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Stephen Hume

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  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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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