Saturday, January 2, 2021

Say A Prayer For The Salmon

For British Columbians our New Year's resolution should be to finally do something about the salmon before there aren't any left. The millions of spawning salmon that used to make their way up the countless rivers and streams of this Province in an annual event that sustained thousands of fishermen, nourished First Nations people for over 30,000 years, and should have continued in perpetuity has been almost completely wiped out. Why is nothing being done?

Ever since 2009 when an estimated 8 million sockeye salmon failed to appear in the Fraser River, which is the most important salmon run in the Province, the finger pointing and speculation has continued with no definitive action being taken. Returns of sockeye have ranged from 2 million to 28 million per year but even the large runs that occur every 4 years have been steadily declining in what can only be described as a slow moving environmental disaster. This past year less than 300,000 salmon returned.

Scientists have come up with the so-called 4-H's to describe what has been the cause of the salmon decline all over the Pacific Northwest and it's hard to argue with the facts that we have over harvested the fishery, ruined many of the spawning streams (particularly in the Fraser River with all the industrial activity), built dams that block their route, and then try to compensate by breeding too many genetically inferior fish in hatcheries that compete with wild salmon for limited supplies. But there are other factors as well including the effects of global warming on the ocean and the spread of sea lice from salmon farms located along the migration routes of the salmon. 

There are five distinct Pacific salmon species and they aren't equal in terms of size, numbers, age, or preference. Southern resident killer whales for example depend on Chinook (which can grow up to 44 kg.) for their diet and they are also preferred by sports fishermen. Because of their colour and milder taste Pink and Chum salmon are usually canned, and because of their brighter red colour and flavour the public for the most part prefers to buy Coho or Sockeye salmon for cooking. Some of these runs, like the Chum and Pink salmon seem to still be doing okay but the decline of the Chinook has been linked to the starvation of the Southern resident killer whales of which there are now only 74.

An organization in the U.S. the Centre For Whale Research, based in Friday Harbour has recently purchased 45 acres of land on either side of the Elwha River near Port Angeles where they hope to naturally raise Chinook salmon in a restored habitat where they have historically spawned. Dubbed the Big Salmon Ranch, they hope to lead by example so that other spawning areas in the Salish Sea will be restored and enough Chinook salmon produced to once again support the Southern resident killer whales. Whether this and a ban on fishing for Chinook salmon will save the day is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, the Federal government, which is responsible for the Nation's fisheries, (and hoping to avoid a repeat demonstration of its ineptitude, with a collapse of the West Coast fishery similar to the collapse of the cod fishery on the East Coast 30 years ago) has ordered a phased out closing of all open net fish farms in the Discovery Islands in a bid to slow the spread of sea lice. But these farms employ thousands of workers and, if the companies don't move to some sort of land based containment system, these jobs will be lost with a huge impact on the local communities. Ironically it is farmed salmon that are doing more than anything else to save wild salmon.

With more and more people wanting to eat salmon there is no way the wild stocks could keep up with a growing consumer demand. Since 2009 the annual supply of wild salmon has been less than a million tons but the supply of farmed salmon has steadily increased to where it is now almost 2.5 million tons. This demand for salmon is increasing for many reasons including the fact it is healthier and more efficient to produce than chicken, pork, or beef. Interestingly, the salmon species responsible for all this farming is the Atlantic salmon not one of the five Pacific salmon species.

What makes Pacific salmon so unique of course is their anadromous life cycle. Each of these salmon species hatch in small freshwater streams and then migrate to the sea where they mature over the next two to six years. When mature, the salmon return to the same streams where they were hatched to spawn and repeat the cycle over again. To catch them all you have to do is wait for them to return. With such a plentiful food supply it's easy to see why the First Nations people held the salmon to be sacred. 

Pacific salmon underpin the culture and history of British Columbia as well as that of Alaska, Washington and Oregon. To lose this precious, renewable resource would be unthinkable, particularly if it was something we could have controlled, so efforts around the 4 H's and fish farm contamination have to be intensified. As to what the fish are up to in the open ocean is, of course, a mystery and something we have no control over. In the meantime say a prayer for the salmon.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Jingle Bells


Ever since the COVID lockdowns began there have been nightly ringing of bells and banging of pots and pans in support of front line and health care workers. In Vancouver's West End it starts every night at 7:00 p.m. and there are many other cities around the world where this is also happening. It's a nice gesture that doesn't cost anything and makes the bell ringers feel good.

