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  1. This virus is another evolutionary opportunist, not so different from we humans. THE MORNING the United States became the world’s epicentre in the coronavirus pandemic, I woke to more ancient news. A spring rain drumming on my skylights and a raucous perturbation among nesting waterfowl. The rain dwindled to a drizzle, then a sniffle, then wraiths of mist. The birds subsided into grumbling. I took a hike. I seldom meet anyone on the back trails, less frequently now that we’re social distancing. Above, the sky was steel grey but for a band of intense blue at the eastern horizon. Mt. Baker glittered behind the San Juan Islands in Washington, an epicentre within the epicentre. Yet, a silver lining. Those snowfields are brighter than most of us have ever seen as entire cities discover they can do what many claimed impossible—just shut down—and the air pollution from 6.5 million vehicles, most from Victoria through Seattle to Vancouver, disappears. Mount Baker as seen recently from Sidney, BC. Cleaner air is one consequence of the pandemic. By April, this virus had killed about 40,000 people, mostly elders over 70. Air pollution kills about 73,000 elders over 70 each year—and another 4,000 infants under five. Tourists who normally throng Victoria’s waterfront and Downtown shopping districts have vanished as abruptly as the Purple Martins in the fall. So have Americans enjoying an inexpensive day trip to Sidney from Anacortes. They normally swarm Sidney Bakery for cream puffs and perch in rows sipping their London Fogs or eating ice cream at the two flanking cafes. The Colwood Crawl and the Pat Bay Pandemonium are gone. As the pandemic spreads, war metaphors abound. Yet, despite harrowing stories from hospitals in Milan and New York, what we’re experiencing is not war. It’s a natural biological event. This virus is another evolutionary opportunist, not so different from we humans. It’s killed 40,000 of us so far. We, on the other hand, continue to kill ourselves at a much faster rate—about 500 suicides a year in BC, about 5,000 by self-administered drugs since 2015, 35,000 drug homicides in Mexico, maybe 500,000 dead in Syria’s civil war. Since January we’ve killed more than 13 billion sentient animals in slaughter factories. We inhabit a vast sea of viruses. This one surged into an ecological niche—us—exploiting vectors that we created with our technologies, our complacent social habits and our political and economic hubris. Is it scary? Yes. Can it have tragic consequences. Yes. Do we have an obligation to respond to it appropriately? Yes. Does the war analogy help? No. The term mischaracterizes that with which we must deal. Unlike war, which rages unabated in Africa and the Middle East and which, as we see from our response to coronavirus, could be ended tomorrow if parties to the conflicts agreed to end them, we are dealing with a force of nature—not malevolent, just ambivalent. Around us, everywhere, life is resurgent. As our urban lives contract, the natural world reasserts itself. Wild boar forage in Barcelona’s streets, deer investigate empty train stations in Asia, mountain lions pad the squares of South American cities, wild turkeys strut San Francisco and red foxes return to Paris. Here, on my deserted trail, spring unfolds on schedule. Red currants bloom, Indian plum dresses drab thickets with creamy lace, green moss velvets dead stumps and countless buds uncurl their tiny, defiant fists into the growing light, a reminder that these gloomy days, too, shall pass one day from memory. Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  2. The clinic attracts Canada’s best aspiring public-interest environmental lawyers to work on cases for community groups. SHOULD YOU WANT TO TRACK DOWN one of British Columbia’s most important shapers of public policy regarding environmental protection, better have your GPS handy. There’s no glitzy storefront to brand the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. No swanky offices with plush carpet, oak panelling, and some elegantly-tailored watchdog receptionist. In keeping with its humble origins as a student initiative launched almost 25 years ago, it’s tucked away in a rabbit warren of austere cubicles, a Zen-like reminder that in the world of ideas, it’s the ideas, and not the trappings, that are the important currency. And the ideas for statutory and regulatory reform that emerge from this small, scholarly clinic have profoundly altered the legal and political landscape for generations of British Columbians yet to come. That’s quite a legacy for undergraduate law students with only their passion, brains, diligence and the judicious guidance of a few wise mentors behind them. As such, UVic’s ELC offers a refreshing antidote for the next time some grumpy elder from my generation holds forth about the failings of young people. On scales that range from the intensely local to the national arena, there’s no doubt that students who have passed through the ELC have worked critically important transfigurations in the administrative fabric of Canada’s environment. And they’ve gone on to work as federal litigators, to clerk with federal and provincial supreme courts, and to join leadingedge lawfirms working with environmental, civil rights, and First Nations’ issues. To find this quiet epicentre of change, visitors must navigate through the hushed expanse of the university’s newly-renovated Diana M. Priestly law library, with its vast high-tech access to more than a hundred extensive legal databases, and past a series of glass-fronted study and seminar rooms. Then—an abrupt change in atmosphere—through unmarked, metal crash doors and up a nondescript back stairwell graced with handrails of utilitarian steel pipe. Beyond the library’s upstairs book stacks with their 180,000 volumes, past the students lounging in a pair of moulded designer chairs and taking an introspective break with their AirPods, and down a drab corridor adorned with hand-scrawled directions, is the beating heart of environmental law reform in the province. Presiding over this unassuming heavyweight is a triumvirate. ELC'S Calvin Sanborn, Deborah Curran and Holly Pattison There is executive director Deborah Curran, a scarily well-informed expert in land and water law who is also an associate professor in both the law faculty and the university’s school of environmental studies. Curran does vital work in the centre’s background on governance, fundraising, liaison with the university, and program development. But in the foreground, Curran is also one of the centre’s big hitters. She has earned a reputation for a steely analysis of how those with environmental concerns can use something as simple as their own municipal bylaws to trigger powerful and effective protection for local ecosystems, particularly in terms of employing already existing regulatory tools to modify development so that it sustains and conserves healthy watersheds and clean water. She supervised one ELC study of urban storm water management that’s credited with transforming policy regarding urban rainfall runoff in Greater Victoria. Holly Pattison, a former UVic student herself, directs the ELC’s day-to-day operations and conducts financial oversight. But Pattison, who graduated from the university’s fine arts faculty, also multi-tasks as a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker, and manages the communications that are so critical to any public policy agency in these