8. The Fishing Business
Of all the effects that our mass consumer society has had on the oceans, over-fishing has inflicted the most damage.
During the early 1980s I used to paddle out to an island up the B.C. coast off Campbell River and visit my friends Margaret and Eric. They were caretakers of a delightful old log cabin overlooking a pristine bay. I don’t know if they liked the term, but most people would have called them hippies. They had few possessions and preferred to live simply. Often Eric would catch a salmon for dinner by dropping a line off his kayak. It was easy for him. One day a seiner fishing boat came into the bay and stayed for a number of weeks. The crew wasn’t friendly; they told us to fuck off if we came close by. They must have been fishing illegally. Years later Eric didn’t bother fishing in the bay because the fish were all gone. This surprised me. I thought the fishing would recover, but it didn’t. It seems a new equilibrium had developed which didn’t include predator fish. This story has been repeated all over the world.
Recently Callum Roberts, an esteemed marine conservation biologist, and his graduate student, Ruth Thurstan, combed through old European fisheries records and compared them to catches being recorded today. They used a methodology developed by a nineteenth-century scientist named Walter Garstang. He divided the catch by the amount of power expended to get an estimate of availability of fish. He estimated that “steam trawlers had more than twice the fishing power of sailing vessels”. More recent developments of sonar and satellite imagery have increased “fishing power” many times more.
Roberts expected a decline, but was astonished that what he found was: “near annihilation”…”a fleet that in the 1880s consisted mostly of sail-powered boats open to the elements was far more successful at wrestling fish from the sea than we are now. For every hour spent fishing today, in boats bristling with the latest fish-finding electronics, fishers land just 6 percent of what they did 120 years ago.” Basically, 90 percent of the world’s fishing stock has been wiped out since industrialized fishing began. This finding has since been verified by other scientists. I remember seeing and catching more fish in my youth than now, so that’s my baseline, but my experience cannot encompass the catches that came before me, going back to pre-industrial times. Scientists call this a moving baseline. A century ago it was a gentle decline of abundance, but now we see it going off a cliff.
Industrial fishing is causing destruction on a massive scale. The biggest fleets are heavily subsidized by national governments and would not be profitable without them. And it’s happening globally. European authorities have ignored their own scientists and approved overfishing for decades. In Japan inshore fisheries are well managed but the offshore fleet is the most heavily subsidized in the world. China has by far the biggest fleet and is the worst offender. During August and September, 2020, 340 boats of China’s vast, 17,000-strong fleet were just offshore from the biodiverse Galapagos Islands. In 2017 Ecuador seized the Chinese reefer Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 within its Galapagos marine reserve. In its hold were 6,000 frozen sharks, including endangered hammerhead and whale sharks. In just one boat! Often these boats “go dark”. They turn off their transmitters so following them is difficult. Increasing numbers of “ghost” fishing boats from North Korea are washing up on Japanese shores, with bodies of fishermen still onboard. These have been pushed out of their traditional fishing grounds by aggressive Chinese boats and forced to fish illegally in much more exposed and dangerous Russian territories, where they have perished. There are now ways to possibly limit this destruction. Until recently once these fleets “went dark” they could not be traced. But in the past two years satellites have enabled researchers to accurately track all of these boats. If countries can agree on sensible fishing policies they can also follow the movements of all of the world’s fleets and hopefully shame and control the worst offenders.
In B.C., whether it has been hunting sea otters to near extinction or cutting down old growth forests, when large, corporate, for profit enterprises have been ceded control of non-renewable resources, over hunting or over extraction has been sure to follow. This is the case with our west coast fisheries. Until 1991 the vast majority of fishing was done by owner-operators working from their own communities. But then the federal government, in a bid to get increasing returns from a diminishing resource, brought in Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs). Fishermen were issued or bought quotas which could be sold to the highest bidder. Today the quota for over 90% of halibut and other species has been bought up by local and foreign owned corporations operating through shell companies. Quotas are now more valuable than fish. Fishing communities from White Rock in the south to Bella Bella on the mid coast and up to Prince Rupert in the north have suffered enormously, boats have been left idle and rotting and the fish are disappearing fast. Private fishing corporations benefit only a few company shareholders. For them foregoing harvest for sustainability reasons is money lost, down the drain. Better to get it all now. This systemic problem of running down the resource is happening world-wide. There are better ways to manage fisheries. More about this in later chapters.