Ringing bells, however, doesn't do anything for the people they are supporting but money would. The doctors and nurses are reasonably well paid professionals but what about all the lower skilled health care workers and aides toiling for minimum wage who are also risking their lives? These kind hearted individuals often come from places like the Philippines where they have had to leave their own families behind and wait for years to get through the pathetically clogged and complicated Canadian immigration system before they can be reunited.

Then there are those workers deemed as essential who work in the food processing industry and as clerks in our grocery stores. Once again these people are working for minimum wage in spite of there being nothing more important than making sure we have food to eat. But just like the health care workers we can't find enough of them and in the Okanagan this past summer unharvested fruit rotted on the ground because there was nobody to pick it.

Why is it that our immigration policy is so fixated on attracting only highly skilled people, instead of balancing it with a mix of unskilled labour to fulfill all the vacant jobs this pandemic has exposed? Thanks to protectionist associations, who play games about recognizing the qualifications of these skilled immigrants, we often don't let them practice their trade when they do arrive and they are forced to work in demoralizing jobs that are well beneath their skill level. On the other hand there are thousands of Mexican farm workers who are eager to come here, in spite of the substandard housing the farmers provide, and would make excellent hard working citizens if only we offered them the opportunity.

Canada needs lots of immigrants and we have plenty of space for them to live that isn't on unceded land. In addition to various professionals we need people willing to work on our farms, in our food factories, and in our health care system. These folks are critical for our survival and we need to pay and treat them properly. Then maybe we can all feel good about ringing a bell instead of it being an empty gesture.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Paint And The Damage Done


Sometime ago a talented carver created a stunning piece of guerilla art in the forest of Stanley Park that paid tribute to the First Nations who originally lived here and to the ghosts of those magnificent cedar trees that were logged before 1890 to make shakes and shingles. The Parks Board never acknowledged this unique exhibit nor put up any directional signage as to its whereabouts, preferring to leave it for people to discover on their own and perhaps discreetly share the magic of the site with others. That it even existed was part of the Park's own urban folklore. 

The mistake of course, in this type of approach, is that eventually someone would take it upon themselves to damage the creation; in this case by attempting to paint it. So-called graffiti artists can be found everywhere defacing walls, commercial vehicles, railway cars and anything else they can find to tag.  Fortunately the annual wall mural projects around the city have helped provide a more constructive outlet for those who wield a paint spray-can, and some truly impressive paintings have resulted, but clearly it isn't enough.

The ignorance of the person or persons behind the desecration of the forest sculpture reminds me of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the equally ignorant Taliban in 2001 who defied world opinion and proceeded to destroy 1,500 year old statues that had been carved into the side of a cliff. While of course one was an act of terrible destruction and the other simply vandalism, the small-minded thinking behind both wasn't all that different.

Vandalism of public art is not anything new, especially when there are artistic differences amongst the small minded over controversial installations. More disturbing is when vandalized works of art are nothing more than displays of pure racism. The Chinese connection to COVID has encouraged racist idealogues to deface the lions at the entrance to Chinatown, various building walls and, most sadly, the iconic Lao Tsu mural at the corner of Gore and Pender.

There was also the recent vandalization of the small lions that overlook the Lions Gate bridge at Prospect Point. The face and paws of the statues were smashed off in yet another senseless act with no cultural or artistic justification. 

There are, however, some examples of modifying artwork that are playful and cause no harm and one of the best examples is the dressing up of the Amazing Laughter men. Whether it's for Pride Day, water safety awareness or Xmas these statues are the perfect foil and never take or give offense. If only those who are so quick to make their mark would try to create something of their own, instead of damaging the work of someone else, they might appreciate how much effort goes into being a real artist. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Missing Link


The announcement this week that the U.S. had given approval to proceed with the Alaska2Alberta railroad has once again ignited hopes for a railroad that would open up the North and complete the transcontinental rail system between Canada and the United States. Since 1899 when the first railroad connecting Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon (known as the White Pass & Yukon line) was completed during the Klondike gold rush there have been numerous attempts to piece it all together. In 1903 the Alaska Railroad started laying track in Seward and by 1923 it was connected via Anchorage all the way to Fairbanks and has been running a combination freight and passenger rail service ever since. The White Pass & Yukon railroad is also still running.

In 1912 the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later to become BC Rail) started building a line that would go from Vancouver to Prince George and from there connect to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway being built across Canada to compete with Canadian Pacific (CP Rail) and Canadian National (CN Rail). By 1919 both rail companies were broke and there was only a stretch of line going from Squamish to Clinton. It wasn't until 1949 when the government stepped in that construction resumed and by 1952 the line to Prince George was completed and connected with CN Rail. By 1958 BC Rail had expanded to Dawson Creek and Fort St. John and by 1971 it was extended to Fort Nelson less than 100 miles south of the Yukon border.

