Sunday, October 21, 2018

While You See A Chance

After spending the past two summers touring the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska it really struck me how differently Canada and the U.S. choose to manage their First Nations communities, resources, and tourism in the North. Whether out of pragmatism, practicality or simply opportunity, the Americans seem to have made incredible progress while in Canada we have tended to languish and procrastinate. Why there are such differences in an area with so much in common is a question that needs more examination.

In terms of size, with a combined area of 706,000 square miles the Yukon and NWT are nearly equal to Alaska which has 740,000 square miles but in terms of population there is no comparison with the Yukon and NWT barely registering 85,000 people whereas Alaska has over 740,000 and even that makes it the most sparsely populated state in the Union. The populations weren't so far apart until WW2 when the population of Alaska, particularly Anchorage, exploded with the building of military bases, the Alaska highway connecting Fairbanks to Dawson Creek in Canada, and then the discovery of oil.

Trans Alaska Pipeline
It was the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 that prompted the U.S. government to begin negotiations with the First Nations people whose lands were still in dispute following the purchase of Alaska from Russia 100 years earlier. By 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the largest land claim settlement in U.S. history, had been worked out and was signed into law by President Nixon which created 12 Native regional economic development corporations for the Natives who lived in each region and transferred title to millions of acres of land for them to farm, mine, or log as they saw fit. In return the oil companies were able to build a pipeline from the Arctic coast to the port of Valdez where tankers could then load the oil for transport to the U.S.

Contrast this with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry for a gas pipeline to connect the gas fields of the Mackenzie Delta with the pipelines in northern Alberta which started in 1974 and after 3 years of consultation resulted in a 10 year moratorium on any development taking place. For the next 35 years gas exploration, First Nations negotiations, and federal permit applications were under way but, by the time everything had been agreed on between the First Nations, oil companies, and federal government the price structure had collapsed and, in 2017, the project was cancelled. All the promised jobs and economic opportunity were once again put on hold.

Treaty Map of Canada
Land claims and self government agreements between the First Nations of the Yukon have been ongoing since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush but started in earnest in 1968 with the formation of the Yukon Native Brotherhood and by 1990 an Umbrella Agreement had been reached that over the next 15 years saw 11 of the 14 First Nations in the Territory become self governing. But in NWT the original Treaty of 1921 is still in dispute not only for the unequal way it was negotiated but also because of subsequent violations committed by the Federal Government with the residential school system, resource extraction, and actions by Indian agents.

The Alaska Railroad was started in 1903 and by 1923 it connected Fairbanks to Anchorage and Seward providing a backbone transportation link that continues to this day carrying freight and passengers to all the major centres. The Canadian rail connections north of the 60th parallel are basically non-existent. There used to be a railroad running from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse on the Yukon River but it has since been scaled back to Carcross, and in NWT the railway from Alberta ends in Hay River which is located on Great Slave Lake. Since 1890 a Canada - Alaska connection has been continuously proposed without success as the logical next step for railways in the North. In 2015 a link between Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Fort Nelson and Fort McMurray called the Alaska Canada Rail Link (ACRL) has been rekindled with the support of First Nations but 4 years later nothing has materialized. 

While the railways wait to connect at least there's some progress being made with the roadways up North. The Mackenzie Highway connects northern Alberta to Yellowknife, NWT and the Alaska Highway connects northern B.C. to Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. A major breakthrough this year was the completion of the road to Tuktoyaktuk from Inuvik which extends the Dempster Highway from Dawson City all the way to the Arctic Ocean but year round connections still need to be made between Inuvik and Yellowknife. There are no roads anywhere within Nunavut but perhaps one day something will connect Rankin Inlet with Yellowknife.

Alaska has three cities with universities, but currently there isn't a single university in any part of Canada's north, the only northern nation without an arctic university. With a population of 300,000 Anchorage would be expected to have a university, but Juneau and Fairbanks each with 30,000 residents also have one and, while Yellowknife and Whitehorse are roughly the same size, there is only a college.  Climate change, resource development, agriculture, and Indigenous languages are just a few of the disciplines that could attract students from all over and stimulate growth and new opportunities in these territories. Long overdue plans are finally afoot to establish universities in NWT and the Yukon starting this fall, 56 years after the Alaska university system was established.

