by Celine Trojand and Mary Leighton
If you go online and look up #wildsalmon, your screen floods with pictures of happy people in Alaska pulling up fish. Open up a paper in B.C. and you’ll likely see a story focused on the controversial fish farms or declining stocks. What’s often missing is what we saw on a recent trip across B.C.’s northwest — thousands of people coming together every year for the salmon harvest and going to great lengths to conserve our wild salmon species. This summer, Mary and Celine set out to visit with communities from Telegraph Creek, to Terrace, to Prince George. We saw for ourselves what salmon mean to British Columbians.
About 30 kilometers west of Terrace, two fly fishing enthusiasts, Nathan and Troy, pull on their waders and grab buckets – not to cast their flies, but to collect fry and smolt trapped in a dried-up swamp next to the Exstew river. They scoop up 170 baby salmon from the overheated slough, carry them to the banks of the river in a bucket, and slowly add the cool river water until they can return the salmon to the river without shocking their little systems.
These members of the Steelhead Society set traps every single day to save hundreds of salmon from certain death. They drive the 60 kilometre round trip after their day jobs to do this, knowing that even with their heroic efforts, only 10 of every 100 samon they save may return. Troy gestures to his daughter and asks, “If at the end of the day all the salmon are gone, what’s she gonna say? ‘What did you do?’ I want her to be able to go out salmon fishing. I want my grandkids to be able to go out salmon fishing.”
Meanwhile, in the dry canyon of Telegraph Creek, a king salmon gets caught in the Ball family’s net. The sisters start yelling for a tote. We watch as they fill it with water, nudge the king inside, and sprint across the 100 meters of beach to shuttle the fish to cool waters and freedom.
The Tahltan have voluntarily given up catching kings this year on account of low numbers. While it’s affecting family harvests and consequently winter stores, everyone we talked to said that it was worth it. That they would do whatever it takes to conserve the species for years to come.
As a case in point, after a rock slide in the Tahltan River that blocked kings from heading up to spawn, the Tahltan collaborated with Department of Fisheries and Oceans to capture and transport the salmon above the slide via helicopter!
We saw the same commitment in Destinee, a young Nisga’a fisheries technician who takes pride in her work counting salmon on the Nass River. “When we’re out there on the river working with salmon,” she says, “I always make sure I’m doing my best job, because I know it comes back tenfold.”
Elsewhere on the Nass River, and on the and Skeena River, Gitxsan communities have moved to seine netting and fish wheels to reduce bycatch and better select which species they catch species. It’s a huge change from how they’ve been fishing for thousands of years.
2019 has been named the International Year of the Salmon, and here at Salmon Beyond Borders we’re getting excited to see salmon people unite to conserve and celebrate this persistent, wild, and beautiful creature, and to show the world what salmon mean to our lives and communities.
As Jacinda Mack says in the film Uprivers, “salmon is more than protein on a plate.” On our trip through British Columbia, we experienced that. Salmon is the reason people come together. Salmon is the connection between the past and the future. Salmon is life.
B.C. is a huge place and we only visited three river systems — the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass. Salmon run up the Thompson, the Fraser, the Kitimat, and the Campbell Rivers, and so many more. We’d love to hear about your own local efforts to conserve your salmon.
Share a story and tag us @salmonbeyondborders
by Sierra Harvey
If you are a person of the coast, you have a salmon story. I didn’t recognize mine until my third year at university.
In 1980, my step dad, as a young and over-energetic 19-year old was thrilled to be offered a position with a logging company straight out of high school. A great deal of money was locked up in old growth coastal timber of Clayoquot Sound, and companies offered new employees great financial incentives to perform this type of high-risk work. Little did he realize the effects of logging would leave on the watershed, reducing the stabilization capacity of stream banks, removing key shading to regulate water temperatures and saturation abilities, resulting in increased runoff and flooding. The effects are extremely detrimental to salmon. Salmon, like trees, are another key resource in these small communities. The fish that we love, are central to our diets, our lifestyle, and are affected by everything we do on land. My family is dependant on salmon to fill the freezers. Our 17ft fibreglass was a source of so much joy as a child.
These days, like most small logging towns in coastal British Columbia, my hometown of Ucluelet, BC has shifted from resource extraction to tourism.
Now in Victoria, I study geography and restoration. Geography is an exploration of the possibilities and capacities of nature, and the story of human interactions with the land and sea. A central component of geography and restoration is conservation. My interest was seeded in my first year by Phillip Dearden, who sheds light on the big, gnarly, and obvious (when you look for them) problems in society and resource management in his Geography 101 course. Already filled with a desire to be outdoors and exploring, geography grounded my thought processes and guided my passion for coastal conservation in B.C.