days of spin, greenwashing and fake news. And last, but far from least, there’s Calvin Sandborn, whose formidable legal intellect on subjects as diverse as drilling regulations, the ethical duties of mining engineers, and the obligations of politicians to close statutory loopholes exploited at the expense of the environment, combines with a genial, avuncular style. He’ll bring his guitar to a legal seminar and deliver a not-bad rendition of some 60s protest song, invites human rights and environmental activists into his classes, and has pizza delivered to workshops on dry subjects like corporate media. Sandborn might be a poster-boy for effective environmental activism. He’s certainly a metaphor for the perils of environmental inaction. Born in Alaska, he moved to California as a young child and grew up at the centre of what became the 2018 wildfire inferno that erased whole towns—one of them the community of his childhood, Paradise, where 85 people died. “My entire childhood, turned to ash,” he muses. That which hadn’t already been drowned. He says his heightened awareness of the importance of environmental integrity coalesced around the fate of the Feather River, in whose canyons he spent one of those nostalgic Huckleberry Finn boyhoods. “I grew up swimming in the Feather River,” he recalls, “then they built the dam and flooded my swimming holes!” To make things worse, a politician came to town and scoffed there’d never been anything there before the damn dam anyway. That memory was a motivator in the ELC’s work to stop plans to log watersheds in the upper Skagit River Valley. Protecting the Skagit had been a joint Canadian and American environmental mission for an earlier generation of environmentalists, but then it came back for his students, some of whom hadn’t been born for the first go round. Student Caitlin Stockwell, he says, looked at the original agreement between BC and the City of Seattle. She found that BC, by approving logging in the “doughnut hole”—an unprotected patch of forest in the Upper Skagit set aside because of mineral claims and now surrounded by three state and provincial parks, a BC recreation area, and a US wilderness zone—was infringing upon Seattle’s rights under the 30-year-old international agreement protecting wilderness, wildlife habitat, and recreational resource values.“She finds that its provisions give the city of Seattle unilateral ability to take the BC government to court over the international treaty!” In 2018, on the basis of the ELC report, the mayor of Seattle politely reminded Premier John Horgan of this fact. Last December, the Province abruptly banned further logging in the ecologically sensitive valley on the US border. Sandborn, educated at a Jesuit university in San Francisco (“The Summer of Love was about to happen, and there I was in this place full of priests!”), cut his activist teeth on the civil-rights movement, anti-war protests, and efforts to organize California’s agricultural workers. He came to Canada to join his brother Tom, who had come north after ripping up his draft card and mailing it to President Lyndon B. Johnson. On arrival, Calvin promptly rolled up his sleeves and got involved helping organize farm workers in the Fraser Valley and setting up the now-iconic Downtown Eastside Resident’s Association that has successfully worked to reconfigure cruel stereotypes about the Vancouver neighbourhood and its often marginalized, low-income citizens. Curran, who was born in Kamloops and graduated from Trent University, had her environmental epiphany while working in Pacific Rim National Park when the Clayoquot Sound protests erupted. And Pattison, who came to Campbell River from Guelph as a teenager 43 years ago, was working in Victoria law offices when the flood of Clayoquot defences—the protest generated the largest mass trial in Canadian history—transfixed the legal community. IF THESE THREE REPRESENT the official face of the Environmental Law Centre, they are quick to point out that the real engine of environmental change is the ever-changing team of law students—about 30 a year—that cycles through its clinics, gaining experience in researching, writing, and advocating for the law reforms that have lasting community effects upon how we live and interact with our environment. For example, there was the work done by law student Neal Parker, who in the summer of 2017 investigated and reported on the growing problem of private landholders encroaching upon public access to publicly-owned waterfront lands on the Gorge waterway. Parker, under the guidance of Sandborn, found 11 public access points colonized as parking pads, misidentified with intimidating signage, developed as private recreation sites, incorporated into gardens, used as dumps for garden waste and construction debris, and blocked by structures, hedges, walls, car ports and private docks. Half a dozen of these effectively preempted public rights-of-way from members of the Songhees Nation a few blocks to the south, whose Douglas Treaty rights guaranteed them unfettered access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds on the Gorge in perpetuity. In Greater Victoria, Parker pointed out in a 77-page brief to both Saanich and Esquimalt municipal governments, that projected population growth of an estimated 100,000 people by 2040 means the inevitable loss of existing green space, at a time when it’s becoming even more valuable and important for urban livability. It also represents an attack upon the core values in some of the most successful marketing strategies and economic revival plans of forward-thinking cities in the world. It’s clear from what’s happening in cities like Austin, Texas; Lyon, France and even Winnipeg, which is upending its dowdy grey image, that cities embracing public access to green space are more livable, and that cities deemed more livable will be the economic winners over the decades ahead. Cities that don’t proactively develop public green space will have to reestablish it at great expense, if they are to compete with the Seattles, Portlands and Vancouvers. As a result of Parker’s work, those public access points have since been restored, Sandborn says. THE NON-PROFIT ELC, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in the fall of 2021, started as a dream, took shape as a hope, and was realized when professor Chris Toleffson, a specialist in environmental law, agreed to work with half a dozen students who wanted to study in the field. He became the ELC’s first executive director. “There was no funding,” Curran says. “It was run without funding until Calvin came on board as legal director [in 2004].” Sandborn didn’t even have an office to start. He was working from the students’ computer lab. Then entrepreneur Eric Peterson, who had made his fortune developing and then selling medical imaging technology and whom, with his wife Christina Munck, had created the non-profit Tula Foundation, provided the ELC with $1.1 million over a five-year period. “We had 10 years of angel funding with very few strings attached,” Sandborn says. Now there’s stable funding from BC’s Law Foundation, which provides 48 percent of the centre’s annual revenues, and from other philanthropic organizations, including the Oasis Foundation, Tides Canada, the Sitka Foundation, and the Vancouver Foundation. Small individual donors make up the rest. What the ELC does with this funding is provide students with a hands-on opportunity to learn environmental law, while simultaneously using it