Lessons In Personal Sustainability On The Edge Of The World

Legacy Part 17 – Phil Oates – Tree Planter & Fishing Guide

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director

If you ever want some perspective on how personally dependent you are on the global supply chain and all the problems it brings, just spend a day with someone like Phil Oates.

Phil is a resident of Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii and works several jobs, mostly as a tree planter for one of the logging companies, sometimes as an odd job man and caretaker in Sandspit. Mushroom and berry picking have also turned out to be lucrative sidelines. He was a guide at a lodge in northern Ontario, and then on Lake Athabaska, Northern Saskatchewan for a total of five years.

Like many on Haida Gwaii, Phil is someone who can turn his hand to many tasks and has done many different things on and off island – much of it working for companies that focus on extracting Canada’s natural wealth in one form or another, log-by-log, boatload-by-boatload, or barrel by barrel, and there have been plenty of times when he’s made good money doing it. He tells me how two years working in the oil sands desensitized him to environmental concerns – something he is glad to have left behind.

There were problems typical of many who live this way – months of hard work were followed by days of hard drinking – but he has quit the booze now and he tells me he has re-organized his life to feature less cash-flow, both into his wallet from employers and out of his wallet to the liquor store. He has trouble with his back too despite his relatively young age (somewhere in his thirties) thanks to his hard-working life – something that the tree planting doesn’t exactly help. He smokes weed.

A Special Kind of Wealth

It is not a luxurious life. During the couple of days that I spent time with him the only new looking thing I saw was an orange Husqvarna chainsaw fitted to a not-so-new looking Alaska Mill – a simple frame that allows a chainsaw fitted with the correct chain to be used to turn raw logs into lumber on a small scale. Lots of people have them here, including Haida totem pole carvers who use them to prepare a raw log before working on it. The other major possessions I saw were a beaten old Ford F150, a leaky riveted aluminum boat with a small outboard and some prawn traps (one of them new.)

Despite this, Phil has something most of the rest of us don’t have that gives him a special kind of wealth – his relationship to and ability to live off the land and the sea on a daily basis.


Phil is connected to Haida Gwaii, not in the cultural/mystical way that the Haida are, but in the practical, frontier style that characterizes many of the non-native people out here.

For the vast majority of us, going to the store to buy groceries is the normal thing to do. Most people go to a supermarket for most things. Some take the time and trouble to seek out specialty stores that may supply more thoughtfully, perhaps locally, sourced and packaged goods. Those of us who can afford it may buy organic, cage-free or ocean-wise when we can, some save time and carbon footprint by buying online. This is the state of the spectrum of options of where we get our food. Need something? Go to the store or go online. Do your best to do the right thing and put-up with not knowing how your food was processed, all the while trying to ignore the disquiet that comes from knowing that much of it got shipped halfway around the world to get to you, and the despair of dealing with all the packaging it arrives bundled inside.

Some of Phil’s food arrives this way too, but much of it comes straight out of the ocean or the ground. Fresh that day, direct to his plate from one of the cleanest environments anywhere in the world, no supply chain, no packaging and little carbon footprint.

He grows some in the small garden of raised beds next to the guesthouse that he keeps an eye on when the owner is away – kale and the like. Much of the rest comes from the ocean. Kelp supplies another source of nutrition. Enough crab or prawns to feed two or three people can be trapped in three or four hours.

I asked Phil if I could join him on one of his food-gathering trips around the island and he told me that he needed to go and locate a crab trap for one of the other residents of Sandspit the following day and that I could join him to take some photographs. 

On the way between Sandspit and Moresby Camp – about an hour on one of Haida Gwaii’s truck-destroying logging roads – we stopped by a fishing hole and after five or six casts (maybe 7 or 8 minutes.) Phil had caught a trout for our lunch.

Phil is an adept fisherman – but the real story is the sheer abundance of this place even though it is now a shadow of its former self.

Imagine – all this beautiful food – and the only environmental impact is that of getting the truck and/or boat to and from where it lives.

Phil is connected to Haida Gwaii, not in the cultural/mystical way that the Haida are, but in the practical, frontier style that characterizes many of the non-native people out here. Phil is a modern guy, but you could easily picture someone a lot like him living in a similar way a hundred or even two hundred years ago, exercising his knowledge of the forest, the ocean and the living things in it to aid his survival and make his life more comfortable.

He is also connected to it in the sense that he sees what's happening here with regard to the way the land is treated and finds it deeply troubling.

The Results of a Desensitized Mindset – The Failure to Do The Right Thing Even When You Can.

In the hour-or-so it took us to get to the boat ramp at Moresby – an old logging camp that serves as a jumping off point for boat trips into the Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve and Haida Heritage Site – we had the opportunity to talk about many things he sees on the island.

“Natural or not natural, why the fuck… why haven’t you cleaned it up? Why has nobody cleaned it up?”

I mentioned that I had not yet learned how to distinguish old-growth clearcuts from those that felled second growth, and at the first opportunity he pulled over into a second growth clearcut and pointed out the remnants of old growth stumps still visible from the first time trees were felled there, instantly pointing out the cadence and scale of what the old forest had been in comparison to what only just got cut down. 

The second growth forest you see growing in Haida Gwaii is beautiful, and the old growth that remains is breathtaking. But the epic scale and grandeur of what has been lost can only be imagined by looking at the stumps of old growth forest revealed once more in second growth clearcuts. Stumps of trees 12 feet thick standing 18 feet apart like the columns in some 12th century cathedral.

We also witnessed a salmon creek choked by timber and mud washed downstream following a landslide (one of fifteen that have occurred this winter,) that may-or-may-not have been the result of clearcutting. The soil in Haida Gwaii is extremely fertile but is not always very deep, particularly on steep slopes – remove the trees and it gets washed right off the bedrock causing a landslide that takes remaining trees on either side with it. The problem is exacerbated when clearcutting comes too close to that same river, leaving trees on the bank vulnerable to high winds, flash-floods and slide debris as it goes by.

The logging road next to the timber choked river takes us to a bridge and a logging camp. The frustration in Phill’s voice is there to be heard.

“Maybe it could have been something natural,” he says, “But… natural or not natural, why the fuck… why haven’t you cleaned it up? Why has nobody cleaned it up?” 

“Look,” he says, pointing in the direction of the logging camp and its heavy machinery – “Here’s the log-sort. These guys have all the equipment in the world, they’re running seven days a week, and this… this is our salmon stream.”

There are restrictions on how close logging can come to a stream and when specific trees must be left standing, and logging companies are obligated to employ forestry scientists to help guide operations. But Phil tells me he knows forestry scientists who have been forced to resign because of pressure to bend the rules or ignore potential violations.

Selective Harvesting on a Personal Level – How it Works.

We also talked about efforts to limit environmental impact.


The key lesson is that he takes moderately, does his best to take selectively, and wastes as little as possible. The parts of the trout we didn’t use for lunch are used as bait in the prawn traps for instance.

Phil speaks in concerned tones about the environment but is not sentimental about it. He uses it as part of his way of life and just like everything else out here, that involves taking what nature offers. Taking the life of a fish. Taking a plant that undoubtedly serves as the habitat for some other living thing. And just the act of doing this creates complications. There are rules around what you can take and how much of course, and Phil abides by those rules. Some things – like critically endangered rockfish for example – you can’t take at all. But what do you do when you catch one by accident? Catch and release works work for some species if the animal is well treated during the process, often though, the fish will die anyway. 

The key lesson is that he takes moderately, does his best to take selectively, and wastes as little as possible. The parts of the trout we didn’t use for lunch are used as bait in the prawn traps for instance.

He, like most fishers, is also careful about timing. He tells me he has been concerned that many of the prawns he has been catching still have eggs in them for instance.

This cannot always be said of those who make a living from harvesting the resources of our planet. The modus operandi of the human race has been take as much as possible as fast as possible, take only the best of what is available and leave the wreckage behind us.

It is the logical result of calculating the value of things only in terms of their extracted market value and leaving out the value of leaving them alone. The value of old growth forest and marine plant life as a carbon sink alone is huge, but very few people see an economic benefit from that.

Phil used the term “Selective Harvesting” on more than two separate occasions during our conversation in reference to both the forest and the ocean – he tells me it is an idea that resonates strongly with him and it comes down to a few distinct concepts – harvesting proportional to personal use, strict limits, transparency within the local community about who is doing what, science and monitoring, and an intolerance for waste.

When I ask him about enforcement he agrees that it has its place as a deterrent but also says it is only a small part of the picture. In his view, the best way to stop the 5% who will disregard the rules even when they are backed by science is by allowing the local community to know what is going on in their territory. In his view, only the community has the strength to make exceeding limits socially unacceptable. 

His view is that inevitably enforcement authorities are mostly in the business of “covering their own asses”. He doesn’t blame the individuals who work for the authorities for this – he sees it as the inevitable consequence of trying to police a situation where there is not enough information to actually know what is truly going on.

He says he has seen plenty of examples of a few people having an outsized negative impact. People gill-netting half a kilometer up a river for salmon – taking every single fish – in order to support addictions to drugs and alcohol for instance.

He tells me he has also seen plenty of good old fashioned greed. Sport fishers taking more fish than they can possibly eat before it gets freezer burn. Groups of people traveling to the islands so that they can combine their personal quotas to fill a truck with what they catch for the journey home.

And is not just fish, shrimp and crab. Herring like to deposit their roe on kelp and this is regarded as a delicacy by some locals and overseas markets. As a result, some kelp beds have been devastated. In a different story the herring fishery in the islands collapsed years ago due to commercial fishing.


With the exception of human beings, even the most ferocious predators in nature go after the weak and sick of the predated species first. In this way, predators actually improve the overall health of the population they predate.

The degree to which the human race fails to learn the lesson of overfishing seems staggering. Fishers blame other factors – marine mammals in particular – but press those who really know and they admit that overfishing has been a reality. I spoke to many in Haida Gwaii about this and will include it in a future post.

What You Harvest Matters on a Minute-To-Minute Basis – Not Just How Much

Phil also makes a point about a key difference in the way that humans behave in contrast to the rest of the natural world. A difference that is obvious when highlighted but not something I have not heard from anyone else I have spoken with on my journey for Sealives so far: 

With the exception of human beings, even the most ferocious predators in nature go after the weak and sick of the predated species first. In this way, predators actually improve the overall health of the population they predate.

Humans tend to do the opposite. Our big brains and our use of tools have allowed us to become picky hunters. We only want the best of whatever species we are after and leave the weaker specimens behind.

I’ve never fully connected with this idea before but it does make you think. The impact of human harvesters in the environment is not only defined by our voracious appetite in terms of scale but also our pickiness in terms of quality, which is further amplified by market forces that reward specific standards or other very precise aspects of a particular target species – its fin or its fur for example.

