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Salmon: The Next Buffalo?

by Robert Hart
Terrace Standard, July 29, 2008

Why salmon are on the brink of extinction unless big changes are made

The richness of salmon has been squandered by many things: pollution, the damning of rivers, the destruction of spawning areas in a thousand small streams, in other words, the gradual but continual degradation of the operating integrity of the ecosystem.

More recently, global warming has emerged as a major environmental shift that will put enormous systemic pressure on cold-water loving salmon.

While all of these things need more examination, it is the way we commercially harvest salmon that poses the most immediate threat.

The brutal truth is that our society has commercially fished salmon in a way that pushes them to the brink of extinction.

There was once an abundance of salmon, more than we knew how to count. We need to look at the pattern of loss, from fishery to fishery, from river system to river system and notice where the pattern is leading us: to the loss of salmon as a significant species: ecologically, commercially, socially, the loss of this great, living presence in our lives. There were once not only lots of jobs but also whole communities built on the backs of salmon.

But with that abundance draining away, so is the vitality of most of our coastal communities.

We made two mistakes. Like the buffalo, we thought the numbers were endless. We thought we could just keep taking. And taking all the salmon did create tremendous wealth. But it was the kind of wealth that is reflected on the ledger books of large companies, many of whom do not live on our coast, some of whom do not even live in our country.

In our society, we call it capital and it is very effective in what it does. It can be assembled quickly, used to exploit a resource to create more wealth and then moved elsewhere to create more wealth still. It grows but it does not stay. Capital is entirely mobile and has no allegiance to place.

This is our second mistake. We see resources, even living resources like fish or trees, as profit and not as livelihood. We place wealth generation above the sustainability of our communities.

But fish and trees are not simply "resources"; they are part of a powerful and complex ecosystem that sustains all life, including us. Large corporate exploitation equals extinction, of both fish and the communities they support.

For many of us, the disappearance of the salmon will present itself initially as a small inconvenience. We will turn to other food. We will not starve. The stores will not appear less full.

But losing salmon creates a larger, more cumulative loss. Call it the domino effect.

We will also lose bears, eagles and orcas for starters. Salmon are not separate from this web of life.

We will lose the web of balance, abundance, resilience, diversity and beauty that makes our communities, and our place in the world, so special and unique.

We will also lose the fisheries, and the recreation and tourism that is based on this. This is loss, disruption and impoverishment on a scale that we should not even consider, let alone sustain.

What needs to change? Perspective? Attitude? Approach?

Ecosystems are based on abundance. That abundance is not just a commercial resource, to be extracted as quickly, efficiently and thoroughly as our technology will allow.

Abundance is an intrinsic and essential part of the ecosystem's health and very survival. It is not surplus.

Salmon are feeding the entire ecosystem. Take too many and the ecosystem suffers and becomes less healthy.

We need a healthy ecosystem to be a healthy society: physically, socially, economically and, yes, spiritually.

If the methods of industry and commerce that our society has created cannot operate without creating this level of damage, we will have to change them.

We cannot afford to have corporate profit come at the expense of ecological health. We never could.

Instead, let's begin to value salmon differently, in their entirety, their contributions to our diversity, our cultures and our spirits.

The corporate bottom line, or as DFO so succinctly puts it, "pieces in the ditch", is too shallow. We cannot allow commerce to destroy culture.

If the biological systems are damaged, impoverished or destroyed by the loss of salmon, so are the human systems that depend on them.

Aboriginal cultures are designed to live in harmony with the ecosystem that surrounds and sustains them.

Salmon is not only a keystone of the natural ecology. For first peoples, salmon is a keystone of human culture.

Its harvesting is one of the few positive economic and social activities they have left. It is not possible to think of healthy aboriginal cultures without it.

The falling runs of salmon will affect 94 communities of first peoples who live along the Fraser River this summer. This number of affected communities climbs to well over a hundred when one includes coastal and other river communities.

Historically, first peoples in British Columbia who had direct access, derived 80% of the protein in their diet from the salmon runs. They harvested this resource in a highly efficient, sustainable way for millennia.

If first peoples eat less salmon now, it is not by choice but because less is available. Their remaining diet of salmon is even more important because they are poor and it is the very best food they can get.