Denali National Park
In terms of national parks both the Alaskan Denali and N.W.T. Nahanni are spectacular filled with all sorts of wildlife and signature geographic features such as Denali Mountain, the highest in North America, and Virginia Falls, which is twice the height of Niagara Falls. Both have restricted access to preserve and protect the parks but the entrance to Denali is surrounded by beautiful lodges, restaurants, and services of all sorts whereas Nahanni has only the dilapidated Fort Simpson which is practically devoid of any accommodations, places to eat or tourist conveniences of any kind. As a result over 400,000 people a year visit Denali as opposed to less than 1,000 who visit Nahanni.

Nahanni National Park

Alaska, Yukon and NWT all share in being part of Beringia, that ancient land mass that stretched from Siberia to the Mackenzie River 65,000 years ago during the last ice age and was teaming with giant mammals such as woolly mammoths, scimitar cats and steppe bison. It also allowed for the movement of early people into the Americas from Asia. Later as the glaciers started to melt the area got covered up and remained hidden until the placer mining activities of the various gold rushes revealed what had once existed. In each of the major cities; Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Fairbanks, Anchorage, & Juneau there are some truly incredible museums with fascinating displays of all these ancient creatures, First Nations artifacts, and all the animals currently living in the North.

Beringia Museum - Whitehorse

McBride Museum - Whitehorse

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre - Yellowknife

Museum of the North - Fairbanks

Alaska State Museum - Juneau

Anchorage Museum - Anchorage

Obviously the vastness of the North, not to mention the climate, is what makes it particularly challenging to tame but, if Canadians want to truly claim their land, they need to put more effort into the enterprise. Under nearly identical conditions the Americans have proved it's possible to succeed and, in the process, have created a prosperity for its citizens that is the envy of the country with Alaskans having one of the highest levels of per capita/family income. They have exploited their natural resources without destroying the habitat, made productive settlements with their First Nations people, and created an environment where tourism is booming and young people flock there to study and enjoy the outdoors. When will Canada realize that when you see a chance take it?

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Where Have All The Whales Gone?

L-92 aka Crewser

J-35 and her baby
This past summer was a dramatic tale of two completely different coastlines. Here on the West Coast the declining southern killer whale population dominated the news with first L-92, aka Crewser, a 23 year old male dying in June, then in August one poor mother whale, J-35 was filmed pushing her dead baby around for more than 2 weeks in a heartbreaking effort to stop her from sinking, and finally we all watched in September as another whale, J-50 slowly succumbed to disease and starvation. The southern killer whale population hasn't had a successful birth in over 3 years now and has declined to just 74 individuals.

J-50 and her mother J-16
The suspected causes of all this heartache include noise from tanker/freighter traffic, PCB's in the food chain, DDT from fertilizer run-off, and a lack of Chinook salmon, their main source of food. Chinook salmon are the largest species of Pacific salmon averaging 36" in length and 30 lbs in weight but they can get much bigger. Because of their size they are the favoured prey of killer whales and are highly valued by sports fishermen.  "There's no nooky like chinooky" is the saying, and the largest ever caught weighed 126 lbs. Native to the North Pacific and ranging from Alaska to California, Chinook are now in decline everywhere due to over fishing, loss of habitat, and poor ocean conditions. 

Nelson with a 20 lb. Chinook
Nelson with a 23 lb.Chinook

Chinook mainly spawn in large rivers such as the Yukon, Nass, Skeena, Fraser and Columbia and with both the Columbia and Yukon in a near collapse it leaves only a few rivers in B.C. to hold the fort. Last summer Alaska suspended both the commercial and recreational Chinook fishery to help protect the returning salmon yet B.C. kept its fishery open.

Chinook Migration Routes
While the southern killer whale population is suffering the northern killer whale population is thriving. They don't seem to have any problem feeding themselves and the group has now grown to more than 300 which is 4 times the southern whale population. Eating on average 500 lbs per day this could involve a lot of Chinook salmon but both groups also eat chum salmon and herring. Strangely enough they don't eat sockeye salmon which is unfortunate because this year was predicted to be a huge run whereas the Chinook run was dismal.