The Cod Collapse in Atlantic Canada
In 1497 the English explorers only had to lower baskets into the ocean to pick up cod off Newfoundland’s shores. Local Canadian fishermen using traditional near-shore methods had a bonanza until the 1950s when large international factory ships began fishing off the Grand Banks. In 1976 the U.S. and Canada extended their marine jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles. Canadian factory ships replaced the international ones and continued to fish down the resource. The Canadian government, although warned by local fishermen, and acting on the behest of the large corporate fishing lobby, did not introduce a ban on cod fishing until 1992. By then it was too late. The situation had been worsened by the introduction of trawlers dragging the ocean floor, destroying the underlying eco-system, and catching young cod and other sea life that was a food source for the cod.
It has surprised many that the cod have not recovered. One explanation offered is that the smaller fish that used to be food for the cod have become more numerous and are now feasting on young cod. Another possibility mentioned is that the copepods (tiny crustaceans) that the cod used to feed on have moved north with the colder waters and have been replaced by smaller, less nutritious copepods. It is indicative of how little we know that even after the cod’s demise we cannot explain why they haven’t come back.
Chinooks and orcas on B.C.’s southern coast
The southern resident orcas that swim in my region of B.C. depend almost exclusively on chinook salmon (over 80% of their food intake). Chinook are the biggest salmon on the coast and the most nutritious. They are also in serious decline globally, in diverse areas such as Russia, Alaska, B.C and Washington State. In B.C there is only one population that is considered stable, and that is the Thompson River run. The rest are endangered, threatened, of special concern, or unknown.
There are only 76 whales left in the pods and recent autopsies of dead whales indicate starvation and disease, which is an indicator of malnutrition. Whales off the west coast have some of the highest levels of DDT and PCBs of any animal because they are at the apex of the food chain. When food is scarce and they have to live off their stored fat they begin to metabolize these and other poisons.
Because the decline of chinook salmon is global it has been suggested that they are especially susceptible to changing open sea conditions, such as warmer temperatures, toxic algae blooms and anoxia. Other species, such as pink salmon, which grow faster and return to their natal streams within two years, have not been affected as much.
There are also local contributing conditions. The Fraser River once had the biggest salmon run anywhere. It has long been the largest Canadian producer of chinook salmon. But, salmon need cold water to spawn and the Fraser is getting too warm. This will only become worse. A study by Prof. Garry Clarke in Nature Geoscience predicted that by 2100, 70% of glacier mass in B.C. and Alberta will be gone. Another study noted that before then 90% of glaciers that feed into the Fraser watershed will have disappeared. When water temperatures exceed 20 deg. C, fish have great difficulty reaching spawning grounds. This has already been happening. Without glacier melt chinook will have an increasingly difficult time.
There are things that we can do to give the chinook and the whales that depend on them a chance. A study done by Simon Fraser University found that of the multitude of floodgates along the 1,400 kilometers of salmon habitat in the lower Fraser Valley, only 10% were open, even though there was no threat of flooding at the time. Many were inoperable. It found that the faulty floodgates severely impacted the survival of juvenile salmon. No one has been checking on this for years and no one is accountable. Repairing and opening these floodgates can be done right away. Other habitat issues, such as the destruction of gravel spawning bars and over-development need to be addressed.
Surely one of the most important ways to preserve the chinook and the whales is to reduce the catch of salmon heading into the Fraser River. In 2018 the chinook fishery was finally closed in some areas. But it had little effect. Although the Canadian Federal Government has promised to manage the fishery more conservatively, in one of the most important areas — designated as Area 20 — off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, the catch has increased from 18,000 in 2014 to 28,000 in 2018. Conservationists have no confidence in how the Department of Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) is managing this crisis.
In October, 2012 the much anticipated Cohen Inquiry on the B.C. salmon fishery was released. The 1,100 page document provided many recommendations to improve the salmon fishery, especially for sockeye, including reminding the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that its primary mandate was the conservation of wild fish, not the promotion of open net fish farms. It stated: “I therefore conclude that the potential harm posed to Fraser River sockeye from salmon farms is serious or irreversible. Disease transfer occurs between wild and farmed fish, and I am satisfied that salmon farms along the sockeye migration route have the potential to introduce exotic diseases and to exacerbate endemic diseases that could have a negative impact on Fraser”. Justice Cohen recommended the permanent closure of fish farms in the areas where wild salmon are most exposed to fish farm pens unless the operators can verify their industry is having “minimum impact”.