What is true is that his way of life connects Phil to his food security and the life-sustaining ecosystem in the place where he lives in a profound way. I can’t help thinking that the world would be in better hands if this were true of more of us.

Unlike other predators, we leave our target species in worse shape overall, not just in terms of quantity but also the health of the stock that remains.Is it possible for us to imagine taking from nature only that which has run its course, and doing so in such a way that it will return to nature completely once we are done with it? Phil tells me how he often releases fish he catches that are in their prime while deciding to take only those who are nearing the end of their lifespan. This doesn't mean taking salmon from the rivers – he only ever takes salmon from areas well away from a river mouth – but it does mean being sensitive to which fish to leave in the ecosystem and which fish to take, regardless of species

Not all of these ideas scale of course. It is ecologically sound for one person to drive to the ocean to catch lunch rather than go to the supermarket, to selectively harvest on a fish-by-fish basis. The same cannot be said, for instance, of a city of 30 million consumers.

What is true is that his way of life connects Phil to his food security and the life-sustaining ecosystem in the place where he lives in a profound way. I can’t help thinking that the world would be in better hands if this were true of more of us.

We discuss the idea of closing down all fishing in Gwaii Haanas. Phil is open to it if that is what it takes to secure the ecosystem for the future. For him, it is the ecosystem that must be protected at all costs, not because its wrong to harvest from it but because if we lose it we lose it forever. He doesn’t think it should be necessary, but in the end, he thinks that a program of science and monitoring should be the deciding factor.

Be Informed and Adapt  – Survival Basics From The Edge of The World

The day was an enjoyable one despite much rain. The traps were set between Moresby and Louise Island. Lunch was cooked over an open fire on a nearby beach. 

A Dungeness Crab that had been caught the previous day was cooked in addition to the trout, and some baked beans, but in the event the crab was more than we could eat for lunch and came back to sandpit with us to be enjoyed at another time, along with the twenty or so prawns that had been trapped while we ate.

Phil accepts that the more restrictions you create the more pressure you put on the economic health of the community, but he, like others I have spoken with on Haida Gwaii are optimistic about people’s power to prosper by remaining adaptable. Its that frontier spirit again – pragmatic and grounded – an unflinching self-confidence in the locals’ talent for finding the route to a prosperous future, even if that requires a break from the past.


At least two of the big themes I have been hearing about from others up and down the coast were present in my conversation and experiences with Phil: The need for local communities to be given the power and the information to govern their own environments and the need for that information to be based on direct monitoring, data, and science.

He believes that eco-tourism featuring activities other than hunting and fishing, and jobs created to monitor the health of the environment could be part of the picture. It should also be noted that sustainable harvesting is not a new idea to the logging industry – systems have been developed to better maintain the future of managed forestry, systems that they say they are prevented from implementing as a result of existing rules and vested interests. And not all logging is done by huge corporations, locals hold small licenses in some places up and down the BC coast, and will often prefer to get their timber milled locally if they can, resulting in benefits for those communities.

At least two of the big themes I have been hearing about from others were present in my conversation and experiences with Phil: The need for local communities to be given the power and the information to govern their own environments and the need for that information to be based on direct monitoring, data, and science. 

As with so many things, it appears that having an accurate, objective picture of what is going on via thorough, boots-on-the-ground data collection may be what it takes to get people with disparate backgrounds to agree on real solutions for all concerned.


The Land-Sea Link in Haida Gwaii – A People Fight For Their Resources & Their Future

Legacy Part 16 – Lisa & Christian White – Brother & Sister – Haida – For Culture, Community & Ecology

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director

If you want some perspective on the point of view of the Haida – the indigenous peoples of Haida Gwaii – you could do a lot worse than attempting to understand how they feel about red cedar. It stands at the center of their art, their architecture, their boat building and their civic life.

It is also one of the best examples of the astounding natural wealth of these islands, how that wealth has been seized-upon by European colonists, and how, despite recognition of the Haida’s aboriginal status – and recognition by the Supreme Court of Canada of at least some of the rights that accrue to that – the extraction of that wealth happens in a way that not only renders it irreplaceable but also bypasses many of the locals.

The Complete Ecosystem

It may seem odd to begin a post for a project focused on ocean health by talking about trees, but my experiences in Haida Gwaii have shown me that just as ecological and socio-economic issues are deeply intertwined when it comes to coastal communities, the same is true when it comes to the extraction of natural resources.

Haida Gwaii – the archipelago known as the Queen Charlotte Islands to much of the outside world since European colonists arrived in 1774 – is a wonder of natural biodiversity, beauty, and abundance.

Located off BC’c North Coast Haida Gwaii means “Land of the Haida,” “Haida” meaning “People.” Prior to the colonials arriving  it was called “Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai” meaning “Islands at the Boundary of the World.”

Forestry has negatively impacted Salmon spawning grounds. Black Tail Deer... have become invasive... and the super-abundant fishery that used to be here has been overfished to near collapse with regard to some species...

From space, the archipelago resembles a broken arrowhead with the tip pointing south and is split into two main islands – Graham to the north and Moresby to the south, with a handful of major islands and a multitude of smaller ones located along Moresby’s eastern edge as it narrows to its southern extremity. There are roughly 150 islands in total. The coastline of Moresby is so convoluted that it seems like more.

Since the arrival of the Europeans, the resources of this place have been exploited to a degree that equals any of the great resource extraction disasters of historical times. 

Two-thirds of the old growth forest is gone, replaced in the main by second growth forest that looks impressive to the untrained eye but is, in fact, a pale shadow of the splendor that pre-existed it. 

Salmon is recognized as a Keystone Species wherever they are found – a species whose entire lifecycle supports the life around it in multiple essential ways. Forestry has negatively impacted Salmon spawning grounds. Black Tail Deer – introduced in multiple waves since 1880 in a calamitous move by the BC Game Commission – have become invasive, chewing away essential new growth including new cedar saplings, and the super-abundant fishery that used to be here has been overfished to near collapse with regard to some species, particularly Salmon, Herring and multiple species of rockfish. That this ecosystem is still so abundant despite all of these pressures is a testament to the power of nature to recover if you let it.

Protections are now in place on land and in the sea, including quotas and no-take rules for specific fish species and, significantly, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, established via an arduous process between 1985 and 1993 that covers most of the archipelago south of Louise Island is a bold move in favour of both conservation and indigenous rights. 

There are many positive things to report regarding Haida Gwaii then, but the future is still extremely uncertain and, if you talk to the locals, it is unclear that current measures are enough from either an ecological or socio-economic standpoint.

The People and the Environment – A Profound Connection

For at least 13,000 years this place has been the home of an indigenous coastal-dwelling people who built a civilization 30,000 strong at its height. A coastal community that lived by the cedar, the salmon, and the other native species and that developed its own sophisticated method of governance and art and craftsmanship of exquisite quality.

The Haida system of governance is matriarchal. Men are chosen to speak for the community, but the real power in traditional Haida society resides with the councils of elder women within each band who discuss community direction, strategy, and action.

Lisa White and her brother Christian live in the town of Old Massett on the northern coast of Graham Island and are proud descendants of those people.

Lisa is an ardent conservationist who is deeply troubled by the loss of the forests, and the impact that logging has had on the archipelago’s ecosystem. But she is also a business owner who wants to see more opportunity and more of the wealth that Haida Gwaii generates flow to Old Massett.

It doesn’t take much to see that Old Massett is a community in need of investment. Anyone with ears can hear how friendly and welcoming the locals are. Anyone with eyes can see that the community is struggling to thrive from an economic perspective. 

Like many coastal towns, the fishery provided much of any wealth that was ever experienced here but that is now gone. Also, for many years the Canadian armed forces had a big presence nearby. An early warning monitoring station is located just down the road that at its peak supported around 300 military and civilian personnel. The monitoring station is still active, but it is now operated remotely, so any money that used to flow to the community from the facility has all but dried-up.

That leaves forestry.

Christian White is an artist and craftsman. He is one of the fifteen or so Haida artists on Haida Gwaii who practice the highest quality totem pole and canoe carving that are vital to the Haida tradition and link the present day Haida to their cultural past.

Those invited into his workshop are treated to a magical sight – a huge totem pole under construction – it's carving all but complete and sections already painted.

Two of Christian’s family were working with him on the day I was there.

Against the far wall – you can discover hand-carved canoes, decorated in the classic, evocative Haida style – evoking the ocean and a people deeply connected to it. Also, under wraps – a new large-scale canoe in progress?

And, of course, the place is full of the aroma of cedar – so rich you can almost taste it.

Ask Christian White what he wants and he says it very clearly: “I want my land back.” 

Christian is a quiet-spoken dignified presence befitting his ability as an artist, but when it comes to cedar, he does not equivocate. For him, it is the lifeblood of his culture. Lifeblood from which his people have been cruelly severed by aggressive forces acting with less civility and honor than he ever would. Cut off from it and the land that it grows on. Land that has always and will always be land that his people belong to. 

Old growth cedar is strong and densely packed but soft and carves well. It is used in the construction of traditional Haida dwellings designed over thousands of years to withstand the frequent earthquakes experienced in this part of the world and is the perfect medium from which to shape canoes and totem poles.

Second growth stuff grows much more quickly because it does so in sunlight. As a result, the rings are less tightly packed and its timber is much less dense. 

That access to cedar for his people has been restricted to only those trees that the logging companies (one of which is now Haida owned,) allow them to have is an extreme injustice in his eyes. An insult added to the injury of over two hundred years of exploitation. 

Ask Christian White what he wants and he says it very clearly: “I want my land back.” And the barges of raw timber that he has seen leaving the islands are a reminder of how bad things have been.

Raw Material Exports – A Recipe for Economic Decay

The term “raw timber” refers to trees that have been felled and stripped of branches but have not yet been milled into lumber.

The fact that timber leaves the island in its raw state is significant because it means that the wealth of the island is being taken off island without it being made available to the Haida to use for cultural benefit or for the economic benefit of all but a few. It is a cultural issue, but like everything when it comes to indigenous rights, it is an economic issue as well.

Why? Because felling one tree for raw export creates the minimum amount of labor on-island.

If the value of that labor is the only thing that the local community recoups it's not much for a resource that took 800 years or more to grow and – according to those I have spoken with – under current management schemes will never genuinely be replaced.

The maximum value that accrues to cut timber is gained when it is sold for processing to a sawmill, then again when it is milled into building materials and then again when it is sold to the end user.

This is why the Crown’s historical practice of selling logging rights to large outside concerns is of so little long-term value to the communities where it takes place.

Waste wood is a significant problem in Haida Gwaii because the logging companies are picky when it comes to what they ship – when the best timber is of such high quality the tendency is to maximize the value of each shipment by exporting only the very best. It is like the practice of shark finning, where only the fin is kept and the rest of the animal is thrown back into the water to die. When transportation is a big part of your cost and a small part of what you reap is much more valuable than the rest, profits are maximized by throwing everything but the most valuable part away at source. This practice can also be compared to international fisheries where huge bycatch rates are tolerated because the target species is so valuable.

