From the Brim to the Dregs.
by Liza Morris
We have all heard stories of abundant runs of salmon, innumerable towering old growth trees and frequent teeming pods of whales in and around the Georgia Strait. However, in the past decades, the serious decline in various species has become drastic.
Scientific studies and stories from the people who harvested these resources are the only means we have of measuring what we have lost. And sometimes there is a glaring lack of information. For example, Environment Canada's report Biodiversity in British Columbia: Our Changing Environment states that there is currently no inventory of shoreline habitats and the amount lost to uses such as shoreline construction, marinas, wharves, and log booming in the Strait as a whole. One estimate for Howe Sound alone is 40%. These activities have altered an unquantified amount of intertidal and shallow habitat with unknown effect on biodiversity.
When European settlers began to arrive in this area over a century ago, it was seen as a land of limitless natural resources. In the time since, we have seen this abundance greatly reduced to near extinction in some cases. As a whole, the ecosystem of the Georgia Strait has been adversely affected by heavy resource extraction, contamination from boats and sewage outfall pipes and effluent discharge and spills from heavy industry such as pulp and paper mills.
Studies show that commercial catches of fish such as spiny dogfish, ling cod, sole, and shrimp have declined steadily in recent decades. Over the past decade or more, studies of salmon stocks also show a serious reduction in diversity, though stories from fishermen from the past century show that a stock problem has been developing for quite some time. According to a 1998 report on environmental trends produced by the BC Ministry of Environment, the status of 43% of the salmon stocks in BC are unknown.
Meanwhile, a 1985 study reported that 90% of chinook, pink and chum salmon escapements were occurring in only half as many streams as in 1950. Coho is another stock which is facing a serious threat, with government sources saying 16% of coho stocks are at high risk of extinction. Some would argue that the numbers are even higher.
In sharp contrast, evidence of the previous abundance of salmon in the Georgia Strait is shown in the distribution of native populations. Mid-century about 40 per cent of the total native population of Canada was based in BC because of access to salmon as a food source.
Fishermen working in the first half of this century also reported on the abundance of the past. In a September 1969 issue of The Fisherman, one fisherman recalls the big salmon run of 1912. "The salmon were so plentiful you could feel them churning up in the propeller." Of the 1946 run, James Henderson of Campbell River reported, "I had one big catch that I remember well. We got 22,600 salmon at one time. Talk about a lot, we had to dump about one quarter of it over the side because we had no room to store them." There were often so many fish that they would sell for a set price per fish rather than by weight. Mr. Henderson recalls selling chum and coho salmon for 3 cents each no matter what they weighed. In 1934 he had "1000 pounds of fresh cod that sold for only 1 cent per pound."
And over-fishing of salmon and degradation of their habitat is not the only cause for decline. Another fishery closely connected with salmon survival is the herring fishery. Herring are an important food source for many marine mammals, birds and fish. Chinook and coho follow these fish and when they disappear, so do the salmon.
Herring in BC waters have supported some form of commercial fishery since 1877. Since 1904, the fishery has alternated between periods of large annual catches and even larger reduction fisheries, until a closure occurred in 1968. In the past few decades, concerns have again risen over the sustainability of current harvesting levels. Since the mid-80's, overages (catches exceeding quotas set by DFO) have been a serious problem.
One Georgia Strait fisherman who has worked these waters all his life, has kept concise records of sites throughout the Northern Strait that used to see large regular annual returns of herring. But now site after site is listed as having no spawn for the last five to ten years, and sometimes longer. A DFO report supports this claim, stating that numerous locations where herring spawned throughout Georgia Strait are now barren.
The inshore herring have been harvested for thousands of years by natives. Now, in less than a century, their very survival is threatened, along with the survival of the many species who depend on them for food.
Though populations of seals, California sea lions, Stellar sea lions and killer whales are stable or increasing, according to a 1995 DFO communication, humpback whales which were abundant enough in the Strait to support a commercial fishery for some 80 years have been absent since 1908.
