7. Conclusions and Reflections on the Twenty-first-Century Strait

Books like this one speak of the past, but they are firmly rooted in the present and concerned about the future. I have looked at issues, and relationships between them, that are not usually considered together in histories of British Columbia. Yet to really understand the Strait of Georgia as a highway or a barrier, an empty or a stolen space, a resource mine, a waste dump or a recreational space, we need to know the other four stories and how all five relate to one another. We also need to come to terms with these five stories and their complicated interactions if we want to begin to grasp what has happened here, in the heart of modern British Columbia, since the onset of colonisation. A better understanding of the Strait’s past can be a valuable asset for the many people who hope we will better manage our relationship with the rest of nature here in the future.

Siwash Rock and seawall on the western tip of Stanley Park. The 10-kilometre seawall promenade around the park’s perimeter, started in 1917 and completed in 1980, has become a major recreation resource for residents and visitors alike. David Nunuk photo

If we aim to do a better job of controlling the effects of technologies in the future, then we need to understand how the ways we have fished, harvested our forests, produced our paper, disposed of our wastes, opened new parks, and so on have so consistently outrun our capacity to properly control the effects of these activities. If we aim to redress past injustices done to the Strait’s Indigenous people and to cooperate with First Nations effectively in managing this shared space and resources in the future, then we must be able to see the Indigenous experience in relation to the laws and technologies introduced by settlers and all that has followed in their wake since the mid-nineteenth century. If we wish to protect the immense recreational values of the region, then we need to be familiar with the historical experiences and narratives upon which others base their own long-standing, competing claims to the future use of this space. Above all, I hope this book helps people around the Strait to better know it, and their evolving place on it.

Each of these stories about the North Salish Sea involves people who worried about various threats to “their” Strait from other people who saw this place differently. These perceived dangers evolved steadily and shifted in various ways for the many stakeholders around the sea. Early European navigators simply feared for their lives when facing the Strait’s many treacherous, uncharted hazards. On the Indigenous people’s sea, the overwhelming threat of colonial dispossession loomed large and mostly got worse over time. On the settlers’ industrialised sea, assorted resource extractors threatened each other’s livelihoods in various ways. On the post-war recreational sea, ship owners, resource industries, polluters, and recreationists with competing claims to access and ownership clashed with one another and with environmental activists. Much fear of loss that appears throughout these chapters is closely related to what one might call “the law of the jungle”—the strongest prevail and the others get out of their way. Many of the actors involved expected to control events, and expected others to get out of their way or face the consequences. At one time or another, land-hungry settlers and their governments, miners, canners, fishers, lumbermen, ship or port authorities and recreationists variously seized, devastated, exhausted or fouled space or resources that were either shared with or owned by others. That is to say, most people’s fears of loss were very rational—and still are today.

All the stories in the preceding chapters wrap up in the 1980s, a decade that saw BC’s deepest economic downturn since the 1930s but also witnessed the stunning economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China and years of heady economic success in Japan. The Strait’s role as Canada’s portal to vast Asian markets, a dream the Canadian federation had held since it was created, was evolving rapidly. And this combination of economic challenges and opportunities helped suppress, once again, the push for more effective conservation of the Strait’s resources. The highly urbanised population on the sea’s shores in the 1980s was firmly attached to the Strait as a recreation space and highly dependent on it as a waste dump. At the same time, Indigenous people were slowly beginning to exercise some influence over the Strait and its resources again, after a very dark century.

The 2010s: Plus ça change

Skip ahead about thirty years and roughly two-thirds of BC’s total population (now approaching 5 million) still lives near the Strait; they represent about a third of Western Canada’s population and 10 percent of Canada’s. Most live in Greater Vancouver, which remains among the fastest-growing places in the province and the country. Like the residents who preceded them between the 1850s and 1980s, people living around the Strait today value it for widely varying reasons. The five stories recounted in this book have continued into the new century, as familiar stakeholders—Indigenous people, commodity exporters, resource miners, waste dumpers and recreationists—continue to look for the best ways to use the marine highway, compete for the right to use its shoreline and marine space, clash over primary industries like aquaculture and try to cope with persistent flaws in governance. Many of their concerns are familiar; other struggles emerging around the Strait involve the same stakeholders facing new sorts of challenges. Brand-new stories are unfolding as local Indigenous claims to traditional lands and resources and global climate change both gather momentum, as the influence of the Chinese economy looms ever larger, and as global fisheries continue to collapse at an alarming rate. These contemporary influences are intertwined with older ones in fascinating ways.