Last summer I had my own experience working in Clayoquot Sound. Now thirty years after the demise of logging in the biosphere, I worked in the same watershed that is home to spawning Chinook, Coho and Chum salmon, and the same one my step-dad logged many moons ago.
My time with Central Westcoast Forest Society was both humbling and motivating. I had the opportunity to work with an incredibly hard working organization on salmon habitat restoration. I spent my time directly in the rivers and estuaries, working to bring these ecosystems back to the healthy state they were in prior to logging.
Considering the connections between salmon and the make-up of terrestrial ecosystems is key to ensuring that these systems remain healthy and functioning for the long term. Humans effect on salmon populations is unlike any other predator. My passion, combined with my growing knowledge of salmon ecosystems, led me to Salmon Beyond Borders’ work, where I can focus my efforts on policy related to transboundary rivers. The rivers of Northern BC and Alaska are dear to my heart and I am passionate about making as many waves as I can in this time.
A salmon story is always full circle. My family’s history on the coast is lengthy and has fostered who I am today. I grew up on the fresh fish that we caught and smoked; camped in archipelagos; and spent weekends exploring the watershed. It seems anomalous to even consider a world where this kind of life is not possible. Like the life cycle of a salmon, beginning in a single river and returning to that same river, my salmon story will always be a part of me and whether I realize it or not, and the decisions I have made in life are made with these stories in mind.
The lake my mother swam in
As a child, my mother learned to swim in Kamiskotia Lake. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because it lends its name to a Hollinger mine, Kam Kotia Porcupine, 35 kilometres northwest of Timmins, Ontario and is the site of one of Canada’s worst mining disasters.
When the mine closed in 1972, no one was legally responsible for the massive tailings – piles of waste rock – that eventually seeped arsenic, lead, selenium, and other metals into local waterways. While residents became more and more alarmed about the health of their kids and safety of their water, the mine changed hands half a dozen times until it eventually became the responsibility of the crown. In 2000, after 30 years of contamination, the Ontario government launched a five- phased $47 million dollar clean-up and rehabilitation effort.
My family’s mining legacy
I come from a mining family. My grandfather Cyrille, his 12 brothers and sisters, their kids, and and their grandkids have all in some way benefitted from the mining industry. My late great uncle Clifford worked his whole life in the Hollinger mine shafts. His granddaughter carries on the family tradition for a company here in the northwest out of Smithers.
I also come from a family of outdoor men and women. My great aunt Edna, at 86, still runs her own trap line. Seeing grandpa Cyrille fly fishing is like watching a martial arts master, albeit a French catholic one, cursing and sneaking whiskey in time with his practiced steps. His lines dance on the water.
For the most part I feel proud of how hard my family has worked to lift us out of poverty and open doors for my generation. My cousins and I have access to hard fought opportunities – post-secondary education, while not easy, was possible. I am mobile enough to choose to live here in the Pacific Northwest, a place that makes me feel alive and connected.
Two disasters every ten years
In the early morning of August 4th 2014, the communities in the Quesnel Lake watershed experienced the unthinkable. A wet tailings dam for the nearby Mount Polley Mine burst, dumping over 10 million cubic meters of toxic slurry and mud containing selenium, lead, and arsenic into the river systems. The spill lasted four days but the financial and ecological impacts to those communities are still being felt. Locals described the spill as a death in their community. Their relationship to salmon severed, making their lives more precarious and uncertain.
There are 123 tailings dams at 60 mine sites throughout BC. Despite advice from experts, many of these dams are using or propose using the same wet tailings approach. If they go forward, we can expect an average of two dam failures every ten years.
Forty-eight watersheds in the northwest contain or are downstream of a tailings facility, the vast majority of which could be affected by multiple tailings dams. Among them are B.C.’s most iconic wild salmon rivers, including the Taku, Stikine, Unuk, Nass, Skeena, Fraser, Buckley and Babine to name a few.
Two hundred and forty-one communities are within a 22 kilometre contaminant flow path of a mine tailings dam, including Fort St. John, Prince George, Quesnel, Smithers, Terrace, and Williams Lake and Prince Rupert.
What are we inheriting in B.C.?
Every time one of these dams fails (and they will), someone has to clean it up. In the case of Mount Polley, taxpayers are picking up almost $40 million of the clean up tab. British Columbia does not require full financial assurances (bonding) from mining companies. Disasters like Kam Kotia and Mount Polley are a hefty price for us all to bear.
Our mining laws in B.C. haven’t changed in 150 years. That’s right, since the gold rush. The way mining is being done here in B.C. will plunge my generation into ecological and financial debt. We are spending our shrinking inheritance on cleaning up the mining industry’s messes.