It is not clear that anyone has calculated the value of timber that is simply left to grow. What it would be worth to humankind for the forest to be left alone for a thousand years or so in order for it to return to something like its natural state. Maybe someone should.

Environmental and Social Progress – And Lessons Learned

Some of the inequity has been redressed. Beginning in 1974, the Council of Haida Nations (CHN) – the western style governance body that the Haida created in a calculated strategic move to assert self-governance and represent their interests to the outside world – began pursuing Haida land title claims. 

In 1985 anti-logging protests on Lyell Island began led by the Haida but with participation from members of the white community including some from the logging industry.

There is a lot at stake here. The fate of some of the last remaining old growth forest anywhere, the potential future impact of logging activity on the west coast fishery, and the viability of an ancient indigenous community, and all this despite that landmark Supreme Court ruling.

After 12 years of conflict, this civic action resulted in progress that culminated in a 1997 Canadian Supreme Court ruling that recognized the Haida’s indigenous status.

This was without question a landmark victory for the Haida and indigenous people’s everywhere. It was a victory for the environment too. But it was far from a complete victory in either case.

A further wave of protests in 2005, with the name “Island Spirit Rising” resulted in even more progress. Including the move to recognize Gwaii Haanas – previously designated a Heritage Site by the CHN – internationally, and as an entity jointly run by the Haida, the Crown and one independent adjudicator, and the return of roughly half of the logging rights on Haida Gwaii to the Haida people in the form of licenses divided equally between the communities of Skidegate and Old Masset which eventually all came under the control of the CHN.

The lessons learned? – That progress is not complete unless care is taken that all social and environmental angles are covered.

Logging by non-Haida companies is now more limited in scope but, according to Lisa and Christian is still as rapacious as ever. And now that the Haida have the benefit of at least some of their own resources returned to them, many say that the logging concerns controlled by the CHN operate in the same old way – maximizing profits by exporting raw logs, operating with the same disregard to the environment and cutting less well-off Haida out of the picture.

So there is a lot at stake here. The fate of some of the last remaining old growth forest anywhere, the potential future impact of logging activity on the west coast fishery, and the viability of an ancient indigenous community, and all this despite that landmark Supreme Court ruling.

Unsurprisingly, these are issues that Lisa, Christian and others that live in Old Massett are agreed upon. Their view is that the environment is still in great jeopardy, that the inequities of the past are still in place and their own government is helping to perpetuate these problems in the name of profits for the few. And once again they are resolved to fight and are doing so using a strategy that has served the Haida well in the past – protest in the form of a logging blockade.

The lessons learned? – That progress is not complete unless care is taken that all social and environmental angles are covered.

“How can hundreds of years of destruction be put right without hundreds of years of repair?”

Respect For the Land – A Prerequisite for Reconciliation

Lisa and Christian invited me to join them, Christian’s son Vernon and family friend Ralph Stoecker on a boat run to the protest camp location in Massett Inlet.

On the way, Lisa told me her view that Reconciliation – with a capital “R” – the Canadian government’s commitment to building a bridge to Indigenous peoples – will not be possible without, as she puts it “respect for the land.” And her desire for Haida Gwaii to finally become, in her words, the “shining example that some already tout it to be.”

And make no mistake, by “respect for the land” she means respect for each individual tree and living creature on Haida Gwaii.

In her view, the Land Use Vision (much like the Gwaii Haanas reserve project) has been effective in that at least it has brought the major parties – Haida, Crown and Industry to the table, but it does an inadequate job of protection and does not in itself ensure the economic security of all of the Haida peoples. 

And, she asks, “how can hundreds of years of destruction be put right without hundreds of years of repair?”

I ask Lisa if logging should play any part in the future of Haida Gwaii. She thinks about this carefully before answering. She says that it might – perhaps in the form of selective harvesting, but only if the data allows it.

When I ask her what a brighter future would look like, her vision is one of biosphere management – a continuing audit, and system of monitoring and stewardship led by the Haida, and more proactive management of waste wood.

I ask Lisa if logging should play any part in the future of Haida Gwaii. She thinks about this carefully before answering. She says that it might – perhaps in the form of selective harvesting (a concept I will return to in future posts,) but only if the data allows it. Data that starts with a commitment to auditing what is actually there.

The willingness to rely on data and science is to become a feature of most of the conversations that I have with individuals of all backgrounds on this my first visit to Haida Gwaii.

No matter who I spoke to – including people who take pride in showing me the expertise required to fell an old growth cedar, or how quickly you can cut, strip and log a second growth tree using a feller-buncher or cutter-stripper – admit that what has happened here in the past is nothing short of an environmental disaster.

Whether you talk to environmentalists, ex-commercial fishers or loggers, white or indigenous, when pressed, almost all seem to agree that data, science, and monitoring must be emphasized and allowed to govern what is and is not possible with regard to the exploitation of natural resources for economic gain. The other two puzzle pieces that they see as important? Education and economic opportunity that doesn’t necessarily depend on resource extraction.

In my experience so far these are near universal areas of agreement – an unexpected but welcome find. Some say “you can make data say whatever you want” but so far this has been a minority point-of-view.

It’s also true that no matter who I spoke to – including people who take pride in showing me the expertise required to fell an old growth cedar, or how quickly you can cut, strip and log a second growth tree using a feller-buncher or cutter-stripper – admit that what has happened here in the past is nothing short of an environmental disaster.

Community Resilience – The Platform of the Future

The spectacular new totem pole that Christian White is working on right now is not a commission – a work for the community or some wealthy patron – it is a personal project to reaffirm his own cultural roots and give something back to his ancestral community.

His plan is that once complete, the pole will stand in a remote part of the island, accessible only by water, like so many of the old monumental poles and abandoned villages that dot Haida Gwaii’s coastlines. 

Old Massett is a community on the edge, in more ways than one. 

Stand on North Beach and on a clear day you can see Alaska, only 70 kilometers away. Stand on Raven Road in the center of town and you have to wonder if the community will still be viable in half as many years.

What is certain is that the people of Old Massett continue to fight for their future, against the colonial past, and the inequities of the local resource-based supply chain that seem to persist no matter who is in charge. There is energy and optimism and a willingness to find solutions. Progress has been made but is far from complete, and begs the question of how much further ahead everyone could be without so much time and effort wasted in conflict.

I am looking forward to returning to Haida Gwaii – there is much at stake and much in play here, ecologically, culturally and economically. Many things have been done right, many historic mistakes still need to be corrected and new problems have emerged as a by-product of social progress made by some but not all of the Haida. Much that is crucial to those who call Haida Gwaii home, and much that is important to Canada and to the world.

Craftsmanship Future-Proofs You – A Sointula Boatyard Spans Generations

Legacy Part 15 – Ken and Robert Griffith – Shipwrights – Tarkanen Marine Ways

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director

Sointula is a reminder that people have been experimenting with the idea of building the ideal community for a long time.

Sointula means “Place of Harmony” in Finnish.

Finnish immigrants established the town, located on BC’s Malcolm Island, in 1901 in a bid to create their vision of utopia based on the values set forth The Kaleva, the epic Finnish poem by Elias Lonnrot, and a set of socialist principles they called “Communitarianism.”

The Communitarian experiment failed after only a few years, but the determination to be independent and the strength-in-unity ethos at its core remained. The town’s original visionaries fell by the wayside more conventional co-operative and unionized practices. This approach, combined with business savvy and managed with Scandinavian common sense, made people feel secure while allowing them to prosper.

An influx of hippies in the sixties and seventies caused friction for a while, but ultimately these newcomers were found to have similar ideals to the older residents. Also, they supported more ambitious roles for women in the community and expanded the use of the co-operative model to new types of businesses. 

Commercial Fishing – Boom & Bust

Agriculture has always been a feature of the island, and like many coastal communities in BC, logging has been a big economic driver, but it was the commercial fishing fleet that built the place.

A boom in the fishing business in the seventies and early eighties gave way to a fish-stock management and resource crisis in the nineties. 

The implementation of fishing license reduction, separation and stacking schemes and the introduction of Individual Tradable Quotas (ITQs) that followed resulted in the same massive decline that is in evidence towns up and down the coast.

The Tarkanen Marine Ways boatyard is a family owned and run businesses, an essential part of the fabric of the community on Sointula, and serves boat owners from a wide geographical area.

Walk into Tarkanen's yard and there’s a chance you’ll meet one of the local commercial fishers who will tell you in no uncertain terms about the state of the business. I spoke to the owner of the Sea Harvest, one of two boats in the yard and out of the water for maintenance.

The Sea Harvest, a modern steel-hulled fishing vessel, is an impressive sight and her owner tells me he how installed monitoring cameras voluntarily but still finds himself on the wrong side of regulations – and the law – from time-to-time purely by mistake. I tell him about efforts underway to change fisheries legislation in BC to correct the errors of the past. He expresses skepticism.

Standing on the deck of Sea Harvest it is easy to appreciate the cost involved in commercial fishing even at a local level. A system that downloads all of the risk onto individual owner-operators hardly seems to be supportive of the idea of thriving communities, or – if you accept that one follows the other – the stewardship by locals of the marine environment upon which their livelihood depends.

Pride And Optimism

You will notice something else at Tarkanen Marine Ways as well though – something subtle but unmistakable – the sense of pride and optimism that emanates from the yard itself.

The Tarkanen yard is a family owned and run businesses, is a key part of the fabric of the community on Sointula, and serves boat owners from a wide geographical area.

The yard doesn't only work on modern steel vessels like the Sea Harvest, but also more traditional wooden boats that require special handling and expertise. And like most boatyards Tarkanen’s is not limited to catering to the fishing fleet – as you would expect, other types of vessel have always been a part of the yard’s work. These days, recreational craft offer an increasing source of revenue.

I spoke to a handfull of people at the yard, including the grandson of the original owner, but the story of Ken Griffith and his son Robert illustrated why so much confidence in the future emanates from the place most clearly. 

Ken is the senior shipwright in a business where the quality of craftsmanship on wooden vessels is high. Somewhat reticent, Ken is the kind of person who doesn’t seem very forthcoming when you first meet him, but opens up once he finds that you’re genuinely interested in what he has to say – and he speaks with enthusiasm when it comes to the future of the business.

There was a fire at the yard a few years ago. No-one was hurt thankfully, but it gutted one entire shed on the property. It has been replaced with a brand new one.

In Ken’s view, the future of boat building and boat maintenance is bright even if the number of fishing boats to work on is decreasing. 

The wooden vessel standing in the yard next to ocean harvest is a tugboat – one of the last wooden tugboats around, and the pride that the shipwrights working on it have in their work is evident. Plus, from Ken’s perspective there will always be boats on the coast of one type or another, and in his view, as the area opens up to tourism and recreational boaters the future for skilled workers in this area is bright.

