How much do we Canadians really care about wild fish? I have been pondering that question, having listened to two deeply committed and knowledgeable wild fish advocates relate shocking stories of political indifference. Alexandra Morton’s fight for Fraser River salmon runs threatened by introduced parasites and disease in the Broughton Archipelago will go down in history as the Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) story of the West Coast. Another quiet, yet significant, struggle is being waged by Michael Pearson on behalf of the little Nooksack dace, a rare and endangered fish that has won a court battle but not achieved protection. It was my privilege to hear talks by both these fish specialists in the last month.
Morton spoke in Ladner to a hall full of fishers, environmentalists, and interested residents, with a sprinkling of political people, including a champion of the local fishing community, MP John Cummins. Morton’s presentation on the history of fish farm proliferation in the Broughton, in the northern part of the Georgia Strait, spelled out with compelling evidence the effects that disastrous government decisions and lack of oversight have had on our wild salmon. The Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s stated goal in its 2005 Wild Salmon Policy was “to restore and maintain healthy and diverse salmon populations and their habitats”. Despite this, and in the face of perfectly foreseeable consequences of farming alien, Atlantic salmon on the B.C. coast, governments continued to prioritize and advocate for open-cage farming of these large, predatory fish.
Sea lice, a parasite common among the dense numbers of caged farm fish, attach themselves to wild, juvenile sockeye and pink salmon as they out-migrate through the network of islands toward the ocean. The fry are unable to cope with the infestation and millions weaken and perish. Chemicals used to defeat the lice spread into the ecosystem. Bright light and heat emanating from fish farms cause eutrophication of surrounding waters, essentially producing dead zones. Despite assurances to the contrary, Atlantic salmon have escaped and compete with wild fish.
In its policy, DFO told us that “wild salmon and their habitat is the highest priority for resource management”. So, what went wrong? The key words came later: “Aquaculture operations will be regulated in a manner consistent with other human activities...” In other words, let people make money, and never mind the long-term ecological consequences. Morton and Chief Bob Chamberlain, who represents First Nations living in and around the Broughton Archipelago, are fighting in court to have the fish farms clean up their act and restore wild salmon to their rightful place in B.C. waters.
No one eats the Nooksack dace, a subspecies of the long-nosed dace and an ice age relic that has somehow survived in just a few streams in the southern Lower Mainland and around Puget Sound. Nonetheless, Pearson has stood up for its survival, adding his expert voice to those of environmentalists in a legal battle for this tiny nocturnal fish that most people will never see. As he related at a recent Delta Naturalists’ meeting, all endangered species under the federal Species at Risk Act need to first be listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the arbitrating scientific body for assessing species. Having studied the dace and other local endangered fish since the early 1990s, getting his PhD in pioneering studies of their habitat and behaviour, Pearson was well-qualified to get the Nooksack dace listed and its critical habitat mapped, a legal requirement under the act.
Then the fun began. The bureaucrats in Ottawa removed all the habitat information and maps from the Recovery Plan, a redaction exercise surprising for a small rare fish. Did the government not want the fish protected? Are they scared that Canadians will react too strongly if we protect a few natural riparian borders that shade the key streams and also give haven to insects, birds, and other animals? Ecojustice went to court on behalf of the environmental groups, with Pearson signing an affidavit on the need for critical habitat description. After many twists and turns over several years, the Nooksack dace and its supporters were victorious. DFO issued the full Recovery Plan report, maps and all, yet there it rests. The plan has not been implemented and the habitat is still not protected.
Perhaps wild fish, big and small, just do not matter that much to us Canadians, but in my heart I know that is not true. We should tell our politicians as much.
Anne Murray is the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history: Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.