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Stephen Hume

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  1. The logic of a watershed, including development and forestry’s role in its demise, is playing out sadly in the Cowichan Valley. A NEAR-SILENT CURRENT SLIPS THROUGH WILLOW RUN. The jade-green swirl of eddies and back-eddies causes darker reflections of trees to ripple in the August glare. Here and there, the slick surface boils over a hidden boulder, or abruptly sucks down with a wet slurp into some bottom declivity. I’ve been coming to the Cowichan River for more than 60 years. It never fails to offer instruction in the mysterious, miraculous, astonishingly complex interconnectedness of the natural world. Stephen Hume looks over fast water on the Cowichan River in 2004, just before a cycle of recurring summer droughts began to affect summer flows For example, running counter to the visible river is a second, invisible stream. Comprised of air, it’s evident only by a rustling passage through dangling willow leaves. It flows uphill and upstream, graced occasionally by a gleam of dancing thistledown or a wisp of cottonwood fluff. Every river has an atmospheric doppelgänger ghosting in the opposite direction and pulsing cooler air from the ocean up the veins and capillaries of the watershed. Rivers are not just segments of perception, they are continuums; they connect the sky above the mountains where they rise to the deep sediments of the marine environment where they empty. Down the centre line of the watercourse, shining through a narrow opening in the forest canopy, a band of brilliant blue sky lays down the image of a third river. It manifests as silken light. Sudden shafts illuminate the slow pools and faster water, highlighting the riffles with a palette of transparencies as the river of liquid slips beneath the river of light. That light brings life to the river, to the aquatic plants and insects that support all the higher forms. It’s the seasonal cosmic switch that turns the deciduous riparian cover on and off. Beneath the mirrored light is yet another river, this one tangible, tactile, comprised of water-worn cobbles and smaller, smoother pebbles. It mumbles and grumbles its way imperceptibly seaward. It, too, has its back-eddies. Exposed flanks of gravel emerge from riverside shallows where they drag more slowly along the banks than does the submerged flow in the main current. And there’s a fifth river here. It, too, is hidden. A river of groundwater flowing parallel to the main stream but slithering beneath it like some dark salamander easing through the seams of fractured bedrock below the gravel. All rivers simultaneously inhabit these multiple identities. Most of us see only the one we want to see—the one that serves us best. In the Cowichan’s case, many see only the main current. Once it provided a chute for log drives, now it delivers 120 million cubic metres of water to a pulp mill that provides 500 local jobs (and 5,500 elsewhere in BC). It dilutes urban sewage effluent. It irrigates farmers’ bountiful fields; offers pools to swimmers; provides a route for canoes, kayaks, the drift boats of angling guides, and the inner tubes of those content with a languid float. It’s also habitat for the fish that bring anglers from around the world. If we cast dry flies, however, the river of air instructs us which insects are in hatch and which pattern to use. Or, if considering a well, we look to the groundwater that we can tap. Others look to the gravel that can be mined for construction aggregate. These many-faced reaches of the upper Cowichan River provide prime spawning habitat for chinook and coho salmon and elusive steelhead. For brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. But water is dangerously low again this August, following the hottest July in recorded history. Half our summers in the last 20 years have yielded drought—a compelling signal of the “new normal” imposed by global warming. The exposed, sun-bleached flanks of gravel bars bake in the sun. The river narrows. Side channels dwindle to brackish puddles. A tributary of the Cowichan—sensitive trout and salmon habit—gone dry And so, another hot, dry season. Another bout of nail-biting angst in the Cowichan Valley for anglers, conservationists, householders, recreational users, mill workers and civic governments, as British Columbia’s blue-ribbon heritage river once again threatens to run dry. River flows are regulated by a one-metre-high weir at the outlet from Cowichan Lake into the river. The weir, built in 1957, is designed to hold back the water which floods into the lake all winter. This permits summer releases to maintain a flow during dry months, sufficient to sustain fish populations, provide water to the Catalyst pulp mill at Crofton, and dilute sewage discharges at Duncan. Any recreational use comes after these priorities. The 62-year-old weir, designed before global warming reduced flows The optimum flow is 25 cubic metres per second. The minimum flow for sustaining fish populations is seven cubic metres per second. That’s the nominal target. But with a prolonged dry spring and early summer, flows fell below that as early as June. By late July, they hovered around five cubic metres per second, and occasionally dipped to 4.5. If the flow dwindles to 4.3 cubic metres per second, the mill shuts down, affecting not just jobs but $20 million in annual tax revenue and the $1 billion a year it contributes to the provincial economy. There’s a scheme for pumping water over the weir to provide the minimum flow. Counter-arguments arise: it’s a false economy that simply delays the inevitable, trading one deficit against another, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Lowering the lake will exacerbate problems for fish stocks—a unique, endangered lamprey, for example, might be seriously threatened, triggering federal species-at-risk protections. Fishing guides, their double-ended skiffs beached, have already spent days desperately rescuing salmon and trout fry stranded in drying puddles where side-channels of the Cowichan River once ran. They scooped them up in buckets and carried them to the diminishing main stem of the river. Not surprising, since freshwater angling contributes $100 million a year to the Island’s economy. Tributaries supplying Cowichan Lake were dry by early August. Meade Creek looked like a logging road rather than a critical salmon- and trout-rearing nursery. Side channels had weeds carpeting the bottom. Wardroper Creek was the same. None seemed worthy of the forlorn habitat signs designating them “sensitive trout and salmon habitat” and enjoining the public—perhaps “begging” is the better word—to “please protect our heritage.” IF MUNICIPAL AND PROVINCIAL AUTHORITIES let things continue as they have, there’s not likely to be much heritage left to protect. The river’s dry-weather woes are just one symptom in an array of problems whose solution will require a holistic imagination regarding the river, the lake, the surrounding watersheds, and their interconnected value. Assessed property values in Lake Cowichan rose 16.5 percent in 2019, three times the increase for assessment rates in Oak Bay. New residents are loving the place to death. They have now disturbed more than 30 percent of the shoreline. But it’s not just householders. The lure of idyllic surroundings in the midst of the natural beauty of Cowichan Lake and its river has brought development and the swimming rafts, boat docks and retaining walls that come with it Forestry accounts for another 48 percent of shoreline disturbance. Logging in the watershed occurs on cycles vastly shorter than originally envisaged. Forest management once called for logged areas not to be harvested again until replanted trees were at least 120 years old. The plan was to let second growth mature until it, too, became old growth. Automation, efficiency and markets brought pressure to harvest on half that cycle. And now, with insufficient wood supply a looming issue, the pressure is on to reduce the logging cycle to 40 years. Land held for working forest at lower tax rates, and then sold to developers who bid up value for desirable beach-front has sparked a property boom. Subdivisions now sprawl along lakefront once reserved for logging every 100 years. New householders strip riparian cover to improve views. They install boat docks (there are now 600 of them on the lake), groom natural beaches to remove natural imperfections, and then build concrete retaining walls and embed rip-rap to stabilize banks and control erosion. Wash from powerboats and fluctuating seasonal water levels wear away the modified foreshore once held in place by vegetation. Joe Saysell, a retired logger who’s lived on the Cowichan River for 70 years and is one of those fishing guides who goes out with a bucket to salvage trout and salmon fry, likens the process to death by a thousand cuts. Everybody, he says, reasonably wants to make their own small modification to the landscape for convenience or esthetics, or to increase market value, and few take heed of the unreasonable incremental impacts. “It all adds up,” Saysell says. “Cutting down willows whose roots stabilize the banks so you can have a better view. Taking rocks out of the bottom to create a swimming hole for your kids. Putting in a boat dock and then mooring a boat with a big motor that leaves a big wake. Each one another little nick. But after a while, all those little nicks add up, and you really start bleeding big time. Then, without knowing it, you discover you’ve cut an artery.” Retired logger and fishing guide Joe Saysell rescues stranded fry in a drying side channel of the Cowichan River The river, he says, is the small canary in the bigger coal mine shaped by climate change, population pressure, and a dithering failure of political will to address critical problems before they cascade into interconnected catastrophes. “The canary is still alive, but he’s really starting to gasp,” Saysell warns. “People don’t see things until they’ve already happened. They don’t see it until it’s too late.” There’s a high-tech analogy. We’re all flying along at 10 kilometres altitude in a spanking-new passenger jet. But back there in the cabin, some folks are pulling rivets from the fuselage for souvenirs. The aircraft is over-designed, it’s got many redundant safety systems. It can certainly withstand the pulling of a few rivets. But pull enough rivets and eventually you’ll come to the one that ensures the integrity of the whole complicated structure. Pull that rivet and the air frame disintegrates. So, what’s the rivet for the ecosystem of which the Cowichan River is just one part? Nobody knows. But, Saysell says, we should now be looking at every problem as though it could be the tipping point. “Look,” he says, “we used to have great steelhead runs into the Englishman River, the Qualicum River, the Nanaimo. Runs that went on year after year. Year after year they went up and down. Then they started going down just a tad more than they went up. Then one year there were none. They were just gone. Overnight. Just like that. I worry that we are going to lose the Cowichan the same way. This [river] is the gem of all gems in this province. And yet we dicker and dicker and dicker over what to do. Everything can only take so much. One day it’s just going to end.” AT 82, DAVID ANDERSON, the former federal fisheries minister, still looks the rangy, raw-boned athlete who won a silver medal in rowing at the 1960 Olympic Games. Loved and hated for his tough conservation policies, he arguably had the biggest impact for West Coast salmon of any fisheries minister before or since. He’s now a member of the Cowichan Watershed Board. Anderson, too, thinks solutions to problems facing the beleaguered ecosystem will be found in a holistic approach. That means, he says, having a mature discussion about the connections between logging in watershed headwaters and downstream problems which, in turn, can have serious implications for industry, municipal governments, and the general public. “We have to take a new look at forest management policies,” Anderson says. Saysell, once a logger himself, concurs. He recently wrote to the provincial government, raising concerns. None of the accelerating changes he’s witnessed in logging practice on private lands surrounding Cowichan Lake have been for the better. “I now see a complete destruction of our watershed, and especially the Cowichan River, all because of irresponsible headwater second-growth logging done on private forest land,” says Saysell. “The second growth on our mountains, especially in the Cowichan watershed, is being ‘mined’ at an unsustainable rate, and is being harvested 60 to 100 years too soon. Proper regulations would require all second growth to be as least 100 to 150 years old before it can be harvested.” Second-growth timber from forest surrounding Cowichan Lake stacked up at a log sort He argues that large stands of maturing old growth are crucial for the upper catchment basins of the 53 streams feeding into the watershed, because such forest creates a vast natural blotter. It absorbs rain and delays snowmelt, releasing it gradually throughout hotter, increasingly rain-free summers. As climate warms, scientists point out, weather extremes are amplified. The outlook for Vancouver Island is for wetter winters and drier summers. It’s estimated that summer rainfall into the watershed will decrease by up to 30 percent over the next 30 years, while most of the annual precipitation—less and less of it snow—will occur over a few winter months. Reducing or eliminating clear-cuts in upper watersheds reduces downslope erosion during heavy winter rains. More old growth creates a better-balanced flow of water into the lake, the river’s vast holding tank. Equally important, Saysell says, more old growth provides a mechanism for industry obtaining the same yield but with far less environmental impact. By allowing trees to mature for 150 years, he says, far less timber must be cut to produce the same quantity of superior quality wood. Thus, while maintaining wood supply, the erosion footprint is greatly reduced, lake and river hydrology are stabilized and made more sustainable, winter range for deer and elk are improved—and mature forests are larger carbon sinks, another way of mitigating global warming. Anderson, whose great-uncle was a fishing guide on the river a century ago—he used to pole his way upstream in a dugout canoe—says evidence of the impact of watershed logging shows up in the “yo-yo effect” of rapidly rising and falling lake levels following big rain events. Spikes in runoff erode hillsides, cause side-streams to blow out, spill silt into spawning beds, wash away fish eggs, undercut banks, and push torrents of gravel downstream. What’s the solution? First, Saysell says, the provincial government should intervene. It can end a decade of dithering by corporate, municipal and private interests regarding potential liability, and raise the weir at Cowichan Lake so it holds back more winter rain for summer release. It’s estimated that $10 million would cover the cost of raising and modernizing the weir, although other estimates say it could be done for as little as $3 million. In any event, considering that government spent $12.5 million on three traffic signs to tell drivers to slow down when it’s snowing, the amount required to save the river doesn’t seem excessive. By comparison, one bridge replacement in Victoria cost $105 million, a couple of local interchanges cost $120 million, and the regional district estimates a final overall cost of $275 million for upgrading bike routes to “a standard where cyclists of all ages and abilities will feel comfortable.” IN THE BIG PICTURE, perhaps the remaining second growth would be more valuable if it were never cut. The future of the Cowichan Valley is trending to tourism and away from resource extraction. Tourism has generated more than $200 billion in revenue over the last decade in BC, growing by an astonishing 41 percent. It brought more people to BC in 2018 than there are citizens, just over six million. Consider this example provided by the BC Chamber of Commerce: in 2012, there were plans to log 60 hectares of old-growth timber in a coastal cut block on the North Island. A wilderness kayaking camp was operating in the middle of a proposed clear-cut. The value of the logged timber was estimated at $3.6 million, but the trees could only be logged every 60 years. So, the timber was actually worth about $60,000 a year. The kayak enterprise, however, brought in about $416,000 a year. It operated every year. Over 60 years it would generate $24,960,000—about seven times the value of the timber. The trees were worth far more, left standing, for the kayak operation, the Chamber acknowledged, than logged. Does government have the right to impose logging standards and practices on private land? Well it does on mine. I must obtain a permit from the municipality to cut trees, even if I deem them a hazard. And it does on Anderson’s. He pointed to a number of Garry oak trees in his back yard that are strictly protected. Similar restrictions govern most small, private property owners. But Saysell points out that logging companies with timber holdings on private land are not subject to the same forest management policies as those with timber rights on public land. Under the Private Managed Forest Land Act, he says, such companies pay far lower taxes than other private land holders. This is purportedly an incentive to replant for future harvesting. The lower taxes nevertheless represent a subsidy. The public has a right, indeed an obligation, he says, to recover that subsidy, should the company decide to sell forest land for other purposes after logging it. If they sell forest land to developers, Saysell argues, “then they should be taxed at the higher land value [for housing] retroactively, right back to the time they first purchased the land.” “In my experience,” says Anderson, “if somebody takes the benefit of lower taxes, then the state has a say in management.” Saysell, the former faller, makes a cogent argument for imposing the same management practices, guided by environmental science and rigorous cost/benefit analysis, on both public and private forest land. “Government has to enact new regulations for private managed forest lands, especially for harvesting methods and annual cut rates that will have sufficient rules and laws in them to stop these unsustainable and irresponsible practices that are destroying our beautiful Cowichan River and Cowichan watershed.” Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. He’s the author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.