Craft Is Key

The story of Tarkenan's success is not one of technology, but of craftsmanship, and a profound belief that the highest level of craftsmanship and expertise in the area of boatbuilding and maintenance will always be in demand.

One thing underscores Ken’s faith in the future of the business more than any other – how happy he is that his son Robert works alongside him. 

Robert is equally enthusiastic about the future of the business and proud to be a part of things.

There was a fire at the yard a few years ago. No-one was hurt, but it gutted one entire shed on the property and hurt the business. That shed has been replaced with a brand new one, full of activity, the sound of power tools and the sweet aroma of milled timber. One more affirmation that Tarkanen’s is not only thriving but confident in investing what it needs to for the future. A future that includes profits but also opportunities for the local community that span generations. It's inspiring stuff.

Hopefully, with improved legislation, the BC fishing industry can be rescued and fish stocks maintained.  The conversations that I had with Ken and Robert and the others at the yard were a reminder that while the goal of revitalizing the fishing industry in BC is massively important, there are other aspects of the economic life of coastal communities that, while small, are already bright, and that people living in communities of all kinds can bridge generations and find different paths to a prosperous future. 

An important thing to care about if you care about the health of the world's oceans.

How Rejecting Plastics Became a Community-Branded Effort in One Coastal Town

Legacy Part 14 – Yura Kulikov and Michelle Hall – Surfers Fighting Marine Debris

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director
Accommodation provided by Pacific Sands Beach Resort

Surfers have a special relationship with the beach and the shoreline. 

Yury Kulikov explained it to me as we rode the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo – one of the two main ferry routes between BC’s lower mainland and Vancouver Island.

Yury is Chair of the Vancouver Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation – a global network of surfers and coastal advocates with over 80 chapters worldwide and three in Canada.

He says that for surfers the beach is a special, almost sacred space marking the border between the ordinary world and something better.

Given this, it comes as no surprise that surfing groups have become adept at fighting for what they believe in – beach access for surfers and the prevention of shoreline pollution.

It was in this context that I met Yury and other members of Surfriders here in BC.

Mainstreaming Ecological Activism

Yury is the first to admit that while the Vancouver chapter of Surfriders has done many good things – including an effective "Ban The Bead" campaign against the use of microbeads in cosmetics, toothpaste and household detergents, beach cleaning activity and public events focused on oil-spill and other pollution issues – the overall tone has been somewhat laid back – a low key group welcoming those who love the beach and ocean – but that is starting to evolve again. According to Yury, members are looking for more structure and a more progressive attitude to important issues and he is looking to take up the challenge.

Yury isn't trying to turn the world on its head, just trying to make it better, and is starting by making an effort to promote the work of groups who are already out there doing good to his members and beyond.

My opportunity to connect with Surfriders arrived with an event they hosted at Vancouver Aquarium – Rise Against Plastics – a grassroots presentation for concerned parties on efforts underway in BC to mitigate pollution from ocean debris, including the work of Ocean Legacy – a BC non-profit wholly focused on dealing with plastics pollution (more on Ocean Legacy and their work in a future post.)

Events like this are Vancouver Surfriders’ first steps to a new approach to making a difference, an approach that is not so much idealistic as pragmatic, mainstream even.

He told me that he is willing to work with highstreet sponsors to make progress, and didn't hesitate to host an event at Vancouver Aquarium given that their hi-profile conservation programs include extensive work studying the effects of pollution including Microplastics, and despite the fact that aquariums still come under fire from conservationists for their practice of keeping large mammals in captivity – a move that rejects the kind of “conservation angst” (my phrase) that can get in the way of well-intentioned groups from working with each other.

There is a realism to his attitude that I appreciate. Yury isn't trying to turn the world on its head, just trying to make it better, and is starting by making an effort to promote the work of groups who are already out there doing good to his members and beyond.

My impression is that angst of any kind doesn’t feature on Yury’s agenda very much, and he was kind enough to allow me to join him and fellow Surfrider member Mark Lindsay on a surf trip to Tofino where I could photograph them in their natural element and meet other members of the Foundation.


"Live Like a Local" – A Textbook Case for Community Activism

The Vancouver chapter of Surfriders may still be ramping-up their activism game, but they have a good example to draw from in their sister group based in Tofino, where the Pacific Rim chapter, Chaired by Michelle Hall, has been working for the last two years with some success on programs to reduce marine debris. 

Their experience reads like a textbook case for how to get community activism done.

Michelle reasoned that people visiting Tofino do so because they connect not just with the area’s spectacular natural beauty but also with the idea of the place...

So what have Michelle and her chapter members learned? Firstly, that you need full-time staff. 

Lilly Woodbury is the chapter’s full-time manager, her salary funded by grants and sponsors, and this was a big step in giving Michelle and the rest of the 18-strong volunteer committee – each with their own specific job roles and campaigns – the necessary operational support to actually get stuff done.

Speaking of Lilly in this role, Michelle says “She is the glue that holds us all together.”

Under this structure the chapter attracted 500 people to work on its campaigns in 2017 alone.

Secondly, it comes back to community – but this time in a new and powerful way.

Michelle reasoned that people visiting Tofino do so because they connect not just with the area’s spectacular natural beauty but also with the idea of the place – a picturesque coastal community on the edge of the wilderness and a fishing town turned natural adventure playground. This realization led to an innovative approach – use what Tofino represents to the people who live there to brand positive behaviors with regard to plastics.

The approach of Michelle and her colleagues has been to support Tofino Tourism by informing visitors on how they can “Live Like a Local” by making sure that they minimize their use of single-use plastics, make sure they do not litter the beach with anything (including cigarette butts – a debris item made with plastic fibres that comprises over 30% of all collected shoreline debris according to Ocean Legacy) and by proactively participating in beach cleaning efforts.


Identity Drives Action, Adopting a New Identity Drives Change

This appeal to tourists and locals alike has also been successfully backed up with political and entrepreneurial action.

Inclusivity and engagement of the First Nation communities has been a priority, the theme? Working together and learning from each other. 

An appeal to local businesses for a voluntary ban on plastic bags has resulted in 150,000 fewer plastic bags dispersed annually.

Local districts have supported the installation of cigarette-butt canisters – 65 in all that together have yielded 133,000 butts. Waste material that has since been recycled into plastic lumber by recycling solutions firm Terracycle.

It's a focused and determined grassroots approach that is getting results and is a model that could be followed by coastal communities anywhere: Brand better behavior so that tourists have a more of positive impact and local businesses and politicians are willing to follow through in any way they can to make the brand a reality for the good of the community.

It’s the more positive flip-side of making any problematic activity socially unacceptable – brand the desired, more beneficial behavior in such a way that people are drawn to it.

It turns out that while you can be effective by aligning disparate groups around a cause, if you connect the behaviours that drive positive change to further that cause in such a way that it allows people to identify more strongly with their community or a community they aspire to be a part of, and a sense of place, you can get a more focused, determined and rapid result.

It's an approach that (often toxic) political groups have been using on important issues for years, and it’s easy for them because there is usually a convenient flag to wrap around their ideas – the flag of a country or something darker.

Michelle’s victory for progressive thinking and ecological activism is her realization that Tofino’s identity (its “flag” figuratively speaking,) was friendly to making the world a better place, free of marine debris – an identity she could wrap around her positive agenda.

The participation of Surfrider groups in the "Ban The Bead" campaign has been instrumental in achieving a ban the use of microbeads in Canada, and now the Pacific Rim chapter is working with local politicians to craft a national strategy for combating plastics pollution.

In addition, Pacific Rim Surfriders and the volunteers they have inspired have removed 20 tonnes of marine debris from 44 beaches and coastlines (recycling 20% of that through Ocean Legacy,) have collected and recycled 1500 lbs of old wetsuits (not already turned into yoga mats by Suga,) have worked with 16 local businesses to give them “Ocean Friendly Business” certification by helping them to eliminate 10 difficult to recycle plastics in their operations, and have put 210 youngsters through a Youth Environmental Stewardship program in local schools, educating them on consumption, plastics, marine health and data quantification in part by supporting them in making art with plastics collected from their beach cleaning efforts.

And Michelle and her group are aiming higher than that too. 

The participation of Surfrider groups in the "Ban The Bead" campaign has been instrumental in achieving a ban the use of microbeads in Canada, and now the Pacific Rim chapter is working with local politicians to craft a national strategy for combating plastics pollution.

Michelle stresses that the ecological goals of Pacific Rim Surfriders are very clear: 1 – Eliminate single-use plastics; 2 – Divert waste from landfills; and 3 – Educate youth, visitors, businesses and locals. 

The clarity of these goals has surely been a big part of what Pacific Rim Surfriders has managed to achieve – a vital foundation to success – but it is not the only driver. 

Conceptualizing an appeal to the general public’s aspirations for the future and their own identity, installing an operational framework equal to the task, and mobilizing hundreds of island residents and tourists as well as scores of local businesses and key political bodies have been a big part of making Pacific Rim Surfriders successful in moving forward on their goals for a better environment.

Maybe it took an outsider to connect with the power that the idea of a place can have.

Michelle is a Brit. Born in the Wirral in the UK’s industrial northwest she moved to Tofino because it represents her perfect West Coast reality.

Maybe it took an outsider to connect with the power that the idea of a place can have. Whether that is true or not, her lessons regarding how to get effective activism done can be learned by anyone looking to make a positive change in their community.

Empowerment by Choice, Empowerment by Design – The Fight for the Future of Coastal Communities.

Legacy Part 13 – Dyhia Belhabib –  Fisheries Scientist & Researcher

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director

Dyhia Belhabib is a remarkable woman.

Born in Algeria in a small “village-slash-town” far from the sea and in a social environment that didn’t encourage women to make unconventional career choices, she became fascinated by the study of the ocean and, after a life-altering experience, the study of what makes the fishing industry – and fishing communities – tick.

She is the first participant in Sealives that I have interviewed not motivated by a particular interest in ocean life, but by a profound drive to support better fishing practices for the good of people first and foremost.

In the dark period of Algerian history during which she grew up, the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau – an inspiration to many around the world – were for her a symbol of death and calamity – the state-run TV station ran documentaries including those by Cousteau non-stop in place of regular programming after the death of major public figures at the hands of terrorism, including the assassination of the country’s newly elected president, and hoped-for savior from extremism, Mohamed Boudiaf by his own bodyguard immediately after his election. The images of a serene underwater world obscuring the political realities throwing her country into turmoil.

A Deeper Understanding Motivated by Socio-Economic Reality

Her decision to move to Algiers to study marine science was in the main a rebellion against the constraints of the world she grew up in, but that changed after a chance encounter with a local fisherman she met through her research – a grown man moved to tears by his inability to compete with the industrial fishing vessels surrounding him.

During all this, she learned to scuba dive – even though she cannot swim.

