Credit: David Webb

Fish habitat is bad for business.

That is not my fish biologist friend’s personal opinion, it’s his assessment of our federal government’s attitude toward fish these days; a rather grim but in many ways inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the sustained war on aquatic and riparian ecosystems and habitat protection the feds have waged since the Conservatives took office in 2011.

Consider as an example Bill C-38, adopted into law in June 2012 and bringing drastic changes to the Fisheries Act that was once considered the last line of defence; the conservationist’s best friend and arguably one of the most powerful and most-applied environmental laws in the country. In essence, the Act protects fish by protecting the habitat that fish require to thrive, with the tangential benefits of protecting water quality, water quantity and freshwater biodiversity as well as the wild places we cherish to visit. Proposed changes water-down the critical Section 35 of the Act, which prohibits the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat. Absurdly, harm is redefined and now directed to fish only (not fish habitat) and it must be “serious” harm to fish that belong to a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery. This sort of ambiguity is a resource-extractor’s dream.

The assaults continue. Bill C-45, a tome of more than 400 pages, alters legislation contained in 64 acts or regulations. One of them is the Environmental Assessment Act, which has been diluted, reducing both the scope of and the type of projects that will be subject to full reviews. The Navigable Waters Protection Act is another one. With the new changes, major pipeline and powerline project advocates are not required to prove their project will protect navigable waterways that it crosses, unless the waterway is on a discretionary list prepared by the Minister of Transport.

More recently, the feds expressed their contempt for fish science when they abruptly shut down a 45-year-old, world-renowned freshwater research station in northern Ontario. What does this mean on the ground and in the water? Conservative politicians — like Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, who accused citizens fighting to protect the hundreds of streams to be crossed by the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline as well as the rugged central coast of BC from an Exxon Valdez-scale disaster of being environmental radicals funded by foreign special interest groups — tell us that the goal is to reduce red tape and redundant regulations that can bog down resource development proposals for years.

The cynic in me says with a few strokes of a pen and little democratic debate, decades of robust fisheries and environmental protection are being unraveled at a time when the federal government is desperate to prop a raw resource export economy and access new markets for Alberta bitumen now that America has lost its appetite for tar sands oil. Coincidence? I doubt it.

I grew up somewhat ambivalent to fish, even though I was born in a city with a subspecies of trout named after it — Kamloops. As a teenager, I spent many late summer afternoons with friends, leaping from the weather-beaten rails of an old wooden red bridge into the murky waters of the South Thompson River, oblivious to the early returning sockeye salmon. Having escaped predation and pathogens at sea, these fish journey up the industrialized Fraser River of the Lower Mainland, battling Hells Gate, then branch into the Thompson near Lytton, navigating by chemical cues carried on the currents, before swimming past the pulp mill and sewage outfalls of Kamloops. By the time they swim beneath that red bridge they are tantalizingly close to their nascent waters: the spectacular lower Adams River that runs a mere 10-or-so km between Adams Lake and Shuswap Lake. By some exquisite blend of river morphology and water chemistry, the Adams presents the perfect mix of spawning gravels, riffles and pools to make it one of the most productive sockeye salmon rivers in the world. Try as we might, humans can’t fabricate anything as naturally spectacular as this. It’s so spectacular that every four years, during peak sockeye runs, buses disgorge tourists from more countries than a seventh grader can name so they can shuffle along the trails of Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park and gawk at waters crimson with sockeye.

The evolution in my own understanding of fish and fish habitat began in earnest when I first moved to the West Coast 15 years ago. I saw the infrastructure of commercial fishing, or rather the sad carcass of a once glutinous fishery — the trollers, seiners and gillnetters that now spend most days idle at port, as well as the long-ago-mothballed canneries that were once beacons of civilization along the coast. I made friends with sport fishing guides who earn a decent living from handing clients the biggest chinook salmon they can find, many of whom don’t give much consideration to the long-term impact on genetic diversity and species viability that results from targeting the largest salmon
year-after-year. I observed salmon in stunningly beautiful Aboriginal art and witnessed the hundreds of volunteer hours that citizens from all walks of life devote to streamkeeper groups, sometimes to preserve even the most obscure of fish runs, like the few hundred coho that return to spawn in the Millard and Piercy creeks that meander among the developed outskirts of my own community in the Comox Valley. I sensed in a visceral way how entwined salmon are with our identity; Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, most people understand that without salmon returning to healthy rivers and creeks we are less. So too are the species of animals that depend on this annual return for sustenance, not to mention the plant life.

University of Victoria scientists Tom Reimchen calls trees in the riparian zone “salmon trees;” the ancient giants whose growth is fueled by the annual uptake of nutrients delivered by fish caught by bears and other animals then left to decompose on the forest floor (we know this because a particular form of nitrogen derived only from marine environments can be found in a tree’s cellular structure hundreds of feet above the forest floor). This is nature’s poetry at its best, a timeless cycle of birth, life, death and renewal.

A few falls ago, I journeyed to the north end of the north arm of Quesnel Lake, in the BC interior, with Gary Zorn, a Cariboo country character if there ever was one. He’s been a rancher, guide outfitter and big game hunter and fly fishing guide. Among other things, he used to shoot bears for a living. But many years ago he experienced a life-shifting epiphany, that a live bear shot with a camera is worth much more than one shot with a gun. For the past couple of decades, Zorn has floated the Mitchell River with clients from around the world who pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to watch a grizzly fish for salmon in a wild river. The Mitchell, which drains from Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park into Quesnel Lake, is a rich place. With its stout hemlock and cedars and skin-shredding devil’s club, the Mitchell is a slice of coastal BC, though it is located hundreds of kilometres as the crow flies from the nearest tide-line.

September morning sun burned through a low mist, lifting the chill from the river as Zorn and I drifted with the currents in his inflatable boat. I peered over the bow into impossibly clear water; sockeye darted between pools in flashes of deep red. Downstream and downwind, we watched as a grizzly sow emerged silently from the forest, sniffed the air and then submerged in the river, dipping its head to search for fish. These sockeye begin their inland journey the same way those bound for the Adams River do — at the mouth of the mighty Fraser. But instead of veering into the Thompson River they continue northward up the turbulent Fraser until reaching the Quesnel River confluence, from where they forge upstream into the river’s namesake lake and ultimately arrive, driven by that inexorable impulse to procreate, at the lonely Mitchell River, where resident grizzlies congregate for the feast. It’s been that way for thousands of years, and I will never cease to be in awe of this spectacle. In spite of the liberties we as humans take with their world, fish can still find their way.

I think of my fish biologist friend and his indictment: “Fish habitat is bad for business.” It’s another way of saying that we — or rather the people we have put in positions of power — have lost our way, dismantling the modest provisions put in place over the years to ensure salmon and other migrating fish species persevere into the future. Without our help, the convergence of sockeye and grizzlies in places like the Mitchell River valley will become an anachronism, like a horse and buggy on Bloor Street — quaint, but no longer relevant.

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2013 issue.