  2. Climate change is exacerbating forest fires, including—perhaps especially—where the wild meets suburbia. FOR TERRIFYING SPECTACLE, few events match the full-throated fury of a crowning forest fire. Such a fire moves fast. Sheets of flame flash through the canopy under a seething orange wall as high as a 30-storey skyscraper, with pillars of smoke that can tower 50 times that height. I live in Greater Victoria’s forested fringe—the “wildland-urban interface” in Fire Boss lingo. Like many, I’m watching trees around me die from climate warming. I confess, there is now seldom a day during the still, tinder-dry afternoons of high summer when the leaves suddenly rustle in an abrupt breeze, that I don’t step outside to nervously sniff the air for that smudgy whiff of woodsmoke. Forest fires menacing Williams Lake residential district in July 2017 (Photo: courtesy Ministry of Lands, Forest and Natural Resources) Big fires make their own weather. They suck moisture out of the atmosphere, drying and heating to a flashpoint what’s already dry and hot. They create windstorms to feed their appetite for oxygen. Tornadoes of superheated flame spin away. Trees shriek as they vaporize at 1,200°C—although physics says the noise is sap transforming instantly to steam. Should this holocaust scenario concern most of us in our comfortable, tree-shaded city homes? Increasingly, warn scientists and emergency measures specialists, the uncomfortable conclusion is “Yes.” Chris Bone, an expert on the role of climate change and forest policies in driving wildfires and other events, contemplates wildfire from above a native plant garden at the University of Victoria. He thinks that like the great earthquake which may happen tomorrow—or a hundred years from now—the visitation of urban wildfire is not a question of “if,” but “when.” We generally live as though catastrophe weren’t imminent. In truth, conditions already exist here that make fires like those in California or Alberta possible. “A lot of people think we live in the rainforest and that’s exacerbating the problem,” says Bone, an assistant professor in geography. “We don’t live in the rainforest. We have more of a ‘coastal California’ climate. The south island does not get a lot of rain in the summers.” If climate models are right—so far, they’ve been accurate—climate warming will make this region even more susceptible to wildfire. He’s careful to point out that while people crave certainty in the face of uncertainty, and simplicity rather than complexity, the impact of our looming climate emergency won’t be linear in progression. There’ll be variability in seasonal weather. Trends are the concern—frequency, length, and intensity of extreme weather episodes, whether wet or dry, cold or hot. One consistency in those urban wildfires devastating communities in the United States for the past few decades is this: they occur during dry spells after three to four days of very hot temperatures and then, as winds tick up, they overwhelm firefighters. Since 2014, almost 50 firefighters have been killed trying to contain wildfires in the US, 19 of them one entire crew of “hotshot” specialists. They perished together in a conflagration threatening the town of Yarnell, Arizona in 2013. Crowning fires first flash through the dry canopy and then incinerate what’s beneath, fed by ground cover and debris. The speed with which they can accelerate is mind-boggling. Artist Frank Ebermann built his house and studio in a pristine, tranquil forest landscape about a 20-minute drive south of Houston on the Yellowhead Highway, midway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. At the end of May, 1983, he heard heavy equipment thundering past his studio. The trucks carried fire suppression specialists. But they weren’t going to a fire; they were running from one. Ebermann scooped up his little daughter Amai, his wife Sophia, and fled, too. That blaze, dubbed “Swiss Burn,” was a monster, set loose by an angler’s campfire. Eight minutes later the fire covered a square kilometre. Two hours later it was 10 square kilometres. It expanded by one square kilometre per hour. Smoke eclipsed the sun. Flaming embers showered out of the darkness. After seven hours, smouldering ash and charred snags covered an area the size of Victoria, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, View Royal and Colwood combined. “It was like Dante’s Inferno,” Ebermann told me. “Valleys boiling with flames. The burn made its own firestorm, uprooting the trees as it went.” In minutes, he and seven other families were homeless. The experience had one other big effect. “This fire tore me away from any materialism,” he said. “We want to own the beautiful scenery. But we never really own anything.” Aerial drop of fire retardant near an Ashcroft home (Photo: courtesy Ministry of Lands, Forest and Natural Resources) In 2018, similar fires swept through Paradise, California. They burned so hot, car tires melted. So did the sneakers of those trying to flee on foot through the streets. Images from that fire, in which people burned to death in their escape vehicles, haunt Bone—especially when he considers them in the context of new residential developments in Greater Victoria’s wildland-urban interface. “I think about Paradise and how trapped those people were. Those people had no way to escape. I look at an area like that [wildland-urban interface development in Langford, for example] and I have real concern. How strategic are we being?” Not very, according to a 2018 study for the B.C. government. Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia by George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman is a disturbing restatement of warnings provided by successive provincial auditors-general over almost 20 years. “Despite earnest efforts,” it said, “BC has made disappointingly little progress on the goal of enhanced community safety since 2003.” It said at least 80 communities have completed wildfire protection plans but half of them still haven’t done anything to actually mitigate risk by reducing on-the-ground-fuel, clearing underbrush, or thinning forest stands adjacent to residential districts. A 2015 study by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a think tank for Canada’s insurance industry, concluded that in Kelowna, where 239 homes were burned during a wildland-urban interface fire in 2003, present conditions could result in a repeat disaster. Reasons for inaction given by municipal politicians, the BC government report said, are that tax dollars are committed to building and maintaining water, sewer, roads, street lights, parks, recreation, and solid waste disposal. The infrastructure supports residential growth and thus an expanded tax base. Forests adjacent to residential development are deemed somebody else’s problem and responsibility. But whose problem does it become if a crowning wildfire rips through a city’s residential fringe? THAT'S A QUESTION WE SHOULD ALL ASK our municipal governments. In Slave Lake, Alberta in 2011, planners said that the city’s evacuation seemed unthinkable. The next day thousands bolted through flames and smoke so thick they couldn’t see where they were driving. In Fort McMurray, in 2016, thousands were again forced to run a gauntlet of fire, escaping while fire destroyed 2,400 buildings and insured losses approached $4 billion. In Portugal, in 2017, 30 people burned in their vehicles while trying to escape a blaze; 17 more died trying to flee abandoned vehicles on foot. Scores of tourists in Greece died when they were trapped by wildfire. And the risk here grows, it does not diminish. Research published last year in the International Journal of Wildland Fire estimates more than 55,000 square kilometres in B.C. now lie in the wildfire-urban interface. The authors of Mapping Canadian Wildland Fire Interface Areas, Lynn Johnston of Natural Resources Canada and Mike Flannigan of the University of Alberta, conclude that this danger zone both expands and becomes more hazardous with climate warming. In Greater Victoria, for example, expect the frequency of very hot days to reach an average of 36 per summer. Hottest day temperatures are projected to rise to 36°C. And while we’ll get more precipitation overall, summer rainfall will dwindle by at least 20 percent while days of drought will lengthen by 20 percent. Vancouver Island was already rated at a Level Three drought—one notch below the driest tier—before the end of May this year. In the Comox Valley, only 34 per cent of normal rainfall arrived. In Kelowna, the rainfall was 50 percent less. And it’s been hot. More than 30 daytime high temperature records were broken across the province on a single day in March. Furthermore, as it gets hotter and dryer, lightning storms will become more frequent. Right now, Canada gets about 2.25 million lightning strikes per year. They are responsible for almost half our wildfires—humans start slightly more than 50 percent. There will be 12 percent more strikes for every degree of global temperature rise. For every two lightning strikes today, there will soon be three. In BC, Addressing the New Normal found that more than 16,000 square kilometres of forest pose high to moderate risk of wildfires expanding rapidly into major residential areas. Worse, it warns that such wildfires—which are now bigger, burn hotter and move faster because of global warming—are becoming the norm. “The wildfire zone is not only getting closer to people, but people are getting closer to the wildfire zone,” the study points out, citing BC Auditor General Wayne Strelioff’s 2001 report Managing Interface Fire Risks; former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon’s report Firestorm, triggered by events in 2003; and present Auditor General Carol Bellringer’s 2018 assessment of subsequent foot-dragging and inaction. This too is a concern, considering that people caused more than half the wildfires that cost BC taxpayers $3 billion between 2003 and 2017. “British Columbia has the highest risk of interface fires in Canada because of its climate and topography,” the report by Abbott and Chapman reiterates. The risks are increasing as a result of two key factors—the continuing growth in the number of people choosing to live in or near the forests and grassland areas and the significant buildup of forest fuels resulting from years of successful fire suppression activities. “Fire experts fear that, if actions are not taken soon to reduce the risks associated with interface fires, it is only a matter of time before these fires will exceed firefighters’ ability to contain them and that this might lead to significant loss of life and property,” the report warns. Clearly, it’s time we had a vigorous, engaged, adult conversation at the community level about the danger zone at the fringes of Greater Victoria, where residential districts bleed into forest land and forest intrudes into the built landscape. Often, these fringes are among the most desirable neighbourhoods. They offer shady, countrified respite from the noise, heat, traffic and pavement of downtown. Developers like them because they sell quickly. And, in the short term, revenue-hungry municipal politicians appear to discount long-term hazards against short-term revenue gains. The wildland-urban interface on the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria, as seen from the top of PKOLS/Mount Douglas (Photo: Stephen Hume) Wildfire science calls it “the expanding bull’s-eye effect.” As a city expands from its centre, the fire-exposed perimeter lengthens, placing larger areas within the danger zone. Visit Greater Victoria’s tony, up-market neighbourhoods at Broadmead, Dean Park or some of the newer subdivisions in Langford, for example, and houses and gardens are deeply integrated into heavily forested slopes. Yet housing developments zoned on forested hillsides are also at highest risk. Fire moves fastest (in California they moved with explosive speed) while burning up-slope, where canopy and underbrush are close to structures. This forest-city interface is where risk is greatest for conflagrations like those which forced evacuations of 200,000 people in BC and Alberta alone over the last 15 years. More than 36,000 wild-land-urban interface homes and businesses have now been razed across California, BC and Alberta. As environmental writer Glen Martin recently observed in California Magazine: “From a firefighter’s perspective, wildland-urban interface combines the worst of both realms (suburb and forest): interface areas are not only cheek-to-jowl with fuel-rich forests, they’re also often characterized by dense housing tracts landscaped with lush, highly flammable vegetation. Today’s wildfires, in short, are not your grandpa’s wildfires; they’re usually hybrid-human started fires, involving both structures and forests, which greatly complicates the task for wildfire fighters and escalates the cost in life and property.” GREATER VICTORIA might serve as a textbook model of wildland-urban interface fire hazard. The city expanded from a 75-kilometre bull’s eye to one with a 1,650-kilometre circumference of wildland-urban interface. In addition, an urban forest covers much of its footprint. A Habitat Acquisition Trust study published in 2008 calculated that about 40 percent of Greater Victoria’s 696.2 square kilometre land area was then under tree canopy. Considering that the urban core of Victoria has 150,000 trees in a scant 19.5 square kilometres, similar density would mean perhaps five million trees over the rest of the capital region, even with declines in forested area. This forest is highly valued by residents—for good reason. It’s a central element in regional identity. It provides shade and greenery to offset pavement. It lessens runoff. It adds to biodiversity by offering habitat to urban wildlife. It produces oxygen, stores carbon and absorbs both air and water pollutants. Yet there’s a tradeoff. Many trees