The people living on this rich littoral, and those farther away who claim the right to use it, remain anxious about the threats that others pose to “their Strait.” As the global community becomes ever more tightly bound, all of us face diverse opportunities and challenges that are often difficult to understand. The histories sketched in this book aim to help us with this task.

We’re still overfishing

Tony Pitcher of UBC’s Department of Zoology and Fisheries Centre noted in 2005 that fish scientists were no longer debating whether the global fisheries crisis is real; it is the confirmed result of more than a century of overfishing by ever more efficient industrial fleets. The same year, Boris Worm and his colleagues at Dalhousie University estimated that two-thirds of the world’s fisheries exploited since 1950 had collapsed. Fisheries managers across the globe had consistently mismanaged the resource for the benefit of large industrial interests at the expense of small fisheries-dependent communities. The Strait of Georgia is still one of Canada’s most productive marine ecosystems, but its fish stocks, along with those of the rest of the world’s seas, have been dramatically depleted.

As in the past, disagreement and uncertainty exist about the nature and extent of this overfishing. Stocks of resident salmon, mostly Coho and Chinook, appear to be the most severely depleted, their numbers down to perhaps 10 percent of what they were in 1900. Journalist Stephen Hume reported extreme cases in 2002: Coho runs in the Seymour River had fallen from around 14,000 in the early 1980s to fewer than 500, the Coho spawn in Black Creek on the east side of Vancouver Island had fallen from close to 8,000 in 1975 to fewer than 150. Populations of transient salmon, such as Sockeye and Pink, have fared better, but their numbers are perhaps half of what they were a century ago. Many varieties of bottom fish—those that feed on the sea floor, such as cod and halibut—have been nearly wiped out after decades of overfishing.

The status of resident herring and transient Sockeye populations has been the subject of the most acrimonious debates. According to Indigenous and settler histories and recent archaeological research, herring were once exceptionally abundant in the Strait. Many beaches around the inland sea were thick with spawned herring, and the Strait supported much larger populations of fish, birds and marine mammals than it does now. Herring were an important food fish for humans in pre-colonial times, especially on the northern Strait, and they have been the focus of a commercial fishery since the onset of colonisation. Populations of herring on the Strait have fluctuated greatly, largely in response to fishing pressures but also industrial pollution. Federal fisheries authorities closed the herring fishery completely in the late 1960s as herring stocks around the Strait collapsed under heavy pressure from industrial fishing for the purposes of oil, fertilisers and animal feed. It was reopened a few years later and became the focus of a very lucrative business supplying herring roe to new markets in Japan. The roe fishery remains significant on the coast, still overseen by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. At the turn of the millennium, some observers celebrated the largest herring populations on the Strait since 1950, and herring have now begun to spawn again at once heavily polluted sites, including in False Creek and Howe Sound, where they had not been seen for decades. Not surprisingly, however, disagreements have broken out over what this means about the health of the herring population and how it should be fished.

Such competing views are the result, at least in part, of what UBC’s Daniel Pauly has described as a “shifting baseline.”1 On the one hand, proponents of the herring fishery point to increasing numbers of herring as proof that fish populations have recovered and are robust and well managed. Other biologists, fishers and conservationists blame the alarming decline in the Strait’s resident salmon and other fish species on the earlier collapse of local herring populations and have called for a multi-year moratorium on all commercial herring harvests in the Strait to permit herring and other fish stocks to recover. They maintain that those who proclaim “the biggest catch in fifty years” are comparing today’s numbers with baseline populations in the 1950s that were already far below earlier maximums. It is like extolling (as many have) the near miraculous economic growth rates in places like Mozambique and Rwanda in recent years without acknowledging the baseline of devastation from which these places were recovering.