Sea lion and seals
While the federal government instituted a 35% reduction in the allowable catch at the start of the season the returns are so low that many groups have argued for a complete ban on fishing in order to preserve all the Chinook salmon for the whales.  Others, less informed, have also called for a cull of seals and sea lions which also compete for salmon. However Chinook aren't the primary food source for seals and sea lions and, if there really were too many of these creatures, the transient killer whale population would certainly keep them in check.

Right whale on the East Coast
Meanwhile on the East Coast this summer there wasn't a single incident of a Right Whale being harmed in any way as opposed to last year when 18 of them were killed. The changes to the crab fishing season meant all the fishing gear had to be out of the water before any whales arrived in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to avoid any entanglements, and slower speed limits for freighters and other commercial vessels in active shipping lanes managed to prevent any collisions. Enhanced whale monitoring efforts identified more than 135 individuals in Canadian waters this summer as compared to 114 last year so obviously they aren't starving either.

While government efforts on the East Coast have had a dramatically positive effect on whale populations, in spite of objections from the fishing industry and others, the same commitment is obviously lacking on the West Coast. The fishing industry simply has too much influence and, while they are keen to harvest the salmon, they don't seem to be putting much effort into habitat enhancement or hatcheries. In spite of the southern killer whales being an endangered species it's coming down to a decision on which is worth more to the economy whale watching or fishing. After that question is answered we will then know where all the whales have gone.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Pictures of Lily

Water lily invasion at Beaver Lake 
Once upon a time there was a lake in Stanley Park named Beaver Lake because it was occupied by beavers who tried to live there happily ever after until 1936 when some silly people introduced water lilies to the lake to enhance its beauty and celebrate Vancouver's 50th anniversary. In time the lilies took over the lake, completely covering its surface and then filling up the bottom of the lake with decomposing vegetation. Year by year the water level decreased until it was estimated that by 2020 the lake would completely disappear.

Beaver lodge in Beaver Lake
The beavers did what beavers do when they sense the water level in their lake is diminishing and got busy building a dam on Beaver Creek to flood the area. Every night sticks and mud are put in place to stop water from draining out of the lake and every day the Parks Board takes it apart in order to save the trails for the public and the trout living downstream. As the stalemate continues, and the Parks Board dithers over what to do, the water lilies have kept proliferating and the water level is now less than 1 metre.

Moose eating water lilies
If beavers would eat water lilies the problem could quickly be solved but unfortunately the great Canadian icon prefers to eat trees. There is, however, another great Canadian icon that loves eating water lilies and that is the moose. Owing to the sodium content of aquatic plants they can make up to half of a moose's diet and the moose is the only deer species capable of feeding underwater. The obvious solution of introducing moose to Beaver Lake was actually considered by the Parks Board in the 1990's but in the end they decided against it.

So while it doesn't look like moose will ever be coming to Stanley Park, in spite of their amazing potential as a tourist attraction, the Parks Board has now approved a multi-million dollar plan to dredge the lake, remove some of the water lilies and re-introduce native species of plants and animals. As we wait for this to actually start happening, a well informed team of enthusiastic volunteers is on hand to explain things to members of the public. It's almost ironic that, as folks enjoy a walk around what is left of the lake, the most popular subject for their cameras are pictures of the pretty lilies.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Go Their Own Way

Dead Right Whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
Right whales off the east coast and killer whales on the west coast have one terrible thing in common, they are both dying thanks to the fishing activities of humans.  On the east coast the whales are getting tangled up in crab trap gear and on the west coast the over fishing of Chinook salmon is causing starvation. As a bonus, both species are also having to deal with being run over by large ships and putting up with the underwater noise they generate.

Dead Killer Whale on the beach at Sechelt
When the whaling industry was in full swing the North Atlantic right whale was the preferred species to hunt because they were slow moving, close to shore, and floated after they were killed. It's impossible to know how many North Atlantic right whales once existed but we know there are only about 450 left and, with 17 of them getting killed last year (12 alone in the Gulf of St. Lawrence) they are now considered an endangered species. Likewise with the Southern resident killer whale population which now has only 76 individuals remaining and is also listed as endangered.