are non-native and drought-intolerant. They contribute to the deepening fire hazard. This alone warrants frank public discussion about what faces the City as summer rains diminish, temperatures rise, and very hot days and very dry spells become more frequent and last much longer. “We need to rethink our approach to urban landscape and start planning it in a much more holistic way,” says Johan Feddema, who studies the consequences of human actions on the environment and the effects of climate change upon society. The UVic scientist has examined the impacts of climate conditions upon severe crown fires. Everybody loves the urban forest, he notes, but it has a downside. During transpiration, trees extract water from the ground and transfer it to dry air. US Geological Survey scientists calculate that one large deciduous tree can extract 150,000 litres a year from surface soil—most during summer months when foliage is heaviest. And the hotter it gets, the greater the rate. Our beloved shade trees may actually be helping to dry out their surroundings faster during extended droughts. Does that mean we should mow down the urban forest? Of course not. Trees are important for sequestering carbon, and deciduous hardwoods like native oak and maple are among the top carbon-storers. Feddema says we should be aware of these natural processes and think about different kinds and mixes of vegetation—drought and fire-resistant native plants—and how to design urban infrastructure for cooling rather than for convenience or architectural aesthetic. Plan for more open green space, but with warming-appropriate vegetation. Even the shape and placement of green space and tall buildings in the urban core can enhance or inhibit circulation patterns that might be cooling other parts of the city. “Yes,” muses Feddema, “we need to think creatively about advocating for a holistic way of planning, designing and building our city.” Bone echoes that idea. If municipalities continue with zoning that permits residential dwellings in the wildland-urban interface hazard zone, he says, they have an obligation to engage in vigorous proactive education of residents about the dangers. An example of the education needed is warning people that one of the biggest risks that their house will burn down during a wildfire is as simple as needles collecting in rain gutters. And how many of us actually know our urban evacuation routes, have mapped alternative routes, or have even thought about what we will do if those carefully planned evacuation routes are blocked? The Capital Regional District voted unanimously last February to declare a climate emergency. It’s a worthy initiative. But, like many such programs, it seems heavy on mission statements and global plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and less emphatic about practical but painful local decisions like reforming building codes or enacting stringent zoning bylaws which address the threat of urban wildfire. Emergency measures planners provide clear directions about what needs to be done: reduce ground fuel; increase the allowable margin between houses and forest cover; mandate flame-resistant building materials; regulate garden shrubbery and landscaping. One 2010 study found that by treating 10 percent of the adjacent forest landscape as a buffer zone in which ground fuel is removed, trees thinned and limbed, and underbrush cleared, risk of wildfire loss is reduced 70 percent. Considering that between 2014 and 2017, wildfires in western Canada and the US cost insurers almost $60 billion (CAD) in structural losses, this is something to think seriously about. IN CANADA AND BC, the danger trend is relentlessly upward. Wildfire scientists don’t doubt this is a direct consequence of our developing climate emergency. Right now, on average, 70,000 people and 20 communities a year in Canada are directly affected by wildfire events. That’s a 40 percent increase since 1980. BC tops the national list. And the trend will accelerate, not slow, as climate warms and summers get hotter and dryer. Ottawa expects the annual cost of fire protection to double by 2040. Some experts now argue that the former worst-case looks more like a future best-case as human beings pour planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than at any time in human history. Fires of once-unimaginable intensity that happened every 20 years now occur every year. And the risks today are greater because wildfire-urban interface areas are vastly larger. By mid-May, half a month early, the 2019 fire season was already in full swing. Almost 14,000 fire refugees had already been evacuated from a vast arc through northern BC and Alberta and culminating in northern Ontario. Last year, 2018, was the worst on record for wildfires, dislocated populations, secondary health effects—emergency admissions for respiratory ailments doubled in BC as smoke became pervasive—and soaring fire suppression costs. In California, 81 people were dead, 870 were missing and almost 19,000 buildings had been destroyed in four hours. The year before that, 2017, had been the worst until 2018. In 2016, more than 88,000 people were evacuated as wildfire ripped through Fort McMurray in Alberta and destroyed 2,400 buildings. The year before that, 2015, was the worst-ever fire season for the US, representing a 133 percent increase over the long-term 50-year average in wildfire burn. No one welcomes a bearer of bad news, but it’s obvious that some version of the fire demon is waiting to visit itself upon Greater Victoria. We can’t prevent wildfire, it’s part of our environment, but we can adapt intelligently. Time to start thinking and talking seriously about that. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers.
  3. How is a metals manufacturing plant in the midst of a fish-bearing estuary even possible? WINTRY LIGHT SPLINTERED THE HORIZON above the Saanich Peninsula. A flooding tide announced itself. First a faint slurping over mud flats. Then an almost imperceptible jostling of driftwood, a stirring of the sedges and the occasional surge and splash of something off in the early morning twilight—maybe a dog otter hunting the tide line. Maybe that rarity now, a big fish. I shrugged deeper into my sweater, watching the lights come on at Cowichan Bay through ghostly breath, warm splashes of buttery yellow along the dark south shore. It was a cold morning reminiscent of those more than half a century ago, when I’d tempt chunky sea-run cutthroat prowling the estuary shallows. I never dreamed I’d one day contemplate those teenaged memories through the prism of existential risk. But that’s how I felt, talking last April to gob-smacked scientists about a plan to rezone the heart of the Cowichan estuary for development of a metals manufacturing facility on an old log sort they had naively assumed would be phased out during environmental rehabilitation. An aerial view of the former lumber loading terminal in the Cowichan estuary for which an application for rezoning to permit metals manufacturing and fabrication is working its way through local government. What was perturbing—and remains so whatever the outcome (a final decision was expected this spring)—was the process. A rezoning application was filed in 2017 after the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) noted that current use of the site was not in compliance with a land-use bylaw in force for 30 years. In 2018, the provincial government, without doing an environmental impact assessment, advised the CVRD that on the basis of “information provided” regarding the zoning change, the use would have no detrimental environmental impact. Since then, the proposed amendment has advanced through two readings by the CVRD on a tight 5-4 vote. That triggered requirement for a public hearing. One was held March 25. It was contentious. So many concerned citizens showed up that dozens couldn’t get in, which raises questions about the “public” aspect of the hearing. How could something so significant for the Cowichan Valley take shape on such a narrow margin of approval by elected officials without authorities concluding right from the outset that an independent, fully objective environmental impact assessment was needed, wondered the scientists with whom I talked. The optics—for regional governments; for the Province; for the NDP’s minister of environment; even for the Green Party—seemed remarkably adverse. “It’s easy to assume there’s no environmental risk if they don’t look,” said Carol Hartwig, a biologist who lives on the bay. “The regional district defines this so narrowly that they don’t take any responsibility for the broader issue of the estuary. We have a national and provincial treasure that’s being held hostage by a local process.” THE COWICHAN RIVER IS BRITISH COLUMBIA'S BLUE-RIBBON trout stream. Both a national and a provincial heritage river, it remains a premium experience for elite anglers. A hundred years ago, daily action on the Cowichan appeared in the New York Times. Catches were posted outside posh London clubs. And the river was as renowned for mighty chinook and muscular coho salmon as it was for trout. Chinook returns to the Cowichan once numbered more than 25,000. Coho came back by 70,000 or more. Old-timers who had bucktailed for coho and trolled for chinook with spoons hammered from sardine tin lids trailed behind dugout canoes told me that when late summer runs came to the Cowichan, you could hear them. A silvery rustle of jumping, rolling, swirling salmon sliding down the coast, holding in the bay in such vast numbers that one couldn’t look to any point of the compass without seeing a fish in the air. The watersheds that feed the Cowichan and its twin, the Koksilah, cover 1,200 square kilometres. The streams tumble seaward through a series of secluded canyons, waterfalls, punchbowls, rapids and the slow, shadowy pools beloved of anglers. Flanking the streams are 20 kilometres of trails. The two rivers have become marquee destinations for hikers, white-water kayakers, campers, picnickers and the tubers who gather by the thousands on sunny summer weekends to drift calm sections. At Cowichan Bay, the two rivers meander through the most important estuary on Vancouver Island’s southeast coast. Ducks Unlimited ranks it as one of BC’s most important. The BC Nature Trust classes it as having international significance for migratory birds. Indeed, although estuaries like Cowichan Bay comprise only 2.3 percent of BC’s coastline, they sustain 80 percent of the province’s wildlife. For thousands of years before European settlers arrived in 1862, the estuary—the name Cowichan is an anglicized attempt at the Halkomelem word which means land warmed by the sun—served as a feast bowl for the powerful tribes occupying seven traditional village sites. But, like many of these critical habitats, the estuary has been abused, brutalized and heedlessly exploited since the first European settlers came to pillage it without regard for the people already living there. Indigenous resource rights were alienated as early as 1889 when fish weirs used for in-river selective harvesting were banned under a federal Fisheries Act amendment that effectively transferred the fishery to settlers. The estuary has since been diked, ditched, the rivers used as sewers, the floodplain carved up into farm fields, paved over, built upon, the bay dredged, riddled with pilings coated in toxic creosote, its foreshore chewed up by log booms, the bottom littered with oxygen-sucking bark debris. Upstream, householders stripped riparian cover to improve their views, and loggers cleared headwaters, accelerating freshets and increasing erosion and downstream flooding. A pulp mill sucks 150 million litres a day from the river—its license permits it to draw down 240 million litres a day. Municipalities draw millions of cubic metres from the watershed for drinking, sewerage, commercial and agricultural use and, in return, generate nearly 50 million litres of wastewater a day. Up to now, treated effluent has been discharged into the river. Even seemingly benign tourists pose a threat. Last summer, concerns arose over the impact upon the aquatic insects and micro-organisms on which juvenile trout and salmon rely of sunscreen slathered on by sun-safe tubers. And yet, for all the ravaging, serious work has been done to remediate. An enlightened pulp mill cooperates with community watershed planners to sustain migrating fish. Fisheries specialists worked tirelessly to restore salmon runs. Guides used buckets to rescue salmon fry stranded in summer side pools. Plans are afoot for an outfall that will no longer discharge treated wastewater into the river, but into the deeps of Satellite Channel which separates Salt Spring and Vancouver Islands. Then, in one of those mind-boggling disconnects by which politicians recite environmental platitudes while embracing policies that appear to say the opposite, the Cowichan Valley Regional District moved ahead this spring with plans to rezone the former log-loading dump in the middle of the beleaguered estuary for redevelopment as an industrial metals manufacturing and fabricating facility. THE NEW PLAN WAS POPULAR WITH JOBS ENTHUSIASTS. Supporters for re-zoning the site showed up at a public hearing on March 12 flaunting fluorescent safety vests. Perhaps that was just tone-deaf solidarity but it’s difficult not to feel resonance with the Yellow Vests adopted by a resurgent populist right wing that takes a strident anti-environmental stance. In any event, industry supporters promptly stereotyped the opposition as NIMBY elitists. Critics of the plan, some of whom have lived on Cowichan Bay for more than 40 years, found themselves characterized as whiney, job-killing newcomers who built houses and then complained about the working harbour in their view. But others, particularly life scientists, were appalled, not so much by the proposal—anybody has a right to propose anything—as