Ocean Forum raises awareness

  • Jan. 30, 2009 5:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay–Sustaining life in the oceans around Haida Gwaii was a key point of unity among those attending the weekend’s Ocean Forum in Skidegate. But consensus on how to get there seems to be a stumbling block, according to those who’ve been working on the concept of marine protected areas for years. “The sad fact is, it is very difficult to establish marine protected areas,” said John Davis, former assistant deputy minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and now with the University of Victoria. “It is hard to get a consensus.” “Shut it down for two years,” said Chief Iljuuwaas-Reynold Russ, speaking about the salmon fishery. “That’s the only way you are going to get it to come back.” One of North America’s leading oceanographers, Dr. Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institute, agreed that this was one way to ensure fish stocks would survive longer than the next five years. Dr. Jackson, who gave the keynote address on the first day of the two-day event, painted a bleak picture of the state of the world’s oceans. Over-fishing, introduced species, global warming and increased carbon dioxide are the most deadly impacts on the world’s oceans, he said. He said any ecosystem he’s studied in his career as a scientist has been trashed, be it sea grass, oyster beds, coral reefs or major estuaries. Things may look pristine around Haida Gwaii now, but Canada has a long way to go, he said. “The collapse of cod in the NW Atlantic is the shame of Canada,” he said. “And the crash took place under their watchful eye of fisheries authorities.” During two days of sessions on topics ranging from commercial fishing, seafood marketing and marine park planning, many issues were raised. Some say increases in industrial sportsfishing and the practice of catch and release, (reported to have a high survival rate, but many think those studies are misleading), are a major part of the problem. Others like George Cuthbert of West Coast Resorts, a sportsfishing company with lodges at Englefield Bay and Tasu Sound, suggested that commercial fishing was an issue. “I’m not aware of any land animal that has survived the commercial harvest for food,” he said. Along with the threat of overfishing, speakers also discussed concerns over oil and other tankers use of oceans as transportation routes. Rick Steiner of Anchorage, the keynote speaker on day two, and others talked about how much cargo ship and tanker traffic already plies the Haida territorial waters – which extend from land to the abyssal depths, according to Russ Jones of Haida Fisheries. Mr. Steiner, a professor at the University of Alaska, who lived in Prince William Sound when the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in 1989, discussed the impacts that disaster had on the communities in the area. “Everything you hold dear can change over night in a heartbeat,” he said. Even though the company spent $2-billion on the clean up and had 13,000 workers, 2,000 vessels and 100 aircraft on the job over three summers, only 5 percent of the 10.8-million gallons spilled was recovered. “Once it’s in the water, you’ve lost the battle,” he said. Prevention of accidents is the only way to ensure the deaths of thousands of seabirds and fish and habitat destruction doesn’t happen here. He said citizens must take control of these issues. In Alaska, the owners of the pipeline contribute $3-4 million a year to fund a citizens’ council with 18 paid staff. Without this council, the use of powerful tractor tugs to guide ships out of the sound, weather buoys, better weather restrictions, ice detectors and better ship inspections would never have happened, he suggested. “Every day one trans-Atlantic pipeline tanker goes through Haida territory,” he said. And that’s without mentioning the container ships with 2.5-million gallons of oil that regularly travel to Prince Rupert, and the condensate ships that come and go from Kitimat, or the future ships which may take tar sands oil from the same point. “You’ve got the risk right now and you don’t have adequate protection.” And 20 years later, there is still oil on the beach in Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez. Speaking about traditional fishing, Diane Brown of Skidegate reminded everyone that the ancient stories tell how the Haida were born of the ocean.”First we came out of the air, then we disappeared. Then we came from the earth and disappeared. Then we came from the ocean and we stayed.”Haida traditional food comes mainly from the sea, she said. “There is no worse thing I can imagine than not being able to eat our traditional foods.” Already, she has witnessed elders, who on their deathbed, were unable to have one last taste of abalone, because harvesting has been banned since 1990. “It hurt very much that we couldn’t give it to them,” she said. Ms Brown wants to see more parents teaching their children traditional harvesting methods. “You can’t deeply appreciate the meal you are having unless you have harvested it yourself.” Other local speakers had some ideas for gaining control of local fisheries management. Leandre Vigneault presented his vision for food, commercial and recreational fisheries on the islands. He believes a local code of conduct should be developed and all who fish in these waters must conform. So if the people of Haida Gwaii decide they do not agree with catch and release, that should be respected. Same goes for pulling up large, old halibut or keeping tiny rockfish. He thinks all visiting fishermen should be guided, not only for safety, but so the guides trained in the local code of conduct can pass this knowledge on, along with knowledge of local history, culture and geography. Mr. Vigneault also thinks better statistics should be kept on the numbers of fish caught by recreational and food fishermen and that a local body regulate a system of non-transferable guide quota to limit growth. Getting more value out of what we take from the sea in terms of branding and marketing local seafood for niche markets, safe shellfish aquaculture, and reducing the impacts, while increasing the benefits of cruise ship visitors, were other topics covered by visiting experts. All of the visiting experts agreed that marine protected areas are a key to keep component to keeping oceans healthy, although questions were asked about definitions. Dr. Jackson said his definition includes no-take areas and no-go areas, which means some areas where no boats, no fishing, no nothing happens. He said the Great Barrier Reef in Australia has achieved a good model after re-zoning work was recently finalized. The marine park protects 30 percent of every type of habitat and the zoning region boundaries were all achieved through the work of local planning committees. This gives hope to people like Cindy Boyko, an elected member of the Council of the Haida Nation and sits on the Gwaii Haanas Marine Project team. She believes committing to the Gwaii Haanas Marine Protected Area is the right thing to do. “Lots of things have gone wrong, but we need to keep moving forward,” said Ms Boyko. “What we do will ripple out to the rest of the world. I’m on board,” she said. A report on the proceedings of the forum will be available in the future.