Learning to listen to the knowledge that surrounds us. Words :: Brian Hockenstein.
Given space and time, the planet doesn’t require human intervention to heal itself. For evidence, look no further than the Hada River watershed, located deep in the fjords of Kwakwaka’wakw Territory, now known as the Broughton Archipelago.
For more than 30 years, the route for wild salmon to leave and return to the Hada has been obstructed by open-pen salmon farms. But in 2022, the first generation of wild salmon returned to their spawning grounds on the Hada without exposure to the fish farms, thanks to a protracted and contentious campaign by local Indigenous groups. By the end of 2023, the Canadian government will have removed all 17 farms in the area.
For the fish, the results have been remarkable. Hinted at by the thousands of ripples and splashes on the river surface, what lies beneath this remote river is a true testament to the resilience of the natural world in the face of colonial resource extraction and the adjacent ethos that humankind takes priority over all living and nonliving entities.
“For 25 years, the tiny Hada pink salmon fry have been forced to swim through underwater clouds of pathogens pouring out of salmon farms,” explains biologist Alexandra Morton, often referred to as the Jane Goodall of Canada. “In some years, very few pink salmon made it to sea unscathed by lice.”
In 2020, the last time the two-year cycle of pink salmon brought them into the Hada, the number recorded had dropped from a historic high of 50,000 down to just a few hundred. The fry of that spawn went to sea in the spring of 2021, however, after the two closest salmon farms had been shut down by local First Nations. When this generation returned to the Hada in 2022, researchers counted more than 15,500 fish.
“That return was over ten times stronger,” Morton says, “in just one generation.”
And I was there, watching as the sun lit up the riverbed, the water alive with a teeming mass of pink salmon, their shimmering bodies packed from bank to bank as they prepared to lay their precious eggs. One of the most amazing natural wonders of the world, the salmon spawn is poignant reminder of the inescapable cycle of life, death, and rebirth that guides all beings, and of our own responsibility to leave a meaningful legacy for the generations yet to come.
“Salmon are literally the bloodstream of this coast,” Morton explains. “As they die and decompose, salmon nutrients flow down the mountainsides feeding the trees. With the loss of salmon, the coast would become less resilient in the face of the changing climate. We would all be forever altered without salmon.”
“Salmon are literally the bloodstream of this coast. As they die and decompose, salmon nutrients flow down the mountainsides feeding the trees.”
Considering that salmon spawn in rivers that lead deep into the heart of British Columbia, a win for coastal salmon is a win for the entire province.
“I think it’s huge,” says Kwakwabalas Ernest Alfred, ‘Namgis hereditary chief. “Seeing and documenting what happens when you remove the [open net fish] farms, I think it is going to be the hard evidence that we need, and that the government needs, to say with confidence that the problem [with the decline of wild salmon] was with the farms.”
Alfred has proven he will work, and sacrifice, for his territory and the salmon within it. In 2017, he and countless other tireless land defenders staged a 284-day occupation of several fish farms in the area. It was a bold move, and one that would ultimately prove instrumental in forcing the government’s hand to take action on the controversial fish farm issue.
And while the fight to remove harmful foreign-owned, open-net fish farms from B.C. waters is far from over, courageous examples like these continue to inspire a new generation of activists and advocates to fight for these precious coastal ecosystems and communities.
After the initial excitement surrounding the triumphant return of 2022’s pink salmon, attention has now focused on the continued revival of all the other species of salmon and wildlife in the area. The first generations of coho and sockeye salmon that passed through the Broughton after the farms were removed are set to return to the area this summer. Earlier in the year, the area saw a robust spawning season for another key indicator species, the Pacific herring.
“These little fish return and they let us know what’s coming,” Alfred says. “And they did that just last week outside of Port McNeill, right on our shores. The entire beach was turquoise; bright, bright colors. It was a stunning sight to see. This summer, we’re going to monitor and observe and document the salmon’s return. I hope to see the grizzly bears feeding and feasting like they used to. I hope to see wolves and I hope to see eagles and orca in big numbers. I think a lot of celebrating is to be expected.”
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