by the process. They complained that regional politicians appeared to be fast-tracking development without requiring an independent environmental assessment, something critics argued was both essential and required by the Province’s own policy. The historic relationship between industry and the environment in BC’s estuaries has not been exemplary. The Georgia Strait Alliance, an environmental organization focused on the Salish Sea, estimates half the Cowichan estuary has already been lost. The BC government itself observes that all estuaries in the province remain highly vulnerable. “Every estuary wetland vegetation type in British Columbia is red-listed (endangered) or blue-listed (special concern),” the government says in its own backgrounder. “Naturally rare and subject to multiple threats in both urban and wilderness areas, these tiny jewels in British Columbia’s coastline will require both protection and stewardship if they are to last.” Which raises a profound question. If this is true, why would the Province not insist from the outset that any proposal to change land use to allow expanded industrial development in an internationally significant estuary undergo a comprehensive environmental risk assessment? Among those expressing dismay at official assumptions that developing a metals fabrication site in the middle of a sensitive estuary would have no significant environmental impact were iconic names from British Columbia’s fish and wildlife management. Ray Demarchi, who retired as BC’s chief of wildlife after a stellar 28-year career, has lived on Cowichan Bay for more than 20 years. He suggested the process represented small-minded, small-town thinking, and an inability to conceptualize in the larger environmental picture. “Incredibly,” Demarchi said, “the Cowichan Valley Regional District accepted the assumption that changing the zoning from one that permitted lumber storage and shipping to one that included heavy metal manufacturing and assembly was not a significant change in land use.” He noted, “The Cowichan Valley is deeply divided on this issue. Past environmental battles, including the contaminated soils site at Shawnigan and the proposed dismantling of the Hood Canal bridge in Cowichan Bay, have eroded the faith of the public in government, and particularly those charged with the stewardship of the estuary.” Those were harsh words for an NDP government which, in opposition, railed against the then-Liberal government’s apparent ambivalence to complaints about the contentious Shawnigan landfill, and for the Green Party, whose Cowichan MLA Sonia Furstenau made zoning and environmental assessment key issues while campaigning against the landfill as a regional director with the CVRD. The process shot fault lines through municipal government itself. The community of North Cowichan, one of more than 20 in the regional district, passed motions in early March demanding a fully independent environmental assessment of the rezoning proposal before any final decision. Also calling for an assessment were a former president of the BC Wildlife Federation, the Cowichan Valley Naturalist’s Society, a retired BC assistant deputy minister of environment who just happened to be the Province’s former specialist in Pacific estuaries, and even David Anderson, the highly-esteemed former federal fisheries and environment minister. Anderson’s signature topped those of 16 scientists who wrote to Premier John Horgan in early April with a warning: approving the rezoning without first doing a full environmental assessment basically trashed the Province’s vigorously-promoted support for salvaging chinook abundance, and the southern resident orcas that eat them. “If we do not seize this opportunity to protect the estuary from increasing industrialization, then a critical moment for the future of chinook and orcas will be lost,” Anderson and the others warned. “And this could mean that the $228.5 million that the Canadian Federal Government has allocated for orcas and much of the $145 million now promised by the Province for salmon recovery will be wasted. In addition, it jeopardizes the $1.1 billion being targeted for orcas by Washington State. Large programs begin with difficult local choices.” And the citizen experts went further: The government’s own rationale for going forward without a full formal environmental assessment was “so inadequate and contradictory that it is clearly meaningless and insufficient to provide any direction or to establish whether or not there are ‘detrimental impacts.’” They told Horgan that contrary to how their opposition was characterized, they were not opposed to industrial metal manufacturing in the Cowichan Valley. They were opposed to the proposed location. And they argued two similar operations were already operating at a fully serviced site that was more compatible and secure for long-term industrial jobs. “Estuaries are irreplaceable,” they told Horgan. “Industrial jobs can be relocated. In short, the rezoning application must be disallowed.” Geoffrey Chislett, a respected former BC fisheries habitat biologist, in a letter to environment minister George Heyman in early February, criticized government for sloughing off a nettlesome issue by declaring it a local concern. “A large effort is being made through the Wild Salmon Advisory Council to try to turn the past trajectory of provincial concern for salmon around,” Chislett said. “A metal fabrication and assembly plant in this estuary will not help this. A huge amount of work has gone into rehabilitating the Cowichan to the point where chinook returns are back to sustainable levels. Regardless of assurances, this operation will degrade the estuarine habitat over time.” Chislett’s fears were echoed by Bob Hooton, a former provincial fisheries biologist with an international reputation as a steelhead specialist. “We have a proposal to rezone Cowichan terminal into a marine metal manufacturing centre in the middle of an estuary that can do nothing but harm to some of the most important salmon-bearing habitat we have in the only major chinook producer still on its feet,” Hooton said. “What sense does that make?” To make things worse, Hooton observes, Cowichan River chinook are particularly important to southern resident orcas because, unlike chinook from other rivers, they tend to stay in the Salish Sea during their ocean life rather than migrating to the west coast of Vancouver Island or into the Gulf of Alaska. “They are a potentially important contributor to orcas’ conservation and recovery.” Elders from the powerful Cowichan Tribes once told me that the tides “set the table” in Cowichan Bay and its estuary, providing an astonishing abundance of shellfish, crabs, herring, salmon, ducks, geese, wild fruit and edible plants. Today, the shellfish are contaminated—although there’s been a local goal to restore harvests—and the once-teeming salmon runs are such a faint memory that when heroic efforts to reverse salmon declines saw 8,000 chinook return, there was practically dancing in the streets. But it’s the shellfish and their potential contamination with metals that topped concerns for Hartwig, the retired biologist who lives on the bay. She worried that the proposed operation would create potential for metal contaminants to wash into the estuary. “Metal manufacturing can involve toxic materials like solvents, paints and welding slag among the obvious metals such as lead, aluminum and zinc,” Hartwig said. In fact, research now shows that copper oxide particles so small that 100,000 would fit on a human hair are damaging to aquatic insects and immature trout. She said runoff during more frequent extreme rainfall events, a predicted consequence of climate change, and flooding caused by more frequent storm surges during a period of sea level rise, another predicted consequence of global warming, are possible vectors for metal contaminants to enter the estuary. That alone, she said, would likely end the dream of a return to shellfish harvesting in Cowichan Bay by 2020. Federal standards governing metals contamination of shellfish are stringent and would mean any restoration plan would likely be dead before completion, she said. “As long as there is metal fabrication in the bay, we will never be able to harvest shellfish.” Her worries find support in a 2013 study by James Meador of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, which examined whether contaminants, including metals, affected juvenile chinook salmon. Meador found that the survival rate of juvenile chinook transiting contaminated estuaries was cut in half, compared with chinook moving through uncontaminated estuaries. AS I CONTEMPLATED ALL THIS, I walked through the village of Cowichan Bay which, as resource industries declined, reinvented itself as a thriving tourist destination. Like an east-coast Tofino, it offers kayaking, bird-watching, whale-watching, angling, artisan shops, a nature centre dedicated to the estuary, art galleries, quirky diners and high-end restaurants, a wooden boat museum, waterfront accommodation overlooking slips and float houses, and easy access to nature. I visited the Rock Cod Café, then took a croissant from True Grain Bread out on the Maritime Centre boardwalk and watched a wooden sailing dinghy extricate itself from a cramped moorage below. Cowichan Bay is representative of how the regional district markets the Cowichan Valley to the 4.4 million tourists who spent $1.7 billion on Vancouver Island in 2014, a whopping 63 percent of whom ranked sightseeing, nature and wildlife viewing as their primary interest. Another 40 percent came to visit national and provincial parks. And 15 percent came to fish. Statistics Canada found that marine manufacturing and service represented 2,500 jobs in the Pacific region in 2006. Tourism sustains 20,000 jobs on Vancouver Island, and has generated $135 billion in revenue since 2006. The cranes and sheds that local jobs enthusiasts wanted to expand into a metal fabricating and manufacturing site sit precisely 650 metres off Cowichan Bay village. How would that reconcile with the tourist pitch of “a place where people live in harmony with their natural environment” where “fish and wildlife thrive in a mosaic of natural habitat and breathtaking views are found around every corner?” Breathtaking views, indeed. In someone’s imagination, perhaps, tourists might throng to Cowichan Bay to share coffee and a croissant at dockside while thrilling at the view of cranes and heavy industry. My bet is that the music of welders and the smell of paint wouldn’t be high on the “Let’s come back for more of that!” list. Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
  4. The commercial herring roe fishery in the Salish Sea may be the final nail in the coffin of chinook, resident orca and seabirds. In June of 1893, a small steam tug thumped past Nanaimo. Abruptly, the sea began to seethe. It was a herring school so vast it took three hours to traverse. The school was 70 kilometres across. A century earlier, Captain George Vancouver’s log for June 1792 recorded another astonishing sight—whale spouts at every point of the compass. They were humpback whales. Herring provide up to half a humpback’s daily energy requirements. The herring school reported 125 years ago was only one of many spawning in the Salish Sea. From February to mid-summer, milt turned the water milky. Each female laid up to 134,000 eggs upon eelgrass, kelp fronds and the hemlock and cedar boughs that First Nations have been placing in the water since time immemorial to harvest the sticky masses they called “skoe.” Herring spawned in Brentwood Bay, Esquimalt Harbour, Long Harbour, Plumper Sound, Kuleet Bay, Baynes Sound, Lambert Channel, Fulford Harbour, Squamish, Semiahoo Bay, Nanaimo Harbour, Sansum Narrows, around Puget Sound and at an unknown number of smaller locations. Even today the occasional remnant of a herring run through Greater Victoria’s Gorge Narrows draws crowds. First Nations herring camps were everywhere. Herring bones represent the single most abundant species found in excavations of coastal First Nations sites. Yet we know of that immense herring school witnessed off Nanaimo only because the tugboat crew thought it so remarkable, they told a federal official. And in 1906, he mentioned it in one of those dry reports to Parliament that gather dust. Today, although fisheries experts doggedly insist that herring in the Salish Sea are sufficient to sustain a roe harvest, some data are worrisome. One survey from 2009 shows 53 percent of major historic herring spawning areas in the Salish Sea now in serious decline. Seining Pacific herring in the Salish Sea near Parksville Courtenay-Alberni’s NDP Member of Parliament Gord Johns asked at the end of January for a moratorium on harvesting roe herring. Jonathan Wilkinson, the Liberal fisheries minister from North Vancouver, responded by recommending a commercial harvest quota of 25,760 tonnes from the Salish Sea (with a 30,000 tonne cap). Of five herring fisheries areas off the BC coast, three are closed and one is restricted to traditional roe-on-kelp harvests. Only the one in the Salish Sea is deemed to have sufficient stock to support a commercial fishery. “As I said, we make our decisions based on science,” Wilkinson said. The uninvited question, however, is this: If science is so good at predicting abundance, why are 80 percent of herring sites now closed? The chorus of reassurance should not surprise. We’ve fished stocks to collapse before, amid repeated assurances that the fisheries science shows harvests to be sustainable. Tony Pitcher, a scientist at the University of British Columbia specializing in aquatic ecosystems, noted the irony 20 years ago. “The failure of fisheries science, paradoxically one of the most sophisticated mathematical fields within the discipline of applied ecology, is creating both trauma and denial among its practitioners…These failures are chronic and well-documented and are commonly responded to by many of our colleagues in a range of voices that seek to deflect and deny,” he wrote. In the 1950s, overfishing of Japan’s herring led to a collapse. In the 1960s, the California sardine fishery collapsed. Herring fisheries in Alaska and BC were closed in the 1960s after overfished stocks collapsed. Overfishing destroyed herring stocks off Iceland, Norway and Russia around the same time. In 1972, the overfished Peruvian anchovy fishery collapsed. In 1992, Canada’s Atlantic cod went the way of the herring, sardines and anchovies. Cod stocks that had supported Newfoundland fisheries for 500 years suddenly fell to one percent of what it had been at its maximum biomass. Fisheries managers frequently blame predictive failures upon oceanic changes they can’t forecast. The North Pacific is often referred to as a “black box” in which mysterious things happen which affect salmon, herring, tuna and other fish. An anthropologist might describe this as magical rationalization—when the emperor of science turns out to wear no clothes, blame unseen, unknowable forces after the fact. Pitcher had another observation regarding colleagues who blamed environmental changes for fishery collapses: “Remember that these supposedly delicate fishes have survived 100 million years of sweeping and cyclic environmental changes, including a global catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs…!” What fish stocks apparently don’t survive is hubris. One common factor in these serial fisheries disasters is that regulators were convinced harvests were sustainable—until they suddenly weren’t. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing for British Columbians, perhaps this will. A global survey by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization concludes that 85 percent of all wild fish stocks are now overexploited, depleted, or recovering from severe depletion—and current science suggests recovery, while possible, is far from certain. “Many species have been hunted to fractions of their original populations. More than half of global fisheries are exhausted and a further third are depleted,” the UN agency reported in 2012. It suggests that our next generation may inherit barren oceans. At current rates of harvest, it notes, the world faces collapse of all wild seafood species currently being fished. Think herring. Then think chinook, coho, ling cod, rock fish, halibut, and so on. THIS SHOULDN’T BE NEWS. Twenty years ago, a team of eminent fisheries scientists at the University of BC offered a similar caution. Daniel Pauly and Johanne Dalsgaard, in a paper published in the prestigious journal Science entitled “Fishing Down the Food Webs,” wrote: “Marine fisheries are in a global crisis, mainly due to open access policies and subsidy-driven over-capitalization…The global crisis is mainly one of economics or of governance.” They warned that shifts in fish harvests from large predators to smaller fish, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, implies “major changes in the structure of marine food webs.” And, “It is likely that continuation of present trends will lead to wide spread fisheries collapses…” They argued that instead of focusing on catch—the doctrine of maximum sustained yield—fisheries management must recalibrate for aggressive rebuilding of fish populations within functional food webs left alone inside large “no-take” marine protected areas. Since 1935, with the full sanction of federal authorities, we’ve done the opposite with herring. Industry extracted six million tons of herring from BC waters, at first for human consumption but then mostly for reduction into fish oil and fertilizer and, for the last 50 years or so, purportedly to sell herring roe in Japan. I say “purportedly” because critics claim most herring caught in the roe fishery—100 percent of the males and about 90 percent of the females—actually wind up as feed for pets and farmed fish. This creates another ethical conundrum. Critics complain that federal law bans the use of wild fish for non-human consumption. Section 31, sub-section 1 of the federal Fisheries Act prohibits converting wild fish into “fish meal, manure, guano or fertilizer, or for the manufacture or conversion of the fish into oil, fish meal or manure or other fertilizing product.” Of course, there’s a loophole in sub-section 2. It gives the fisheries minister discretion to exempt any wild fish from the requirements of sub-section 1. Herring spawn off the south end of Denman Island (Photo courtesy Jake Berman) Just to put the total herring harvest into big picture-perspective, we’ve now prevented more than 43 billion herring from spawning. That number represents about 2.8 quadrillion—yes, that’s quadrillion—herring by eggs never laid. Of course, not all herring eggs hatch, and not all that do will survive to spawn in adulthood. But herring killed as eggs have zero chance of survival. Their genes are erased from the reproductive pool. They are not even potential forage. Thus we forego future herring to provide tidbits for Japanese gourmands who destroyed their own herring stocks. Meanwhile, First Nations foragers in BC are denied their own ancient traditions. This raises ethical questions about the sincerity of promises to First Nations. The Douglas Treaties, which govern half a dozen Coast Salish tribal groups on southern Vancouver Island, are clear. In exchange for access to First Nations lands, those nations are guaranteed the right to hunt, fish and forage “as formerly.” If access to herring and chinook are denied because the resource has been commercially over-exploited by non-First Nations, we abrogate solemn treaty promises. How does that square with the official rhetoric of reconciliation? AUTHORITIES SAY SALISH SEA HERRING POPULATIONS have returned to historic levels of abundance. Not everyone agrees. Herring activist David Ellis is a former commercial fisherman, biologist, and one-time member of the federal government’s gold-standard Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Ellis says the estimated biomass for today’s so-called “historic” level of abundance is about the equivalent of one season’s catch 50 years ago. He thinks the roe herring fishery should be stopped. “Yes. And banned forever. You have to look to Japan to see how destructive it is over time. And for First Nations it means cultural genocide as they lose herring eggs which are as key to their culture as salmon are.” “Massive overharvests in the reduction fishery era are documented. This was a massacre that we are still paying for. The roe herring fishery has knocked out [local] population after population and interviews with First Nations elders best illustrate this.” Ellis points to an enduring conflict within the management system—our emphasis on science at the expense of traditional knowledge. On the one hand, he argues, we have 10,000 years of intimate use-based First Nations knowledge regarding the herring resource. On the other, 100 years of “official” knowledge from government experts who presided over the extirpation of baleen whales from the Salish Sea, serial collapses of herring fisheries, endangered species status for eulachon and now for a dozen chinook populations. Fisheries regulators, remember, once identified orcas as threats to industry to be eradicated with .50-calibre machine guns, put a bounty on seals until they were almost exterminated, and oversaw the indiscriminate slaughter of the harmless, plankton-feeding basking shark, now listed by COSEWIC as an endangered species. The epicentre of surviving Salish Sea herring spawn is now off the East Coast of Vancouver Island. Since early February, seals, sea lions, porpoises and seabirds have been congregating for the feast. The predator species put on a raucous wildlife show. It brings tourists, sparks local festivals and, of course, attracts the ruthlessly efficient commercial harvesters. Grant Scott, a former commercial fisherman, is now an advocate for herring as president of Conservancy Hornby Island, a local organization which is leading a campaign to close the herring fishery outright. Scott urges thinking about herring as components in an ecological web that’s so important we shouldn’t fish herring stocks at all. (See their online petition.) Increasingly, environmentalists, First Nations, conservationists like Scott, sports anglers, and tourist-dependant communities that rely on other species for which herring is forage—chinook salmon, southern resident orcas, at least 40 species of sea birds, and, of course, the humans who make a living from whale watching and recreational sports fishing—want the Salish Sea herring fishery closed. Many argue herring’s value as forage far outweighs its value as industrial feedstock. BC’s tourism sector, much of it associated with outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing, generated $17 billion in 2016 revenue. Tidal sports angling, most of it directed at fishing for chinook which are dependent on herring, generated $3.2 billion. Whale watching of orcas, which rely on chinook, and humpbacks which eat herring, generates about $200 million a year in BC. The roe herring fishery was worth $33 million in 2016. On the jobs front too, the numbers are worth comparing. While commercial fishing employs about 1,100 people, saltwater sports fishing employs 5,000 and tourism on Vancouver Island employs more than 20,000. In fact, tourism in BC contributed five times more to provincial GDP than the entire agriculture and fisheries sectors combined. SINCE HERRING IS A KEY COMPONENT in the Salish Sea food chain, and since so many species which rely on herring are now either in steep decline or have begun disrupting other parts of the ecological web by switching predation patterns, the case for ending the herring fishery seems reasonable. Chinook, which prey on herring stocks, are now in such serious trouble that extinction for many Salish Sea populations seems possible. In its latest report, the federal science committee evaluating species at risk lists nine chinook populations as endangered, four as threatened, and one as being of special concern. About half of BC’s 28 chinook populations are now threatened with extirpation. Chinook salmon This is not a management crisis, it’s a looming catastrophe. It raises profound ethical dilemmas for politicians setting management policy. Southern resident orcas, which feed predominantly upon the now- vanishing chinook salmon, are also listed as an endangered population. It has dwindled to 74, a 35-year low, and biologists say two more are expected to starve to death by summer. Southern resident orca (Photo by MarkMallesonPhotography.com) It gets worse. A 2012 study of seabirds in the Salish Sea found that almost 40 percent—22 species—showed “significantly declining trends.” One group of seabirds, the forage fish feeders for whom herring are the most important food source, deserve special concern because of the steepness of the population declines, the researchers warned. The seabirds that deserve most attention (some have lost almost 20 percent of their populations)—the western grebe, the common loon, the horned grebe and the rhinoceros auklet—“feed largely on small, mid-water schooling bait (or forage) fish when in the Salish Sea. Pacific herring and Pacific sand lance (needlefish) are the two most important forage fish prey, particularly now that some species such as eulachon have collapsed.” The report says herring eggs and larvae are the two most important prey types for marine birds in the Salish Sea. So, is a declining abundance of herring a key in this large-scale unravelling of Salish Sea food chains? Ellis thinks so. “I believe that the loss of the local, non-migratory herring leaves the vast Salish Sea pasturage unused by large herring in the summer, and this has contributed very significantly to the decline of the orca and chinook,” he says. “Orcas need big chinook and chinook need big herring—and lots of both migratory and resident herring so they can use all areas [of the Salish Sea] as herring pastures.” One recent major study of the Salish Sea food web concludes that not enough chinook now remain to sustain orcas, seals, sea lions, sport fishing, and commercial harvests. Predictably, there’s now a clamour to cull seals and sea lions, although one study of 1,000 samples of seal scat in the San Juan Islands found that 60 percent of seals’ diet was herring. The question arises, why are seals increasing predation on dwindling chinook stocks if herring stocks, which historically provided more than half their diet, are at historic levels of abundance? SOME OF US ARE OLD ENOUGH to remember the kind of abundance that astonished Captain Vancouver 226 years ago and mesmerized that tugboat crew 125 years ago. That was before our Garden of Eden was laid to waste by greed and ignorance, scientific hubris, over-capitalization, corporate concentration, exoticized public tastes, and colonialist racism that marginalized Indigenous knowledge and Aboriginal fishing rights. Old-timers would advise anglers to watch for squabbling masses of gulls hovering and plunge diving. That would signal a herring ball, forced up by large chinook and coho feeding from below. Troll your cut herring strip, Lucky Louie plug, wobbly Tom Mack spoon or bucktail fly past that, the lure emulating a stunned or wounded bait fish, and you’d be pretty sure to get a strike. Herring in the Salish Sea were once so abundant that you didn’t have to buy bait. You took out a herring rake, a long paddle-like implement with teeth set into it like a comb, and simply swept live bait up and into the bottom of your boat. My father-in-law, who caught his first chinook from a dugout canoe in Cowichan Bay shortly after the First World War, used a herring rake. His is now an artifact in a museum, just as those recollections of the immense herring schools sweeping in and out of the Salish Sea to spawn each spring have been consigned to mostly-forgotten archives. Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula. More insights about the Salish Sea herring fishery in this video by Colby Rex O'Neill
