I grew up along the Georgia Strait, where morning fog nestles between wrinkled red cedars and peeling arbutus, on the Indigenous lands of the Snuneymuxw, Stzuminus and Hul’qumi’num Treaty group.
This town is also known as Chemainus, on south-eastern Vancouver Island in British Columbia. I descend from settlers from Italy, Scotland, Germany and Ukraine, and while I am immensely grateful to have been raised here, I know I am an uninvited occupant on these lands. Armed in a sun-bleached life-jacket and the aroma of diesel, I spent all my weekends on our family boat, setting traps for crab and prawn, and trolling for the occasional salmon if we were especially lucky. Sitting on the bow of the boat, bringing back food for our family and friends, I gained an intimate respect and curiosity for the waters and her inhabitants. Two decades later, I returned to the water, this time with a notebook in hand, tracing the migration of juvenile salmon from lake to estuary to the ocean.
For my Master’s thesis, I am researching how the physiological condition of sockeye salmon smolts impacts swim ability and habitat selection throughout their downstream migration corridor.
How well a salmon can swim and which habitats they occupy influence their overall survival throughout their life cycle. The juvenile salmon who survive the 650 km journey, from Chilko lake down to the Fraser River Estuary in British Columbia, form a foundational layer of the ocean ecosystem, connecting their planktonic prey to seals, whales, and humans alike. When they return as adults through the network of rivers and lakes that weave through the province, the decomposing bodies of spawned adults connects the coastal ecosystem to distant terrestrial systems, such as the temperate forests and semi-arid deserts of interior BC. Salmon embody an integral connection between ocean and land; For the sake of our province’s prized ecosystems, they are a connection we cannot afford to sever.
I believe the greatest challenge facing our oceans and fisheries is the erosion of adaptability from unselective harvesting.
Ocean ecosystems have evolved over hundreds of millions of years of change. To speak from familiarity, I focus on salmon, and as a keystone taxon of our terrestrial and marine ecosystems, I feel justified that they can represent the broad state of our oceans and fisheries. Salmon not only survived the past 6 million years of an ice age, sea level decline and rise, and the loss and formation of entire river systems, but have radiated and evolved into an incredibly resilient and adaptable species. We are now facing a climate crisis, where climate change in BC is causing river temperatures to rise to deadly levels during the adult spawning migration. Although salmon have survived climate change before, the intensity and lack of specificity from which we harvest salmon is eroding the resilience of this exceptional taxa.
Up until a few centuries ago, the Indigenous people of what is now known as BC were managing these fisheries by tending to land and waters as relations.
Through highly specific technologies such as tidal pulse fishing in estuaries, as well as advanced understanding of ecosystem, population and behavioural ecology of salmon, they were able selectively and efficiently harvest salmon by sex and natal stream. In addition, oral histories like the Tlingit Salmon Boy Story tell of obligatory reciprocity to maintain a relationship between human and salmon; there are specific ways of harvesting, releasing, and taking only what is needed to ensure that the salmon will return.
Current technologies of fishing are unselective for sex and stock due to the large-scale of commercial fisheries, and do not allow for any form of intimacy or reciprocity between what we are taking and what we are giving back.
After the Big Bar land slide last summer, despite the tireless effort of both federal fisheries workers and local First Nations, we are seeing lakes and streams where the salmon have not returned. We need to rethink our relationship with salmon if we want that to change.
I see a future of fisheries that is locally monitored and regulated by knowledge holders and practitioners that are trustees of their territory and fish relatives.
Harvest is done adaptively and selectively, using a range of technologies that build on the immense knowledge and experience of past systems. The fishing economy is local, powerful and informed. Communities are engaged with the fishery, and most importantly, fed. This is the future we need to ensure that future generations get to sit on the bow of a boat, bringing back food for family and friends.
For further reading on the topics of relations in ecology, I recommend this article Decolonizing ecology by Jade Delisle at Briarpatch Magazine.
To find out more about the land you’re on, check out Native-land.ca.