Death in the Salish Sea – Demise of the Wild Chinook

‘Coast-wide, we’ve fished our wild chinook near to nothing. Now we’re fighting for the scraps.

Ten years ago I wrote the book, Who Killed the Grand Banks? But before going to press I insisted the publisher add one chapter: ‘Are wild Pacific salmon doomed to go the way of the Grand Banks cod?’

Yes, it turns out, when it comes to chinook, our magnificent, iconic salmon. One decade on, here in the Salish Sea, wild chinook have been fished to near extinction. This, despite the efforts of federal scientists, a series of independent reports — each more shrill in tone — and the introduction of the federal government’s Wild Salmon Policy in 2005.

But that policy — heralded by politicians and touted by a cadre of public relations specialists — has failed utterly. According to recent research by Simon Fraser University, chinook populations have plummeted in the 10 years since the policy came into effect.

Many have studied the Pacific salmon fishery over the years. Report after report warn: chinook stocks are collapsing. Such reports also result in an oh-so predictable blame game. ‘User groups’ from the commercial and sport fish industries point fingers squarely at the other. ‘Not me.’

Others cite a litany of reasons for the collapse: habitat destruction, climate change, rising water temperatures in salt and freshwater, seals, hatcheries, aquaculture, and more.

What’s really going on? Overfishing, that’s what.

For more then a century, we fished wild chinook stocks long and hard. Little wonder then, by the early 1990s, came calamitous collapse. Stocks fell to such low levels (less than one-tenth of historic levels, where they remain). Today, what’s left of the sport fishery relies largely almost exclusively on artificial fish, pumped out of hatcheries.

As documented in my Grand Banks book: there were many contributing factors in the extinction of the East Coast cod, yes, but the primary cause was overfishing as a resource was turned into an industry: the relentless industrial vacuuming of the ocean floor by Canada’s own inshore trawl fleet — torqued and subsidized at every turn by governments in St. John’s and Ottawa.

By 1992, came an unprecedented ecological disaster to rival any other — the Amazon rain forest notwithstanding — in modern history.

This shameful made-in-Canada plunder was part human greed, part stupidity, part wilful ignorance. Today, the Grand Banks cod collapse is rightly studied as an ecological fail at universities and research centres around the world.

Now, here in the Salish Sea, another ecological collapse. Canada’s disgrace, Pacific version.

This fall, in a series of essays, Walhachin Press contributors Stephen Hume and Misty MacDuffee will explore aspects of the collapse. Another essay will look at potential solutions including turning the Salish Sea into a no-fish zone for chinook salmon.


Curve of Time

This photo of the vessel, Curve of Time, was taken in Powell River in Aug. 2018. The 85-foot trawler was originally christened Moby Dick and used by Greenpeace in its eco-war against international whalers. The vessel has since been rechristened and is now chartered out to kayakers and researchers.

Muriel Wylie Blanchet’s pre-World War Two memoir, The Curve of Time, was first published 50 years ago.

Now in its fifteenth printing, the perpetual non-fiction bestseller, tells the dramatic story of a mother and her five children as they explored the coast in a 25-foot boat. The latest iteration has an introduction by Timothy Egan of the New York Times.

Allie Rose photos

Review by Chris Rose: A Shit Storm of Racism, Pain and Violence — White Boy Sees Life through an Indigenous Lens

Obliteration, a novel

by BC Mitchell

Walhachin Press

159 pp (paper)


Discussions of racism, isolation, boredom, addiction and a general distrust of academic thought that permeate northern Canada are never included in glossy tourism brochures promoting the nation’s understandably wild beauty with its stunning images of cathedral-like mountains.

Obliteration, a novel by BC Mitchell, smashes through the glowing tourism mantra and forces us, Canadians and visitors alike, to confront a different sort of nation, one where pain, and the expectation of more, dominates an unrelenting land, one short step away from disaster.

Centered in a small north Ontario town, as dreary as it is forgettable, the story focuses on Ben Thompson, a white teenager who prefers spending time away from the dominant settler society even if a merciless environment includes wolves and bears and hunger and, always, the possibility of serious injury or death.

And why not? He is bullied at school and his low-life father physically and sexually abuses him at home, when he’s not passed out drunk, just like many of the neighbouring Ojibwa aboriginals.

The racism is upfront, personal and unavoidable. “Constable Dan Parker made it known around town he didn’t like Indians. He’d once kneed an Indian twice his age and half his size in the gut, then broke his nose. Just for hanging around the liquor store. Just for being Indian.”