  5. As this historian shows, the Royal BC Museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution. MORE THAN 60 YEARS AGO, while my mother shopped, I’d laze away unsupervised summer afternoons in the public galleries of the ornate east wing of British Columbia’s iconic legislature buildings. It was another world from our present provincial museum’s post-modernist structure, purpose-built in 1968 for dramatic dioramas, dynamic displays and public engagement—even now being modernized for the next 50 years of our digitally-enhanced century. The building was ornately decorated, but crowded with specimens of the province’s fauna (Image A-0308524 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives). The old museum remembered from childhood flaunted all the imposing trappings that romanticized colonial hubris—Romanesque arches, Greek columns, pilasters, cornices and tiled mosaics, all the sympathetic magic of imperialism, symbols of past glory invoked to inflate one’s own. Whatever its future might be, as Patricia Roy’s meticulous new history of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, The Collectors, reminded me with vivid intensity, our provincial museum indisputably began as Victorian trophy case. Where current visitors may stroll through a rather-more sedate version of Old Victoria, examine a full-sized mammoth in its Ice Age habitat, visit Captain George Vancouver’s spartan cabin or sit in a long house as Vancouver did with the whaling Chief Maquinna, I recall glass cabinets stuffed with skewered butterflies. Unusual marine specimens floated in jars of formaldehyde or were mounted like fishing trophies. Predators snarled amid big game shot by adventurers for whom specimen-gathering seemed an excuse for hunting expeditions. And there was a hypnotically-rich collection of First Nations ceremonial regalia, totems, tools, weapons and art, the display untroubled by cultural, social or historic context. When, as a child, I descended the time-worn stairs to the ethnographic gallery and its stunning Newcombe Collection, it was like stepping into some cool, stone-clad other-world suffused with the supernatural. Today, the museum cornerstones Victoria’s identity, commercial as well as cultural. Since 2008 it has attracted almost 6.5 million visitors. By way of comparison, that’s about two million more than attended BC Lions football games. It’s about 5.2 million more than visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in a market of more than a million. More locally, it’s nearly 4.8 million more than paid attendance at the Royal and McPherson theatres combined. The RBCM’s modest target for 2019 is to attract 12 visitors for every citizen in the City of Victoria. Our museum has generated almost a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue since 2008. Spending by the museum and its visitors contribute about $26 million a year to south Vancouver Island’s gross domestic product. More importantly, it’s changed from colonial trophy case to leading advocate for First Nations’ place in the fabric of a 21st-century British Columbia that emerges from the post-colonial braiding of many cultural traditions. And yet the museum did begin in unapologetic colonial eccentricity. Certainly that’s what is suggested by an 1889 report in the British Colonist. On Victoria Day that year, the museum threw open its collections and the public rushed to view “the many valuable natural curiosities, the treasures of mineralogy and the collections of well-mounted specimens of the wild animals and birds of the province,” reported the newspaper. Exhibits were heavy on the latter. Roy notes that the new head of the museum, John Fannin, was a skilled taxidermist. He had donated 12 cases of his own specimens. Visitors goggled at a “monster grizzly bear” rendered so realistic that “timid ladies trembled,” a mammoth bone, a brick from the Great Wall of China, and an ancient Spanish cannon found near Port Alberni. Fannin’s successor in 1904, Francis Kermode, was also a taxidermist, though he is now famous for bestowing his name on the white “Spirit Bear” with which the Great Bear Rainforest is associated. Yet, if the museum began as a curiosity cabinet during the rush for “primitive” spoils that characterized late Victorian colonialism, Roy, professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria, tells us that it quickly evolved a deep and abiding relationship with First Nations. Concern for such a relationship was, in fact, evident in the impetus for the museum’s establishment in 1886—a petition signed by 30 prominent citizens worried about the pillaging of First Nations art and artifacts just as the federal government banned the potlatch. Among those citizens were two defenders of Indigenous rights and culture, Dr Israel Wood Powell and Chief Justice Matthew Bailie Begbie. Begbie, a defender of aboriginal rights and a founder of what would become one of an otherwise benighted province’s most important advocates of cross-cultural understanding, is now, ironically, a thoroughly-battered target of historical revisionism, ostensibly for purposes of reconciliation. These are difficult days for museums everywhere as they navigate post-colonial deconstruction and changing public sentiment. Political agendas of groups once ignored sometimes fuse with well-intended political correctness based in passionate ignorance of the wrongs it seeks to right. Roy’s account doesn’t flinch from just demands for the repatriation of artifacts and specimens obtained under dubious circumstance. Acquisitions involved everything from duplicity to bald-faced appropriation. Museums must now re-evaluate the assumptions behind what and how they arrange, order and prioritize their displays. But, so what? Museums and their missions have never been static. They’ve progressed from the curiosity cabinets of 18th-century antiquarians, to the trophy cases of colonial empires, to self-affirming displays of the dominant culture’s assumptions regarding science and social stratification, to protectors of cultural heritage threatened by greed, politics and propaganda. The Royal BC Museum’s collections include the commissioned work of Mungo Martin, whose genius triggered a coast-wide resurgence of Indigenous art. Martin—born Naka’pankam (Potlatch Chief Ten Times Over) at Tsaxis on the north end of Vancouver Island—was 10 on that luminous night in 1889 when the museum threw open its doors. Taught by his stepfather Charlie James, Martin carved his first commissioned pole while the potlatch was still outlawed. (It was illegal for 66 years.) He made it for a client in Alert Bay where the RCMP would arrest and jail 45 people for the crime of being themselves with an ancient ceremony. Yet in 1950, one year before the potlatch ban ended, Martin was hired as resident carver at the BC Museum. He collected 400 songs and oral histories. He trained the famous Indigenous artists Henry Hunt, Tony Hunt, Bill Reid and Doug Cranmer. In 1953, he gave the first legal potlatch since 1884—at the museum where he had built his Big House. Martin died in Victoria on August 16, 1962, having presided over the resurrection of an artistic tradition his government had tried to murder and which had subsequently been pronounced dead, even by famous anthropologist Marius Barbeau. He lay in state in a carved yellow cedar coffin in his own Big House at Thunderbird Park, part of the museum precinct. Hundreds filed past in a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw ceremony. His pallbearers included cabinet ministers. His body was carried home in honour by the Canadian warship HMCS Ottawa. As Roy’s thoughtful narrative points out, the Royal BC Museum deserves much credit for projecting work like Martin’s onto the world screen. From its early collection of argillite carvings by Skidegate chief Charles Edenshaw, to outreach programs for schools based on Son of Raven, Son of Deer by the Tseshaht artist George Clutesi (to whom Emily Carr left her paintbrushes), the museum’s profound efforts spanned a First Nations era from earliest contact to the Space Age. It even holds masks donated in gratitude by Kitty White, a woman from northern Vancouver Island who was “stolen” by people near Port Renfrew. The masks—for her and her children—were carved by her brother to mark his joy at eventually finding her. The Legacy, a 1975 exhibition, was the first of a series of remarkable exhibitions that toured in Canada and Europe. Roy quotes Neil Sterritt, the honoured Gitxsan historian, as saying it was “probably the finest display of contemporary Indian art assembled in North America.” If the democratization of knowledge, the flattening of social class into a more inclusive and pluralistic society, and the broadening distribution of education mean challenges to conventional thought, as Roy’s new history shows, the museum has proved a resilient, adaptive and unusually far-sighted institution. Faced with challenging ethical questions of cultural appropriation, the museum pioneered repatriation policies for artifacts. In 2016, for example, it returned 17 items to the Huu-ay-aht for permanent display in the First Nation’s government office at Pachena Bay. The museum negotiates custodial arrangements to preserve and protect other items held by the museum or repatriated from other museums until such time as they might be returned. In all, the museum has seven million items in its collections—including fascinating examples and insights into the flora and fauna, the natural and social histories of the province. As well, as Roy wryly reports, the museum’s own staff comprised some exotic specimens, too. E.M. Anderson was a talented museum collector. In 1908 he applied for paid leave as his wife’s serious illness required him to take her to Calgary. While on leave, however, Anderson was discovered touring the United States as drummer with a theatrical troupe. Then there was the chap hired to fill gaps in Indigenous inventory from BC’s Interior. His task was to find and buy rare art and artifacts for the museum’s “Indian collection.” Two museum officials happened to be visiting Vancouver Art Gallery when a call came. It was Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. Could anyone there authenticate a rare copper mask being offered for sale? The Glenbow provided a photograph. The BC museum’s experts could indeed verify. The mask, alas, was from their own collection, on loan from Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was being offered for sale in Calgary by the museum’s own collector. Violet Redfern was on the payroll as a 1920s stenographer but she actually worked as the museum’s botanist, collecting specimens and devising imaginative displays. Finally, after ten years of asking for a pay raise that reflected her work, the Province coughed up 7.5 cents an hour. She married the museum’s entomologist. They quit and went to homestead in Alberta. And there was the directive from “Glad Hand Dick,” early 20th-century Premier Richard McBride, that the museum’s skilled taxidermists obtain a grizzly bear rug for the Emperor of Japan. The museum complied. Maybe that’s why, at the outbreak of World War One, when powerful German cruisers menaced the South Coast, the Japanese sent even bigger battleships to defend the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Japanese sailors on shore leave were among the museum’s intrepid visitors. Among the eccentricities, of course, were giants of BC heritage and history. Roy cites Ian McTaggart Cowan, often called the father of Canadian ecology, who laid foundations in the 1930s for the museum’s transition to a genuine scientific institution. Clifford Carl, who completed the process in the 1940s, hired Wilson Duff, the anthropologist who shaped the museum into an astonishing First Nations treasure house. Duff was matched in vision by Willard Ireland, a brilliant young provincial archivist and librarian who succeeded William Kaye Lamb who left BC to become first the Dominion Archivist and then the first National Librarian of Canada. Reflecting the province itself—BC is the most biologically, topologically and geologically diverse region in Canada—the museum addresses natural history, our diverse zoological heritage, anthropology and ethnology, palaeontology, archaeology and modern history, entomology and ichthyology, botany and herpetology. If it opens doorways into BC’s past and future, the museum also opens windows on the cultural heritage of our wider world—this spring it celebrates UNESCO’s Year of Indigenous Languages with Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises, an exhibition raised from the immense civilizations that dominated Central America before Europeans found their way to the New World. Some of the items on display will be seen outside their country for the first time. Roy’s history meets all the benchmarks of scholarly work. It’s meticulously detailed, exhaustively attributed and extensively annotated. More important, it brings a sense of humour and a lively appreciation of Victoria’s historic museum—not as a collection cabinet for desiccated specimens of the past but as a throbbing, dishevelled, entirely human enterprise replete with surprises and astonishments. Patricia Roy will be the guest speaker at the Victoria Historical Society meeting on January 24 at James Bay New Horizons, 234 Menzies Street. Her focus will be “Flora, Fauna, and Fannin: The Early Days of the Provincial Museum.” Doors open at 7:15 pm. Admission is free for members, $5 for guests. www.victoriahistoricalsociety.bc.ca. Stephen Hume has lived in many parts of BC since 1948. He spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers; he’s written nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.
