A Tale of Old Massett & The Survivor Paradox

Legacy Part 18 – Old Massett – Haida Gwaii

By Jason Murphy and Blake Butterfield, Editors in Chief. Original text by Jason Murphy

I didn’t come to Haida Gwaii to focus on communities, logging, or a sustainable fishery. I didn’t even come here to focus on Gwaii Haanas – the stunning nature preserve and Haida Heritage site covering the southern half third of the archipelago. Now I understand that visiting Haida Gwaii and failing to talk about those things would be like journeying to the moon and failing to mention the view of the Earth.

However, the truth is that I came here to learn about an extraordinary event that occurred in 2012. A radical, ambitious and well-intentioned action taken by the leaders of a small community in an attempt to secure their financial future, the viability of their town and the future of their fishery. 

This story includes the best and worst aspects of human nature and of our attitudes towards natural resources that prevail in places near and far. It has given me a window into understanding how we avoid something I’ve begun calling the survivor paradox – how the qualities that make coastal communities so resilient can also lead to tragic ecological damage causing them long term harm. It is also a story about the kind of governance that doesn’t work, and as such can be placed in context of other events that have occurred in Haida Gwaii and elsewhere.

The thing I came to investigate is an event now referred to by every local I spoke to about it as the “Iron Dumping Project.” 

The way that sounds should give you an indication of where their emotions tend to go when a stranger enquires about it – a project that became an international incident and opened up the well-meaning people of Old Massett to condemnation from conservationists the world over.

Plenty was written about it at the time, but there has been noticeably little follow-up. Many bigger issues, coupled with the natural desire of the people of Old Massett to put the whole incident behind them, have combined to obscure any potential lessons for the future; lessons that when put into context of the history of this place and the history of the survival of coastal communities and the health of the oceans, helps to fill in some of the gaps of what works and what doesn’t work with regard to governance of the sea.

Haida Gwaii is only about 5000 in population. The people are mainly clumped into seven distinct geographical locations roughly encompassing the towns where people live. The main point of distinction is between the Haida, the indigenous descendants of the archipelago’s original inhabitants, and non-Haida; the multi-hued but mostly white population that make up the other 50% or so of those who live here.

The story of what happened in Old Massett in 2012 begins with an economic calamity seventy years in the making.

Some of the communities are tiny. Port Clements is easy to miss unless one makes a point of heading off the main road towards the Golden Spruce Trail. Tlell, providing visually striking access to the epically long East Beach, is hardly a town at all. The larger communities are Skidegate (pronounced “Skid-eh-get”) and Charlotte, located in the geopolitical centre of the islands. Sandspit pokes out of the Northeastern corner of Moresby Island, and almost-one-place-but-still-distinct Massett and Old Massett are located on the East Side of the mouth of Masset Inlet on the northernmost coast of the archipelago.

Skidegate, Tlell and Old Massett are mainly Haida. The others are mainly non-Haida.

Ferries from the mainland arrive at Skidegate. The main airport, providing service to Vancouver and other mainland cities, is at Sandspit. A smaller, regional airport provides local service from Masset. Like many places on the BC coast, float planes and boats buzz in and out of the inhabited places frequently.

Innumerable stories of survival, adaptability, prosperity and tragedy inform the culture, history and sociological foundation of these places.

Silver Bullet

The story of what happened in Old Massett in 2012 begins with an economic calamity seventy years in the making. The West Coast fisheries collapse was experienced by many communities, but here it was experienced in tandem with a second, entirely different economic hit: the standing down of the Canadian Forces Station in April, 1997. These combined to make some in the community open to radical solutions.

When you talk to people on Haida Gwaii about what happened to the fishing industry, those like Steve Sheer, who self identify as conservationists, will tell you right away that the region was aggressively overfished during the postwar boom years. This under-regulated overfishing culminated in widespread species collapse and large scale government intervention in the seventies and eighties that has had a lasting and often debilitating effect on the industry.

Steve Sheer – Environmentalist – Queen Charlotte – Haida Gwaii

Steve Sheer – Environmentalist – Queen Charlotte – Haida Gwaii

More surprising is that you will, eventually and after some reluctance, get the same answer from experienced and knowledgeable former commercial fishermen such as Lindsay Doerksen. Lesley has much to say on the subject, in fact. We will cover Leslie’s opinions in-depth in future articles.