When my dog and I walk down to the Skeena River in the spring or fall I bring my fishing rod, tackle, a knife, a bear bell, binoculars, a snack, and a camera. I know we’ll see bears, eagles, neighbours. Our rivers are the veins this region, what brings life to my community. And economic opportunity brings life to our community too – doing good work, especially that keeps people in the community, has been a struggle in our region. I wonder about how these two values - economic and ecological - live in me, in my family and in my community. What would it look like to make decisions for our watershed that put our long term health and prosperity first? What if they are not at odds, what if they are linked? What if my work, our work, is to reconcile these two values.
Making choices in times of uncertainty
Grandpa Cyrille was a ballistics guy before the Second World War. When it became clear to him (after a very stern talk from my grandmother Louise) that the mining lifestyle of long absences and dangerous work was detrimental to his wife and kids, he famously tossed his blasting gear over the side of a boat carrying him up the St. Lawrence on his way home to Timmins, as a symbol of his commitment to our future. He had no idea at the time what his life or our life would look like, but he knew he couldn’t continue doing what he had been doing. He to took the risk to make something completely new of his life and livelihood.
British Columbians have a choice to make. Do we want to build an economy centered on resilience, restoration, and sustainable growth? Do we want to maintain our wild salmon rivers and way of life, or do we want to cash in on the new gold rush and let our kids deal with the fall out?
While I can’t say exactly what responsible mining looks like for our region, I know it’s time we figured it out. More than ever I want to have these conversations in the northwest, to come together and learn together. Forging a new economic path together might feel risky in our uncertain times but northerners have always bet on the underdog. We’ve always beat the odds. We need to step up and defend our watersheds and way of life. I hope that the next generation can feel proud of our choices.
There is so much to do this summer to kick start this conversation.
Sign up to volunteer and I'll give you a call to get you plugged in.
What are mine tailings exactly? What’s the deal with acid mine drainage? Is ‘responsible mining’ really possible?
These were some of the questions I had for an engineer friend who has worked on mines in B.C. As a start to answering these questions, this friend pointed me to Mining America: the Industry and the Environment, 1800-1980.
I’m a literature major, so it may not be surprising that my reflexive response to taking a new role – in this case becoming an organizer in British Columbia with Salmon Beyond Borders – is to pick up a book. I like sinking in. Books give me more time to process information than news articles and scientific reports. So I was grateful for this book, which describes how people have perceived the American mining industry over the last 200 years, and in particular the industry’s impact on the environment. The author, Duane Smith, focuses on the United States of America, but I believe the themes apply in Canada as well. I don’t have a background in mining, but I found the book fascinating.
Three main points resonated with me:
1. Things have changed.
“The word environment would not have been recognized a century ago,” writes Smith.
He describes how miners and people in mining regions throughout the 1800s noticed effects – air filling with smoke, streams changing color, mountainsides being washed away with the development of hydraulic technology – but how rarely they labelled these changes as serious problems. People complained that the abandoned tools, piles of waste rock, and mountainsides stripped of trees for use in the smelters were unsightly, yes, but few voices rose loudly to raise concerns about the long-term health of the environment and people living nearby.
One man seeking to promote investment in his mining town talked about the level of arsenic in the air as beneficial for women’s complexions – totally without irony!
2. Things have stayed the same.
“The duty of government, in this earlier century [the 1800s], was not to regulate but to encourage development and to hand out unstintingly the natural resources and the public lands for private gain.”
“Not to regulate, but to encourage,” sounds to me like the exact description of the modern-day role of the government which was criticized and described in the British Columbia Auditor General’s May 2016 report, written after an investigation into the Mount Polley tailings dam failure. “To meet the provincial goals for new mines and mine expansions,” the report states, the Ministry of Mining and the Ministry of Environment, “are focusing on permit applications. As a result, there are few resources dedicated to the regulatory activities of monitoring.”
And even more recently, in February 2018, the B.C. provincial government announced a mining “task force” to advise the government on “measures it might implement to make B.C. the most attractive jurisdiction for investment in Canada.” It seems that encouraging development for private gain is still very much considered the “duty”of government.
3. Public opinion matters.
“As trite as it may sound, the buck does stop with the public. How much are we willing to pay, to sacrifice, and to accept in order to protect the environment?”
Smith describes how people in the later 1900s, from farmers to elected officials, began to push back against specific mining projects and to demand clean up and accountability from the mining industry. In spite of the industry's well-funded public relations campaigns and savvy lawyers, some projects were turned down and new regulations introduced. Even by the 1980s, when Smith concludes his historical survey, he feels confident stating, “Environmental stewardship is here to stay; only the form that it should take is a subject of debate.”
Engaging with mining is crucial, even if tricky. Mining has played a big role in the United States and Canada, and it will continue to play a role. Our job as citizens and residents is to take responsibility for grappling with questions such as: Where should mining take place? How should it be done? Who should benefit? And what are we willing to do to protect places we love?
