6 : Comox Harbour Fish Trap (6)

About 100 kilometers north of B.C.’s Gulf Islands there are remains of a large, industrial-scale fish trap complex.

6 : Comox Harbour Fish Trap (6)

There were two basic trap designs ranging in age from 1300 years ago until 100 years ago. The ‘Winged Heart’ trap apparently used the falling tides to catch herring. About 800 years ago, during the little Ice Age, it is thought that the colder waters brought salmon to the area. During this time the traps were changed abruptly to a different, ‘Winged Chevron’ trap. 323 individual traps have been identified, which could have been worked individually or networked with other traps. These were seriously large scale. The number of vertical stakes has been conservatively estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000.
When you consider the planning that must have gone into these traps — construction, maintenance and the processing of fish — you have to wonder just how many people were involved? This was an abundant coast inhabited by a prosperous people.
Early estimates of just 80,000 people in B.C. before contact have been disputed. Oral histories of First Nations report that European diseases such as small pox and influenza decimated populations even before the first Europeans appeared on the coast. The diseases, which the locals had no immunity to, had traveled up from more southern regions, including from Central America, through trade and contact. Estimates now put pre-contact populations at between 200,000 and 1 million. This may be conservative. A 1963 study of the !Kung Bushmen in Botswana determined that they “worked” (by hunting or gathering) an average of two and a half days per week. This was in a harsh environment. Life would have been considerably easier in the rich coastal environments of the Pacific Coast. First Nations people had ample time to create art, stories, legends, and these large-scale fish traps which were designed to catch exactly the desired fish. There was minimum by-catch, no ghost nets to be lost at sea and no damage to the environment. Along the great arc stretching from present day Korea and Japan, north up the coast of Asia, across the Bering Strait and south down the North American coast to California, marine societies grew and flourished. Unique cultures developed but they all had one special thing in common: they harvested most of their protein and nutrition from the sea. European settlers didn’t understand this deep physical and spiritual connection to the ocean. Historians have tended to ignore civilizations such as these that hadn’t developed monoculture agriculture on a large scale. But these were successful, long lasting societies. Understanding this may be key to developing more just and sustainable modern societies.
There is a new sea farming concept developed by a company called Greenwave that is very similar to First Nations’ historical practices. It is called ‘vertical ocean farming’ or ‘3D ocean farming’. Vertical ropes are anchored to the seabed. Attached to them are floating horizontal ropes. From these lines seaweed grows down towards the seabed next to scallops and mussels hanging in mesh. Below them are oysters and then clams buried below. The farms can occupy a very small footprint. Greenwave claims that they can grow 25 tons of greens and 250,000 shellfish per acre in five months. Kelp, one of nature’s fastest-growing plants, soaks up prodigious amounts of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. Oysters filter nitrogen from the water, which is a leading cause of anoxic waters and fish mortality. Seaweed contains calcium, vitamin C, Omega-3s and many other useful nutrients.
Contrast that to modern fish farms. Open net pens hold up to a million fish. For carnivorous fish such as salmon much of the feed comes from wild fish caught off South America. There are huge concerns about mining the world’s feeder fish stocks in less developed areas in order to provide food for wealthy buyers in richer countries.
In the summer, when salmon are most active and hungry, a large salmon farm can go through 18 tonnes of feed every day. Fish farms are perfect breeding grounds for sea lice, which attach to passing wild juvenile salmon. Infection rates can be vastly increased in wild salmon up to 30 km from open-net pens. Diseases such as Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA) and Furunculosis can be endemic in farmed fish pens. Treatment requires vaccines and antibiotics, which can pass into the environment. This is a very controversial way of producing fish that has been embraced in Washington State and B.C. but rejected in Alaska. Now only the Alaskan wild fish stocks are reasonably healthy.
Imagine that instead of these fish farms there were small, community-owned vertical-ocean farms dotted all along the coasts of our blue planet. Some could be in indigenous communities and could provide traditional food sources plus economic benefits. If the farms were kept small, local communities of all types could participate in growing sustainable food and nurturing the oceans at the same time. There is great potential here. A researcher in the Netherlands has calculated that sea farms covering a total area equal to Washington State could provide protein for the entire world population.
Cows emit a lot of methane[1]. A Japanese study found that the production of 1 kg. of beef releases as much CO2 as the average European car emits in 250 kilometers. A recent Australian study found that an addition of less than 2% of a special red algae seaweed, which possibly could be grown in vertical ocean farms, can reduce methane emissions by 99 percent. Methane is at least 28 times more potent than CO2 on a 100 year time scale, so this is important.
The best thing about vertical ocean farming is that large quantities of high-quality food are produced with zero inputs while enhancing the health of the ocean.
In October, 2017 a study was released that measured the decline by volume of insect populations in Germany at 76% over the past 27 years. The decline was even higher at 82% during the productive summer months. These declines were in non- agricultural areas set aside to preserve nature. This shocked researchers.
This decline of insect populations could have massive effects on food production in the future. The collapse of bee populations due to mites and neocon pesticides is in the news these days, but there is a die-off of all insects and birds. During cycle trips across the Canadian prairies and especially through vineyards in France I became aware that there were no bugs and few birds. We enjoyed the sight of beautiful waving wheat fields and green grape vines, but other than people trimming and spraying the crops, no life. Everything is related. If you encounter few bugs on monoculture crops you have to suspect that lots of fertilizers and insecticides have been used, which eventually will leach into rivers and surrounding seas, causing vast dead zones.
When you combine personal memories such as these with what scientists are telling us, the stark message becomes more real, more urgent. Mankind’s monoculture food production is becoming increasingly tenuous and also dangerous for life on the planet. We need to shift towards sustainable farming practices. Ocean farming based on First Nations sustainable principles could help. However, this is assuming that raising shellfish will continue to be viable. Ocean chemistry and temperatures are changing. Already shellfish are dying in some areas due warming water and acidification. We urgently need to cut back CO2 emissions and other pollutants. More on this later.
These changes are already being felt where we had our discussion 25 nautical miles off Big and Little Diomede in the Bering Strait in 1994. Walruses have long hauled their huge bodies up onto the sea ice near the islands to dive and rest and the Inuit on the Diomedes depend on them. However, in 2014 only one animal was taken, and in 2015 just 10. The ice has gone and so have the walruses.
[1] I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of it goes out of their mouths, not their back ends.