by netting the oolichans before they had a chance to spawn.

The northern resident killer whales don't come around Echo Bay like they used to, as there are no salmon on which to feed. (Though last fall, a humpback whale chased herring right up to the mudflats in Billy's bay, leaping right out of the water eight times.)

Whales aren't the only predators, of course. West Coast seal and sea lions numbers have exploded. Pacific white-sided dolphins, once a rarity in B.C. waters, now number in the thousands, each swallowing 15 kilograms of fish daily.

Then there's the human activity. Forestry outfits might abide by the rules closer to populated areas, but up here it's a free-for-all, Proctor says. Nobody is watching.

Bridges and culverts disrupt streams, mudslides silt up the gravel where salmon lay their eggs, roe are killed by the shock of blasting for roadbuilding up to 200 metres away. Proctor speaks of a high-altitude river, its banks denuded of shade-giving trees, where the sun-heated rocks raise the water temperature to 18 degrees, killing salmon roe. "Anything over 14 degrees and eggs start dying."

"It's just devastating to see what the loggers have done," says Proctor, a former logger himself.

He has disdain for the efforts of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "They've lost their mandate of protecting wild salmon," he says. Too many people behind desks, too few in the field. "It was a great industry but they just managed it to death."

Commercial fishing might be a shadow of its former self, but sport fishermen continue to chase salmon. Something like 142 lodges dot the coast. Heli-fishing operations take clients to places where fish used to be protected by sheer inaccessibility. If recreational anglers don't cut their catch "there'll be no chinook left," Proctor says.

As for aquaculture, Proctor figures it's flat-out unsustainable, because they're strip-mining the world's oceans to feed the farmed fish. "It takes 2 1/2 pounds of fish out of the ocean to raise one pound of farmed salmon."

When aquaculture arrived in 1987, many believed it would be the salvation of the Broughton Archipelago.

"I thought that the industry was going to be good for us," Morton says. But as evidence of ecological damage grew, so did a schism between the fish farms and the residents of Gilford Island.

Morton, a biologist who runs a research station in Echo Bay, is among the most prominent opponents of the practices of fish farms. Along with a variety of tourism, fishing and environmental groups, she has just launched a constitutional challenge to a 1988 agreement in which Ottawa quietly ceded responsibility for fish farms to the provincial government. Morton argues the province shouldn't be allowed to renew the expiring leases of 22 fish farms in the Broughton area.

"My beef is not with the people on the farms," Morton stresses. She does, she says, feel bad about the prospect of them losing their jobs. But if the problems tied to aquaculture can be dispensed with, wild salmon stand a chance.

Morton, who has lived in Echo Bay since 1984, is much more optimistic than Proctor. Nature has a way of figuring out how to survive, she says. "You give these fish half a chance and they'll take it."

"I don't want people to think this coast is hopelessly dead. It isn't." Humpback whales were once wiped out here, she notes. Last year saw 27 of them hanging around.

Morton has a vision of using the very best science to restore the salmon to health. The key, she says, is putting management in the hands of those who care the most.

"Fisheries that are run by the local people are the ones that still survive," Morton says. "Basically, the only places that are going to survive on Earth are those that someone loves."

[email protected]


John B Holdstock
BC Wildlife Federation
Kelowna, BC
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