The dramatic changes in the number of Sockeye salmon returning to the Fraser River from year to year stimulated some of the earliest rumblings about conservation on the inland sea over a century ago; they remain a source of uncertainty and debate among fish scientists, fishers and the public today. For several years prior to 2010, the numbers of Fraser River Sockeye returning to spawn reached lows that hadn’t been seen since the catastrophic Hells Gate slide of 1913. In 2009, when federal fisheries authorities were expecting a return of 10 million Sockeye, only 1.5 million arrived. Many scientists, conservationists and other observers attributed this collapse to the influence of farmed Atlantic salmon (chapter 4). Farmed fish had begun to escape from their pens and were said to be competing with indigenous Pacific Sockeye for diminishing resources in the sea and on spawning beds. Salmon farms were also blamed for spreading parasites like sea lice and new diseases such as infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN), which had started to afflict wild salmon populations. Then, confounding most experts, more than 25 million Sockeye returned to the Fraser in 2010. It was the highest return since 1913. In 2016, 2.2 million fish were expected but less than a third of this number arrived, stimulating yet another round of debate over the collapse of the stock, the role of fish farms in this collapse and the effectiveness of hatcheries.

It is not surprising, then, that there is still little agreement about how to ensure sustainable fish harvesting on the Strait in the future. Some observers insist that aquaculture will never be able to replace the earlier productivity of the wild fisheries; they call for large cuts to the industrial fishery, large marine protected areas and widespread rehabilitation of salmon spawning streams to halt the decline in the Strait’s fish populations. Others, as in the past, see industrial-scale fish breeding as the answer. Despite the daunting ecological impacts of fish farms, they call for a progressive move to aquaculture of various kinds as the only way to maintain high rates of biological productivity and provide enough fish to meet the needs of both commercial and sport fishing on the Strait. All parties agree, however, that the overall production of the Strait’s fisheries falls far short of past levels and is far from meeting the demands of commercial and recreational fishers.

Indigenous people are re-emerging

Indigenous people never disappeared from the Strait and never stopped resisting their dispossession there, despite over a century of government policies aimed at marginalising and assimilating them. The Constitution Act of 1982, under which the federal government affirmed Indigenous rights, was a critical turning point. Much ferment has since arisen in relations between the Strait’s Indigenous people and the majority white settler population. Subsequent legal decisions have confirmed the existence of Indigenous rights to lands and resources that were never formally ceded to the Crown, as well as the potential validity of Indigenous oral histories for establishing claims to these lands and resources. An ambitious program of treaty negotiations between First Nations, Victoria and Ottawa has yielded modest results to date. The government in Victoria in particular seems eager to achieve lasting settlements with Indigenous people. The province’s First Nations can now block much local resource and infrastructure development by using the courts to uphold their claims that such development interferes with the extensive “unceded traditional territories” that lie beyond the tiny patches of land earlier assigned to them by Victoria.

While the Canadian Constitution now enshrines and protects Aboriginal rights, it does not define them in detail. One result of this is that Victoria and the small, scattered First Nations with whom it is negotiating around the inland sea must commission archaeological and historical studies to confirm where and how Indigenous people used to live and harvest resources in pre-colonial times. And because several First Nations often have overlapping claims to the same territories and resources, especially fisheries resources, it can be difficult to reach final agreements. Yet the province can’t walk away from the table; it is obliged to reach negotiated treaty settlements if it wants to remove the legal uncertainties that constrain local and regional development wherever land claims are unresolved. Nor can Victoria return much of the land Indigenous people claim as traditional territory because most of it is now occupied or used by voters who would never countenance its expropriation.

One of the few ways out of the impasse, at least from Victoria’s perspective, is to offer “softer” resources such as lands in parks or the Agricultural Land Reserve, or “common property” fisheries resources. Non-Indigenous fishers have become increasingly resentful of Indigenous claims to fisheries resources and of changes to Fisheries and Oceans Canada regulations that allow some salmon caught by Indigenous food fishers to be sold commercially. Indeed, Indigenous fishers may benefit as some non-Indigenous fishers leave the industry, much as happened when Japanese Canadian fishers were abruptly forced out of the industry in the early 1940s. The difference is that Indigenous people would inherit a fishery much diminished in size.

As with Indigenous repossession of the fisheries, conflict has sometimes arisen between groups devoted to conservation and environmental stewardship and local First Nations keen to acquire land and resources to help their members overcome chronic poverty. For example, valued recreation space on Tree Island (Sandy Islets) between Comox and Denman Island, currently managed as a provincial marine park and part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, has long been part of the dispossession process and could be among the objects of repossession under the ongoing treaty negotiations. The province’s willingness to sacrifice conservation values to achieve treaties is evident in a recent agreement with the Tsawwassen First Nation. This agreement involved the transfer of almost 400 hectares of land that had been reserved for agricultural purposes to the Tsawwassen people for development without constraint. In return, the First Nation relinquished its claim to adjacent land along the shore, allowing the province and Ottawa to proceed with their ambitious plans to expand port facilities.