She came to Canada to do her Master’s in Science in Quebec and, after that, moved to BC do her PhD with Daniel Pauly. She now works for Ecotrust Canada – an NGO located on the more practical end of the ideological spectrum that seeks to make progress on ecological issues by tackling the underlying human socio-economic problems that contribute to them.

... systems based on Voodoo work better than what we have here, because those involved are incentivized to do the right thing by their beliefs.

In her work Dyhia has witnessed first hand the practicalities of what furthers and what stands in the way of healthy coastal communities and conducts rigorous scientific studies to capture the issues in all their complexity and detail. She has studied a wide array of fisheries management systems across the globe, finding, for instance, that even systems based on Voodoo work better than what we have here, because those involved are incentivized to do the right thing by their beliefs.

In BC she has been a part of Ecotrust Canada’s journey towards creating concrete proposals for regulatory change, and now her focus has expanded to coastal communities outside of BC – West Africa and elsewhere, where the issues she investigates go beyond fishing practices to encompass other community-impacting activity that occurs on fishing vessels – fish crime including drug smuggling and slavery.

Fisheries For Communities – Not Yet a Reality in Coastal BC

I met with her a few days after attending the “Fisheries for Communities” event hosted by Ecotrust Canada in Vancouver – an event that brought together commercial fishers, BC First Nations and other concerned parties to listen to evidence presented by their colleagues, scientists and fishery experts comparing the results of the improvements that have been made in Canada’s East Coast fisheries, and experiences from Alaska versus the conditions here in BC.

In BC, a system of ITQs (Individual Transferable Quotas) is in place, allowing fishing quotas to be privately traded to the highest bidder. As a result, very few independent BC fishers can now afford to buy quota of their own, so in order to fish they must lease quota from companies and individuals wealthy enough to buy. Lease prices are commensurately high meaning that, assuming fish prices remain stable, an operator will fish the first 85% of their leased quota simply to pay off the lease, with the remaining 15% for them to cover their other expenses and finally, to make a profit. But fish prices do not remain stable, they can fluctuate wildly. This results in extraordinary pressure on operators to maximize their capacity and the very real risk of fishing a whole quota without ever making any money. Even worse, in a poor season it may not even be possible to fill the leased quota, in which case an operator can easily end up losing money to the leaseholder.

Dyhia puts it simply – “The ITQ system in BC is not working; it’s failing.”

The Fisheries for Communities event was remarkable for the level of consensus from all in the room – consensus in support of a move away from the current free market in fishing quotas that is pricing locals out of business and towards an emphasis on supporting local owner-operators for the good of coastal communities, First Nations, the BC economy and the health of the ocean.

Ownership Leads to Stewardship – The Owner-Operator Principle

Dyhia’s view, based on her own observations and research was very much in line with this. But she goes further and emphasizes that the principle of supporting a healthy economic climate for owner-operators really is the main thing and the local stewardship that it promotes is more effective and cost-efficient, as long as the people involved understand that the fishing rights are their own.

I put it to her that future legislation should include an explicit link between Ownership and Stewardship in the regulations – some kind of contractual link between obligations to limited and non-destructive fishing practices to available quota. She told me that no such link is necessary – that the evidence of her own experience is that as long as you stand by the owner-operator principle – the practice of ensuring that a large proportion of fleets are comprised by local fishers who own their own boats and their own rights to fishing quota – what you get is genuine ocean stewardship – compliance with quotas, accurate reporting, and an openness to vessel tracking.

When the subject moved on to quota enforcement she maintains that the system in BC is “bad,” largely because cutbacks to Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) budgets have forced the cost of monitoring onto operators, creating negative impact in two ways.

Firstly, monitoring systems are expensive – according to Dyhia up to $7,000 every time the vessel leaves the dock – and different monitoring systems are required depending on the target catch, discouraging catch diversification – an agreed upon element of progressive fisheries management.

Secondly, if the monitoring equipment breaks while fishing is underway, the operator must cease fishing immediately, abandon their gear in the water and return to port, where, they are required to contact a DFO officer and explain their situation, although that may not always be possible.

“The sense of property is what creates stewardship”

It is a measure of the power of the owner-operator principle in her eyes that its proper implementation would be enough to make BC’s “contentious and twisted” quota enforcement system adequate – barely.

According to Dyhia, her research indicates that the natural incentives that local owner-operators have to maintain the future of the fishery provides the other half of the enforcement picture – respect the right of coastal communities to fish their area and they will provide more (and more determined) monitoring than the government ever could, and, importantly, include local knowledge gained from hundreds of years of experience fishing in that place. [After all, we are moving to “co-management everywhere else in the world, why not in BC?]

“The sense of property is what creates stewardship” she says.

Further, she sees it as a human rights issue, and yes, an ecological one too. She points out that efforts to impose fishing regulations often impact the smallest boats that provide the most benefit to local communities and have a tiny impact on fish stocks in comparison to large-scale industrial fishing, denying the ocean of adequate protection and local communities of a vital source of food and income.

In other words, you get far fewer boats but much more damage.

The good news is that we have an example of how to do things differently right here in Canada – ITQs have been rolled back in Canada’s East Coast fisheries, the owner-operator principle supported, and the data is in. According to the experts who presented at Fisheries for Communities the fishing industry in the Maritimes is thriving and doing so in a way that local communities are reaping the benefit in the shape of increased salaries and young people entering the business, while in BC the opposite is true.

It doesn’t have to be this way – it’s a situation that has been created by poor market design. And it can be corrected by changes to fisheries legislation.

ITQs a "Disaster" – But an Opportunity for Change Exists.

I was struck by Dyhia’s clarity of vision. She and her colleagues at Ecotrust Canada, and others like them, in conjunction with commercial fishers and members of coastal communities have done the research and have come to a conclusion – improve data collection and understanding of what is happening under the surface of our oceans by all means, simplify monitoring and relieve fishers of the cost of monitoring – and Tax the corporate side – with tax revenues flowing towards paying for monitoring if necessary, but most importantly, support coastal communities in their stewardship of the oceans by supporting local owner operators and their ability to access quota.

Unlike some in coastal communities, she is not against Canadian companies and wealthy Canadians from owning quota because she is willing to accept that there is some argument that this still benefits the Canadian economy, as long as a large proportion of quota is reserved for owner-operators. She is against foreign ownership of Canadian fishing quota because it becomes much more difficult to regulate them and know what illegal activity they may be involved in outside of Canada’s jurisdiction.

Overall, Dyhia’s view regarding ITQs is this – all economic systems are a system of incentives and disincentives – but they have to include all the factors that impact development and the math used to justify ITQs simply doesn’t do that. Her polite description of the actual impact of ITQs in Canada and the world over? 

“A disaster.”

There is a movement to change this legislation backed by Dyhia's colleagues at Ecotrust Canada and driven by the voices of commercial fishers and First Nations communities up and down the coast – a real chance that progress can be made – its an important issue affecting the health and prosperity of everyone in BC – with luck the opportunity will not be squandered.

A Wild Wild Life

Legacy Part 12 – Kai & Andrea – Mariners, Wilderness Lovers

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By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director

A Warm Welcome

The photographs didn’t turn out as expected.

After a wonderful evening of food and wine (the latter for Andrea and me – Kai doesn’t drink much as far as I can tell,) I finally found the courage to ask if I could take a photo or two, and the light levels in the cosy saloon of the Black Witch – a boat, not a pub – were too low.

I’m usually pretty confident in my ability to take pictures in low light – you can sometimes find something better in those conditions – but this one defeated me.

I felt terrible because Kai and Andrea had been so welcoming to a stranger just showing up on the dock, curious about the scuba tanks on the deck of their sailboat.

Naturally when you just arrive in a place and you want to make contact with the locals you look for any common ground, and scuba diving is an easy thing for me to start a conversation over. After hearing about Sealives and why I was in Port McNeill they invited me back for dinner.

Freedom Requires Flexibility

Kai and Andrea are everyday adventurers. By this I mean they have led a lifetime exercising a level of personal freedom and independence that most people only ever dream of. She is German, and he Swiss, they met in Victoria during a moment when Kai was not on some ambitious international expedition as one of the dive team.

They live aboard their boat and divide their time between town and the wilds of coastal BC depending on their preferences and economic needs.

They both work but Kai makes money in a few different ways, including donning his diving gear to do underwater maintenance work on boats (always make them pay before you go in the water he advised me,) but his real vocation is as a shipwright and craftsman, and when I met up with him a second time he was at his current work-site – a full conversion of a fishing boat into a cruising vessel fit to go anywhere in the new owner’s exacting and eclectic style – the high level of craftsmanship apparent in the carpentry and other work Kai has completed on board.

He also has a miniature craftsman’s workshop set up next to the Black Witch’s chart table where he makes small craft items from found materials, bone, tooth and yes, fur – for Kai is also a hunter.

The Ethics Of a Hunter’s Life

There are plenty of us who would never harm a wild animal if we could help it, but Kai is an example of why it is difficult to judge many true hunters when you meet them. The truth is that hunting – using the natural resources available to get by – is a natural part of Kai’s existence and his relationship with the world he lives in. Without it, he would be more tied to buying things than he already is, more tied to spending time in town doing paid work, and less free.

I am always struck how those who hunt have a much closer affinity to the natural world than most of the rest of us as a result of the life they lead. And given that hunting for food is a part of his life, he tries to utilize as much of the animal as he can, including using their bones, teeth and fur in his work.

He told me how he helped scientists in the area dismember a dead whale for research purposes because he had the necessary skills where they did not, clearly loving that his bush education was needed despite the esteemed scientific minds in the room.

He is also the first person I have met to have witnessed blast fishing first hand, although in very bizarre circumstances in Scandinavia.

Self Sufficiency, An Unsentimental State of Mind

Andrea and Kai showed me hospitality and helped me immeasurably by putting me in touch with some of the residents of Echo Bay.

Kai has a worldview shaped by a lifetime of extraordinary experiences and a dedication to self-sufficiency and independence. I’ll likely never agree with him on many things but I was glad the next time I was in Port McNeill, to run into Andrea and find out where I could locate Kai again, and pleased, the following morning, after meeting with Rebekah Pesicka on her boat and after her dog Coda followed me down the dock, to get a picture or two of him that I can use. 

State of Art - Carving Out a Life of Creativity on the Coast

Legacy Part 11 – Yvonne and Albert – Artists

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By Jason Murphy, Co-Founder & Creative Director

Albert buys his coffee beans raw from a place on one of the nearby islands and roasts them himself on the stovetop. He offered me a much needed cup as he set about grinding some of the latest batch using a hand grinder attached to one of the kitchen’s wooden support posts.

Albert is a fisherman turned ceramicist. He makes ceramic items, often handing them to Yvonne, a lifelong artist, to apply her vision to the pieces in swathes of colour.

