By Celia Brauer
In April, on the lawns of Vancouver City Hall, experts and city councillors discussed the possibilities of “growing your own food” in backyards. While the general idea of growing local food is commendable, there was a bitter irony in the inclusion of aquaculture in this discussion. Farming fish on a small scale locally is feasible, and it would be wonderful if fish ponds and streams grace residential land in Vancouver for years to come. But the sad reality is that we have continued to grossly pollute and ignore the needs of the vast honest-to-goodness wild fish-bearing waters that surround us on three sides.
Do we need to be reminded that we have the rich waters of Burrard Inlet and English Bay to the north, the Fraser River to the south, and the Salish Sea to the west? We also have the now mostly-lost-to-sealife inlet of False Creek, and original freshwater creeks such as Musqueam Creek and Still Creek that flow into the Fraser. Our neighbouring cities in the Lower Mainland have even more natural streams remaining. And to top it off, our region enjoys massive amounts of precipitation and a fascinating nexus of fresh and salt water that guarantees us membership in the incredibly rich biome they call the coastal temperate rain forest.
For millennia before 1850, the local wilderness offered the original 100-mile diet to First Nations. Salmon plied the water by the millions, as did oolichan, herring, and other fish species. Massive sturgeon grew up to 100 years old, and beaches were lined with clams, oyster, mussels and countless other kinds of seafood. The saying was, “The tide is out, the table is set.” There was no need for complex nets and fish boats. All you had to do was set up a simple barrier in a small inlet and there were lots of fish for the taking at low tide.
Today, an examination of the present-day productivity of the shoreline around the present cosmopolitan city of Vancouver is highly troubling. In today’s anthropocentric and market-oriented society, real estate prices tell us that homes and businesses which have water proximity or water views are highly prized. It seems little respect is given to the actual water and the life it still tries to support. The value of what once lay beneath the water and that which could still be there is hardly known, let alone properly valued.
On a tour of the waterfront, this is what you find: On the Burrard Inlet side, the shore is lined with industry, port facilities, and convention centres (fortunately, there is now one recently built centre which has made efforts to respect sealife). Stanley Park is still mostly forest and the beach front remains fairly wild. But with the creation of the seawall, any connection that the plant life had to the beachfront is compromised if not fatally severed. Moving along to the west, the beaches of English Bay, Kitsilano, and Spanish Banks, which once had natural rocky crevices and gravelly ocean fronts with freshwater streams entering the saltwater, have been remade as long sandy stretches—a playground that is preferable for human relaxation. These beaches are also access points for local forage fishers who take advantage of the free resources. Curiously there is no monitoring or supervision from that feeble bastion of fish stock protection, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which still allows massive net sizes for this catch. Instead of conserving and protecting our forage fish, the laissez-faire approach of the DFO has led to worrying depletion of an already dwindling and almost extinct local supply.
False Creek, which was once an inland waterway that offered food aplenty, now has richness primarily in the high land values of surrounding human development. While the waters are cleaner than they once were in the deep, dark days of active industry, the shoreline is still mostly devoid of life. Rip rap—that rock that suits engineers but not animals—lines the seawall. Big boat marinas, with vessels up to six stories high, occupy most of the north shore and more are planned. Sewage still enters the creek from combined sewer overflow during winter storms (although to its credit the city is slowly working on a costly but overdue twinning project). And of course at every major fete, firework shells continue to fall unfettered into False Creek, English Bay, and Burrard Inlet to the sound of the oohs and aahs but with little thought to marine life.
In the far west on the cliffs of Point Grey the impending development of high rises is always just a heartbeat away. As you come around the corner to the south, the North Arm of the mighty Fraser—a wild river that drains a quarter of British Columbia—opens up to the sea in a vast plume of rich sediments. The Fraser was once the greatest salmon river in the world. In 1913, there was an estimated run of nine million salmon returning through the North Arm.
Today a river once full of life is continually re-polluted in ways few people realize or want to accept. Untreated sewage from the Iona treatment plant has been known to back up into the river’s mouth. This has an impact on the Musqueam Indian Band, which occupies a reserve at the site of one of its ancient villages. This is especially troubling since the Musqueam people have one of the few viable access points left on the river and so they use it as a swimming and fishing location. The ocean bounty today is a shadow of what it once was and this further degrades their way of life. This is especially galling considering how many thousands of years local First Nations took perfectly good care of the river.
Moving along to the east, the river shoreline is once again lined with industry and waste. Take a walk along the bank—where you can get to it—and you will find the sites of garbage, train tracks, and toxin-leaking old industrial logging sites and landfills. The original entrepreneurs and corporate shareholders who benefitted from industrializing the riverbank are long gone and the bill for cleanup—if it is done at all—is funded by the taxpayers of today. Where there is space and accommodating zoning, humans build up close to the water or propose new marinas. A recent request was made to establish one at the old Celtic Shipyards site—even though it is next to a known salmon rearing pool! There are pockets of cleanliness and order with the new housing developments in the East Fraserlands but since the pollution has a long-standing legacy, there are few opportunities to put back some of the pocket fish streams that once existed. Further up the natural watersheds of English Bay, False Creek, and the Fraser River, the rain water is diverted into sewers that collect any and all industrial and vehicle pollution and anything else an individual wants to throw down the grates.
The only jewel in the crown of all these miles of shorelines is Wreck Beach, where it took some people who wanted to swim nude to drive away human development. Entrepreneurship flourishes there of its own accord and at least the forests and beach retain some wild semblance as the salmonberry and elderberry grow into thickets, the shore smelts spawn, streams flow, seals play, and herons fish undisturbed.
What does all this say about who we are? At present the taxpayers are funding yet another federal commission on the disappearance of the Fraser River sockeye. But given that miles of shoreline around Vancouver which used to be salmon habitat was and still is being offered up to seemingly endless human development, is it any wonder the salmon cannot or do not return home? How can we expect them to when we line their “land” with our own freeways and garbage and fill the waterways with sewage and other pollutants?
One of our responses to the historic depletion of wild fish stocks from overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution has been aquaculture. Sadly, this love affair has proved devastating, especially in the case of open-net-cage salmon farming, which is now polluting many of the once-pristine waters of the West Coast. As if the Fraser River salmon don’t have enough strikes against them, the fry now have to pass by the open-net farms on the West Coast where they all too frequently become infected with sea lice.
Surely this is cart-before-the-horse economics and stupid public policy? Should we not use our human resources and tax dollars to prevent further damage and to clean up compromised habitat instead of paying royal commissions to examine fish loss and funding environmental assessments for new developments that will inevitably harm wild ecosystems? Should we not be spending less time and energy on trying to farm fish and spending more energy on helping nature and wild salmon return to our coast naturally? We can clean up our own house—front and back yard—so we can offer real wild sea creatures a clean and respectable place to live and breed. (And if anyone tells you it can’t be done, all you have to point to is the human ingenuity we displayed in getting snow to a bare mountain during the 2010 Olympics!)
On May 5, a grey whale ventured into the inland waterway of False Creek. This has not happened for decades and people were very excited. This whale seemed to be offering a wake-up call—encouraging us to remember that we live in a city surrounded by water that used to support intensely rich ecosystems. It’s time to bring some of that life back so we can feel the thrill (no need to go to the movies!) of knowing that we are working hand in hand with Mother Nature as it was intended.
Celia Brauer is a member of the Livable Region Coalition. She is a cofounder of the False Creek Watershed Society and works as a volunteer educating the public about the lost natural history of Vancouver, watershed issues, and the state of our wild Pacific salmon.