Most of its recommendations have not been acted on. The fish farms remain.
However, In May, 2019, in response to massive public concern about the sad plight of the local fish-feeding orca population, the Canadian government issued new rules, including: requiring ships to stay 400 meters away from whales; a voluntary slowdown of commercial vessels through Haro Strait and Boundary Pass, (which are favoured routes for the whales); closing some areas to vessel traffic and fishing.
One of the areas to be closed is along some of the Gulf Islands, including my sighting area directly below me, where I have witnessed dozens of boats, large and small, harass the orcas as they make their way west through Swanson Channel. This may be too little too late. Photos captured in early May, 2019 show one of the prime matriarchs, Princess Angeline (or J17) and her youngest daughter, Kiki, are starving. The photos show the telltale “peanut head” that indicates a loss of blubber. Her ten year old son, Moby, still relies on her wisdom for fishing and family matters. No restrictions were indicated for the commercial seine and gill fleet, which includes the largest commercial operator on the coast. The harvest of the last healthy run of herring, which the chinook feed on, was allowed to proceed.
There is a big shift coming in where the fish will be. Fish are adapted to limited temperature ranges. With a 2 degree warming by the end of the century fish stocks will migrate north 236 km along the North Pacific coast and 100 km on the Atlantic coast. If it remains business as usual and climate warms by 4 degrees (which is the path we are on) on the Pacific side fish will migrate 1,500 km north, while on the Atlantic coast it will be 600 km. On the Pacific coast the temperature difference from north to south is smaller, so the fish have to travel farther to find cooler water. Cold water species such as salmon and pollock will have severely limited range.
Chinook salmon migrate up the Yukon River and its tributaries over 3,000 kilometers. This is the longest migration of any salmon. In Teslin, the Elders of the Tlingit Nation were long warning about the decline in size and abundance and over 20 years ago they stopped fishing for them. Today when people of the Tlingit Nation want a salmon for feasting they have to fly it in. Now the Teslin Tlingit Council is working on a novel way to re-start the runs, called in-stream fertilization. Fertilized eggs, sourced from nearby Morley River, are put into Deadman Creek, a tributary of Teslin Lake. It is thought that this will be more effective than hatchery practices which keep fertilized eggs until they grow to fry stage, and then release them. This new process will ensure that only the strongest survive. It may take eight years to see if the chinook salmon return.
Known as a foundation fish of the West Coast, herring used to be hugely abundant. Until the 1960s they were caught in the hundreds of thousands of tonnes annually and rendered into fishmeal and oil. Then came the great herring collapse.
Most are now caught in gill nets for roe to be used in Kazunoko, a delight for sushi lovers in Japan. The roe is stripped from the female fish with the males and the rest going for fishmeal. Traditionally the Heiltsuk and other First Nations have pulled the roe off sea weed and eel grass. They still do. As they point out, the herring, which live up to 15 years, are not harmed and will be back to lay more eggs the following year. Ironically, the main market for the roe is in Japan, and their tastes are changing. Demand is way down and profits are meagre.
In 2015 the Heiltsuk, realizing that the herring in the Central Coast were in serious decline, stopped their own fishers from fishing with gill nets off Spiller Channel and protested against opening the fishery to others. In a tense standoff the Heiltsuk occupied the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) office in Bella Bella until the government agreed to a joint management agreement to reduce quota to just 215 tonnes. They also got the right to be on DFO boats during herring season.
Many observers wonder about the justification for fishing herring. So many species, including predatory fish, seals, sea lions, gulls, cormorants and orcas rely on them for food.
In an odd symmetry, 80% of the orcas’ diet is chinook salmon and 80% of the fish chinook eat are herring. There is only one viable herring roe fishery open to seine and gill nets left along the entire coast from Washington State to Alaska. Despite warning from numerous environmental groups the DFO opened this fishery, located between Nanaimo and Comox in March 2019. Roe was removed from the females and most of the rest was ground up for fishmeal and pet food. The DFO allocated 20% of the estimated biomass for the catch. However, such estimates are notoriously difficult to do and they badly overestimated the size of the run.