But Ben increasingly begins to see life through an indigenous prism, and it is a better world than the grim suffering at home. He has a generous spirit and plans for at least the immediate future and has the determination to not be left behind, like just another drunken loser — aboriginal or white — on the side of a snowy road leading to nowhere.

Mitchell makes the reader like his protagonist, beginning with the first sentence: “Ben Thompson wasn’t going to leave a man to die in a snow bank.”

By his own admission, Ben “was a square peg in a round hole” and experienced the divided loyalties separating two distinct cultures.

“Sure, there was a lot of drinking on the reserve, but that was true anywhere in Matamiskamin. The Indians get a bad deal and that’s just the way it is . . . His hometown wasn’t a happy place, but he found happiness in the woods, lakes and rivers.”

As dysfunctional as Ben’s young life is, there are moments of reprieve and even hope. Against many odds, he wins an important and lucrative snowshoe race, overcomes, with the help of an attractive aboriginal woman, his sexual doubts, and lands a good summer camp job away from the catastrophe of home life.

Things continue to go wrong, however. He saves someone with a serious injury but loses his job at the camp. He goes on drunks with his aboriginal pals. The police are looking for him and put him in jail. His adopted indigenous grandmother, someone who has always been kind to him, dies.

“I always end up in shit no matter what I do,” laments Ben, not yet 17.

And he does.

Mitchell, a former journalist and communications manager for the BC Treaty Commission for 15 years, taps into his young life in a north Ontario town to tell us the remarkably sad story about Ben. He uses words sparingly in a crisp style reminiscent of a Hemingway short story.

Obliteration moves along quickly but it is a tough and uncomfortable read.

A Comox Valley resident, Mitchell never uses the word “reconciliation” in his novel. Perhaps he wrote Ben’s story long before reconciliation between First Nations and White Canadians recently became a national goal, a positive ideal after hundreds of years of needless and mean-spirited deaths, sexual assaults, land thefts and culture shaming.

Obliteration is Canada’s shit storm, and Mitchell should be applauded for unveiling a bit more of it.

Chris Rose is a former special projects editor at The Vancouver Sun


Deo Gratias — Northern River. In Memory, Jennifer Lang


Deo Gratias! Give thanks for a riverscape of rock and plunge pools.

For souse holes uncounted, tightly coiled eddies and noisy cascades. For the Nass River estuary itself where summer light glazes the mint-green surface. Where the current coils and tightens.

Give thanks for the wind-whipped stands of cottonwood lining the braided valley all the way to Meziadin. For the purple colour of the lava fields whose luminescence brightens the dull monochrome of rain season.

Deo Gratias. Give thanks.

Give thanks for the sound of the river in the switchbacks at Canyon City. Give thanks for the long strands of eelgrass. For the eelgrass combed straight by the current.

Give thanks for a changing view, as we stand to look from the boat, riverbank to riverbank, where the water falls in a hundred different ways.

Here, everything is as it is, one way or the other What does it all add up to, after all? Deo Gratias.

Gary Fiegehen photo of the Nass River

Souvenir: A Ramble ‘Round Fort Astoria

Early one September, we drove south to Astoria so that Uda could finish off her PhD on John Wilmot, (2nd Earl of Rochester), the notorious Restoration poet-libertine. A direct heir apparently lived on an apple co-op near Astoria, Uda said, and she hoped to track him down and set up an interview for the End Notes of her thesis. We found a boarding house off the Main Street and next day, Uda made her way to the local library.

That gave me time to amble about a tiny town that had been hit hard by the Great Recession. Shops and store fronts were shuttered and shut down. It was clear that municipal leaders had taken steps to remake and rebrand the place as a tourist hot spot: coffee shops with catchy names, fudge, taffy, burgers, post cards and souvenirs.

Because the docks here could not accommodate the huge cruise ships anchored in the bay, sailors ran tenders to and from the vessels all day long. As a result, a parade of gawking visitors came ashore to wander the streets along the waterfront. It was hot for September, the sun had a liquid effect, soporific; people sauntered at half speed while others splayed themselves out in the long grass of a downtown park.

Just off the main drag could be seen a line of derelict cars and trucks. These rusting hulks had died, were not worth fixing — or the owners had run out of money — and sat in the empty street because city hall didn’t have the money to tow them away.