Lindsay Doerksen – Fisherman – Queen Charlotte – Haida Gwaii

Lindsay Doerksen – Fisherman – Queen Charlotte – Haida Gwaii

Suffice it to say that Old Massett was hurting from the fishing industry losses and its myriad reasons in much the same way as most communities up and down the coast, and that the economic impact of the Canadian military leaving the area is a much simpler story.

During the Cold War, the Canadian Armed Forces established a still-existing radio listening station base that required a staff of over 200 military and civilian personnel to keep it operational. The antenna is a roughly cylindrical framework of masts and wires about 275 meters in diameter and 27 meters tall, nicknamed “the Elephant Cage.” It is clearly visible from the road out of Masset heading towards Tow Hill. But while still operational, it no longer requires anything approaching 200 personnel. A small staff remain to this day, but much of the work is done remotely, in Ottawa. The now former military officer who oversaw the transition in 1997 liked Haida Gwaii so much that he stayed here even when his employer all but left.

Old Massett

Old Massett

Here we have a small community that took two major economic hits over the course of just a few decades. One was slow to realize, while the second happened quickly. Put together, its two main sources of income – fishing and the military – were devastated.

Given this state of affairs you might expect the local leadership to look for a plan, a silver bullet perhaps, that would give the town its future back. In fact, the Old Massett Village Council did exactly that. And then they called upon the community, the people of town of Old Massett, to support them in taking a bold financial leap, to make a big bet for the possibility of a better future – a plan to bring the salmon back.

Fertilization does not sound like a positive thing to the ecological mind. The words fertilizer and fertilization conjure up a catalog of man-made ecological problems. The same goes for Ocean Fertilization, now more commonly referred to as Ocean Seeding by its proponents. But it is important to note that Ocean Fertilization is an entirely different technology from agricultural fertilization; one that, while controversial, for some still holds promise as a solution for the ecological and economic problems facing some coastal communities. The idea has its roots in the observation of natural phenomena: Scientists have speculated since the 1930s that low plankton in some areas of the ocean might be caused by an iron deficiency in the water. Some claimed to have research to back up this theory. 

It was this research that some members of the Old Massett leadership seized upon.

It wasn’t going to be cheap. In the end, the project cost about two million Canadian Dollars. The community had some cash on hand, thanks to reparations from the Crown, but the community also had plenty of needs. Real needs like education, healthcare and housing.

Ask people in Old Massett now and few will tell you that they were consulted adequately. There was a process but I have been told that in truth it was more like a sales pitch. Regardless, a US company was brought in to manage the project. Presentations were made and an impressive plan was laid out. It would cost plenty, but the salmon would be restored and the local fishing business resurrected. As an extra bonus, the experts said, the phytoplankton bloom would be a verifiable carbon sink against which carbon credits could be sold.


So, the plan promised two new sources of income for the community – one familiar, one innovative, but it required ambition and the willingness to take a bold step. To the proponents of the plan on the Old Massett Village Council, it seemed like just the kind of innovative idea that the town needed.

While it is good to know that there are rules around throwing stuff into the ocean, the condemnation hit the community hard. Very few people want to talk about the project now. 

In 2012, one hundred metric tons of iron dust, iron sulfate and iron oxide was purchased, then dispersed (literally emptied out of bags) into the international waters around 300 km west of Haida Gwaii.

The project was conducted (just) inside international waters in an attempt to circumvent government approval, and without support or sanction from anyone. While government agencies in Canada and the U.S. were consulted, both are adamant that they were not made aware of either the exact process or the large scale of this intervention in ocean ecology. When news got out of this maverick “fertilization,” or “iron dumping,” it caused a furor.

Ecological groups and international governing bodies – the UN no less – took aim at the people of Old Massett. Given the way the project had been run, it was easy to hit their mark.

While it is good to know that there are rules around throwing stuff into the ocean, the condemnation hit the community hard. Very few people want to talk about the project now. The council members who introduced the project are no longer in leadership. I had the email address for one, the town’s Economic Development Officer at the time, but he lost his job to someone else shortly before I arrived to speak with him and his email was answered by his replacement. 