According to reports from Russia and other cold water areas, herring are in serious decline throughout the North Pacific. This may suggest a common cause. We know that warming waters inhibit the growth of phytoplankton and copepods, on which the herring feed, and reduce the amount of oxygen in the water. The number and size of anoxic dead zones in the North Pacific is increasing. Another cause is the decline of various types of seaweed throughout the Salish Sea and along the west coast to California. Herring lay their eggs on seaweed and eel grass. Clear cut logging may have diminished growth by muddying the waters, reducing photosynthesis. Perhaps the biggest losses besides over-fishing are caused by voracious sea urchins that eat the stems and holdfasts seaweed. Unfortunately the population of sea urchins has exploded lately. In northern California purple sea urchins have increased by 10,000% since 2014 and destroyed 90% of the massive kelp forests. These urchins have expanded up to Oregon where 350 million urchins were estimated on one reef alone. It seems inevitable that they will make their way up the coast to B.C. In Howe Sound, B.C., green urchins have decimated the kelp forest, leaving an “urchin barren”. This explosion in the numbers of urchins was preceded in 2013 by the demise of their main predator, the sunflower sea star. In what has been called one of the worst wildlife die-offs ever recorded, millions of sea stars from California to Alaska succumbed to a “wasting disease” that caused them to rapidly dissolve into goo. Sea otters eat sea urchins too, but they prefer the larger red urchin, which is meatier and has commercial value. Scientists have found that the healthiest kelp forests are in habitats with sea stars, which will eat almost anything, and sea otters.
There is hope. In 2006 members of the Squamish Streamkeepers Society noticed dead herring roe on government pilings near Squamish. They surmised that creosote on the pilings was killing the roe so they started covering the pilings with landscaping cloth,which is safe for the roe. They had no budget and worked on their own time. In 2006 work also began on cleaning up the nearby Brittania copper mine which was one of the largest metal pollution sources in North America. Over 4 billion litres of water were treated and 255,000 kilograms of heavy metals were removed. Also in 2006 the Woodfibre Pulp Mill, which had been contributing to the pollution of Howe Sound, was closed. With these actions the water quality in Howe Sound began to be clean enough for herring to thrive. The following year the streamkeepers were astonished to find nearly 100% of the roe had hatched. By 2014 dolphins were seen in the sound feeding on the herring and in 2019 orcas made a big splash. The Streamkeepers have also installed nets for herring roe in False Creek, in the heart of Vancouver, and the herring are returning there too. John Matsen, one of the members of the Streamkeepers, has said that the herring eat phytoplankton and just about everything else eats herring. He stated that herring need just two things: a protected spawning area (they will lay their eggs on just about any surface, not just seaweed) and a rearing area. I would add to that: unpolluted water.
In March, 2019, after seeing reports that herring were making a comeback, members of the Skwxwu7mesh (Squamish First Nation) anchored hemlock boughs secured to long maple poles in water across from Stawamus Chief. In their language the word for March is “Temlhawt”, which translates as “Herring Time”. It had been a century since they had harvested herring and they had to reach out to elders and members of nations farther north to learn the traditional techniques. About a week later they pulled the boughs out covered in herring roe. They celebrated and feasted right there and then brought the treasured catch to the homes of the elders. Below is a quote from Charlene Joseph:
“This experience highlights the importance of rehabilitating our lands and waters, and shows how resilient our Mother Earth is… In the words of Margret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (https://www.myseatosky.org/herring_roe_harvest_returns_to_howe_sound)
A few years ago, just as the herring were starting to return to Howe Sound, the Streamkeepers were startled to see commercial fish boats scooping them up. Word of the herring return had reached the DOF and they immediately approved the fishery. Unfortunately, this has been the pattern for years. In March of 2019, DOF approved the herring fishery south of Nanaimo based on catching 20% of a projected population biomass of 122,291 metric tonnes, but only 85,700 tonnes returned. According to First Nation and conservation groups, the biomass has declined 60% since 2016. The DOF also approved the same fishery in 2020, despite a petition signed by a hundred and fifteen thousand people demanding the fishery be closed .