Right Whale Mother & Calf in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
To try and protect the right whales from ship collisions the Canadian government has brought in speed restrictions of 10 knots maximum in the western part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the whales come to feed with their calves in summer. To try and protect the whales from all the fishing gear they are opening the snow crab season earlier and closing it sooner so that hopefully there won't be any traps in the area when they arrive. Meanwhile in the Juan de Fuca/Georgia Strait area of the west coast the commercial fishery for Chinook salmon has been completely shut down and limits put in place for recreational fishing as well.

Killer Whale in Georgia Strait
As summer approaches we can only cross our fingers and hope these measures will help these poor creatures survive. In spite of the vastness of our oceans things can get crowded pretty quickly when human activity comes up against the animals living there. It would be so much better for the whales if we focused our fishing efforts on aquaculture and let the whales go their own way.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


With a habitat ranging across the North Atlantic Ocean from North America to Europe the Atlantic salmon has always been an important and popular species for sports and commercial fisheries. But habitat destruction, over fishing, and warmer waters have decimated the wild population to the point where conservation measures have been introduced in most countries. The numbers for farmed Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, have increased exponentially with over 3 million tonnes now being produced annually vs. the 3,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon being caught in the wild.

Atlantic salmon are the preferred species for fish farming because they grow quickly and consistently, are resistant to disease, and taste great. Salmon is also popular with people looking for healthy food alternatives because they provide Omega-3 fatty acids. Combine all this with the fact farmed salmon cost less than wild salmon and are available year round and you can see why the salmon farming industry is exploding.

Over the years Atlantic salmon have been bred to more efficiently turn "feed into flesh" but recent genetic development has now allowed the fish to reach market size in just 18 months or less than half the time if it was in the wild. By adding the growth hormone gene of the Chinook salmon (the largest species of Pacific salmon) with an antifreeze gene of the Ocean Pout to the fertilized egg of an Atlantic salmon the fish is able to grow continuously while eating less than half the amount of feed. After more than 25 years of testing and red tape this amazing breakthrough for the AquaBounty salmon has finally been certified by the Canadian & American governments as being safe for human consumption.

No matter how you look at it raising animals for protein is highly inefficient with feed inputs many times over what is ultimately produced. Because salmon are carnivorous it's even worse as more wild fish end up being harvested for fish food than for human consumption. But with this new genetically modified salmon the food cost ratio drops to 1:1 and this has profound implications for worldwide food production and the sustainability of other ocean populations.

Killer whales for example in the Pacific Northwest are a fish eating species that relies particularly on wild Chinook salmon. Competition with commercial fishing and a decline in the wild fish population is causing serious concern for their survival and another reason we should be getting our salmon from farms, just as we do for every other food group, and leave the wild salmon to the whales and recreational fishery. The demand for aquaculture products is huge and growing larger every year with salmon being one of the most important products.

Most farmed salmon are raised in open net pens that can hold up to 90,000 fish. While they provide a lower operating cost than closed land based systems, they also discharge a lot of waste, parasites, and disease into the surrounding water and this is what concerns folks who worry about Pacific wild salmon picking something up as they pass through on their migratory route. They also worry about Atlantic salmon escaping into the wild and competing with native Pacific salmon species.

Strangely enough various governments over the last 100 years have tried to introduce the Atlantic salmon to the Pacific coast and none of these efforts have been successful. Every species of salmon has the same life cycle which means being born in fresh water, moving on to the salt water ocean to become an adult, and then returning to the same fresh water it was born in to spawn and die. For whatever reason the Atlantic salmon couldn't make it through the adult stage in the ocean and return. To worry about any of them escaping from a net in the middle of nowhere and taking over the Pacific Northwest is ridiculous. But just to be safe the AquaBounty salmon are being raised in fresh water pens and they are only using sterilized females so there is no chance of interbreeding.

The hysteria over genetically modified food and animals is another version of the science vs. religion debate where fear, ignorance and misinformation combine to create a toxic dialogue. We've been eating genetically modified plants for quite some time now and this technology holds open the door of possibility for many parts of the planet that are currently unsuited to agriculture because of salinity, lack of moisture or other issues. There aren't any 2-headed fish coming our way only fish that cost half as much to feed in half the time and I call that a bargain.