By Pamela Walker
Recently, a group of friends and I travelled up-island to Port McNeil and took a boat to the Broughton Archipelago. We were to spend the next six days kayaking around schools of salmon, pods of whales and herds of seals in a piece of paradise that was so remote to many, but just a short drive for us who live in Ladysmith, a mere six hours to the south.
Crawling out of our bunks and meeting in the kitchen for a hearty breakfast, our anticipation was palpable. We had our spray skirts, our waterproof hats, our paddles and our water bottles. We had lunch and charts and bailers and first aid kits. We’d been given instruction on the proper way to enter and exit a kayak, how to hold the paddle and how to push rather than pull through the water. We were ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
We were there, but the waters were suspiciously quiet: no sea stars, no sea anemones or urchins, no jumping salmon, no breaching whales. Where did everything go? We wondered as we paddled around a beautiful but eerily quiet part of Vancouver Island. Was climate change to blame? Warmer Waters? The time of year we’d chosen? Current logging practices? Fish farms? Cruise ships? None of us knew for sure, but what we did notice was without salmon, there were no black or grizzly bears that the brochure had promised. There were no eagles or even seagulls. And there were very few people.
A deep dive into Alexandra Morton’s book Not on My Watch: How a Renegade Whale Biologist Took on Governments and Industry to Save Whales (Penguin Random House, 2020) explains it well. Yes, it has to do with climate change, but mostly it has to do with foreign fish farms that pay nothing to set up industrial aquaculture factories, which spread disease and death to our wild salmon stocks. When our seals came to eat the foreign fish, they were shot and killed. When the factory farmers found out there were too many seals to shoot, they set up underwater speakers to blast noise at them to scare them away.
The seals decided to sacrifice their hearing for a full stomach, and they crashed into powerboats since they no longer could hear the engines. But the whales who use sonar to navigate the seas instead of their eyes had no choice but to leave. The sound disoriented them, so they left. The pods, who had lived in the Broughton for perhaps more than 10,000 years, as the Indigenous storytelling says, swam far away forever.
There’s more to the story, and more that we can learn from the salmon that remain. And there’s plenty we can do to stop the spread of fish farms and the destruction they create. The renowned field biologist Alexandra Morton, who has spent the last thirty years in the Broughton and author of Not on My Watch, has agreed to be the Yellow Point Ecological Society’s guest speaker on Thursday, November 11, on Zoom—and you are all invited.