Another route north towards Dease Lake had also been partially completed but, by the 1980's, it was closed due to lack of freight and profitability. The push northwards had come tantalizingly close. Even though an Alaska state study suggested a connection would be financially feasible, the BC government had lost its appetite for further financing and suggested it was up to the American and Alaskan governments to bankroll the expansion. Unfortunately the post war momentum had been lost and, while a railroad bill had been passed in the U.S. to negotiate an agreement with Canada, nothing further was ever done.

In 2003 BC Rail was eventually sold to CN which had also purchased the Mackenzie Northern Railway that connects Edmonton, Alberta to Hay River, Northwest Territories, the northernmost trackage of the contiguous North American railway network. A map of the North American Railway Network shows that while most of the continent is well connected, there is an obvious gap in the northwest corner that a connection from Fairbanks to either Fort Nelson or Hay River would complete but it would be at a $22 billion cost. In 2006, a U.S. released study validated the financial viability of a railroad connecting Alaska to the Yukon and N.W.T. as did a 2016 Canadian study, so once again the push is on to build a trans-national railway. 

Besides moving Alberta oil and other products through to the American port of Anchorage, and speeding up the delivery of Asian containers into the various corners of North America, this section of railway would also be able to carry passengers which, in turn, would be a tremendous boost for northern tourism. Between all the jobs created in the construction and maintenance of this railway, and the attendant stimulus for the communities in both the Yukon and N.W.T., the plan also calls for First Nations people to be stakeholders in the enterprise. Another welcome development.

Not to be outdone by the visionaries at A2A Rail, there are those who have even more ambitious plans for opening up the north. In this case they see the expansion of the railway going from Alaska to Russia via an underground tunnel in the Bering Sea, where a track could then be laid that would connect to the Trans-Siberian Railway system. So many possibilities for the north that are only limited by our imagination, but it all depends on completing the missing link we have been waiting on for over 100 years. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What The World Needs Now

When I look out my window and see the ocean in front of me I often think about those days a few hundred years ago when people thought the world was flat and sailing into the unknown would lead to falling off the edge. It was common sense after all just like night and day was because the Sun god rode across the sky by day and through the Underworld by night. It was also common sense to accept that the Sun and all the planets revolved around the Earth and to suggest otherwise could have you imprisoned or put to death. There was no such thing as bacteria because common sense said if you couldn't see something with the naked eye it didn't exist. 

Slowly but surely observations were made that confirmed the world was in fact a sphere, night and day was because every 24 hours the Earth rotates on its axis while facing the Sun, and all the planets including Earth rotate around the Sun. Inventions like the telescope and microscope expanded the limits of what we could see and allowed us to make all kinds of important discoveries even if at first they were disbelieved. And, as science took control over common sense and superstition, we started making rapid technological progress in all sorts of fields, particularly in health and sanitation.

However, this hasn't prevented groups of people from still believing in a flat Earth, the voyage to the Moon was a hoax, and that vaccinations are harmful. Spurred on by conspiracy theorists and social media, false rumours are being spread that link the COVID outbreak to a plot by Bill Gates and others to control the world or that the electromagnetic fields of 5G technology have caused COVID. No matter how modern we become the willingness of people to believe in common sense ideas never ends.

But, while we have made so much progress in the fields such as health & medicine, transportation, and consumer goods there is still much to be done in the field of economics where we live in a world where 2% of the population controls 90% of the wealth. Common sense myths continue to constrain any meaningful change and they range from a belief in the gold standard, to cliches that anyone can make it if they just work hard enough and unemployment is a poor work attitude, all the way to the notion that a household's finances can be compared to that of a sovereign nation. Fortunately these myths are being challenged by a new school of economic thought, though they are facing the same sort of criticism from the establishment that Galileo did from the Church.

Just because a household should live within its means doesn't mean a government has to be constrained by the amount of tax money it has to spend. This is an old common sense argument and a false analogy because, while a household has to borrow to cover any monetary shortage, a government can simply print more money to purchase what it needs. As long as the government issues and controls the money it taxes and spends it can never run out or go bankrupt so it doesn't even need to issue bonds or debt. To avoid inflation, if there is too much money in the economy, it can simply raise taxes to cool things down. It also controls the interest rate.