Arriving at such arrangements in the context of broader treaty negotiations is challenging and time-consuming, and details are seldom shared with the public until a deal is closed. It is reasonable to assume that similar arrangements will emerge in various places around the Strait in the coming years—possibly on Howe Sound, for example. Such complicated bargains are paving the way for federal, provincial and municipal governments to build new infrastructure for resource and industrial development while making important concessions to Indigenous negotiators, who are seeking new opportunities for their own communities.

Aquaculture is established but changing

Proponents of salmon and shellfish farming, like the backers of hatcheries in the past, continue to extol their ability to deliver spectacular biological and economic results while downplaying their limitations, particularly their ecological effects and other public concerns.

By the end of the twentieth century, as farmed salmon production began to exceed the wild fishery on the BC coast, salmon farmers had moved north and mostly abandoned all but the northernmost passages into the Strait of Georgia. These farms now raise Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), which are better able than Pacific salmon species to live in high densities in confined pens. Although Atlantic salmon themselves are less prone to outbreaks of disease, they are hardly immune to it, and they have repeatedly been linked with parasites and diseases spreading to wild Pacific salmon as they pass near salmon farms during their migrations towards spawning grounds around the Strait.

Independent scientists such as Alexandra Morton, an eloquent and widely trusted opponent of current methods of salmon farming, have repeatedly challenged the industry and its government backers over the impacts of salmon farms on the health of wild salmon and marine mammal populations. Even Ottawa’s Auditor General has questioned whether Fisheries and Oceans Canada is capable of fulfilling its mandate to protect the wild salmon fishery while also supporting the salmon-farming industry. Federal government reluctance to share information about its scientific research on salmon pathology has drawn sharp criticism from the national and international scientific communities, though this situation has improved recently. Despite the fact that most salmon farming in BC is now controlled by a handful of Norwegian firms, the provincial government still remains a steadfast supporter of salmon-farming, seeing the industry as a valuable complement to the wild salmon fishery.

Publicists for the aquaculture industry and its government supporters are inclined to wrap salmon farmers in a cloak of sanctity, as efficient producers of protein in a protein-deficient world, and leaders in an inevitable transition from “fish hunting” to “fish farming.” They imply that pond-farmed carp raised on farm waste in the Yangtze basin in China and Atlantic salmon raised on fish meal in open pens along the BC coast have similarly benign ecological impacts. Meanwhile, detractors demonise salmon farmers as wasting resources by using unconscionable volumes of the oceans’ smaller fish to feed expensive, drug-riddled salmon bound not for famine-relief operations but for supermarkets and restaurants. Fish farms, say the critics, damage the marine environment in ways that are poorly understood, threatening to undermine the health of the wild fishery and the broader marine environment by propagating dangerous diseases—all for the profit of a few large foreign-owned corporations, and very much at the expense of wild salmon stocks and the thousands of small, independent fishers who depend on them to earn a living.

As with earlier debates about salmon around the sea, a baffling number of factors other than fish farms may be affecting the health of the Strait’s wild salmon populations. These include warmer temperatures in spawning streams reducing survival rates among returning salmon, growing numbers of “run of the river” hydroelectric producers around the Strait closing off spawning streams, and hard-to-understand changes in the North Pacific Ocean. Such uncertainty, however—much like the uncertainty that allowed the tobacco industry to keep its critics at bay for decades—helps salmon farmers avoid making the adjustments called for by their critics, such as confining their salmon to fully enclosed pens in order to minimise pollution of the marine environment. In any case, because salmon farms are physically concentrated outside the inland sea, they are less of an issue to people living around its shores.

In contrast, ambitious plans to expand shellfish aquaculture on the Strait may give this issue a higher profile in the coming years. Baynes Sound, between Denman Island and Vancouver Island, remains the centre of BC’s shellfish aquaculture industry, producing more than half of the province’s output of close to 4,000 tons of shellfish annually. Tension is growing between these producers and their local critics. Opponents on Denman Island urge respect for the Islands Trust’s mandate to “preserve and protect” their island’s natural environment, including adjacent coastal waters, rather than continually expanding the shellfish aquaculture industry in the sound. The growing conflict between shellfish growers and islanders bears some resemblance to American historian Richard White’s story of loggers versus environmentalists in the western US in the 1990s. Both are classic divides between people for whom nature is mostly a place to work and others who see it mainly as a place for recreation. But critics of current practices in BC’s shellfish industry also stress the need to protect the long-term resilience, productivity and biological diversity of the local marine environment, not just its recreation values.