to empower individuals, small community organizations, First Nations, environmental and other groups. The students offer—at no charge—the statutory research and advice that enables the public to use existing legal frameworks to hold private, corporate, and administrative agencies accountable for ensuring that environmental regulatory requirements are met. Or, in other cases, to help press for reforms to environmental laws, and their enforcement, so that they serve the public, and not private, interest. Among their notable achievements, ELC students conducted research into the proximity of sour gas wells to schools, residences and other public buildings on behalf of the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society. Sour gas contains hydrogen sulphide, a compound so toxic that it paralyzes olfactory nerves at concentrations as low as 100 parts per million. Respiratory failure begins at 300 ppm, and at 800 ppm, 50 percent of those exposed will die within five minutes. The ELC students discovered that during one leak at Pouce Coupe in 2009, sour gas was released for 27 consecutive minutes before emergency shutoff valves cut off the flow. In 2013, ELC law student Jacqui McMorran, lawyer Tim Thielman, and Sandborn gathered information from DataBC and plotted it using Google Earth to locate active, suspended and abandoned wells capable of leaking sour gas. They reported that 1,900 children at 9 schools in 2 northeastern school districts were at risk from sour gas wells that, under provincial law, could be located a scant 100 metres from schools or hospitals. Worse, there were no minimum setbacks at all for pipelines carrying sour gas—although in 2010 the Province said it planned to establish safety zones of 2,000 metres. In some cases, provincial emergency plans for gas leaks were so primitive, they consisted of supplying classroom teachers with rolls of duct tape and instructions to seal cracks around doors and windows. After this inconvenient political bombshell, the provincial government announced it would increase the safety buffer for sour gas wells adjacent to schools and other public buildings from 100 to 1,000 metres. “Government seemed quite content to renege on their 2010 promise to extend the legislated safety buffer around schools—until we exposed the fact that the safety buffer had not been expanded,” Sandborn said at the time. “What about all the other issues that never get publicized? Day to day, who is looking after the public interest? Who is watchdogging the regulators to make sure that the Province doesn’t weaken regulations?” he asked. Luckily for the public, the ELC has been doing a first-rate job of watch-dogging. Among its most high-profile accomplishments: The ELC’s complaint to the federal government in 2013 regarding the muzzling of scientists on controversial issues like climate change. It triggered such a robust public response that government can no longer mute the voices of its own scientists just because their message is politically vexing. More locally, a complaint about metals contamination leaching from an old copper mine on the Jordan River beyond Sooke—it hadn’t even been checked for 20 years—prompted clean up efforts and a full scale remediation plan for later this year. But that’s just a start. In the aftermath of the Mount Polley mine disaster, in which the failure of a tailings dam dumped the equivalent of 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contaminated waste into one of the biggest salmon rivers in the Fraser River watershed, the ELC produced a report calling for comprehensive mining reform. It found that BC taxpayers are liable for more than $1 billion in mine clean up costs, and called for the Province to begin fully checking and cleaning up 1,100 mines like the one that killed the lower Jordan River. ELC students and lawyers also assisted local residents in the Interior, whose drinking water was being contaminated by nitrates leaching into an aquifer from agricultural applications of manure to fertilize fields. That work led to a new provincial code for agricultural waste management but, perhaps more important, it also earned a ruling from the Province’s information and privacy commissioner that government must promptly and proactively release, without charge, all government records that are in the public interest. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, ELC students supervised by Sandborn and Curran prepared a study last fall calling for remediation of beaches around the Salish Sea that were once critical spawning habitat for forage fish that serve as foundation species for the chinook, and other salmon, upon which threatened resident orcas depend. The ELC recently called for regulation of single-use plastics, and recommendations for how to go about it. It follows a report two years ago outlining legal reforms necessary to address the growing problem of marine plastic pollution. There isn’t room in a short article like this to list all the work done on the public’s behalf, or to name the students who have passed through the ELC’s clinics and left their enduring mark upon the laws that frame our collective relationship with the world in which we live. There is room to observe that for something that began with a handful of students, one professor who saw their potential and another willing to work from a computer lab to help them realize that potential, the ELC’s 25th birthday party will represent an extraordinary milestone in the evolution of BC. Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
  3. Scientists are now saying global climate change will usher in even higher seas and more flooding than previously predicted. FIFTY YEARS AGO, I was an indifferent student drifting through random courses. In my post-teen ennui, I mostly hung around the student newspaper office drinking terrible coffee in the hope of chatting up a girl. The furthest thing from my mind was that my life was actually an après nous le déluge moment; that in my lifetime I’d be contemplating floods of biblical proportions that, over the next 50 years, will likely force close to a million Canadians from their homes, including thousands in communities on the South Island, Sunshine Coast and Lower Mainland. Willows Beach and the adjacent upland area could disappear beneath the rising sea. Evidence is mounting that it might happen sooner than previously believed. (Photo by Stephen Hume) From Oak Bay to Campbell River to Port Alberni, homes, resorts, industrial sites and businesses are now at discernible risk of future flooding wherever they have been built along walk-on beach front or on the flood plains and alluvial fans where scores of streams and rivers that punctuate the coast of Vancouver Island meet tidewater. It seems like a science fiction scenario from that Kevin Costner sci-fi flick Waterworld. Whole city centres drowned? Previously high-demand neighbourhoods rendered uninsurable? Billions of dollars in residential, commercial and industrial real estate written off the board by the environmental consequences of climate change? Here, in our Island Eden? Yet that’s what new research published last October now points toward. It used advanced neural network computing to correct earlier digital models forecasting sea level rise. Earlier calculations of land elevations—and therefore of how much farther inland the high tides of the future might reach, particularly if amplified by a storm—turned out to have underestimated by 30 percent. The study “New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea level rise and coastal flooding” by Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss of Climate Central in Nature Communications warns that over the next 30 years, about 500,000 Canadians living on coastal lowlands may have to deal with significant annual flooding. And worst-case scenarios—in which atmospheric carbon emissions continue without abatement on the current trend—will make about 850,000 coast-dwelling Canadians vulnerable to annual floods by the time 2020’s first-year students are my age and wondering how their half-century flew by so quickly. Worldwide, the researchers warn, about 250 million people now live within one metre of sea level. Even conservative estimates point to the near-inevitability of a two-metre rise by the end of the century. Other scientists suggest—and the new research correcting older models lends credence to their alarm—that the geological record warns us that more rapid and higher sea-level rise is not only within the realm of possibility but, perhaps, even probability. A research team from Australia observes that 125,000 years ago under conditions similar although not identical to the present—atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were then about a third lower than today—sea levels rose quickly to about 10 metres above today’s levels. “What is striking about the last interglacial is how high and quickly sea level rose above present levels,” write Fiona Hibbert, Eelco Rohling and Katharine Grant, ocean and climate researchers at Australian National University. “Temperatures during the last interglacial were similar to those projected for the near future, which means melting polar ice sheets will likely affect future sea levels far more dramatically than anticipated to date.” They point out that polar warming did not occur simultaneously during that melt. But thanks to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, warming and loss of ice mass are now happening in both the Arctic and the Antarctic at the same time. “This means that if climate change continues unabated, Earth’s past dramatic sea-level rise could be a small taste of what’s to come,” the Australian scientists say. It seems reasonable, then, to consider people living up to 10 metres above present sea level to be at potential future risk from combinations of rising seas and higher seasonal tides with storm surges. Those parameters increase the number of people at risk globally to one billion. At 20, I couldn’t imagine being 40. So I understand how these timelines seem unimaginably long for some, even some scientists. But when the predicted events are occurring, the time between then and now will seem like the blink of an eye. BACK IN MY DAYS OF BLISSFUL IGNORANCE, I’d consider the dolorous prospect of another afternoon researching overdue essays on Greek epitaphs or Wordsworth’s view of the metropolis. Instead I’d ride my motorcycle down to Cadboro Bay and take the waterfront past Willows Beach through the Royal Victoria Golf Course to McNeill Bay. From Crescent Road, I’d follow Penzance past the Chinese Cemetery out to Harling Point, named for a local resident who famously expired of hypothermia following a tragic marine rescue in Gonzalez Bay 35 years before my visits. Harling Point’s real name, its first one, at least, is Sahsima—Coast Salish for “harpoon.” And it’s an important spiritual site. It was here that Xals, the transformer who mediates between the natural and the supernatural and brings order and balance to the world, changed a seal hunter to stone, simultaneously granting him power over the seals hunted by the Songhees. As Royal BC Museum curator Grant Keddie once observed, Sahsima is a place that signifies the gravity of the natural balance in maintaining the world’s order, a notion that seems ever more important as we relentlessly upset the equilibrium of local, regional and global ecologies. I’d clamber through a dense fringe of broom and prickly gorse and onto the inexpressibly ancient rocks. They still bore recent scars of an Ice Age, left 22,000 years ago by boulders dragged beneath glaciers flowing over the Saanich Peninsula. Those ice sheets were two kilometres deep at maximum, and over the Saanich Peninsula weighed about 250 gigatonnes. The number is incomprehensibly large, like so many in geological time. It represents 250 kilograms with 12 zeros behind it. (That immense mass of ice, by the way, would be equivalent to less than a quarter of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by us since 1850.) I knew this only because one of those fascinating young women at the student newspaper told me about a geography field trip. She urged me to look for the fault line where rock from ancient continents had collided. And so there I’d sit with an apple and a piece of cheddar on a blustery afternoon, straddling two vanished continents. The sun gleamed on the last remnants of ancient ice fields on the Olympic Mountains. I watched the endless Pacific suck and gurgle into the deep fissures that ice and moving water had carved into the basalt and chert from 40 million years ago when Wrangellia collided with what geologists call the Leech River Complex. On a day when the tide was right and the swells were big, bulked up by the surge from some storm beyond the horizon, the seas would boom into the rocky chutes with enough force to make the rock vibrate. Glistening white foam would jet upward, spindrift twisting away on the wind. My procrastination around schoolwork wasn’t wasted time. In fact, it was my first genuine encounter with the idea of time, relativity and what that might mean. There was synchronicity and yet there wasn’t. I thought of how those 2000-year-old Greek epitaphs, which had seemed so distant in the classroom, might have been written that very morning, compared to the epitaphs scrawled by glaciers 20,000 years before upon the very rocks where I sat. And the slow glaciers themselves—what were they, in a time frame of 40 million years? Even Wrangellia was young compared to eternal, changeless Mother Ocean, who was herself writing an epitaph for the vanished continent, grain of sand by grain of sand, even as I watched. The timeless tides come in and go out, I thought, and nothing changes except us, as ephemeral as the spindrift. But the ocean is changing. It’s increasing in volume as it heats, and as polar ice caps and high elevation ice sheets melt at faster and faster rates. Most of us have noted the retreat, for example, of the Comox Glacier, the dwindling snow on Island mountains, the Coast Range and the Olympic Mountains. But these are mere glimpses of something vast. In Alaska, about to log its hottest year ever, glaciers shed mass into the sea at record rates. Some show consecutive years of record ice loss. Others show near-record loss but can’t set new records because they’ve lost so much mass already. Glaciers in the St Elias Mountains of northwestern BC and the southern Yukon lost about one-quarter of their mass since I was a first-year university student. Glaciologists estimate that over the next 50 years, about 80 percent of the Canadian Rockies’ ice fields—the water supply for carbon-pumping Alberta—will melt away. Greenland, Antarctica, Iceland, the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes—ice is vanishing at a rate that now astonishes scientists used to dealing with change over millennia and geological epochs. “These [glacier] collapses would drive up sea levels, devastate marine life and