Modern monetary theory or MMT as this is called offers governments a chance to create programs that will offer full employment to its citizens, upgrade its infrastructure, and improve the social health and safety net with little or no concern for the cost. Rather than try to dismiss this new thinking with old common sense arguments that are perpetuating a system benefiting the wealthy, perhaps a more scientific approach should be taken. Japan for example has the highest public debt ratio in the world yet it also has a zero interest rate, no inflation, 2.5% unemployment, and a very healthy public bond market.

Debunking common sense myths allowed those early explorers to find new lands and ultimately connect the world. Maybe it's time we started to examine some of our modern myths around economics and took a chance on making the world a little less unequal. We never know what we might find but our continued progress depends on it. It's what the world needs now.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Time Has Come Today

The 25 land-locked Inuit communities of Nunavut have a number of problems in common including, high food costs, a shortage of housing, and a reliance on diesel generators for power. Solving these problems would greatly improve their living conditions. If we could do it with a made-in-Canada solution that would be even better because it would allow us to demonstrate technological expertise that could be exported elsewhere. Fortunately we have this opportunity.

The first thing lacking in these northern communities is a way of growing fresh vegetables and, as a result, they have to pay exorbitant prices to have everything flown in. One obvious solution would be to build greenhouses and take advantage of the latest in hydroponic technology. With 24 hour sunlight in the summer months the crops could be growing day and night and in winter grow lights could be used instead. Mastering the challenges of operating a greenhouse in the north would also offer employment to its residents. A greenhouse in every community should be a priority.

A greenhouse also requires heat to operate and here is where reverse refrigeration/heat pumps come in. Instead of using warm air to cool a room you use cool air to heat it. These air-source heat pumps are already in use throughout Canadian homes and now there are also geothermal heat pumps that operate on the same principle by drawing heat from the ground. The extra cold air of these northern communities will put a strain on conventional heat pumps but refining this technology is where the opportunity lies for Canada. Refined heat pump technology could also be used to provide better heating for the homes of these residents who are suffering from poor ventilation and the effects of fuel oil and propane heating issues.

Even more serious than a lack of fresh produce is the lack of housing in the north where 36% of the population is waiting for housing, 34% of the housing is in need of major repairs, and more than 50% are living in overcrowded conditions which are contributing to shocking levels of tuberculosis. Yes it costs more to build in the north and there may be a lack of skilled trades so the most obvious solution would be to use pre-fabricated homes that could be constructed elsewhere and simply shipped to these communities for installation. Any time a mining company wants to set up an operation that's exactly what they do so why can't the government simply coordinate things? Each of these communities is accessible by ship during the summer when the ice breaks up so it isn't that difficult to deliver these pre-fab homes and there are numerous Canadian companies who already have the experience of building them. 

Energy use in the north is very different from the rest of the country in that it is completely dependent on refined oil that has to be imported from provinces in the south. 100% of the communities in Nunavut have to use diesel powered plants to generate their electricity. While some renewable options are being reviewed the biggest breakthrough for meeting its energy needs could come from nuclear power, specifically the new technology referred to as Small Modular Reactors or SMRs. Small enough to fit on the back of a truck or in a shipping container, and using new technologies that incorporate liquid salt or helium for cooling and passive built-in safety features, these nuclear reactors produce between 5 - 100 megawatts of electricity which is easily enough to power any of these communities that average only 2,000 inhabitants. 

Micro Modular Reactor Energy System

A partnership between Global First Power, an energy provider specializing in the project development of small nuclear power plants, Ultra Safe Nuclear, a company that has developed the Micro Modular Reactor technology, and Ontario Power Generation, a Crown corporation which produces half the power Ontario uses and operates both the Pickering and Darlington nuclear generating stations, is preparing to build a demonstration plant at an Atomic Energy Canada site. Nuclear energy is a clean, reliable, energy source and a key component to reducing greenhouse gas, something the environmental movement is finally starting to realize. Canada has long been a leader in this field and, with all the challenges in the North that SMRs could solve, this could be our opportunity to demonstrate leadership in an exciting new technology.

With the railway to Churchill now repaired and operating again and the Port re-opened, this strategically positioned city is perfectly positioned to be the delivery gateway to all these northern communities. Pre-fab housing, greenhouses, and SMRs could all be assembled and stored in Churchill during the winter and spring months and then loaded onto ships for delivery during the summer break-up. With global warming adding to the number of ice-free days in Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean it becomes even more cost effective. Solving the critical issues of the North offers so much potential for the people living there and the rest of Canada. The time has come today, let's seize the opportunity.