Shellfish farmers are more inclined than even salmon farmers to extol the benign nature of their business; theirs, they say, is “a protein source that takes nothing from the planet other than phytoplankton.”2 Like many on the coast, shellfish farmers aim to prosper by supplying new markets across the Pacific, and the markets there for geoduck clams are particularly promising. The annual value of geoduck landings on the BC coast rose from virtually zero in 1970 to more than $50 million in 2012: much of this is wild stock harvested from the Strait of Georgia. The K’ómoks First Nation has announced ambitious plans to cultivate these large bivalves in the sandy sea bottom off Denman Island. Perhaps as part of its treaty settlement with Victoria, it aims to secure control over hundreds of hectares of suitable seabed, predicting that its geoduck harvests will equal the entire province’s current production. If, as some observers suggest, shellfish cultivation on the Strait is destined to grow into a billion-dollar export industry, geoduck could well be one of its most lucrative commodities and Indigenous people could play a significant role in its production.

Proponents of an expanded shellfish industry depict it in much the same way that Victoria’s policy-makers viewed salmon farming in the 1970s—as an ecologically benign industry run by a large number of small-scale, independent local operators. If recent developments on Baynes Sound are any indication, the industry is more likely to follow the actual path of the salmon farmers: many disturbing questions about their possible ecological impacts remain unanswered while production is increasingly controlled by a few large foreign interests with local partners, including First Nations.

Critics of shellfish aquaculture, like those who question salmon farming technology, decry its damage to the marine environment. They say that growers and the government staff who work with them drive their vehicles onto beaches, risking damage to the sensitive foreshore habitat of other species of vertebrates and invertebrates such as spawning herring, sand lance and other forage fish critical for sustaining the sea’s larger fish and mammals. Shellfish growers working the beaches during the winter’s nighttime low tides keep neighbours awake with their noise and lights. Growing fleets of rafts, from which the molluscs are suspended in plastic containers, spread farther across Baynes Sound each year. Tons of plastic materials lost from these shellfish operations litter surrounding beaches. Many sand beaches are now draped in “predator nets,” which are intended to protect clams from burrowing predators but threaten a variety of fish, marine birds and mammals, including swimmers, who can become entangled in them. All this in a rich estuary that has been recognised as an “ecologically and biologically sensitive area.”

The prospect of expanded geoduck cultivation is particularly offensive to local residents. Experiments have already begun with plastic pipes 15 centimetres in diameter being sunk into the sandy substrate of an intertidal zone on the Baynes Sound shore of Denman Island. These pipes protect the juvenile geoduck seeded inside them. They are covered with the same predator nets used on other beaches to prevent damage to the clams during the seven years it takes them to mature. These nets can break loose during storms, entangling other animals. To harvest the geoduck, shellfish farmers use high-pressure hoses that transform their sandbar habitat into an amorphous slurry that is uninhabitable for many other species. Questions remain unanswered about the ecological consequences of mobilising PCBs and other toxins that were deposited within these sediments decades earlier.

The Strait of Georgia as a whole is an important source of the various persistent organic pollutants that accumulate to dangerous levels in the flesh of marine mammals, increasingly through ingestion of microplastic debris. Baynes Sound has become a repository of large amounts of this toxic plastic waste. Denman Islanders already collect tons of mostly plastic refuse left on their beaches each year by the shellfish industry. They stage high-profile waste-gathering events intended, among other things, to encourage the shellfish growers to reduce their waste stream. The soaring volumes of microplastics suspended in the marine environment may represent a serious threat to the very shellfish industry that could itself be a source of this material. Evidence suggests their oysters and other bivalves are already ingesting and accumulating these tiny plastic particles. For their part, the dedicated stewards of the island’s shores—like the American environmentalists Richard White wrote about in the 1990s—may be perceived as being so rigid in their protection of the marine environment that they risk being left out of discussions among local and provincial decision-makers. This would be a great loss for all involved. Yet, if these stewards are seen as being unable or unwilling to consider the local importance of the shellfish industry, they will likely be seen as impediments, rather than participants, in any agreement between the provincial government and the K’ómoks First Nation, which is understandably impatient to regain a century and a half of lost ground.

