October 2001


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A Look Around the Islands
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Base map by John Broadhead
Illustrations by Lynn Lee

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by Lynn Lee

WELCOME to the first issue of Marine Matters, a periodical for Haida Gwaii communities about happenings in and on the waters around the islands.

The funny thing about the ocean is that it always looks about the same on the surface ~ whether or not the fish swim, the dolphins play and or the abalone merrily graze away. On calm days the sea appears smooth and glassy, and on stormy days the sea looks angry with pounding surf and crashing waves. Twice each day, low tides offer us fleeting glimpses into the lives of our marine neighbours. If we go out at very low tides, we get an even better sense of the kaleidoscope of life beneath the waves and, if we’re in luck, a taste of the living treasures that spend all their lives in the saltwater. Put a fishing lure in the water and you may bring up a rockfish, halibut, salmon, greenling, sole, blackcod, dogfish, ratfish, skate – maybe even a sea cucumber, sandlance or jingle shell (all possible based on personal experience!). If you’re a SCUBA diver, you are truly blessed with a window into the world of kelp forests and eelgrass beds, and all the creatures that call those places home.

Marine Matters is about appreciating what lives, swims, crawls, floats and breathes in the ocean. It’s about how human activities and industries affect it all. And it’s about how we as an island community can work together using our collective wisdom to leave a legacy of respect and wise use of the land and sea around us. We hope that as you read and talk about it, you’ll decide that ~ yes indeed ~ marine matters! And trust just as we care for ourselves, we need to care for the marine environment and life that support us.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Your feedback is appreciated ~ comments, issues or information that you would like to know about, short articles, upcoming related marine events. Please drop me a line to help make this a truly community-based journal of marine matters on Haida Gwaii!

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by Lynn Lee

Haida Gwaii, Island of the People, is an archipelago of islands and ocean intimately woven into the collective consciousness of those who call it home. The Haida have lived along these shores for well over 12,000 years. Haida villages have punctuated the coastline, prospering upon gifts of fish, shellfish and seaweed, cedar, spruceroots, berries and other vegetation for earthly, spiritual, and cultural nourishment. Still today, many of us who live here live with the seasons. The returning salmon herald the Fall harvest including fish, berries and mushrooms. Trout fishing and shellfish gathering happen through the Winter. Seaweed, nettles, cedar bark and halibut are collected in the Spring. Harvesting of fish and shellfish and gathering of roots and berries take us through the Summer.

The ability to live with the land and sea remains here in spite of the modern, fast-paced industrial world which surrounds us. This choice is a legacy that we would be wise to protect for future generations who will certainly be challenged by a future far different from the world we know today.

Change is the story of Haida Gwaii, the story of nature. Geologic history tells us of transitions from the great last ice age, transforming coastlines and shifting plants and animals from ice-free areas to the valleys and shores we see today. Haida history speaks from the time of ice woman to the first cedar tree to transitions from once many self-sufficient coastal villages to a few large “modern” communities, where families moved to survive smallpox epidemics and other introduced diseases. European traders and settlers drove the rise and fall of homestead lands, clam canneries, abalone drying stations, whaling stations, fish processing plants, salmon canneries, mining townsites and logging camps. Although people’s diets have radically changed, gathering food and plant materials from the land and sea are an important part of life for people in every island community, and are critical to the Haida way of life.

Today, modern industry and consumer society coexist with traditional ways of life. But modern industry and global markets have taken a clear toll on the islands and the oceans. Wild fish and shellfish populations are declining and disappearing coast-wide, and the aquaculture industry is pressing to fill the gap in market demand. Overfishing, logging, siltation and pollution, changing climate and ocean conditions – it’s no wonder that what we once though was “renewable resource management” has devolved into political and biological crisis control and collapsing coastal economies.

Past fisheries and land management practices have clearly failed many marine species. Salmon populations have declined, with local extinctions and reduction in numbers throughout the coast. Over 40 streams on Haida Gwaii have been identified as barren of once-significant salmon runs. Northern abalone populations remain critically low despite ten years of a ban on fishing. Pacific cod populations in Hecate Strait are at historic lows. Haida Gwaii herring spawning populations have been reduced to less than 20 percent of historic levels – a loss surely felt by the entire web of marine life.