The coffee roasting thing is characteristic of a small scale, domestic DIY ethos that I have come to recognize in communities located in remote places. It’s up there with baking your own bread, growing your own produce or beekeeping - all small insurrections against the inequities of the global supply chain. The making mentality becomes a necessity when you live in a place where luxuries are harder to come by and transportation inflates the cost of anything shipped-in.

Where Ideas Come to Life

Like many here, Albert and Yvonne’s home on Gilford Island is a testament to years of hard work, hard work that is now paying back dividends in terms of freedom, comfort and the kind of tranquil isolation that many artists crave.

They have three kilns on site, each serving a different specific need, and most of the ground floor of their house is devoted to studio space – a painter’s studio and gallery for Yvonne and a ceramics studio for Albert. It’s the kind of set-up city dwelling creatives would give their right arm for.

There is the kind of organized clutter familiar to anyone who has spent time in art studios, and I am struck by how obviously prolific the pair are – quantities of finished examples of their work draws the eye in from every direction.

A Community of Self-Expression

The duo take pleasure in explaining to me how they have evolved one of their most popular bowl designs to work better on the often rolling surfaces of a boat – a decision to make the piece more fitting for their customers, many of whom are boat owners cruising the area in summer. 

When I ask Yvonne if she ever feels any pressure to focus on (or avoid) a particular subject matter in her work, she says no. She is inspired by the beauty of the area and feels compelled to translate that into her art pure and simple, which clearly appeals to those who buy her pieces – artist and audience perfectly aligned.

She tells me there are other artists in the area doing work that’s more inspired by environmental activism, and they too have found their place in the community, a community that Yvonne and Albert help to support by hosting gatherings and events at their home.

The Muse that Keeps on Giving

Artists find their way out to the edges because that is where the view is most clear, literally and metaphorically. 

I wondered if I had a studio somewhere similar to where Yvonne and Albert’s is located if I wouldn’t just spend all my time staring out of the large windows at the stunning view and getting nothing done. In the end, I don’t think so. The sheer amount of work required to keep body and soul together quickly remove any sentimentality about living in a place like the Broughton – that said, I think the environment and the peace of the place would be a constant inspiration, like one long meditation on the things that are genuinely important.

As for Yvonne and Albert and artists like them, their commitment to this place and this environment as a place of creativity and constant inspiration make them a vital part of the future of BC’s coastal communities.


Sailing into Freedom - When Your Primary Residence is the Ocean

Legacy Part 10 – Cecil and Marisa – Mariners

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By Jason Murphy, Co-Founder & Creative Director

I have been on my fair share of sailing boats the size of Amber IV in my life, and while each one is different, the well organized boats - the ones rigged to sail long distances in relative comfort and safety - have a familiar atmosphere: one that is welcoming, orderly and comfortable in a traditional sort of way with a light dusting of hi-tech safety and navigational equipment.

And Cecil and Marisa are typical cruising types. Their boat is their home and their commitment to a life of freedom rolled into one.

They don’t like the label “liveaboard” because they feel it has been given a bad name. They see themselves as mariners with as much right to their way of life as anyone else, a right that they feel is under threat.

On the Fringes of Land and Water

They’re not alone there. Just about every person I spoke to in, and around, Echo Bay, including Marisa and Cecil, get the impression government would prefer no one at all live in the wilderness full time. But what makes Marisa and Cecil’s situation somewhat unique is they feel like this kind of institutionalized passive aggressiveness extends to some of the people living in the surrounding coastal communities where they need to anchor, moor or dock from time-to-time.

In particular, they feel that shore dwellers see them not as they really are but as potentially threatening itinerants - a problem exacerbated by a boat dwelling criminal element that they admit does exist.

Searching for Liberty Under the Law

Our conversation focused mainly on the balance of personal freedom and the law enforcement required to keep both boat and shore dwellers happy.

Marisa emphasized her view that she should not be bothered by the authorities as she goes about her life until such point that she ever did anything wrong. Cecil told me his view that municipal governments who have jurisdiction over coastal waters of their communities just don’t have (or want to spend), the money needed to look after the issue properly.

Staying Connected to Coastal Communities

The conversation ended with a discussion on the idea of tagging all vessels electronically so that their movements and activities can be tracked at a relatively small expense. It’s an idea I’m going to look into more as I go forwards.

Cecil mentioned while we talked that people who live on boats are just as tied to the land as anyone else – for supplies, income and administrative needs. I have a feeling it is a point I will keep returning to throughout my travels.

Getting Schooled in Stock Enhancement – A Privately Funded Salmon Hatchery and the Lessons Learned

Legacy Part 09 – The Broughton & Gilford Coho Hatchment Project

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 11/02/2018 

Sitting at Billy’s dining room table, the conversation had turned to the subject of salmon hatcheries.

Allegedly, the government provides open-pen salmon farms in BC (an industry with $440m in sales), between $4m and $5m per year in return for dead fish.

Considering salmon hatcheries are potentially part of the solution to dwindling wild salmon stocks, I was surprised to hear how little investment they require. 

It turns out that in his tireless efforts to keep the community - where he was born and has lived all his life - alive, he helped found a privately funded salmon hatchery in the area a few years ago.

Challenges of Remote Locations

After some early successes, the hatchery is no longer in operation. The location wasn’t perfect – the local stream turned out to be inadequate for their needs and the workaround was expensive – fry had to be helicoptered to other areas.

But he told me that in the end, difficulty in finding staff willing to work at the hatchery became the biggest issue.

I found this difficult to believe. How hard could it be to recruit a handful of people to this admittedly remote, but beautiful, place to do valuable conservation work? But Billy insisted it was true – another sign of not just how difficult it is to keep the salmon population alive but also the communities that used to depend upon them.

Defunct, But Dead in the Water?

The hatchery is overgrown with trees and brush now, and when I visited their winter branches made a net-like pattern out of which the outline of the building emerges.

Billy explained the process to me as I took pictures – salmon eggs were hatched in custom-made perforated plastic substrates and then incubated to a certain size before being released into the rivers to which they eventually return to spawn.

Most of the equipment is still there, to my eyes just waiting for someone to walk in and restart the whole thing.

Future of Hatchery Funding

So how much investment did it take to get this whole thing started? I was able to piece together a ballpark figure based upon what Billy told me after some coaxing – about $150,000. That is about 4% of what our government gives to the open-pen farms in exchange for dead fish every year. Or put another way, the money spent on dead fish could instead be spent on 25 or so hatcheries – more than doubling the current number – (or fewer combined with other helpful stuff like habitat reclamation projects.)

Something to think about.

Legacy Part 08 – Chris Guinchard – Station Coordinator, Salmon Coast Field Station

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 04/02/2018 

I arrived at Salmon Coast Field Station with one wet leg. Chris was polite enough not to mention it.

Launching the rowing boat that I used to get from Billy’s place to the station had required me to walk along a pair of rain-soaked logs that keep the dock afloat. My right foot had slipped between the logs and I had gone in thigh deep on that side. Not an auspicious start to the morning, but after arriving at Salmon Coast things were looking up.

Chris is one of two Station Coordinators of the facility he describes as a kind of hotel for research scientists – and occasionally artists – who come to the Broughton Archipelago to pursue their work. The hotel analogy isn’t quite accurate – you have to apply to get in.

The Station was founded by local scientist and conservationist Alexandra Morton but she has distanced her activist activities from it so that the work produced by the Station is independent and unbiased. According to Chris, the data produced by the Station points towards the voracity of Morton’s most controversial cause regardless – that the open-pen farming of atlantic salmon in the area is doing significant damage to wild salmon stocks.

Look at the Johnstone Straight on a map or chart and you’ll see that it forms a natural bottleneck between the islands located between Campbell River, Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia – collectively known as the Discovery Islands – and the Broughton Archipelago that Fraser River salmon must swim through on their way to and from their spawning grounds in the rivers and creeks of coastal BC.

Chris explained to me that the scientists of the Station are looking into a working theory that this geographical feature causes the uppermost, sunlight receiving layer of the water column (or "Photic Zone") in the area to become "well mixed" and, as a result, to be naturally lower in nutrients than it might normally be.

Sea lice are pervasive in the deep sea environment where they latch onto fish that are fully grown and able to withstand their presence, but the lice naturally die off by the time the fish get to the fresh water environment near their spawning grounds.

According to Chris the fish farms have become "a sort of incubator" for lice in winter, where they infest farm fish, and spread into the wild environment where they attack vulnerable juvenile salmon as they work their way to the ocean, just at the moment when many are about to endure the nutritionally poor waters of the Johnstone, and the compound effect of this seems to be a factor in declining wild salmon stocks.

He is not against aquaculture per se – but he does believe that open-pen salmon farming is causing real damage and is at pains to point out that this is where the data from the Research Station has been pointing for a while – data that is publicly available to anyone who wants to look.

We talk about the potential for salmon hatcheries. His view is that while not perfect the US is handling the Alaskan salmon situation much better than Canada is handling ours. From Chris’s point of view, it looks a lot like Canada has given up on its wild salmon – worse, that the economics of the situation are tilted in favor of atlantic salmon farmed in open pens versus the preservation and expansion of the area's wild salmon.

That last part is not a view that I completely accept but I can tell you that Chris is not alone in holding it. Why else people say, would our government support the open pen aquaculture business in preference to the wild salmon stock?

Legacy Part 07 – Billy Proctor – Retired Salmon Fisherman and Lifelong Mainland Resident

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 04/02/2018 

In our last exchange before I got on the boat to leave Billy’s place, he told me that I was “by far the worst” interviewer he had ever met.

I don’t doubt this, not least because I never intended or came prepared to interview anyone – Sealives was conceived as a photography project first and foremost – but there are other good reasons to not doubt his word.

Firstly, Billy is no stranger to being interviewed.

In his eighties and after a lifetime of, in the words of Charlie Sneed – Billy’s sometime neighbour – “working his bones off”, to keep body and soul together living in the area that is now called the Broughton Archipelago (Billy doesn’t like this name, he told me he always referred to himself as a “Mainlander”) he has become something of a local living legend.

Tourists come to visit Billy’s museum of coastal curiosities that he has collected over the years and to hear his stories.

Documentary crews show up periodically to capture his life and his insights. His book has been an inspiration to those who have read it and when I visited, his cabin was still strung with Christmas cards from a slew of well-wishers.

So when it comes to being interviewed he knows the form.

It would be inaccurate to portray him as a museum piece himself though, and this brings us to the second reason not to doubt his word – Billy is not the kind of person to say anything he doesn’t mean.

Up at five every morning Billy’s life is still one centered on hard work. He fishes, salvages logs – hauling them ashore with a chainsaw winch – and is constantly engaged with all the difficult and gritty chores of living on the edge of the wilderness, chopping firewood, maintaining the place and helping others do the same.