The complete loss of salmon will devastate their diet and further erode their individual health and the social health of their communities.

An increasing number of communities in B.C. have been abandoned once the resource they depended on was removed.

Our coastal communities, once part of the richest fishery in the world, now stand almost idle. We are all becoming displaced peoples. Enough. Enough ecological destruction. Enough social damage. How do we start to change this story of loss?

Larger levels of government have not served us in protecting our communities and the ecosystems that support both us and salmon.

They have served larger economic interests that have no living connection to the land or the sea or for that matter, to communities either.

Creation of financial return is their business, not the careful, thoughtful harvesting of fish, (or felling of trees or extraction of oil and natural gas).

Capital, unlike communities, is completely mobile. It can be assembled to exploit a resource, multiplied by its extraction and then moved elsewhere to create even more wealth. Capital has no conscience and no memory. Communities do.

We will notice the loss of salmon, the loss of an ecosystem and the loss of a culture more than the loss of excessive corporate profit.

Let's stop planning on the basis of corporate balance sheets. Let's start balancing the ecological balance sheet and community well-being.

Let's begin to rebuild the ecosystem until it is healthy and productive and capable of sustaining our communities once again.

Let's start the rebuilding by giving the fishery back to those who originally owned it.

Let's give responsibility for the resource back to the communities that rely on it. Their today depends on it, as does their children's tomorrow. They have the strongest reason to preserve, sustain and enhance it.

The defining question of corporate interests has always been, "How much can we take?"

Large governments' and large corporations' view of salmon as simply a resource to be fully exploited and their control of this salmon "resource" has already led to the loss of too many stocks and the diversity that came with them.

The question now is how long will it take us to build back abundance and it is a question for those most directly affected: municipalities, first peoples, sport and commercial fishers.

There are three kinds of fishing: fishing for food and cultural purposes, commercial fishing and sport fishing. Food fishing is critical because the first peoples who rely on it are too poor to have an alternative. Food fishing is also the law.

It recognizes that first people have a cultural and economic connection to salmon and depend upon it in a far more intrinsic and holistic way than the rest of us.

To remove salmon from their lives would devastate their culture in the same way that residential schools devastated their communities.

Sport fishing gives the highest financial return to the community per fish caught and can act as an economic bridge until stocks are back to healthy enough levels to sustain some form of commercial fishing.

But let's double the price of sport fishing. Triple it. Wild salmon are a rare resource and historically they have been made available far too cheaply.

Design the salmon harvest to give maximum sustainability to communities as they redesign their economies. Communities need to have control in order to do the required protection work and rebuild stocks.

In protecting the stock by controlling access to it, one of the hardest questions that communities will have to answer is how much commercial fishing the salmon can sustain until stocks are much healthier than they are now and how the communities can sustain their fisheries as salmon stocks rebuild.

This is a hugely hard question to answer. In fact, large government has not yet even put the question.

The way we do things has to turn around. The communities are framing the question and it is time for government to move to support them directly in this.

Returning salmon to as close to historic levels as we can get them and rebuilding a community centered and controlled economy in the process is not an impossible task.

There is a continuing role for government in this. Governments can facilitate a community's access to capital resources instead of capital's access to community resources.

To rebuild wild salmon abundance and diversity and the environmental health on which historic salmon runs depended, governments need to work with the communities that depend on healthy runs by supporting community based research and setting standards that are based on the ecosystem.

Salmon numbers are shrinking and we are all afraid they may soon be gone.

So, we are fighting among ourselves: different levels of government and different community interests. It's time to work together to rebuild so that we all have enough. Enough health. Enough work. Enough salmon.

Community and government need to learn how to create this new partnership. It is an essential global survival skill for both communities and for nations.

At the end of it is the vision of healthy communities rebuilding a clean, abundant and self-sustaining world. That is a vision worth the commitment of the rest of our lives.

Robert Hart is involved in social justice work. He was chair of the Coast Mountain Group, Sierra Club of Canada. He is a member of Northwest Watch. a recently-formed group which is studying the environmental impacts of current and proposed economic development projects in the Northwest.
Salmon: The Next Buffalo?
Terrace Standard, July 29, 2008

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