Stormy seas for seafood:

🕔Sep 22, 2008

Will our grandchildren have enough salmon and seafood to feed themselves?
The outlook is not necessarily bright. “Scientific studies show that if fishing practices around the world do not change, the seafood we depend on may be gone in 40 years,” says the 2007 Council of Haida Nations (CHN) discussion paper Towards a Marine Use Plan for Haida Gwaii.
Dr. Daniel Pauly, an internationally renowned researcher at UBC’s Fisheries Centre, has looked at fish numbers all over the world. “It sounds glib, but it’s actually quite profound,” he says. “There are problems when people make more and more demands of a system: you run out of resources.”
“In the Java Sea, in Indonesia, I have seen six fishermen go out and come back with just five pounds of fish. These people cannot feed their families.”
But, for some reason, knowing that fish numbers are diminishing doesn’t necessarily mean that sufficient action will be taken to prevent fisheries from total collapse. One problem might be the multiple means of data collection, and the multiple jurisdictions under which fish fall. Compiling and combining sufficient research information and then acting on it in effective ways presents a huge and sometimes insurmountable challenge—witness the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery.
Another problem seems to be that, as a public, we cannot seem to believe that something so fundamental can come to an end. Contributing to this is what Dr. Pauly calls a ‘shifting baseline,’ where each generation adjusts its baseline of measurement to its own times, giving us a skewed vision of history.
Indicator species
So, can we tell if there is a problem with salmon and other seafood?
Salmon and other sea life are not too conscious of the political borders that cause challenges in legislation. For example, the chinook salmon we catch here could be passing through as they migrate from Washington to Alaska. This has resulted in the sometimes acrimonious Canada-US Pacific Salmon Treaty that attempts to conserve and share migratory salmon stocks. In Washington, most of chinook salmon stocks are on the threatened or endangered list.
Closer to home, federal officials declared in June that 2008 would be BC’s worst sockeye salmon catch in 50 years. In Alert Bay, Art Dick of the Namgis nation says, “We’re down to 4 fish per person now.” In July, a United Fishermen and Allied Workers representative said that the Nass River was the worst she had ever seen, and that the Skeena didn’t look good either. The Sto:lo fishery on the Fraser River is likely to close with stocks down to one-quarter of normal.
The numbers of other marine species can also be an indicator, either about our habits or about the demands on our eco-system.
“We have already seen a decline in other species here on Haida Gwaii,” say Russ Jones of Skidegate, a UBC Fisheries Centre Associate working with Haida Fisheries. “Herring is at a low level, and has been for more than a decade. Rockfish are scarce, abalone is ‘threatened,’ and the Pacific cod fishery in Hecate Strait collapsed about a decade ago and has not yet recovered.”
Data-gathering methods like DNA testing and hatcheries monitoring is very expensive, but there are simpler ways to get a good picture. “Look at the size of ‘trophy’ fish over the last of 20 or 50 years,” says Dr. Pauly, “and you will see the decline in size. And ask your elders.”
The diminishing size can mean that all of the larger fish are gone. And smaller predator fish also mean less spawn. For example, a single old female red snapper can lay the same number of eggs (nine million or so) as 212 younger females.
What has been found all over the world is a general decline in ‘trophic level,’ which essentially means we are catching fish lower and lower on the food chain. “What we could end up with, if we continue the way we’re going, is a diet of jellyfish and plankton stew,” says Dr. Pauly.
Listening to elders can counterbalance the shifting baseline. “It’s especially important for our young people to hear these stories,” says artist and father Jim Hart at a recent gathering of concerned Haida citizens. His mother worked in the cannery here for 50 years. “I think it’s disappearing too fast myself. I could notice it because my dad was a seiner; they used to really load up plentiful. We would work day and night in the cannery. I doubt you could do that anymore.”
“We used to go out there and get 15 to 20 spring salmon in a day. Now we’re lucky to get five or ten,” says Vernon Williams Senior, who fished commercially and as a guide all his life.
“Years ago we could fish from the first of May right until the end of September,” says 85-year-old Stephen Brown. “Even right out here in the inlet a few times I pulled 15 or 18 spring salmon, and it wasn’t hard to do. Now we’re lucky with two or three. If we continue this way we’re going to wind up with nothing.”