The Department of Fisheries relies on a baseline measurement of populations from the 1950s. Unfortunately, decades of industrial fishing before that had decimated the herring. First Nations and groups such as Pacific Wild, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and Conservancy Hornby Island tell us that there used to be major spawn all up and down the coast. Near Victoria, the Gorge, Ross Bay, James Bay, and Odgen point all lost their fisheries by the end of the 1930s. Other areas in the Gulf Islands, including Pender Island, where I like to hang out, were fished out during the 70s and 80s.
The DOF has long favored large corporate fishing interests over communities and individuals. One company, Canfisco, owned by the Jim Pattison Group, has more herring licenses than anyone else and would lobby strenuously against any curtailment of the fishery. Although the company clearly has the ear of government, (its chief operating officer was once Premier of B.C.) it does not have history or science on its side. The first step to bring back herring, the main food source for Chinook salmon and ultimately sea lions, orcas, and people, is to stop the killing.
Other steps would include making the environment safe for herring roe by covering creosote and pressure treated pilings and installing nets for roe in areas where herring used to spawn. It is really exciting that this worked so well in Howe Sound. In addition, I wonder: if some hemlock boughs or netting were anchored in the waters off Denman and Hornby Islands just before the March spawn (as the Squamish people did) and then a very small portion of the spawn was transported and immersed in other parts of the coast, could these areas be effectively re-seeded? Could traditional knowledge help us recover our Eden? This could be a true path of reconciliation if members of First Nations, local communities and marine biologists worked together and succeeded in helping nature restore lost abundance.
In early 2020 I got the bright idea that maybe herring could be enticed back to Victoria’s inner harbour, a bay that once had a big population. Most of the spawning grounds, including eel grass and seaweed, have been ripped up or built over. I teamed up with Jim Shortreed and another guy. The other guy disappeared once real work had to be done but Jim turned out to be golden. He lives full time with his girlfriend on a sailboat, whom he met while sailing in the South Pacific, and is used to hard work on the ocean. I sewed seventy-six, 8-foot long nets that hang from aluminum rods and are weighted down with rocks in a sleeve sewn onto the base. The idea is that if herring happen by they might spawn on your nets. This program did work in False Creek, Vancouver. However, much like a spider on its web there are no guarantees. Jim figured out where to put the nets and we installed most of them at four locations. We even got some funding for the nets from Joachim Carolsfeld of World Fisheries Trust. Unfortunately, Jim, who is a helicopter mechanic, and claims to be retired, got called to B.C.’s hot, dry interior to service choppers used for fighting forest fires just as the Covid-19 pandemic started. That left just me and my long-suffering wife to clean the nets. Guck grows on the nets and this inhibits herring from spawning so each net has to be cleaned at least once a week. Every other day, for two months we spent hours bending over docks and brushing off the green slime. Theresa says that next year she will definitely not be playing. One location for our nets was the Harbour Air Seaplane Base. As the pandemic worsened they closed their Victoria operation and dock access to the nets was barred. This meant that to service the nets I had to paddle over on one of our sit-on-top kayaks (a Java). I didn’t ask for permission. One day a guy wandered down the dock and started watching me cleaning from the other side of the strong glass barricade. He introduced himself as the CEO of Harbour Air. “Oh, oh,” I thought to myself as I envisioned what he must be looking at: a skinny old guy bending over the dock, covered in green slime. But he said that I must be one of the herring guys and thanked me for our work, which he supported wholeheartedly. This is also the company that is pioneering the use of electric motors on its float planes and hopes to convert the whole, short-range fleet to electricity. I like this company! (More on this later). Although we call ourselves the Herring Whisperers we have yet to whisper in a single herring. Jim is now busy looking into new initiatives that might improve our chances. Maybe next year.
Reverence, Resilience, Rejuvenation
In our mass consumption society we have lost our reverence: for this incredible blue planet we call home and all of its life within. Hopefully, there are signs that we are regaining this. Environmental groups everywhere are teaming up with governments, industry and First Nations to chart new, beneficial ways to organize our societies. Despite the harm that we have done to the oceans there have been few extinctions. In many areas once a Marine Protected Area (MPA) has been created and enforced, abundant and diverse life has returned and flourished. Along foreshores marshes have been re-introduced. Clam and oyster beds have been cultured and increased. Even coral reefs are starting to be re-seeded. There still is time and hope but we must act quickly.