By the 1980s, farming on the Strait had evolved from an instrument of colonial dispossession to a means of protecting the “valued rural character” of the Islands Trust islands. In the early twenty-first century, new techniques of farming the sea have become powerful and controversial instruments for Indigenous people to repossess their rights to marine space and resources. Scenarios like the one unfolding around Denman Island could well be seen in other places around the Strait in the coming decades.

Recreation continues to increase in importance

Howe Sound became a valued recreation space during the twentieth century because of its clear waters, secluded beaches and good fishing as well as its proximity to Vancouver. In 1969, it was closed to all but recreational salmon fishing and a few years later Scientific Pollution and Environmental Control Society (SPEC), an environmental NGO, called for the entire sound to be designated a recreational area and protected from any further industrial development. Since then, this vision has been mostly fulfilled. Most of the sound’s older, resource-based activities such as logging and mining have stopped. Instead, tourism and recreation, and a real-estate market that benefits from its close association with them, have become the backbone of the local economy. The change has been gradual yet dramatic, and it remains contested today.

The giant copper mine at Britannia on the eastern shore of the sound closed for good in the 1970s to become a mining museum and, occasionally, a movie set. The aging pulp mill on the sound’s western shore at Woodfibre shut down in 2006. Between them, these sites have left a legacy of heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and furans in the sound itself, while the province continues a costly long-term program to contain the acid drainage from Britannia. Although another old pulp mill still operates at Port Mellon, it was refitted in the 1990s to reduce its impact on the marine environment. And marine life does appear to be returning. A few Pink salmon were reported to be spawning in Britannia Creek in 2012, for the first time in eighty years. With the help of volunteers sealing off pilings that had been soaked in toxic creosote, herring have begun to spawn again in the Squamish Estuary. Dolphins and larger whales, long absent from the sound, have started to visit the area again. Provincial and local governments have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to stimulate tourism along the Sea-to-Sky Corridor. As a result, the sound is now closely associated with recreation: from windsurfing and kitesurfing at Squamish Spit and scuba diving at Porteau Cove to salmon fishing, sea kayaking, and sailing around the islands. One even sees the occasional cruise ship there, taking the long way up the coast.

Beaches like this one near Parksville are still a major tourist attraction. iStock.com/EmilyNorton

In recent years, talk of developing the abandoned pulp mill site at Woodfibre as a liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage and export facility has alarmed those who view the sound as a “restored natural space” and a valuable place for recreation. And a gravel quarry has been proposed for a site farther south. As with Baynes Sound, these kinds of ongoing friction between recreation and resource development still exist in many places around the Strait, dividing communities and challenging all levels of government.

Marine pollution and oil spills are still an issue

The volume of municipal sewage being dumped into the Strait every day increased by almost two-thirds between 1983 and 1999 as towns on all shores grew and continued to expand their sewage treatment facilities. Although much of this sewage is now subjected to secondary treatment, more than half of the Strait’s coastline was closed to shellfish harvesting by the early twenty-first century, mostly due to sewage pollution. On the other hand, much progress has been made in reducing persistent organic pollutants in industrial effluent, and concern today has shifted to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These fire-retardant chemicals have been very widely used in recent years in the production of a huge number of products we use daily, such as electrical appliances, consumer electronics, plastics and textiles; PBDEs are now ubiquitous in the tissues of both marine animals and humans.

False Creek has been transformed in recent decades, from an open sewer to a vibrant waterfront. People are still advised to wash their hands and shower after contact with its water however, especially the eastern basin where high levels of PCBs and heavy metals are still found in sediments. David Nunuk photo

In 2008, the three federal port authorities created early in the twentieth century to govern Lower Mainland ports were consolidated to create a single entity named Port Metro Vancouver. By 2011, Port Metro Vancouver was handling 122.5 million tons of cargo, almost 80 percent of it international trade, mostly exports of raw or semi-processed natural resources. Port authorities estimated (somehow) that their activities generated close to 130,000 jobs across the country that year, $6.1 billion in wages and $10.5 billion in GDP.

As in the early 1970s the most contentious pollution issue on the Strait today is the possibility of a major oil spill. Petroleum products currently make up a modest portion of the overall volume of exports and the number of ships moving through Vancouver. China’s demand for imported hydrocarbons continues to grow, however, and producers of heavy oil from the tar sands in northern Alberta, some now Chinese-owned, are anxious to improve their access to this market. One way is to increase the volume of this heavy oil exported through the port of Vancouver.

