Some students learn from mistakes

Today, killer whales feast, and a whale watching industry in B.C. thrives.

In the 1960s, the DFO paid $15 for harbor seal “snouts,” proof an enemy of Pacific salmon had been killed. Bounty hunters – commercial and recreational fishermen eager to help the cause – shot thousands of animals. Many seals sank before they could give up their noses.

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, biologist Vancouver Aquarium, recalls this culling campaign as an example of government tinkering with a perfectly self-regulating bio-system.

“The harbor seals typically take only four per cent of the adult salmon from the system,” says Lennard. “Hake are much bigger predators of salmon smolts. Seals eat hake. Take seals out of the system, you get more hake, and fewer salmon.”

The DFO failed to comprehend this simple logic, or ignored it, (the scientific evidence was there), but in 1970, seals were finally protected. The DFO had conceded scientists and Mother Nature knew more about the integral part predators play in a web of bio-diversity. When the seal population increases beyond a certain point, disease clicks in, and seals die off. A balance between prey and predator returns.

Today, killer whales feast, and a whale watching industry in B.C. thrives.

The DFO claims to be working with nature now. A 2010 Science Advisory Report on its website reads: “With a recent shift towards ecosystem-based management, there may be potential for using species like harbor seals as an indicator of the stability of the status of food levels in the North Pacific … a sentinel for contaminants in high-level predators.”

These words rate a report card ‘F,’ and time out for fibbing. DFO regularly licences seal kills near fish farms – the real enemy of salmon – despite their protection in law. In 2010, the Seal Conservation Society reported DFO granted 470 illegal kill permits while reporting that the “natural regulatory system” would take care of itself. Seals will eat salmon if handed them on a plate. To avoid the predation problem – as Justice Bruce Cohen suggests – put the farms on land.

Some students with bad grades learn from mistakes, try harder in second term. Not the DFO. It insists, hypocritically – in media-lines letters addressed to river stewardship groups like ARMS, the Ceed Centre, and municipal councils like our’s – that it, too, values the environment.

The opposite is still true. The latest incompetent tinkering is Stephen Harper’s new Fisheries Act, which protects a limited set of fish of “significant economic value.” Yet, scientific evidence confirms all fish are needed to sustain the aquatic eco-system, and government should monitor and protect the habitat of even the least known and appreciated.

Like the tiny stickleback, a common resident of streams including the North Alouette River. In 2009, there were thousands of sticklebacks floating belly up here, but the DFO was loathe to investigate. Consequently, the cause remains undetermined, and no one has checked to see if the fish have recovered.

I’m guessing Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield hasn’t even heard of the four-centimeter fish with three spines on its back, but professor John Richardson, of UBC’s Department of Forest and Science Conservation, has, and likes them.

Recently, Richardson studied the affects to a “riparian area community” when a predator  – sticklebacks – are removed from a stream. Sticklebacks eat stoneflies, caddis, and mayflies. The bugs eat plant life. Richardson says if the flies are free of predation by sticklebacks, they over-populate, consuming “all the organic matter they can find.”

One natural consequence? Up to two times the CO2 released into the atmosphere without stickleback predation. But, says the biologist, “We’re losing the predators from our eco-system.” Richardson warns, “There isn’t enough habitat for them. Anything we do to them would not be a good thing for the planet.”

So, even a little spiny fish few will ever see is important. “We knew fresh waters –ponds, lakes, streams – are net exporters of CO2 into the atmosphere,” says Richardson, “but now we know removing top predators can lead to doubling the rate. That’s astonishing. The smaller organisms like sticklebacks maintain the integrity of the ecosystem.

There should be a program to keep track of what’s living in streams, forests, wetlands.”

Grade 5 kids get that. They recycle Tetra Paks to reduce green house gas. But Mr. Harper’s not smarter than a fifth grader. By removing habitat protection from legislation, he again ignores science. The DFO doesn’t monitor the North Alouette to check on sticklebacks, or look for anyone muddying the water, or pumping chemicals into it. Local authorities will do that now, stewardship groups, or you and I.

Why would government treat an eco-system this way? “They just don’t care,” says Barrett-Lennard. “They have different values than most of us.”

Good turnout for I Read it in the Fish and Flies, the stickleback puppet show on Earth Day. Life imitates art, eh?


Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.