disrupt ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns that dictate temperatures and rainfall around the world,” says one late-November report by James Temple in the MIT Technology Review. “The death of forests [from drought and fire] would release vast stores of greenhouse gases while the melting of ice would reduce the planet’s reflectivity—and raise the risk of setting off still more tipping points.” Thawing permafrost releases greenhouse gases. Ocean acidification caused by warming releases greenhouse gases. Burning forests release greenhouse gases. Humans show no sign of curbing their release of greenhouse gases. CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS frequently accuse science of exaggerating the threat of climate change. A report in Scientific American by three scholars, studying how scientists disseminate their findings, says it’s precisely the opposite. Not only have scientists not exaggerated, they have seriously underestimated and understated the speed and scope with which change is occurring. The United Nations’ much-vilified Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change turns out not to be the extremist conspiracy touted by denialists. Instead, it’s been too conservative. There is bias, it turns out, but it’s toward exaggerated caution. What current data really shows, the report says, is that “disintegration of ice sheets and glaciers is occurring far faster than predicted by theory—as much as two orders of magnitude faster—throwing current model projections of sea level rise further in doubt.” This concern seems to be corroborated by research of American glaciologists, who reported earlier this year that Antarctica’s annual loss of ice mass increased 600 percent between 1979 and 2017. “As the Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt away, we expect multi-metre sea level rise from Antarctica in the coming centuries,” said Eric Rignot of the University of California, the study’s lead scientist. Climate scientists with the World Meteorological Organization, which just released its 2019 report on the state of global climate, conclude that Greenland lost 350 gigatonnes of ice this year, that the melt is accelerating, and that it’s accelerating in the Antarctic, too. Another worrisome study reported in Nature during the UN summit on climate change in December stated that Greenland’s glacier was melting seven times faster than what the IPCC had predicted in the 1990s. Based on observations by 96 polar scientists using satellite imagery and measurements of flow and volume since 1992, scientists labelled it a huge concern, as tipping points might be breached sooner than expected. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting seven times faster than it was during the 1990s (Photo courtesy of NASA) There’s uncertainty about what will happen between now and the end of the century, but it’s clear that if the rate of melt on those two big ice sheets—Greenland’s and the Antarctic’s—has been significantly underestimated, all hell can break loose in the oceans. There is enough ice in those two sources to raise sea levels by more than 60 metres. That’s not expected to happen or, if it does, to happen over centuries, but so far expectations have regularly been confounded by events. As climate science writer Eugene Linden pointed out in the New York Times in late 2019, had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels while scorching the Arctic and producing temperatures worthy of the Sahara desert in Paris and Berlin “the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist.” But that happened last summer. In parts of Florida, residential neighbourhoods have endured more than 80 consecutive days of ocean flooding. For some, the worst-case future has already arrived. WHAT HAS ALL THIS TO DO WITH US, living in our complacent West Coast Eden? Well, many on the Island, surrounded by the rising sea, already live or work at or below the two-metre elevation that’s now the conservative estimate for sea-level rise. The entire Windsor Park area in Oak Bay, for example, has two metres of elevation. The entrance to the BC Provincial Archives building is one metre above sea level. So, if on the evidence and given the consistency of underestimation, it seems reasonable to assume that a 10-metre rise is now a possibility, then the risks for householders, businesses and infrastructure begin to look large, indeed. For example, the steps of the provincial legislature building are six metres above sea level, as is the foyer of the Royal BC Museum. Bastion Square is five metres. New residential complexes around the Selkirk Waterway are four metres. The entrance to St Anne’s Academy is six metres. Esquimalt High School is four metres. Shopping centres in downtown Campbell River are all less than eight metres. Interactive maps created by the same researchers who found previous estimates of coastal elevations to be wrong, calculate flooding from sea-level rise at different temperatures. At four degrees of global warming, Oak Bay is bisected by a new sea channel that extends from Oak Bay Marina to Beach Drive at McNeill Bay. Willows Beach, with its multi-million-dollar homes, is inundated as far back as Beach Drive. Cadboro Bay Village is below the tideline as far as Arbutus Road. Much of Tsawout Indian Reserve at Saanichton Bay is under water. Downtown Sidney is almost entirely flooded from just north of the airport interchange to North Saanich Marina. Swartz Bay ferry terminal is under water. Land east of Patricia Bay is flooded inland almost as far as Pat Bay Highway. In Victoria, James Bay becomes an archipelago. The historic buried stream flowing from Fairfield to near the Inner Harbour becomes an inlet. Rock Bay floods up Discovery and Pembroke streets almost as far as Douglas. The sea extends up Bridge Street from Bay Street to Ellice. Along the Selkirk Waterway, all the land below Tyee Road is drowned. Properties fronting the Gorge are largely flooded. High-value areas in the potential danger zone near Victoria are found in Cadboro Bay, Telegraph Cove, Maynard Cove, Cordova Bay, Sayward Beach, Saanichton Bay, Ferguson Cove and Bazan Bay. Farther up Island, Cowichan Bay, the estuaries of the Chemainus, Englishman, Qualicum, Somass and Campbell rivers, Parksville, Lantzville, Rathtrevor, Saratoga and Miracle beaches would all be at risk from sharply rising sea levels combined with storm surges and seasonal high tides. For rural residents, saltwater intrusion into wells, septic fields and farmland becomes an issue. Already flooding on some high tides, sea level rise could inundate Cadboro Bay’s waterfront (Photo by Stephen Hume) Are these scenarios extraordinarily far-fetched? Is it sensationalist fear-mongering to raise them for discussion? Well, if anybody has a vested interest in figuring out what might lie ahead, it’s the insurance industry. And the insurance industry is worried. Several US studies conclude that real estate values in coastal risk zones already feel the impact. Researchers at the University of Colorado’s business school estimated that properties exposed to sea-level rise are already selling, on average, for seven percent less. A sea-level research group called First Street Foundation says that on the US East Coast and Gulf Coast, exposed properties have lost $16 billion in appreciation value since 2005. In Canada, the senior research director at the Bank of Canada’s Financial Stability Department warned earlier this year that climate change has the