Again, we must turn to commercial accounts to learn of the loss or reduction of whale population in Georgia Strait waters. In the book Edge of Discovery: A History of the Campbell River District the authors review the drastic reduction in whale populations from the last century. The last whaling station in BC waters on Northern Vancouver Island was closed in 1967. By then the great whales that ranged the coastal waters of BC when Captain Vancouver charted the area had all but vanished through overkill. Sperm, Finback, Blue, Humpback and Sei whales were rarely sighted.
A July 13, 1792 entry in the Journal of Captain Vancouver declared that "Numberless whales enjoying the season, were playing about the ship." This entry was made in the Georgia Strait where natives also regularly harvested whales, driving them ashore by surrounding the whales in canoes and dropping clam shells to frighten them.
Whalers from the US, Britain, and later BC worked in the area until the 1870s when whale populations could no longer support the hunt, except for smaller hunts in southern Georgia Strait.
Today large whales very rarely visit the inside waters except for the protected killer whale. The loss of the whales from the waters of Georgia Strait were the first of many species whose abundance was cut by over-harvesting.
Up until the late 1880s, huge forests spread across southwestern British Columbia. Early use of trees was in evidence only along small sections of the shoreline where natives cut planks, stripped bark and burned down the occasional tree for dug out canoes. Fur traders and prospectors also made use of the abundant forests for their boats and camps.
According to the book The Edge of Discovery, serious forest extraction did not begin until the later part of the 19th century. Demand for timber grew slowly in BC, initially only supplying wood for local needs. However, shortly after the Hudson's Bay Company opened the first sawmill in Victoria in 1848, it began selling milled wood to San Francisco. By the late 1850s, wood was being sold from various south western BC mills to such places as the United States, England and Australia.
As demand grew, mills began moving away from the Victoria area. They would set up in such places as Yale and Alberni, cut down the forest in the immediate vicinity of the mill and soon face a supply crisis because they had logged all the nearby forest which was readily and easily available. With greater demand and better transportation systems, mills were able to locate further up the inland coast, of course taking first the trees that were closest to the water.
In the early days of forestry in BC, rapid forest depletion was kept at bay by the difficult and time consuming methods used. Logging technology was relatively simple, using the muscle of man and beast to cut and drag logs to the coast. Archival photographs from 1900 to around 1930 show men standing in large groups with crosscut saws and axes at the base of gigantic towering old growth cedars. The amount of human energy needed to cut and move one such tree must have been tremendous. However, with the introduction of gas powered saws and chainsaws, and the ability to reach previously inaccessible timber with trucks and trains, forest extraction rapidly accelerated. Soon, where towering forests had once pressed to the shoreline, resource extraction and human habitation now increasing encroached upon woodlands.
While many recognize the serious state of forests and fish stocks in the Georgia Strait, the financial bottom line and conservative scientific estimates often prevent serious action to stop further depletion. Now, at the eleventh hour, the evidence is clear. Many individuals, environmentalists and resource sector workers are demanding that government and industry take serious action to begin the process of restoring the Georgia Strait to its past glory. Less than 100 years ago, this was a land whose abundance seemed to know no bounds. We have pushed the limits, reached the edge and now its time to step back and help the land and waters heal.
* Sources: Campbell River Museum Archives; Environmental Trends in British Columbia 1998, Ministry of Environment;
Biodiversity in British Columbia – Our Changing Environment 1994, Environment Canada; Pacific Stock Assessment Review 1994, DFO; Edge of Discovery-A History of the Campbell River District by D.E.Isenor, E.G. Stephens and D.E. Watson;
Terry Glavin's 1998 report on pacific herring stocks.
* Feature sponsored by Friends of Cortes Island Watershed Sentinel Development Fund and Mountain Equipment Co-op.
[From WS February/March 1999]