Two or three generations ago, we thought there was no end to our vast natural resources of wild lands and wild animals. So we “used” them as such. Now in the world the buffalo herds are gone, as are the passenger pigeon, great auk, dodo bird, sea cow, and many more. Today, the list of plants, animals and habitat threatened by human industry continues to grow. In living memory we have witnessed the local extirpation of sea otters, near extinction of whale species, periodic collapses of dogfish, pilchard, herring and lingcod populations, and local collapses of rockfish and abalone populations.

So where does that leave us on Haida Gwaii? At a crossroads, or in a cross-current. Modern resource extraction industries are clearly not sustainable. The appetite of modern global markets and fishing technology overwhelm the ability of marine life to renew and replenish itself. Food gathering and commercial activity is necessary for us to survive as healthy communities, but we obviously need to find a way to weigh short-term dollar values against the risks and benefits of a more sustainable approach to fisheries management.

It is time to take the road less traveled – to learn from the past and take responsibility for the future. Optimists say that it is not too late for the North Pacific, the fish and the people who live here. There are good news stories. It is possible to reverse the damage caused by bad management. Since the halt of industrial whaling on this side of the Pacific, grey whale populations have successfully recovered and humpback whales are growing in numbers. Localized sea otter populations, once extinct in coastal BC, are rebuilding and expanding their home range. Pilchard have returned to our coast since their virtual disappearance since they were fished out in the early to mid-1900s “reduced” into fertilizer. The most important change of all is that coastal people clearly recognize that there is a problem in our oceans and that we are responsible for fixing it.

On the East Coast, lobster fishermen have devised “radical” management strategies that protect significant areas of good lobster habitat from fishing. They’ve been rewarded with sustained and, in some places, increased harvest rates in waters outside the protected areas. Inshore rockfish fishermen have recognized the need for areas in which commercial rockfish fishing is not allowed to help ensure the long-term viability of their fishery. Rockfish Protection Areas are now being designated throughout the coast. In fact, all over the world, different forms of “marine protected areas” and other fisheries management tools are being used by First Nations, local communities and fishing groups who are taking responsibility for the well being of the marine life they depend on for their own.

As an Island community, Haida Gwaii has always recognized that we need to cooperate in order to survive, to make things better. Within our communities, the Haida maintain a living legacy of names and stories about our rich marine heritage; fisher men and women have accumulated generations of experience on the waters around Haida Gwaii in work and recreation. We have a rich collective knowledge that only needs to join with our collective sense of responsibility for community well-being to create a strong voice and meaningful role in managing and restoring marine life in Haida Gwaii.

Despite our occasionally differing views, we share common passion for life on Haida Gwaii. For no other reason than making this a better place for our children and theirs, it is time to learn about the issues, engage in informed debate, make our voices heard, and take thoughtful united action.

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The Search for Solutions...
by Lynn Lee

The challenge is this: If things were different, what would they look like?

We are beginning to talk with Haida elders, fisher men and women, fish plant operators, tour operators, scientists, and knowledgeable people in the communities who are willing to share their thoughts and experiences on marine matters in Haida Gwaii. From these individual and small group discussions, we hope to sift out some of our collective wisdom – local solutions to local concerns about the use of marine resources. We hope that this information about marine life cycles, ecological roles and past management results will inform and inspire the next step: a community dialogue about an Island vision of responsible, sustainable management of marine resource industries on Haida Gwaii.

  • Why is the ocean important to you?
  • What is your view of the health of our ocean?
  • What do you know about how our ocean and marine resources are being managed now?
  • How were they managed in the past?
  • How would you like to see them managed in the future?
  • What did fishing and harvesting used to be like?
  • What are your concerns for today and the future?
  • What are your solutions to those concerns?

HOWA and THANK YOU ~ We look forward to talking with you!

If you would like to contact us to talk about you concerns, we would be happy to hear from you.

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Rain Drops
cartoon by Berry Wijdeven

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