His fishing boat, The Ocean Dawn sits at the end of his dock as a picturesque testament to his lifelong career as an owner/ operator in the BC fisheries, a career that got started with a rowing boat when he was nine years old.

So Billy, an expert in his profession, experienced as the day is long, and self-sufficient from an early age has no need to say something he doesn’t mean.

Nikki Van Schyndel and Billy are like peas in a pod. Her natural enthusiasm matching his restless work ethic. Together with Billy’s dog Buster the three of them are getting stuff done day-in-day-out.

Needless to say, Billy cares deeply about the environment, but its the kind of care often found in people who work or have worked in the fisheries – unsentimental and forthright in its defense of fishing and the right of humans to draw a living from the environment. And what he cares most deeply about is maintaining the place he has called home all his life as a place that people can live and thrive.

He tried to work constructively with the farming corporations when they first arrived, supplying information on where the wild salmon run in the belief that they would use that information to avoid those areas. He told me that the farms were then positioned exactly where he had indicated they should not go. Burned by this experience and persuaded by the work of Alexandra Morton he now opposes the farms and doesn't believe they are a useful part of keeping the area alive.

A few years ago he was instrumental in establishing a privately funded salmon hatchery in the area – a story that got my attention because of the relatively low cost of establishing hatcheries to help re-stock depleted salmon populations in comparison to the money that the government gives to fish farms every year – an important potential solution to dwindling wild salmon stocks in other words.

We visited the hatchery site and I took pictures as he explained how the process works. There were problems with the project – the location wasn’t perfect – but he told me that in the end difficulty in finding staff willing to work there became the biggest issue.

He has worked tirelessly to keep the community where he lives alive. Pulling float homes ashore to provide homesteads for people.

Many people wouldn’t appreciate all of Billy’s views. Like many fishermen, he sees the charismatic sea mammals that suburban environmentalists dote on as a natural enemy of wild fish stocks and stresses that the pressures these predator species – dolphin, seals, sea lions – create shouldn't be forgotten when discussing reduced numbers of wild salmon. His suggestions for how to remedy this are simple and deadly for the sea mammals.

In the end, I got a lot out of our conversations and found the hatchery project inspiring. The main emotion I came away with though was a kind of fear. Not of Billy or what he thought of me, but fear that his cynicism – built upon a lifetime of witnessing a decline in the area as a place that people can actually live – is justified. And fear that his knowledge will soon be lost.

Meeting the Wilderness on Her Own Terms – Nikki Van Schyndel

Legacy Part 06 – Nikki Van Schyndel – Author / Wilderness Guide

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 28/01/2018 

I had no idea I was landing into a world inhabited by folk heroes.

Nikki would never call herself that but many would given her account of how she walked away from a long-term relationship and all the trappings of a successful modern life to survive on her wits in the wilderness of coastal BC.

She began to re-emerge after spending the week-or-so necessary to row in her small boat from her wilderness home to Echo Bay on the north-west coast of Gilford Island. She headed there to post a letter to her mom to let her know she was still alive.

Much happened between then and now. Work on fishing boats; Learning about fish and logging from, now retired salmon fisherman Billy Proctor (more of him in my next post); augmenting her ever-expanding knowledge of the natural world and how humans have and can survive within it, and, like everyone else out here, learning how to make a living somehow.

She has spent years building her log cabin from nothing but an uncleared 500 sq/ft or so with an epic view of Cramer Passage and Baker Island to the comfortable, compact and efficient home it is now.

It is still on the edge – electricity courtesy of a generator turned on once a week, light provided by candle in most part, heat from a wood stove fuelled by logs salvaged, hauled, bucked and chopped by Nikki herself with help from Billy, and now, hot water from a water heater that is a recent and hard-won upgrade. And how many homes can boast their own log chute? – a sturdy construction of logs and boards that allow salvaged logs to be winched from the water up the steep shore to where they can be chainsawed into construction material or firewood.

Now she’s dedicating much of her time to bringing people to a new awareness of nature, what it takes to live in the wilderness and the people of coastal BC.

It is difficult though.

She told me that local First Nations communities take exception to what they see as her appropriation of their cultural heritage and that the park service has restricted her activities in the Broughton Archipelago – running tourist trips there – a chance to transfer her knowledge to others – was a key source of income for her.

As with every point of friction I have so-far encountered between seperate groups connected to the ocean, I am struck by how defensive everyone is about their slice of what is going with regards to making a living. The sheer hardship causes conflict. The hardship and the scale of caring for an environment like this and sorting out what constitutes fair use.

Ever adaptable Nikki is now collaborating with Charlie Sneed – another sometime resident of the community, working on a documentary film project that puts Billy Proctor’s life and stories at the centre of a discussion about coastal communities in BC, their past, and their future.

Nikki has the confidence of someone who has taken a bold step in her life and come out on top and as such she wears it with ease. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who is so capable and yet so compassionate. She met the wilderness on her own terms, succeeded and did so without allowing the experience to turn her callous. A small miracle in my view.

It doesn’t mean everyone would like her point of view on everything. But that is the heart of the Sealives project – we are all alike in how different we are from each other, and the conflicts that arise from that just serve to remind us that we are all in this boat together.

In my experience, when you strive to understand all points of view the problem becomes three dimensional – an abstract shape you can rotate in your hands and analyze in the search for solutions.

It is my intention that Sealives will become that abstract shape for people – one place with multiple points of access into the issues of ocean health.

If I get even part of the way down that road it will be in no small part because of Nikki’s help in helping to arrange my visit to Echo Bay and for that, I owe her a debt of thanks.

Legacy Part 05 – Echo Bay BC

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 25/01/2018 

For me Echo Bay was an idea before it was a place.

I had returned to Vancouver with a determination to start Sealives and a list of marine conservation and coastal culture subjects to research. But I needed something to tie it to home. An assignment to pursue here, to get things going right away and to give Sealives its philosophical centre.

I seized on Echo Bay as a location to focus on way before I knew anything of the people who live there or its sister bay further down the North West coast of Gilford Island – nicknamed Proctor Bay after its most famous resident Billy Proctor – a local legend of the BC Salmon Fishing industry.

The thing that took me there was a line that I read in a guide for kayakers that described Echo Bay as the world’s smallest marine park.

I had already sketched out ambitious plans for Sealives to take photographs in and around some of the largest marine parks in the world – I had an idea that Echo Bay might turn out to have many of the same issues despite its small size. I speculatively called the assignment Microcosm and set out to get there.

I might not have made it but for the help and cooperation of Proctor Bay’s other two residents Nikki van Schyndel and Charlie Sneed – more of them in future posts.

On my journey there I had met enough people with insights into the wider Johnstone Straight, Queen Charlotte Strait. Broughton Archipelago ecosystem to decide that a different name was required. In truth though, if the focus had remained on Echo Bay alone, Microcosm would have turned out to be the perfect title.

I spent a week there and found that Echo Bay is a marine and shore park located in an area of not only natural but also cultural archeological importance that the local First Nations community regard as unceded to the white man.

It is also home to a coastal community that has all but made the transition from a year-round home to residents who make their livelihood from the ocean and the forest, to a jump-off point for tourists visiting the archipelago in summer and a sometimes cordial sometimes uneasy neighbor to logging camps and nearby First Nations communities. No-one I spoke to was in favor of the open pen salmon farming in the area.

The park itself is peaceful in an unspectacular way. The dock dilapidated with a sign proclaiming it closed and more signs on shore from the native community declaring their historic right to the area. Sea-lions scavenge for food and bark in the morning air, and the view of the mountains of the archipelago from the beach is mesmeric.

Pierre Landry holds leases for much of the shoreline in Echo Bay adjacent to the park. He and his wife have built the marina there from next to nothing to what it is today. Every year they play host to tourists and the transient cruising community, the main income coming from moorage and electricity supply augmented by a general store, a restaurant and a gas station.

When we talked he emphasized that “every little helps” – a sentiment echoed by a number of people I have spoken to out here – the need to have more than one line of income to get by.

Pierre also holds shoreline leases in this and another bay – subletting space to float home owners another source of income.

Nikki also set me up to meet Ted Emmonds a local sport-fishing guide who lives in a floathome moored in the bay.

Sport-fishing like everything on the water has its supporters and its critics, and while sport-fishing doesn’t take as much fish as the commercial fisheries, there can be the temptation to exceed limits and fish in sensitive areas such as the mouths of rivers where salmon return to spawn. There are rules around this stuff of course, but some express doubts about the degree to which they are followed and – particularly regarding proximity limits near the mouths of rivers – the degree to which sport-fishermen even know the rules exist or can recognize the limit markers.

Ted told me that he has no problem insisting that guests stay within the rules while acknowledging that there is always pressure to make sure that they have a successful day of fishing. From his perspective, a more abundant wild salmon population would only make his life easier.

All the familiar pressures are here then – a once-thriving fishing community replaced by seasonal tourism businesses that bring their own compromises, Indigenous communities eager to establish their historic claims, difficulties with management and enforcement.

A microcosm after all.

Legacy Part 04 – Rebekah Pesicka – Packing Boat Owner/Operator

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 21/01/2018

I’d never heard of anyone having a boat widened before.

This was my introduction to Rebekah Pesicka in Gus’s pub in Port McNeill. I found it difficult to imagine that doing such a thing would result in anything good. I was wrong.

Rebekah is an owner/operator of two boats based out of Sointula, East of PortMcNeil on Malcom Island. She invited me to photograph the unloading of her larger boat – a vessel that used to be her father's – at Port McNeil early one morning this January.

Early for me that is. Not for her or Luke her deck hand, or the shore crew of course.

Packing boats provide extra carrying capacity to the fleet. Assuming there are plenty of fish to catch (not always the case,) the amount of money any fishing vessel can make on any given day is restricted by its carrying capacity and the value of the species being targeted. Ideally, you want to maximize your carrying capacity and target high value species in order to maximize the overall value of the catch.

So it is worthwhile for fishing – or in this case – urchin harvesting vessels to pay for capacity on packing boats that they can transfer their overflow catch to. This allows them to maximize their take on a given day and return home safely.

Urchin harvesting can be a lucrative if physically demanding business. Boats deploy divers to scavenge for urchins which are brought aboard in net bags.

Japanese techniques for harvesting urchins using were introduced initially but divers here switched to scuba early on. Its an interesting example of a relatively lucrative way of making a living by taking a species that most agree is invasive and a threat to the marine ecosystem – urchins eat kelp, and kelp is good for the environment – as a nursery for small fish and as a sink for absorbing greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

After the unloading, Rebekah invited me aboard for breakfast and I talked with her and Luke about their lives and fishing industry in Coastal BC.

I asked Rebekah how it has been for her as a woman in what most would view as a masculine dominated industry. She told me that she had never had a problem getting respect as the daughter of a fisherman and that crews accepted her role as skipper because of her competence. In her experience, the fishing industry has been a meritocracy that has allowed her independence and success on her own terms.