Finding the cause
“It’s difficult to say what the exact cause of the problem is,” says Russ Jones. “Fishing is certainly a driving factor, but we see problems even when we have regulations in place.”
There are many possible factors that can contribute to diminishing fish numbers, including climate change, aquaculture, the difficulties of coordinating different categories of fishing (commercial, sport, and aboriginal, for example), multiple jurisdictions and interests, logging, other environmental factors, and catch-and-release fishing.
One of the main problems might be the differing values placed on fish. In the CHN’s Marine Use Plan there is a list of Haida Ethics, qualities like yahguudang (respect), and isda ad diigii isda (giving and receiving). “It wasn’t something to play with, it was for the survival of the human race,” says Stephen Brown. “Nobody needed to get too carried away,” says Vernon Williams. “They’d get for themselves and share. Now they don’t, do they?”
Another concern is about off-islanders here. “Even in an area as remote as Haida Gwaii,” says Dr. Pauly, “you are exposed to what is going on in the nation as a whole: when fish stocks go down elsewhere, it sends a demand for sports and industrial fishing here.” Robin Brown, who at 75 fished all his life and has sat on various fish regulation boards, says he is concerned about ‘armchair fishermen’—people who own licenses but aren’t the ones who have to sit at the dock, unable to fish.
“My largest concern is this corporate Disneyland aspect of what’s happening in these waters. It’s faceless,” says Jusquan Bedard, of Masset. “We see thousands of pounds going out at the airport, but no real commitment to this place. We are worth more than that.”
Sport fishing is an odd category because numbers are obtained largely by interview, they practice catch-and-release (not counted as catch), and limits are placed on individuals instead of lodges, so the industry can fish when waters are closed to others. Oliver Bell of Port Clements says those fish that are caught and released are exhausted and have less chance to survive.
“It’s definitely a Haida value to limit catch-and-release,” says Jones.
Environmental and climate changes are real and, to some extent, predictable. As seas warm, species move north. Giant squid from Mexico has already been seen in Southern BC. “You can predict that you’ll see one here,” says Dr. Pauly. With the steady march north, species in the Arctic will have nowhere to go and will become extinct.
Is there hope?
In some ways, it’s a pretty dire picture. But fisheries can recover.
Among Pauly’s suggested solutions is a dramatic reduction in the scale of global fisheries, and the establishment of large marine ‘no-take zones’ where fish can live, undisturbed, to replenish. But only the public can demand these solutions, once we realize the direction we are headed.
In Haida Gwaii, the Haida are participating in several initiatives that could make a difference, says Jones. In Gwaii Haanas, the Haida and Parks Canada are working together to develop a management plan. The Haida are also preparing to engage in a public marine-use planning process for northern BC, and some say there are similar types of sustainable use initiatives all over the coast.
Will these plans be implemented soon enough? Dr. Pauly’s thoughts: “Haida Gwaii is a small island in a stormy sea. Hang on to everything you have as long as possible, until this crazy storm of consumption subsides and this crazy population growth diminishes.”
“We don’t have time to wait, we have to work as one person,” says Robin Brown. “We can’t wait for miracles, or our grandchildren won’t have anything left.”
“It’s like there’s a candy bowl in the centre of the room,” says 20-year-old Gwaliga Hart, “and everybody dives in, not thinking of anyone else. There’s hardly any left for me and the rest of us. How do you regulate after-the-fact? To me, it sometimes feels like we’re done for.”
17-year-old Jeffrey Williams works at Kiusta and interviews guides about their catches. “How slow it seems this year—that’s what made my eyes open. Maybe it’s just a bad year…I don’t know what’s going on.”
But Ms. Bedard’s four-year-old daughter Haana Edenshaw holds faith. “It’s sort of a bad thing. But I think there will be fish. Fish-Fish-Fish. Fish all over…because I think there will be.”
Hopefully she’s right.
For more information, go to This database, spearheaded by Dr Pauly, has information in multiple languages on 30,600 fish species worldwide and gets 23 million hits per month.