Florence Lockyer, the current Band Administrator for Old Massett Village Council did agree to talk with me. Florence was very generous with her time and gave me a full interview, but when I asked around town if I could speak to anyone who had been present at the time of the project who was willing to talk, I was given a good-natured run-around. In fact, I spent a pleasant, if harrowing, morning at the local day centre for the mentally ill following up on one tip. Having realized that the joke was on me after arriving, I wasn’t going to be rude and leave straight away. Besides, some of the stories the people there had to tell were too heart rending to walk away from.

I was invited to a meeting to protest the Enbridge pipeline, a project that has been dead for years. It was disappointing to have my time taken in this way, but I suppose I get it. People here would rather put the whole episode in the past, and this story is definitely not part of the narrative that many here would prefer to focus on: The spectacular resurgence of Haida culture and the assertion of Haida aboriginal rights that has reversed hundreds of years of colonial rule on the archipelago.

In the end, I did find and was able to talk in length and in detail with one prominent townsperson who gave me a full and frank account from his point of view. Unfortunately, that discussion must remain off-the-record. 

Missing Pieces

There is still one major piece of the story missing, however; a piece that will likely never be fully realized. But it’s very absence points to lessons for the future. When I spoke to Florence, she told me that the data on the results of the project are still available and are stored in the council’s archive, but that no-one had done the analysis to properly understand if the project had been effective in its goals. Proponents point to actual increases in the salmon population in subsequent years. Others say that the effects, if any, were short-lived and possibly made things worse in the long run. But it all seems very anecdotal. For its part, Environment Canada maintains that increases in the numbers of salmon cannot be attributed to the project and that the whole thing was hardly conducted in a scientific way.

Sadly, the furor created by this poorly run project, and also the shame and anger that all concerned feel about it, has obscured the main point: What was the actual impact of the iron dumping, for better or for worse? We will most likely never know.

So where does all this get us in terms of understanding how to make effective change for the good of the environment?

A few things:

Firstly, there is a direct line between the resourcefulness and confidence that you find in coastal communities and the kind of opportunism that leads to the over-exploitation of ocean resources. This is what I call the survivor paradox: The very ability of the human mind to make the best of whatever is occurring leads directly to the destruction of those very resources. Destruction that only puts the survival of all in jeopardy once again. The cycle of over-exploitation leading to collapse leading to the search for a new resource to exploit.

Lastly, there is the recognition that this tragedy shows one of humanity’s worst sides. And the worst side shown is not at all by the people of Old Massett, nor even by the American company that undertook the selling and completion of this iron dump. 

Secondly, interest in iron fertilization of the ocean, or “ocean seeding,” is still alive. That such a large amount of money was spent without even a strong sense of whether the project had the desired effect or not is a real tragedy. The kind of data that could have been parsed could verify or nullify many if not all of the claims of seeding proponents, and then we could move on in a knowledgeable fashion. 

Thirdly, and most importantly for the future, this was an opportunity for federal and provincial governments to provide opportunities for self governance and stewardship in the context of a wealth of information that supports rational decision making. The community of Old Massett became a target for the world, but they put their money down and took a risk on their own future – a brave move even if it did cause problems. This determination to survive is something that provincial and federal governments should support by providing access to good science and advice by harnessing this incredible will to survive in ways that could break the cycle of over-exploitation. 

Lastly, there is the recognition that this tragedy shows one of humanity’s worst sides. And the worst side shown is not at all by the people of Old Massett, nor even by the American company that undertook the selling and completion of this iron dump. No, the worst side of humanity shown by the uncollected and unused data comes from the multinational government agencies involved. Not any one person. Not even any group of persons in the agencies. But collectively, as a cog in a machine, they missed out on something that could have truly helped communities; what their job is supposed to be. Perhaps they figure that to use or collect the data would make them somehow complicit if it were shown to have very negative consequences? Perhaps they figure they must back away out of anger at being misinformed about the project? Perhaps the fact that the dump occurred in international waters means they figure they cannot get involved for legal reasons? Perhaps it is a mixture of all these things. But the worst evil is that any of these things could have been overlooked if knowledge was as important as saving face, if the rules that govern the collective us were more like individual humans and less like a collective machine.