The main subject of discussion though was the market for fishing licenses that she and Luke say are pricing locals out of the opportunity to become owner/operators. We also talked briefly about her view that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) could do better to enter into constructive dialog with fisherman rather than simply enforcing rules.

Luke expressed a similar view to Salmon Farm protestor Molina, that he and his generation were being priced out of the future by the high cost of entry into the industry.

Overall I was given a view of the life of someone working in the fishing industry as one built on uncertainty – a natural, even addicting aspect of the business that is being exacerbated by a market that has been created in the buying and selling of fishing licenses, doubt about the future of the ecosystem and government agencies with little interest in engaging with locals in the industry even if there were more of them to engage with.

Rebekah is also an artist with dreams of a Pacific coastal culture awakening – a roving arts and culture tour that will bind Pacific communities together.

The boat’s pilot house was a comfortable place to spend a cold morning talking about all this. A place of work humanized by long use as a refuge from the elements, and Rebekah and Luke’s warm hospitality.

Rebekah’s other boat is a shrimp boat – something I want to learn more about. I'm looking forward to catching up with her again.

Legacy Part 03 – Jackie Hildering – AKA The Marine Detective – and Top Island Econauts

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 07/01/2018 

“Nature provides the answer”

I was riding in the passenger seat of Jackie Hildering’s pickup as we drove from Port McNeill to Telegraph Cove, when she said this to me in the course of conversation. I asked her if I could quote her on it.

We were talking about diving off the east coast of Vancouver Island, one of Jackie’s passions, along with studying the growing humpback whale population in the area, a host of other ecological issues, and driving change in the way we prioritize the needs of the environment in our lives, even the way we view ourselves and our happiness, through education and increased understanding.

The kelp, as well as being a friend to the environment by providing a safe nursery for many species and by being a highly effective carbon sink, is a friend to the diver in a more basic way, providing something secure enough to hang on to in a strong current.

We were talking about diving but we might as well have been talking about anything else, so heartfelt is Jackie’s belief that the world would be a better place, and we would all be much happier in it, if we looked to nature for solutions much more and relied on consumerism for self affirmation much less.

She is not a wide-eyed idealist by any means. She knows and empathizes with people who rely on the local resource based industries. She joked that she “slept with a logger” for a time in her life.

Jackie believes since we are all a part of nature it makes sense for us all want a future where everyone, including those who make a living from resource based industries, stand to benefit from it for much longer. And by longer she means for generations to come.

During our conversation about sea otters she said she was open to the idea of a sea otter watching eco tourism industry elsewhere in BC if their numbers continue to bounce back, and in this area if it happens here. At every turn she was enthusiastic to emphasize the need for us to to find “common solutions to common problems” and get away from a polarized conservationist vs. resource user mindset – noting that while we should view a rebounding sea otter population as a good thing in general it does bring new problems with it. Sea otters need to eat a lot of food in order to maintain their metabolism, which puts them in direct competition with humans.

I felt like I found a kindred spirit in Jackie in many ways. Her stubborn commitment to not let her idealism get in the way of her pragmatism and vice versa – to hold the requirement for a sustainable future for humans as well as the rest of the natural world in her mind at the same time without letting go of her belief in the importance of either one – resonated strongly with me and what I am endeavouring to do with Sealives.

Jackie is a lifetime ahead of me in understanding the issues however. She has devoted her life to the study of the ocean and to educating others about it and we could have gone into much more detail on many subjects.

She, like many others is opposed to open pen salmon farming. This and improving regulations for how close boats may approach sea mammals is one of many issues she is wants to see more action on. You can read about the latter on her blog here. The post includes text that Canadians can send to their MP to help push forward changes that have been in the works since 2004 finally get pushed through.

Regarding salmon farming, she is supportive of land based farming and has worked as the Communications Director and Community Liaison for Canada’s first land-based salmon farm owned by the ’Namgis First Nation – an example of her solutions based philosophy.

We also talked about the local sea urchin harvesting economy, a lucrative if physically demanding industry that she sees as relatively benign given that it helps keep kelp damaging sea urchins under control. Its not a big positive impact by any means, the kelp needs more help in the shape of a rebound in sea urchin eating species – sea otters and sea stars in particular – but its good to hear about a resource based business that is at least somewhat on the right side of things.

All the same, I couldn’t resist returning to the broader theme of driving positive change on ecological issues in society and so this is what we talked mostly about, and I find her views fascinating and insightful.

Jackie’s view is that our own ideas of self, based upon a misguided value set pummelled into us by a consumerist society creates a kind of paralysis in us all. That if you see yourself as a “resource user” there is natural tendency to allow that to get in the way of making the everyday changes you can make because it threatens your sense of who you are in the world. In other words the danger is one of falling into a kind of ecological identity crisis.

We resist change because our identity is tied to things that we have been taught are important by society and we continue to do make decisions that we know are damaging not because of the actual effect the changes may have on our lives, but in order to protect our sense of self.

Her suggested way out of it? Break the cycle.

We all have things in our life that are there by necessity and are not optimal from an environmental standpoint. Jackie’s point is that we should not let the things we can or can’t change define us, we should just make the positive changes we can make without delay.

We didn’t completely agree on everything. Jackie is highly skeptical of our current system to find answers for the problems that it itself has caused, and puts more faith in change resulting from individuals, through their consumer and voter choices. For now I remain someone who has some confidence in our system to provide large scale solutions to large scale ecological challenges, and that given a full and correct understanding of the problems solutions will be found, by people who look to nature for inspiration, but by people for people nonetheless.

But, I am here because I can no longer deny that our current way of doing things hasn’t allowed us to move fast enough to make enough of the right kind of changes within a timeframe that will leave us with anything close to the kind of global ecosystem we should be living in.

And in the same way that I have moved away from thinking that its ok for individuals to content themselves with the idea that we are all in the swim of history, and on balance we – society, the world – are moving in generally the right direction, I am increasingly of the opinion that real momentum must in large part be driven from the ground up if we are to gain enough of it quickly enough.

Jackie has been in the trenches of this struggle for much of her life. She has thought a lot about what drives this stuff and she is an eloquent speaker on the subject. I am very much looking forward to talking with her more as Sealives develops.

Legacy Part 02 – Carla and Molina – Anti Open-Pen Fish Farm Activists

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By Jason Murphy. First Published 05/01/2018 


Over the New Year I struggled to find a new title for the BC Coast Sealives assignment.

I have been using the working title of “Microcosm” with the idea that the issues that we experience here are the same ones that are replicated all over the world and with issues of marine conservation in general, and that I might be able to tie that in with Echo Bay’s status as the world’s smallest marine park.

But having spent a few days up here is was obvious that the title really didn’t do justice to the scale of the landscape and the lives and the stories that the region holds. In fact in seemed borderline insulting.

I had some ideas for new titles, but my visit to Courtney yesterday clinched which one I would choose.

I drove to Courtney to meet Carla, a member of the Mamalilikulla First Nations band and her daughter Molina. Carla has been connected to the opposition to salmon farming in the Broughton Peninsula and Johnstone Straight areas via friends and family since the industry arrived here in Seventies. Molina has turned activist and has spent over 130 days picketing two separate farms this year.

The protestors camp directly on the farms and have an uneasy but so far non-violent relationship with the people who work there.

As you would expect, to talk with Molina and her mom is to get the salmon farming story from the protestors point of view. I will need to talk to people on the other side of the fence (net,) to get a more rounded picture. But what they had to say was fascinating none-the-less.

Two main points came across – they believe that the ecology of the area and the wellbeing of the First Nations people to be inseparable, and they see open pen salmon farming (the raising of salmon to maturity in pens sunk into the ocean,) as an abomination, a failed experiment that should have been done away with almost as soon as it began.

They point to the industry’s lack of natural sustainability – the need to provide fish pellets for food and (they say,) to artificially oxygenate the water – as a clue to what they see as the inherent unsuitability of the technique. They point to reports that salmon farming is not feed efficient although this point seems hotly disputed. And they point to the pressures that pollutants from fish farms and disease transmitted from farmed fish pose to wild salmon stocks.

When I pointed out that many other things are putting pressure on wild salmon – climate change, commercial salmon fishing, competition for food from salmon released from salmon ranch hatcheries in the Alaska, Japan and Russia in to the Pacific – they me told that the other factors don't change the fact that salmon farming is wrong and should go.

And in their minds the economic argument is immediately dismissed. For Molina there is a legacy of her people drawing a livelihood from the ocean’s natural state that the farms are only helping to destroy – a legacy that First Nations people of her generation have been denied. For Carla the talk of the industry providing employment for local people is overblown.

When I asked Molina what happens when she talks with long time family friends who work at the farms she says they don’t put up much of an argument. To them its “just a job” she says.

The two of them are ambivalent about land based salmon farming – a technique which raises salmon in large tanks located away from the ocean. They are aware that one of the local bands is involved in such a project, but while conceding that it “is better” than ocean farming I get a strong sense that they think the real focus should be on wild salmon.

One thing is for sure – any picture of how the area’s marine habitat will be managed in future must include some kind of verdict on salmon farming, and it has been identified as a natural enemy by the First Nations and non-First Nations scientists alike.

On reflection, it is striking to me how so many issues – including this one – are in play despite many years of searching for solutions in this region. Vancouver is where Greenpeace was born, and the area not only contains the world’s smallest marine park, but also the world’s oldest whale sanctuary at Robson Bight. And a generation down the road we are still struggling to wrap our heads around what the future will hold for the next.

At this point it seems that the only part of the legacy of marine conservation in the area that is know for sure is the continuing need to work with and solve marine conservation issues. And it is this realization that has given me the new title for this assignment:


Microcosm – First Look

Link to photo gallery

By Jason Murphy. First Published 30/12/2017

Here is a selection of the first few pictures of the assignment that I have given the working title “Microcosm” – the mission to show how the larger issues of marine conservation are all happening right here on my own doorstep in the coastal waters of mainland BC and Eastern Vancouver Island.

That working title is going to change by the way. It came from an idea about Echo Bay, the world’s smallest marine park, but in order to do justice to the issues I’ll need to take in a bigger area – a landscape of coastal waterways and marine parks that include the world’s oldest whale sanctuary and is as complex as any other marine / socio-economic ecosystem out there.

As far as the results themselves go, I’m happy. Every day I see how I can improve, but by and large I’m getting the kind of photographs I have been hoping for.

This first cut is to give you an idea of what to expect going forwards and includes pictures of Steve Beans, who tells me he is the last independent salmon boat owner in Alert Bay, and Jared Towers, local scientist and conservationist with his father Dave, pioneer of the local whale watching industry.

Among many other things, Jared is Executive Director of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (NIMMSA) and a Director of the Marine Education and Research Society based here in Alert Bay.

As I gather more pictures, this blog will become attached to a web gallery of images that will be the true centerpiece of the Sealives.org site.