  6. The perils faced by killer whales forewarn of an über-threat—the unravelling of the ecosystems upon which humans also depend. EDGED BY POWERFUL RIPTIDES and the foam-laced menace of Boiling Reef, muscular currents that once bedevilled Spanish sailing masters still churn past cliffs fringed with peeling arbutus. Gulls wheel and squabble over bait fish pushed up by predators below. Vigilant eagles perch in ancient Douglas firs that were saplings when the Magna Carta was yet unsigned. This is the southernmost tip of Saturna Island, easternmost of British Columbia’s scattered Southern Gulf Islands, whose name is taken from the schooner captained by explorer José Maria Narvaez more than 200 years ago. An orca at sunset in the Salish Sea (Photo by MarkMallesonPhotography.com) East Point still evokes a primeval atmosphere. Yet at night the habitation glow from 6.2 million city dwellers casts its milky arc over the Salish Sea from Victoria through Seattle to Vancouver. And the throb of oil tankers, bulk cargo carriers, cruise ships and container vessels pulses insistently through the darkness. Oasis of the pristine that East Point may appear to be, a favoured spot for observing killer whales in the wild, it is nevertheless an illusion cocooned in the reality of the heavily modified, chemically saturated landscapes of a 21st century megalopolis. So perhaps it’s the ideal place from which to contemplate what some fear is a looming “orcapocalypse,” an existential crisis that threatens regional extirpation for one of the province’s most iconic creatures. New research suggests a perfect storm of threats now makes the extirpation of 10 out of 19 global killer whale populations an imminent possibility. The 74 that survive from the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident killer whale population are among those at greatest risk. The three Salish Sea pods of the Southern Residents, J, K, and L, were among the first listed as endangered under a new federal Species at Risk Act in 2003—two years before the US made the same designation. But a damning report from Canada’s Auditor-General this year points to botched, incompetent and laggardly responses by almost every federal department with responsibility for protecting them. While there has been plenty of high-minded talk, meetings, workshops, action plans and strategic mission statements, bureaucratic inertia was encouraged by the lack of enthusiasm for environmental issues oozing from the decade-long Conservative government of Stephen Harper. It took 14 years for Ottawa to begin to implement mitigation and recovery strategies that on the surface seemed self-evident. Indeed, in September, six conservation organizations launched a lawsuit asking a federal court to review two federal ministries’ failures to recommend an emergency order to protect the Southern Resident killer whales. The threats are wide-ranging and complex. Human activity, from industrial pollution to municipal waste water, to disruptions in the food chain to apparently unconnected activities that range from taking a shower to driving the car to the supermarket, are all driving this gathering ecological storm. EAST POINT REPRESENTS more than symbolism or a vantage point on orca. It was here, 54 years ago, that scientists harpooned the killer whale that was to become the first of its kind to be put on live public display—all done in the name of art. In hindsight, it seems one of those benighted schemes that reeks of an entitled craziness. Youth might have been turning to the mellow attractions of Flower Power in 1964 while the grown-ups fretted over the movement’s “get high and get out of the rat race” morality. But the grown-ups also thought it a splendid idea to shoot a large, sentient mammal for art’s sake. Mind you, just three years earlier, under the supervision of the federal government, a .50 calibre machine-gun had been mounted at Seymour Narrows to shred the orcas deemed a threat to commercial and recreational fisheries. The orcas didn’t show, the scheme proved a folly, and a month later the machine-gun was removed. A subsequent plan was to kill one of the orcas known to congregate off East Point and tow the corpse to Vancouver where an artist could use it as a model. The sculpture would adorn the foyer of the new Vancouver Aquarium. Its skeleton would provide a specimen for the science exhibit. The scheme went sideways fast. An orca was harpooned off East Point but then impertinently refused to die. The aquarium’s director decided instead that the wounded animal should be dragged to Vancouver Harbour and “studied.” But Moby Doll, as the wounded killer whale was misnamed in a testament to ignorance—it was male, not female—became such a sensation (it went viral, we’d say today) that it quickly became the first captured killer whale to be put on public display. Sadly, Moby Doll seemed disoriented and grief-stricken. A few months later he died. Then Seattle Public Aquarium bought a big male orca from a BC fisherman in whose nets he had become entangled. Namu, named for the place his freedom ended, was trained and became the first performing killer whale. Alas, he too died after 11 months. Nevertheless, the marketing teams saw a promotional gold mine. A two-decade rush began to kidnap ocean-ranging killer whales from their complex, tightly-knit family groups and put them on display. It reached its zenith in 1970 when the Seattle Public Aquarium’s collectors deployed helicopters and explosives to herd 80 terrified orcas into a small cove on Whidbey Island. Several whales died from the stress. As their bodies washed ashore, public opinion ebbed from unbridled enthusiasm to appalled distaste. The barbarity of the killer whale gold rush did have one upside. It triggered a world-spanning interest in learning more about these magnificent animals. Knowledge in turn launched an evolution in awareness. And so, over the intervening decades, orcas have evolved in the public imagination from ravening wolves of the sea, to trained circus acts, to highly intelligent, gregarious, family-centric creatures deserving of their freedom and our protection. Today, Vancouver Aquarium, which started the cycle, is prohibited by municipal law from capturing any cetaceans from the wild for public display. It may obtain them only from other facilities if they are either born in captivity or deemed to be so acclimatized to captivity they would not survive a return to the wild. The changing sentiments have been reflected in a growing desire by the public to see whales of all kinds in their natural environment rather than as dead specimens in natural history museums, or performing for treats in aquarium tanks that might reasonably be compared to prison cells. The so-called “killer whale”—it’s really one of the dolphins—is now the key driver for South Vancouver Island’s successful whale- watching industry, itself part of a global business that attracts 13 million watchers a year and generates more than $2 billion in annual economic activity. In BC, about half of Canada’s million annual whale watchers spend close to $200 million a year just to see orcas, grey and humpback whales in their natural state. There’s growing concern, though, that the public is loving its beloved marine mammals to death. All whales orient themselves, navigate, locate and identify food sources using highly-evolved echolocation. But marine noise from close-running whale-watching boats, along with that from more than 13,000 large vessel transits a year requiring Canadian pilots, 164,000 annual BC Ferries sailings, and almost 40,000 pleasure craft with engines larger than 10 horsepower accumulates to create a kind of acoustic fog in the water for the Southern Resident killer whales, whose numbers have steadily dwindled downward by almost 25 percent from 98 in 1995 to 74 in late 2018. One recent study for the Port of Vancouver assessing the effects of marine noise found that the more distant background noise from commercial vessels, combined with the foreground noise from whale-watching boats, resulted in lost foraging time for feeding orcas of up to five-and-a-half hours per day. The problem is of sufficient magnitude that from July to November this year, large vessels passing through the Salish Sea to and from Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Bremerton, Crofton, Nanaimo and other points were asked to voluntarily reduce speed. Researchers hope to determine whether reduced engine speed means less marine noise and results in greater killer whale feeding success. PAIR THE REDUCED FEEDING OPPORTUNITY with historic lows in the abundance of chinook salmon which are the killer whales’ primary food source, then add the toxins carried into the sea from industrial source points, and the problem quickly begins to look profound. Chinook are critical to Southern Resident killer whales because they are available in the Salish Sea all year round, unlike chum, another important food source, which is available only in the late fall. John Ford, a scientist at Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo who has been studying killer whales for almost 50 years, says observers noticed that population loss and reproductive decline for Southern Resident killer whales tracked chinook abundance. As soon as chinook numbers rose, the killer whales bounced back, too. Complicating matters however, Ford says, is the fact that while Southern Resident killer whale populations have been in decline, Northern resident killer whales now number 300 and are thriving. So are the transient killer whales that feed on seals and sea lions, and resident populations in southern Alaska. And it gets even more confusing. Transient killer whales, which feed on seals, carry a much higher load of PCBs and other contaminants, but remain healthy. Possibly it’s because with abundant food sources, they don’t go into nutritional stress. PCBs, banned almost 50 years ago, are maddeningly persistent toxins, but can remain benignly sequestered in killer whales’ blubber. The Southern killer whales, deprived of adequate food, start metabolizing their fat; PCBs stored there emerge and suppress their immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease, parasites, and reproductive failure. Transient orcas, this one known as “T123A,” made two rare visits to Victoria’s harbour in 2018, creating a false impression of orca abundance. Yet this is just one factor among the many. There are hydrocarbons from road runoff carried by storm drains so numerous that Metro Vancouver couldn’t provide a cumulative number. There’s leakage from tens of thousands of untallied septic fields throughout the Gulf Islands, the hinterlands of Greater Victoria, and around the Georgia Basin. It’s a popular pastime among the green-leaning residents of Saanich and the Gulf Islands who elected the only Green candidate to the federal parliament and one of only three Greens in the BC legislature to point an accusatory finger at urban Victoria and Vancouver over sewage effluent. Yet they are a significant part of the problem, too. Almost a million people in BC dispose of household sewage and wastewater through septic fields, which can leak into aquifers and adjacent watercourses, including much of the rural Saanich Peninsula and the Gulf Islands. This, too, points to one of those amplifying factors in ecosystem disruption. Dispersed residential communities at the fringes of urban areas throughout the province create the dilemma of the urban-rural interface that’s most at risk from the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires caused by global warming. Flame retardants used in fighting increasingly intense forest fires, particularly those threatening human settlement, are flushed by the province’s great rivers from the distant Interior into the sea. The Fraser River alone, for example, drains 235,671 square kilometres, an area that dwarfs entire European countries. Another 951 smaller watersheds drain into the Salish Sea. Last summer, during the worst fire season on record—climate science projects much worse to come—the BC Wildfire Service dropped eight million litres of flame retardant in airborne operations. While flame retardant is an essential weapon in the fire suppression arsenal, particularly in that vulnerable urban-rural interface, it’s also bad for the fish that sustain killer whales. In 2014, a study by the US government’s National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration showed that although the chemicals in current use are far safer than those deployed in the past, widely-used flame retardant remains especially toxic to chinook smolts. The lethal effects linger right until the migrating smolts reach saltwater. These contaminants, however, pale by comparison to those from urban areas. Over 1.3 trillion litres of treated sewage effluent flow into the Salish Sea each year from about 100 Canadian and American treatment plant outfalls emptying into Puget Sound and the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca. Basic treatment of sewage doesn’t remove all toxic compounds. The discharge contains heavy metals like lead, mercury, chromium and copper, but also includes persistent organochlorines and hydrocarbons. Then there are trace levels of persistent organic pollutants—now banned, but still lingering in the environment—like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. There are pharmaceuticals that can act as hormone-disrupters which are excreted in human urine. Contaminants like plastic microparticles occur in cosmetics and sunscreens, and can affect marine larvae insect, small aquatic organisms, and juvenile fish. Some sunscreen compounds are now implicated in declines in insect and coral reef larvae. Recent research by Washington State’s Dr James Meador has shown that the survival rate of chinook juveniles smolting in effluent-impacted estuaries is cut in half compared with juveniles emerging from uncontaminated estuaries. A study by the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation found that untreated stormwater effluent from the Metro Vancouver region is about the same volume annually as treated sewage effluent. Storm drain contributions, it appears, may double that amount, the report warns. Thousands of storm drains empty into the almost 1,000 watersheds that dump road runoff, ditch effluents and, in some cases, untreated sewage into the Salish Sea. That means the vector for exposing marine organisms to toxic