A Fish Tale of Art, Destruction and Sustainability - Part II

Legacy Part 23 – April White – Haida, Artist & Herring Person

Text By Blake Butterfield – Co-Editor-in-Chief and Chief Correspondent

This is the second part of the Sealives Initiative piece on Pacific Herring and Haida artist April White’s “Herring Series.” Please see Part I of this story here. The story picks up just after April brought up one of the six codified Haida values, which are at the bottom of this article.

Give and Take

Six ethical principles or values* (see below) have been codified recently by the Haida people, as part of the ongoing stewardship of Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve and Haida Heritage Site.

They are the written expression of values that have traditionally been handed down orally and were compiled by the Haida Nation as part of their marine conservation vision for the Land-Sea-People Plan, a soon-to-be-implemented management plan for Gwaii Haanas that was developed cooperatively by the Council of the Haida Nations and the Government of Canada (Parks Canada/DFO), with input from the public.

April understands ocean resource extraction and the negative effects it can have on populations from another perspective as well, as she was a commercial crab fisherman for three years in the early 1990s, right around the time that fishery collapsed and quotas had to be introduced.

With such a diverse wealth of experience with the issues facing herring, and the marine environment in general, April has a unique perspective on striking a balance between science, values and commerce. “It’s a sustainable ecosystem,” she says. “We’ve been too long just taking and not giving back, which is the necessary reciprocity of a sustainable system. We are so good at taking and hoarding all the money, when we should be taking only what we need rather than hoarding it. The thing is with science, you can have sound science…but sometimes the science of the DFO and the fisheries is different from that of the international scientists.”

April White at her home in Old Masett, Haida Gwaii.

April White at her home in Old Masett, Haida Gwaii.

More Than a Sum of Parts

On that note, she points out that the official way we look at herring here in Canada is that the stocks up and down the Pacific coast are all just part of one big stock of herring. We have divided the coast into “policeable” areas of management. But those areas have what she calls stocklets of herring. April says a stocklet can be fished out quickly, leaving an area devoid of herring.

The variables in nature are myriad, often unpredictable and little understood, and we play with fire when we allow hubris to dictate our actions.

We have heard scientists doing current research on the Pacific Coast, such as Dr. Daniel Okamoto, say much the same thing, that the spatial distribution of stocks need to be understood just as well as overall quantities. And the data he presented seems to show that it is in fact occurring. The current approach of the DFO is to take the entire biomass of a region and allow up to 20% of that total biomass to be harvested from within it, regardless of where. They do not consider that each little area seems to have its very own stocklet, and that some of those stocklets need to be left to recover.

The DFO and the commercial herring fishermen seem to be playing what looks like a game of Whack-A-Mole with our herring stocks. One year, a small area which has collapsed within a region may be left pretty much alone. After all, who wants to waste their time and money trying to catch fish that are not there? So, the fishermen go elsewhere and fill their quotas where enough herring exist to make a viable catch that year. The next year, perhaps a different local stock collapses and the fishery moves around yet again.

“And you could just see all of the herring falling out of its mouth as it was closing it, and the water coming out of the baleen, and then it just sank back down!”

Some years, the areas that were previously devoid seem to have good numbers, and they will be fished. April tells us that where she grew up, in Powell River, there had not been a herring spawn from around 1984 until about 4 years ago. That stocklet had apparently been fished to collapse and it took over three decades for a spawn to happen again. The fear is that we will have stocklet collapses happening faster than area renewals can occur, thus leaving entire regions practically barren for a generation or more.

A Wish Tale

She also tells us she feels a personal connection to all these animals. One day, she was in a 16-foot skiff fishing for salmon in a herring ball in the entrance of Massett Inlet. Besides fishing for food, she went out that day because she had heard there had been humpback sightings and she wanted “in the worst way” to see one up close. She kept seeing one off in the distance, the plume of water from its blowhole clearly marking it, but it was too far away. She said she actually began to complain a bit, wanting so much to see it come closer. Almost as soon as she began to complain, she says, she got her wish.

“It came closer and just came up out of the water right beside us with its huge, huge mouth! And it took this whole herring ball we were fishing off and just rose up. The whole skiff rocked. And then it just gradually sank back down. And you could just see all of the herring falling out of its mouth as it was closing it, and the water coming out of the baleen, and then it just sank back down!” She had no time, she says, to grab her camera when it was happening, but you can see the joy on her face as she remembers this wonderful moment she’d been waiting so long for. It is such a happy memory for her, and perhaps for the feeding whale as well.