Fanciful perhaps, but the grille of a Ford truck brought to mind a line from Shelley’s Ozymandias: “….wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.’

“Nothing beside remains: round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.”


Thompson Lament

Dana Sturn & Scott Simpson

On an early August afternoon in 1905, earth clinging to the stone tower just south of Spences Bridge lost its grip and collapsed into the valley below. Tons of rock fell into the Thompson River, damming it for several hours.

Eighteen people died in that landslide. The indigenous people who made this valley their home believed that the dead would sometimes stay in the place of their passing. James Teit, the 19th century ethnographer who studied these people, wrote that these shades were light gray in color, with mouths and eyes that appeared “like a blue fire.” Sometimes, waiting in the dark for first light, you can see them. When mists are on the water on the outskirts of Spences Bridge, apparitions appear on this pool that Thompson anglers call the Graveyard.

For over two decades, I’ve been part of the Skeleton Crew that fishes this pool in sync with the arrival of the Thompson’s remarkable autumn run of steelhead. Wild Thompson steelhead are powerful, aggressive salmonids that are entirely in character with their natal waters.

The Thompson is not a river that welcomes you. It confronts you. It is broad, strong and unforgiving. To win a chance to present your fly, you wade waist deep in heavy current, anchoring your feet on the riverbed’s greasy cobbles, casting only when you are certain of your balance. Often, it’s so cold at first light you must break ice off the rod guides so your fly line doesn’t jam when you cast. Suffer a bad slip, or lose your composure when a fish attacks your fly, and you might find yourself among the shades.

For decades, anglers have come to Spences Bridge from all over the world seeking the challenge of the Graveyard, hoping to hook a wild Thompson steelhead. Each one brought to hand and reverently released is a memory for life, But this year, the Thompson is reeling from the weakest steelhead return on record. Biologists estimate that fewer than 200 fish will survive to spawn compared to thousands in decades past.

Everyone has an opinion about how to protect future generations of these fish. Some want the Thompson closed to preserve the vestiges of 2017’s year-class. Others oppose this, believing that a river empty of anglers encourages poachers to kill steelhead. These opposing views within the angling community are symptomatic of a significant problem facing Thompson steelhead — an angling community divided, and focused on the wrong things.

For years anglers fought amongst themselves about the use of bait on the river, some wanting to continue to use it, others saying it contributed to steelhead mortality.

A few years ago, when bait was finally banned, the anti-bait brigade claimed victory, both for itself and the river. But the bait battle was our ultimate undoing. It created a toxic environment within the Thompson angling community. We fought amongst ourselves so loudly and for so long, shooting at each other while the enemy rolled its tanks right down our streets.

The Enemy? Interception of Thompson steelhead in commercial and indigenous net fisheries in the Fraser River and Fraser approach areas, a couple of hundred kilometres downstream from Spences Bridge. As much as 25 per cent of migrating Thompson steelhead are lost to these nets each year. Unlike the complex puzzle of climate change, working together to ban these net fisheries during steelhead migration periods was a straightforward opportunity to support steelhead survival. But we didn’t do it. So now we can’t fish with bait, but there aren’t any steelhead left to fish for. Once considered the greatest of all steelhead rivers, today the Thompson warns of what we accomplish by picking the wrong battles.

The Thompson steelhead run has been in decline for years. As the run diminished, so did the opportunity. The Thompson was always a tough river to fish — the toughest —but a decade of smaller and smaller runs and the threat of emergency river closures gradually eliminated a whole group of travelling anglers. They moved on to lesser — but more reliable — waters, leaving the Thompson and a small group of diehards on their own. A mighty voice, the voice of the international angling community and the tourism dollars it brought to a less-travelled part of British Columbia, was lost.

Lost. Like the run of great fish. Like the angling culture it nurtured. Like a history we forgot, or never knew, where men with blackened faces ignored the night cold and speared the great fish in waters illuminated by a torch in their canoe.

Ghosts of the Thompson? They’re real. They emanate blue fire, and the colours of torchlight. But there are so few left, and we’ve waited too long—is it pointless to continue?

Not yet. Not while the final few wander the waters between Lytton and Savona. We must finally do what we should have done long ago. There’s much at stake. Perhaps the very soul of our sport. Perhaps even our own.

We dishonour ourselves by abandoning them.

Dana Sturn is a British Columbia angler and conservationist who writes for Gray’s Sporting Journal and other publications. Scott Simpson is a former Vancouver Sun reporter and outdoors columnist.