potential by the end of the century to reduce global annual GDP by up to 23 percent. Those who thought the recession of 2008 was bad should imagine one ten times deeper. Lloyd’s, a global player in insurance, carefully studied the damage claims following Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York in 2012. It concluded that sea-level rise increased flooding losses by 30 percent. During the storm,16 historical records for high tides were broken on the Atlantic seaboard. New York’s subway flooded. “Rising sea levels around the world could have significant implications for insurers in the context of storm surge,” Lloyd’s concluded in its 2014 report. And Munich Re, one of the corporate giants that insure insurance companies, says that significantly higher insurance premiums for property owners in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise are already emerging. So one prospect that Island waterfront property and coastal flood-plain property owners may face is whether their properties will in future be deemed uninsurable and possibly become unsellable. All this raises important questions for policy makers, provincial and municipal governments, insurers, taxpayers and property owners that deserve a robust public discussion. It’s time for a clear-eyed and serious exchange of views about who pays the bill for risk and damage which, it seems inevitable, will increase year by year. What should happen when property becomes increasingly vulnerable to a known risk? Some jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, for example, already plan to move entire low-lying coastal communities to higher ground lock, stock and barrel. Others, including Richmond on the Lower Mainland, are betting on dykes, levees and flood-control infrastructure. Where does future liability lie if development is zoned by provincial and municipal authorities for real estate that lies in risk areas vulnerable to flooding should the sea level rise more dramatically than current predictions? What about taxation? Right now walk-on waterfront is taxed at a premium, because it’s a high-demand commodity that generates high value. But what if the value depreciates rapidly because of flooding risk and an eventual inability to insure? Most municipal taxpayers could never afford to buy beachfront homes. Where should the burden for mitigating risk to such properties from sea-level rise fall? That is, should all taxpayers be paying for anti-flooding infrastructure that protects high-value residential districts that most of those taxpayers are financially excluded from living in? Should we be having a conversation about if, when, or whether provincial and municipal governments should start restricting development in flood-prone areas, or even providing incentives to shift residential and commercial occupants to safer ground, or planning to dyke areas to make them flood-proof? And, of course, the big question for all of us is, who pays and how? 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. How might future global temperature increases affect sea level in Victoria? Readers might be interested in visiting Climate Central's interactive map for this area.
  4. As they are logged, whole ecosystems disappear forever, along with their superior ability to sequester carbon. GLOOM AND SILENCE lodged in my memory first. An occasional shaft of golden light lanced between immense trees. They towered like the columns of some ancient Greek temple. If there was a breeze in the foliage, its rustle was muffled by the dense canopy hundreds of feet above. It was 1956. I was nine. My father had taken me on my first real hike into the back country. A stand of old-growth Douglas fir on Vancouver Island (Photo by David Broadland) The temple allusion seems apt. The only other times I would feel that sudden, deep-shaded sense of sacredness—imprinting itself for the first time upon the virgin sensibility that art critic Roger Shattuck has called “the innocent eye”—occurred years later. Then I stood in the vaulting nave of an 800-year-old cathedral. Its construction began about the same time those Island trees of childhood memory were seedlings, pushing their first roots down into the decaying bole of a fallen ancestor, repeating the endless pattern of regeneration that had recurred over ten or more of their unimaginably long generations. The ancient forests of Vancouver Island are ancient, indeed. The south coast was one of the first places deglaciated at the end of the last ice age. Palaeobotanists studying plant pollen in lake-bottom mud discovered that more than 12,000 years ago, when most of what’s now the province still slept beneath glaciers as deep as Mount Waddington, these forests were growing here. On my first encounter with the ancient forest that once covered all of Vancouver Island, the trees seemed timeless, inexhaustible. And yet, that primeval forest, the living connection with our Palaeolithic origins in the natural world, was already in rapid retreat when my father took me to experience its miraculous, never-to-be-forgotten presence. It is utterly astonishing to think that in my brief lifetime, less than 10 percent of the life span of one of those trees, that same primeval forest has almost vanished from Vancouver Island. Seventy years ago, my father, now 96, was still hand-logging old growth west of Sooke with double-bitted axe and misery whip. “We thought it would never end,” he recently said—sadly I thought. But ending, it is. “We’re down to the guts and feathers now,” laments Erik Pikkila, a forester at Ladysmith who is assembling the “big data” needed for accurate, detailed analysis of BC’s practices and their consequences—what he calls “forgotten history”—both long and short term. “Here in BC we run forestry in a black box,” he says. “We need a technological revolution. The Province has run away from inventories. We don’t even know what is out there. If we don’t know what’s in the bank account, how do we manage that account sensibly going forward?” A decade ago, the Liberal government’s cost-cutting mania resulted in a savage downsizing of the Province’s forest service. In 2010, a BC auditor-general’s report concluded that despite high-minded declarations about preserving ecological integrity, the Province was falling short of its goals. “We should know where every tree is, where every log is at any given moment in the forestry cycle,” Pikkila says. “This is how you achieve real efficiency and sustainability in forest management. It’s how you eliminate waste. They can do this in Scandinavian logging. We can do it here.” “What is the state of the forest? We don’t really know anymore. We have to do things differently.” One step might be, as the Province has done with threatened grizzly bears, to boldly declare an immediate moratorium on logging the remnants of the ancient forest until we can gather the best science to determine what we should preserve, what we can preserve, and what we must preserve. Where to start? Perhaps with all trees still standing that were here before Europeans arrived—say 300 years old. The governments of Washington State and Canada, with the support of British Columbians, pledged more than $1 billion to attempt to save the iconic Southern Resident killer whales from extirpation. Yet BC not only tolerates, but enables and even encourages the killing of 500-year-old trees to manufacture disposable products. Today, probably 85 percent of the original ancient forest that covered Vancouver Island has been mowed