Over the last four years of the Salmon Beyond Borders campaign, we’ve seen a groundswell of support throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Resolutions from dozens of Alaska municipalities and Tribes, and the calls from tens of thousands of local citizens, have driven engagement at all levels of government throughout the region and in Washington, D.C..
But as Alaskans downstream face a ticking clock, new B.C. transboundary mine projects have progressed from exploration to development and two have begun operations. On August 4, 2014, Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine tailings dam failed, releasing 24 million cubic meters of tailings waste into the Fraser River watershed. Less than one year later in 2015, the same company that operates Mt. Polley was authorized by the B.C. government to begin operations at its Red Chris mine in the Stikine-Iskut watershed, using the same kind of wet tailings storage technology that resulted in the Mt. Polley mine disaster. The State of Alaska, Alaska Tribes, and downstream municipalities were not notified or involved in the permitting of this project, regardless of the fact that the Red Chris mine tailings storage facility is seven times the size of Mt. Polley’s and holds back acid generating materials. In 2017 Brucejack mine began operations in the Unuk river watershed, which also is the proposed site for the acid-generating Kerr-Sulphurets Mitchell (KSM) project, owned by Seabridge Gold. KSM would be the largest open-pit mine in Canada, located only 30 kilometers from the Alaska - B.C. border.
Although experts like those who comprised the expert panel to review the Mt. Polley tailings dam failure, and the B.C. Auditor General, have all claimed that mining practices in British Columbia must improve, business continues as usual.
It’s time to ramp up our efforts and work with our neighboring communities… so Salmon Beyond Borders is officially going international!
Meet our new B.C. organizers, Celine Trojand and Mary Leighton!
Northwest B.C. is in the midst of a mining boom. One that’s happening out of the public eye, yet in one of the most pristine regions of the province. The Taku, Stikine, and Unuk rivers create intact watersheds that are critical habitat for some of the world’s most valuable salmon runs and wildlife. On the U.S. side of the border, these rivers are designated as National Monuments, National Forests, and wilderness areas with special protections. On the Canadian side of the border, these systems have no such protection and are being developed by a mining industry that the U.N. ranks as the second worst in the world, right behind China. And did you know that B.C. taxpayers are the ones who have to pay when disaster strikes on the BC side of the border?! British Columbians have already paid $40 million toward initial clean up of the Mt. Polley mine disaster, and that’s just scratching the surface of what needs to be done.
Here’s what we want: Binding international agreements between Canada, the U.S. and Indigenous Nations that address: financial liability, joint funding for ongoing water quality monitoring, and transparency in the permitting process across all jurisdictions.
Salmon Beyond Borders is working to educate and empower Alaska and B.C. communities to defend and sustain our rivers, jobs, and way of life.
To do that, we’re going to need support on both sides of the AK-B.C. border.
Share this blog post with your friends in BC, talk to your neighbors about this issue, invite them to check out our website and video and encourage them to add their name to our letter to Canadian and U.S. officials.
Interested in volunteering with us in B.C.? Contact Celine and Mary.
Mary Leighton is a third generation Vancouverite. She grew up sailing around the British Columbia coast, collecting sea grass and dropping crab traps. She was living abroad when in 2014 Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved the Enbridge oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. coast. She saw science being ignored and local communities being overruled, but she also saw the possibility of British Columbians coming together and successfully defending their province (which they did!). Mary moved back to Vancouver and started a new path in community organizing, volunteer training, and politics.
Now Mary is excited about the growing solidarity among people in the Pacific Northwest to defend the sacred places and the resources that have sustained people here for thousands of years – fresh water and wild salmon. She will be focusing her energies on raising awareness of "out of sight, out of mind" risks and developing local leaders in Southwestern B.C. She looks forward to connecting with people and building relationships for the long run.
Email Mary: firstname.lastname@example.org
Celine Trojand grew up on the prairies of Northeast BC but in 2009 she found her sea legs on board an old wooden fishing boat in the Douglas channel, travelling the proposed crude oil tanker route for the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal. The boat smelled like tar and the weather got a bit rough but she caught her first salmon and attended a feast in Hartley Bay. What enduring love doesn’t start with food?
After her trip she committed (with the salmon as witness) to work with communities in defence of our land, air and water. In the decade since she’s made good on her promise and organized, trained, acted and strategized with dozens of BC’s most effective conservation groups. She’s learned that organized people can overcome anything – dysfunctional democracies, corporate agendas, social isolation and even foolhardy Texan business men. She’ll be focusing on building SBB support in Northwest BC and northern Vancouver Island.
Last year Celine moved to Kitwanga where she’s building a little house and dreaming of a day when our rivers are secure and abundant and she can finally run a small sled dog team.
Email Celine: email@example.com
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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