compounds is mind-bogglingly large. And there is the long-known spike in hydrocarbons that occurs in the first hour after rains wash the accumulated surface film from roads into storm drains and to the sea. That problem is getting worse, not better. There are 10 million motor vehicles registered in BC and Washington. The Insurance Corporation of BC’s statistics show motor vehicle registrations have increased at double the rate of population growth over the last five years. Incredibly, the motor vehicle population is growing faster than the number of people. Put in simple arithmetic, the province added 250,000 people to its population over that period, and it added 320,000 motor vehicles, most of which contribute hydrocarbons to the road runoff that affects the Salish Sea. Most important for killer whales, many of these contaminants migrate up the food chain. If one of the key components threatening orca survival is a declining abundance of the chinook salmon that provide their main food source, the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation report also points directly at chemical contaminants. “There is evidence,” it says, “that these chemicals can also disrupt the complex hormonal processes as juvenile salmon acclimatize to the saltwater environment. This is bad news for the billions of juvenile salmon that spend months in the shallow waters around Vancouver”—not to mention Puget Sound and near centres like Campbell River, Nanaimo and Victoria. “Heavy metals and persistent chemicals that stay in the body bio-magnify as they work their way up the food chain,” the report observes. “Larger fish eating large numbers of contaminated smaller fish can end up with thousands or millions of times the level of toxins than the organisms that first absorbed them.” This poses a double jeopardy for killer whales. Declining abundance of Georgia Basin chinook, coupled with bio-magnification of toxins in their body fat, amplifies the risk. The chemicals accumulate in the blubber that protects whales from the oceanic cold. But when whales are starving, their bodies consume the energy stored in their fat, and that’s precisely where toxins which damage nervous systems and other organs are not only stored but concentrated over time. Which, the Pacific Biological Station’s John Ford explains, is one of the apparent reasons for the health of Northern Residents and transients. As long as they can stay fat, they have a chance to thrive. ON SATURNA, East Point’s 130-year-old lighthouse presides over a stunningly beautiful littoral of tilted sandstone terraces, tide pools, and echoing galleries sculpted by epochs of wind and storm surge. The tawny rock was quarried by homesteader George Taylor more than a century ago. It was used in constructing Victoria’s new legislature buildings, a Neo-Baroque expression of Victorian colonial authority commissioned on lands the Lekwungen people had been forced to vacate. The choice of this Cretaceous rock for a government building seems ironically appropriate. The structure exudes a faux sense of permanence, evoking the Roman “imperitas” of which the British assumed themselves natural inheritors. But the materials actually offer only evidence of impermanence, a reminder that the present authority will prove as transient as that of Tyrannosaurus Rex, who reigned in the Cretaceous, or the Southern Resident killer whales on their tottering throne. East Point’s 65-million-year-old sandstone is part of a deposit that sweeps up the east coast of Vancouver Island to the Comox Valley. Paleontologists celebrate the spectacular marine fossils these ancient sediments yield: ammonites, long-necked plesiosaurs, pickup- truck-sized mosasaurs, dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, all now extinct following what’s called the Cretaceous-Paleogene Event, an abrupt extinction of three-quarters of the Earth’s plant and animal species. Scholars argue over whether the catastrophe was sudden, caused by abrupt climate change, an asteroid impact, volcanic eruptions, or some slowly unfolding evolutionary apocalypse that we don’t yet understand. But what’s not in dispute is that there was a mass extinction. It occurred at the beginning of the rise of mammals and, ultimately, of the recently arrived hominids—that’s us. We, it appears, so successful that anthropologists now call our era the “Anthropocene,” may also be presiding over what writer Elizabeth Kolbert calls the “sixth extinction,” a collapse in species survival unfolding around us with such rapidity and on such an immense and varied scale that it’s difficult for most people to perceive. Most visitors to East Point come not in search of fossils or evolutionary philosophy but simply hoping for a glimpse of killer whales. The whales have become a central symbol of the province’s self-aggrandizing mythology of tourism branding; a totem for powerful First People’s clans; and inspiration for artists and marine biologists alike. They may no longer be the marquee show-stopper at aquariums from Victoria’s Inner Harbour to San Diego, but they still command attention. If visitors to East Point are lucky, as I was 20 years ago, they will have a close encounter with a species that’s arguably as intelligent as ours and perhaps even exceeds human intelligence, although how or in what way remains mysterious. My experience came in the face of a freshening breeze out of the American islands when I heard what sounded like a rifle shot. It was followed by another and then a third. I went to investigate. It wasn’t some ignorant yahoo shooting at sea lions. It was a family of killer whales, tail-slapping. The tide was in flood and a swift, smooth-as-glass current raced past the ledge. Two females patrolled its perimeter while two calves cavorted in the swooshing jet. They seemed as excited as a couple of human children enjoying a water slide at the neighbourhood pool. They rode down the current, then zipped back to the top and rode down it again. I stood at the water’s edge mesmerized. Then I noticed a shadow in the luminous depths. Before I could react, the immense, gleaming head of a male orca emerged. It rose the full length of my body out of the water. It stopped at precisely my height, held upright by the sculling of that mighty tail. One enormous eye swivelled, scanned me up and down, and then, seemingly satisfied I represented no threat to the playful youngsters—or maybe just satisfied to have observed me with the same wonderment with which I was observing him—slid back down into the depths as silently as he had come. I took it as a hint, though, and moved back a respectful distance—well, considerably more than that—and watched until the whole family, moving almost as one, suddenly vanished. I considered then how I’d been granted an astonishing look into a deep, pre-human past. But now, reflecting through the prisms of the current news, I wonder if it wasn’t really the future I was experiencing. And not through the whales, but through the rocks from which I was watching them. Perhaps the telling moment wasn’t their arrival in my field of view, but their abrupt disappearance. The killer whales’ ancestors emerged into the evolutionary record not long after the sandstone ledges from which I observed them were laid down as sediments. They have been travelling these waters about a thousand times longer than the entire span in which modern homo sapiens arose. Orca—the now-common name derives from the scientific name for the species—is generally preferred in these more language-sensitive times to the once-ubiquitous term “killer whale,” yet the earlier term is not inaccurate. It derives from the species’ undisputed place as the alpha predator of BC’s marine environment. For all its power and dominance, there’s a growing risk that this iconic creature may be about to join the ammonites and Elasmosaurus in extinction. And that suggests we might be on track for an extinction event that includes us, too, because the perils faced by killer whales may be indicative of an über- threat, the unravelling of the ecosystems upon which humans also depend. he latest report from the Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change, a report by 91 scientists from 40 countries who examined more than 6,000 independent research studies, now warns that the rapidity and the massive scale of human-caused climate change is much more dire and immediate than previously thought. Even scientists seasoned in the bad news of climate change research expressed shock at the gathering portents, which include increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather, more and longer drought, fiercer and more extensive wildfire conflagrations, mass species die-offs, super-storms, abrupt ecosystem shifts, dwindling food security, and growing world hunger as agricultural production degrades. As atmospheric carbon increases, it turns out, the protein yield in key field crops decreases. To feed growing global populations, we’ll have to produce even more food than initially predicted. In fact, the evidence is clear. We’re already losing the race as food production falls and population grows. Researcher Leah Samberg, writing in Scientific American, says that after decades of decline, world hunger is once again on the rise. And the United Nations reports that while hunger is most prevalent in regions of armed conflict, these are also the places experiencing increasingly powerful storms, more persistent crop-and-livestock-killing drought, and more frequent flooding caused by intense and unpredictable rainfall events. Acidification is already affecting the foundations of ocean food chains once thought inexhaustible, from commercially farmed mollusks unable to properly form protective shells, to the fatal bleaching of coral reefs, to collapsing salmon runs, among them the chinook upon which the local orcas depend. The Salish Sea’s littoral is one of the world’s miracles, a gigantic salmon factory. Even now, after a century of industrial harvest, habitat disruption, and landscape modification, as many as 800 million juvenile salmon may ride the spring freshet to the sea. Up to 20 million salmon can populate the Fraser River estuary on any given day. But we’ve taken this gift from nature for granted. We’ve behaved as though salmon stocks were limitless. We’ve dammed spawning tributaries, logged headwaters, clogged the river with blasting debris, converted crucial rearing wetlands habitat to agriculture, mined gravel for construction, altered river flows, dumped mine tailings into watersheds, and polluted the river with industrial effluent, farm fertilizer and storm drain runoff. Those salmon that return run a gauntlet of commercial trollers, seiners and gill netters; a recreational fishery that itself is heavily commercialized; and First Nations’ food and ceremonial harvests. We’ve even managed to alter the evolutionary course of fish like the chinook. For a century we’ve selected the biggest fish, the trophy fish, out of the gene pool. Now chinook salmon are much smaller on average than they were historically, says scientist John Ford. Feeding orcas are paying the price. All this exacerbates the impact of climate change, which has been speeding snow melts, reducing summer discharges, raising river temperatures, and changing food abundance for salmon in the ocean—and the availability of salmon to other species like killer whales. It’s not far-fetched to wonder if the plight of our Southern Resident killer whales isn’t a harbinger of what awaits humanity, too. HERE IN THE SALISH SEA, a small resident orca population now teeters at the brink of what could quickly become a downward spiral into oblivion. Breeding populations aren’t breeding successfully. Baby whales aren’t surviving. Mature whales are more susceptible to disease, and some show signs of malnutrition. Salmon runs, upon which killer whales depend, are collapsing or have already collapsed, most prominent among them chinook salmon. All of these are key indicators in a larger ecosystem that sustains humans as well. Salmon are a resource for which humans compete with killer whales. Canada’s federal government recently intervened with closures of commercial and recreational chinook fisheries in an attempt to preserve dwindling food stocks for the declining Southern Resident killer whale population. The State of Washington struck a special task force to grapple with the problem. Some communities, where recreation fishing is big business, predictably objected. “Community politicians, ocean anglers and chambers of commerce from Sooke to Tofino are objecting to the possibility of closing two ocean zones to sport fishing,” Victoria Times-Colonist writer Richard Watts reported last July. “Such a closure would devastate the small towns that rely on sport fishing to attract tourists.” And yet, we are where we are in part because of fishing. Despite declining chinook abundance due to habitat loss, disruptions in rearing areas caused by toxic runoff from storm drains, contaminants in sewage effluent, degradation of spawning areas by logging, hydroelectric and flood control dams, gravel removal for construction and urban development—despite all of that, fishing of chinook stocks continued uninterrupted. Since 1975, when the Southern Resident killer whale population stood at close to 100, federal and state authorities in BC and Washington have supervised the harvesting by First Nations, recreational and commercial fisheries of 32 million chinook salmon bound through the Salish Sea to spawn in the rivers and streams of the Salish Sea. It’s a reminder that the threats to the Southern Resident orcas are complex, long-lasting and far-reaching. In any event, the chinook closures may be too little, too late. One day, I hope, I’ll be able to return to Saturna’s East Point and again look into the huge eye of a flourishing fellow species. If I can’t, if the orcas have gone to join the other extinct creatures buried in those Cretaceous sediments, what good will our wealth of commerce have proved? If, for all our wealth and power we can’t ensure survival of the ancient, sentient marine species with which we share this corner of the Salish Sea, what certainty is there that we can ensure our own survival? Stephen Hume has lived in many parts of BC since 1948. He spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers; he’s written nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.
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