How Much is Too Much?

The general feeling is that, given enough time, Pacific herring populations will rebound along the BC coast. The problem is that no one knows for sure. A thriving herring population crashed after the Exxon Valdez spilled over 10.5 million gallons (over 40 million litres) of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989. Eight years later, that population appeared to be on the increase, leading to an opening of the herring fishery for two years. Then, in 1999 the population growth stalled, closing the fishery yet again. Two decades later, for what could be a mix of many possible reasons, there has been no evidence of a healthy population large enough to reopen it again. Could the same thing happen in BC waters? Will our herring population rebound? Likely, if given enough time and a little luck.

The variables in nature are myriad, often unpredictable and little understood, and we play with fire when we allow hubris to dictate our actions.

You see, that’s the thing with ecosystems and our lack of knowledge about the intertwining occurrences within them. We often fail to account for the immeasurables, the natural disasters that inevitably do happen. Healthy populations in nature can usually absorb a variety of punishing blows when left to their own devices. However, when we push the population of any given species below an uncertain number of individuals, unanticipated disaster can strike.

If a disease takes hold, or if a food source takes a hit, or a pesticide with unforeseen effects is introduced, or a chemical spill occurs, or effects from climate change worsen, just to name a few possibilities, the blow dealt on top of previous over-fishing of herring, in this case, may simply be too much for the population to bounce back from. All disaster requires is one Black Swan event, yet humanity continuously fails to learn this simple lesson.

The variables in nature are myriad, often unpredictable and little understood, and we play with fire when we allow hubris to dictate our actions. Until the late 1800s, no one foresaw the extinction of the passenger pigeon, once North America’s most abundant species of bird, numbering in the billions. James Audubon himself spoke of the skies darkening a mile wide for three days as they flew overhead, the sound of the wings rendering normal conversation impossible.

Yet, by 1900, there were none left in the wild and, in 1914, the last passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo at the age of 29.

To Feed a Village

April points out that the population on Haida Gwaii still very much has a food-gathering economy. There are supermarkets, of course, but the vast majority of people, both Haida and others, are often dependent upon feeding themselves by growing food, hunting and/or fishing. They are gathering food for themselves, though, and perhaps also for family members or elders in their community. They are not trying to feed the population of Japan or other large groups a delicacy they enjoy for a monetary price they are willing pay. They are not harvesting nature in order to hoard money. This sustenance is of the food, not financial, variety. This is localism at its purest.

Through the population crashes of sea otters, salmon, abalone, herring, kelp forests, and even the dwindling of their old growth tree forest on land, these people have witnessed up close what occurs when the harvesting of nature becomes a commodity in the grips of unbridled capitalism. Because of these occurrences, coupled with the relative remoteness of Haida Gwaii and the values of the Haida culture, these people necessarily have a close connection to their food sources in nature that much of the rest of the world has lost. They understand that if you destroy food resources, you remove food security. And without food security, these communities may not survive.

With her “Herring People” series, April is hoping that her art will help bridge this gap in understanding.

*From Jones, R., C. Rigg, and L. Lee. 2010. Haida marine planning: First Nations as a partner in marine conservation. Ecology and Society 15(1): 12. [online] URL:

The six Haida ethics and values upon which this marine vision is built (Council of the Haida Nation 2007) are listed below in Haida, then English:

1.    Yahguudang or Yakguudang. Respect.

Respect, for each other and all living things, is rooted in our culture. We take only what we need, we give thanks, and we acknowledge those who behave accordingly.

2.    Giid tll’juus. “The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife.”

Balance is needed in our interactions with the natural world. If we aren’t careful in everything we do, we can easily reach a point of no return. Our practices and those of others must be sustainable.

3.    Gina waadluxan gud ad kwaagiida. “Everything depends on everything else.”

This principle is comparable to an integrated approach to management.

4.    Isda ad diigii isda. Giving and Receiving.

Giving and receiving (reciprocity) is a respected practice in our culture, essential in our interactions with each other and the natural world. We continually give thanks to the natural world for the gifts that we receive.

5.    Gina k’aadang.nga gii uu tl’ k’anguudang. Seeking Wise Counsel.

Our elders teach us about traditional ways and how to work in harmony. Like the forest, the roots of our people are intertwined. Together we consider new ideas and information in keeping with our culture, values, and laws.

6.    ‘Laa guu ga kanhllns. Responsibility.

We accept the responsibility passed on (to us) by our ancestors to manage and care for the sea and land. We will ensure that our heritage is passed on to future generations.