down and turned into toilet paper, newsprint, dimensional lumber and plywood—purportedly a sustainable use, although most construction lumber goes into landfills after 50 years, the usual lifespan of a building in our throw-away culture of planned obsolescence. Tattered remnants remain in the North Island’s littoral zone and in a few parks and protected areas. Pockets survive in the most remote river valleys. To fly the Island from Cape Scott to Greater Victoria is to witness a landscape modified almost beyond recognition on an industrial scale. Ten thousand-year-old ecosystems have been stripped and replaced with artificial plantations that are, themselves, already in some places being stripped for a second time in less than a century. Forestry is now agriculture. Loggers, their historic self-perceptions notwithstanding, have become well-paid farm hands. Government, industry, academics and technicians reassure us that they can reconstruct ancient forests. Others don’t think so. “By treating 500 to 1,000-year-old forests as if they were a renewable resource, we are acting out a fiction and thereby making a grave mistake,” wrote Peter Raven, then-director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, in a prescient forward to the book Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. “Once they have been removed from a particular area, the ancient forests…will never appear again, given the human activities in the contemporary world and their consequences,” Raven wrote. “We not only kill the trees that are cut, but we annihilate the possibility of such trees for all time. No manifestation of the anthropomorphic causes of tree death could be more permanently fatal than this.” NOMINALLY, GOVERNMENT FOREST POLICY supports jobs and the economies of small forestry-based communities. But this, too, is a lie of self-deception. Government decoupled forest resources from workers and their communities a generation ago. In 1980, says Natural Resources Canada, about 100,000—one in 10 BC workers—were employed in the forest sector. By 2018, Statistics Canada listed 18,600 as employed directly in forestry, logging and support. Over that 38 years, though, the annual allowable cut remained the same. So that 20 percent of the original work force—and the communities depending upon it—now cuts the same amount of wood. The wealth from that productivity gain did not go to workers. It went to government and corporate bottom lines. Industry rationalizes liquidating old-growth forests on the fiction they are “over-mature.” The real reason, however, isn’t concern for the well-being of the forest, it’s because, as Charles Little pointed out in his book The Dying of the Trees, “Plantation trees are worth only about one-tenth as much as the 500-year-old pre-Columbian veterans.” Ironically, liquidating what’s left of old-growth forests merely accelerates the problem for forest-dependent workers and their communities. When the high-volume old wood runs out, the replacement feedstock can only be low-volume plantation wood of inferior quality. This warning isn’t a radical idea cooked up by naive environmentalists. The Vancouver Province ran a major newspaper series more than 80 years ago warning about the coming “fall down” effect. LOOKING DOWN FROM A LIGHT PLANE cockpit upon the patchwork quilt of clear-cuts, newly replanted cut blocks, immature growth, and the few protected areas and crannies too rugged to log, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Island is being defaced by some disastrous case of disfiguring psoriasis. Satellite mapping shows as shamelessly optimistic estimates that 15 percent of old-growth inventory in moderate-to-high-value forest remains intact. Image analysis shows what remains is about a third of that or less. Only about 10 percent of the biggest trees, the 1,000-year-old giants from river bottoms and lower elevations, still stand. So, 90 percent of the most majestic trees are already gone—flushed down your toilet; used to wrap fish and chips; used to make disposable forms during construction of steel and glass skyscrapers, and then discarded. Break it down by actual ecosystems, and the picture is grimmer yet. Of low elevation coastal Douglas fir and the Douglas fir adapted to the Island’s dry east coast rain shadow, only about one percent remains. For mountain hemlock in the very dry zone, about seven percent is left. “This is crazy policy,” Pikkila says. “Ecologically, we need to be leaving all those big trees. Between 60 and 80 years in the growth cycle of those trees, the volume of wood doubles. The bigger the tree, the greater the volume of wood, the more carbon captured from the atmosphere and sequestered for a thousand years.” He adds, “The best tool we have against climate change is forests—but we have to let them get old. We have to plant a trillion trees, but the catch is to let them get really old.” While vigorously growing young trees sequester atmospheric carbon, they have to grow for 500 years to match the carbon sequestered in old-growth veterans. On a per-hectare basis, temperate old-growth rainforests in BC sequester better than twice the carbon in equivalent forested areas of the tropical Amazon basin, whose deforestation has been so much in the news of late. More than 1,000 metric tons of carbon is sequestered in one hectare of BC rain forest, compared to about 400 tons in the Amazon. Ecologist Elliott Norse points out in a seminal study of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest that timber operations in old growth “release a huge pulse of carbon dioxide in the few years after logging.” This doesn’t square with the carbon budget targets bloviated by the NDP in the provincial legislature. Based on the best current science, Ken Wu of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance calls for a dramatic expansion of targets for protecting remaining old growth. The United Nations target is currently 17 percent. BC has achieved 15 percent. Wu says we need to go to at least 50 percent protection by 2030. Ken Wu stands beside an old-growth Douglas fir on McLauglin Ridge (Photo by TJ Watt) “To continue logging the last giants is akin to slaughtering the last herds of elephants or harpooning the last great whales,” Wu has written. “It’s unnecessary and unethical, given that second-growth forests dominate more than 80 percent of BC’s productive forest lands and can be sustainably logged. “Indeed,” he continues, “the rest of the Western world is focused on logging 50- to 100-year-old second- or third-growth trees. BC is one of the very last jurisdictions on Earth that still supports the large-scale logging of 500-year-old trees. On Vancouver Island alone, about 10,000 hectares of productive old-growth forests are logged each year while only 8 percent of the original is protected.” As with cancer patients, it’s easy to get drawn into a confused and confusing realm of contested statistics when it comes to evaluating survival rates, statistical probabilities, fretting over what the numbers actually mean—or if they mean anything. Yet for any lay person trying to sort out the facts, one thing is certain: government and industry data have gaps, sometimes large ones, and whether by incompetence or designed obscurantism, it’s opaque. Spending an hour trying to extract intelligible data from the equivocating, jargon-laden labyrinth hosted by the Provincial Ministry of Forests feels like the same mind-numbing paralysis that follows sucking in a Freezie too fast. Government, which is responsible for managing about 20 percent of timber sales (through BC Timber Sales), and industry, which has billions vested in business-as-usual, both argue that more old-growth forest has been protected than environmental groups acknowledge. But Wu, a long-time campaigner for expanded old-growth protection, says the spin cycle has been cranked up to high for government and industry statistics. He argues, for example, that provincial statistics mislead, because they include in protected old growth all the low commercial value forests growing on terrain so rugged it can’t be logged; stunted forests in shore bogs; treeless high alpine zones of rock and snow. They lump together fundamentally different ecosystems, from temperate coastal rainforest to arid rain shadow. Wu likens this greenwashing of provincial forest policy to a politician combining Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown East Side, where the median household income was $13,000 in the last census, with West Vancouver, where the median family income was $90,000, and then huffing that everyone, including those in the Downtown East Side, is doing just fine because median household income averages $50,000. Well, it does, but it’s misleading. Furthermore, he argues, if you include protected parklands in your annual old-growth inventory, the proportion of protected to unprotected old growth will appear to increase as unprotected old growth is logged. Eventually, when you’ve liquidated all the unprotected old growth, you’ll be able to claim that 100 percent of your old growth is protected, although it will represent only a minuscule fragment of what was once present. The fact is that at least 80 percent of the moderate-to-high-value forest—those are the big trees—has already been extirpated on Vancouver Island, Wu says. Another 15 percent is unprotected. Only about five percent is protected by parks or ecological reserves. So, the NDP government’s plan, inherited from the opposition Liberals, appears to be to adopt a legacy of having stripped 95 percent of our ancient forest from the landscape, all the while congratulating itself on its environmental commitment. Vicky Husband, another battle-scarred veteran of the fight to save what’s left of a vanishing ecosystem, concurs. “Our ancient, old-growth forest of giant tree ecosystems is seriously endangered and irreplaceable,” she says. “Less than 15 percent of the original extent of ancient forest remains. There is very little valley-bottom ancient forest. Most [of what does remain] is seriously fragmented across the landscape by rampant clear-cut logging, with no regard for protection of other values.” A typical clear cut with grapple-yarder that hauls bucked logs up to the cold deck where they are sorted into truckloads. When dragged logs disturb the surface of the forest floor they can create furrows that channel winter runoff down steep slopes, contributing to erosion. (Photo by TJ Watt) She observes that the temperate coastal rain forests never amounted to more than about 0.5 percent of the world’s original forest and yet it’s still being logged to near extirpation. “The kind of extreme mismanagement and liquidation of the last of our ancient forests is a total crime against nature. We have the best remaining ancient temperate rainforests in the world, and we are losing them so fast,” she says. Continuing, Husband says, “We have protected only 5.5 percent of the original extent of the ancient forest on Vancouver Island. Does anyone think that is enough? The NDP has totally betrayed us all. They have continued the Liberal regime with regard to mismanagement of our forest, no consideration or protection of other important values, only timber.…and they are massively overcutting what we have left as fast as they can.” MORE THAN 60 YEARS AGO, when my father hiked me up into the old growth, it covered the lower slopes of Mount Arrowsmith, flanked the Cameron River where it winds from Labour Day Lake under Mount Moriarty, and swept over to Cameron Lake. He showed me liquorice ferns, deer ferns, maidenhair ferns—a whole palette of vivid greens—offset by the pale, corpse-coloured ghost pipes that live in parasitical symbiosis with living tree roots. Another persistent recollection, embedded like a kind of muscle memory, is the springiness underfoot. Moss that seemed knee-deep in places moved beneath my feet like a trampoline, although it was a more fragile kind of trembling. We looked at nurse logs, huge trunks of ancient trees that had died, stood for another century or so, then fallen to the forest floor to begin a new cycle of growth. The moss, explained my dad, was so deep that nothing could take root, and the canopy so dense that there was little light. But these falling giants laid down a nutrient-rich bed into which seedlings had a brief window in which to push tiny roots into crevices and capture light slanting in through the opening left in the canopy. We gorged on the fat, red huckleberries that take root in decaying stumps and took home a couple of cups, which my mother tossed with lemon juice, some sugar and promptly baked into a tart, tangy pie—another indelible childhood memory. As we climbed towards the tree line, spring-fed rills bubbled up and frothed down the slope, tumbling over deadfalls and rock ledges. It was a landscape as magical and mesmerizing as any I’d found in the books at the tiny Port Alberni library where I was often deposited while my mother shopped. Timespans are different in childhood. Summers seem so long that their end is always a shock. But it was nothing like the shock when I went looking for that vividly remembered ancient forest of childhood. It was a ruin of debris. All that remains of that forest of my memory is the beautiful but ecologically insignificant postage-stamp park called Cathedral Grove, a thin ribbon of trees in the steep canyon of the Cameron River, and a few veterans here and there left to blow down in some big storm. Logging in old growth on McLaughlin Ridge. Only about 5 percent of ancient forest is protected. (Photo by TJ Watt) Provincial forest policy, and the attitudes of our elected politicians, seem maddeningly obtuse. The forest sector supports fewer and fewer people who are used to mow down the last intact bits of unprotected old growth at a time when children are taking to the streets demanding that we do something to preserve their future and their heritage. BC’s parks recorded 200 million visits over the last decade. Pacific Rim National Park Reserve gets about a million visitors a year. If hikers continue to reserve places on the West Coast Trail at the current rate, 75,000 will complete the arduous wilderness trek over the next decade. Government brochures, reports, and websites celebrate and promote these visits because they inject billions into the provincial economy—certainly more than logging does. The promotions are plastered with dramatic photos of pristine forests, hikers gazing at huge trees, and campers setting up in a pastoral paradise. But it’s really more of the Big Lie to which our children object. Beyond the park boundaries—and parks are now so jammed that reservations months in advance are a necessity—the landscape is still being shaved bald. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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
  9. 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.
  10. 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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