Widespread concern exists today, as it did in the 1970s, that our governments are poorly prepared for an oil spill. Pollution control strategies on the Strait have variously aimed to reduce the volume and toxicity of pollutants, to concentrate pollutants in one place, or to disperse them beneath the surface of the sea from a fixed point. An oil spill on the Strait, by definition, could not be carefully planned or easily controlled. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that no one is quite sure how diluted bitumen, or “dilbit”—a diluted heavy-oil product currently being delivered to the coast and carried in tankers plying the Strait—will behave when it is spilled into the marine environment. Industry experts have said they expect it to behave like lighter crude oil, but a spill of dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, where much of the oil settled on the stream bottom, suggests otherwise. Studies are being carried out around the Strait, but it is still too early to draw many conclusions.

One well-respected early study of the possible effects of a major oil spill on the Strait (and Puget Sound) pointed out that hundreds of kilometres of shoreline along inlets, bays and islands would be exposed to damage, as well as large populations of migratory birds, ecologically important coastal marshlands and still significant commercial fisheries. Among the places possibly affected would be the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and a significant number of the province’s marine and land-based parks, which now touch virtually all shorelines of the inland sea from Indian Arm to the Octopus Islands. More recent studies by pipeline-project backers have focused less on the negative effects of a spill and more on the statistical probability of one occurring and on local capacities for responding to such a disaster.

Kinder Morgan, a Texas company, owns the Trans Mountain Pipeline which already moves crude oil and refined products from Alberta to Burrard Inlet. It has proposed a major expansion of that line that would increase oil shipments through the Strait by up to 500 percent, using more than 400 tankers a year. The company’s study concluded that the likelihood of a major spill occurring is very low: once every 460 years (about the same likelihood as a major earthquake occurring). This falls, they say, to about once every 2,300 years if suitable “mitigation measures” and safeguards are in place. Opponents point to their own evidence, which suggests the chance of an oil spill occurring is far higher than the estimates generated by Kinder Morgan’s consultants, and there is not enough local capacity to effectively mitigate this risk. A demonstration in 2013 designed to show local spill-response capacities backfired when the flagship of the oil clean-up fleet ran aground on its way to a press conference. Committed to ensuring a “world class” capacity to respond to coastal oil spills, the provincial Liberal government led by Christy Clark commissioned its own study, which further confirmed the current state of unpreparedness.

Clearly, the Strait will remain the focus of considerable political struggle over oil shipments in the coming years. Residents of its shoreline communities for the most part are determined to defend treasured recreational resources and coastal ecosystems, while many in the rest of the province and Western Canada in general remain convinced of their right to use the Strait as a highway to world markets.

Governance is changing on the Strait

When the federal government created its Department of the Environment in 1971 and appointed Jack Davis as its first minister, it signalled a commitment to carefully managing how natural resources were used as well as the impacts of human activities on the environment. The new agency’s capacity to manage the marine environment of the inland sea increased, albeit slowly and unevenly, in the decades that followed. After 2006 it shrank rapidly during nearly a decade of radical cuts to federal government capacities under Stephen Harper. In 2012, this government passed the Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act (better known as Bill C-38), an extraordinarily wide-reaching “omnibus bill” disguised as a federal budget that greatly reduced Ottawa’s involvement in marine protection. Provincial governments, including the one in Victoria, suddenly became responsible for overseeing the environmental impact assessments of new infrastructure projects, a role that many of them had little or no demonstrated capacity to do.

Orcas in the southern Strait, with Mount Baker in the background. A large increase in heavy-oil shipments to the south coast from northern Alberta would result in a great expansion of oil tanker traffic. This in turn would threaten the survival of this species in the southern Strait. Jens Benninghofen/AllCanadaPhotos.com on behalf of Alamy

This reduction in federal oversight was only the most high-profile change among many that diminished the federal role in protecting and managing the environment while expanding Ottawa’s support for resource development and infrastructure projects such as pipeline construction. The Fisheries and Oceans Canada department, like Environment Canada, shrivelled under the Harper government. It passed legislation reducing the protection of fish habitat while cutting budgets for environmental monitoring and restoration in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and muzzling federal fish scientists. At the same time, the Harper government “streamlined” the environmental review process for resource development and infrastructure projects by exempting 3,000 of them from review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Independent scientists and community groups strongly criticised the government for failing to pursue its mandate to ensure the long-term viability of marine resources and habitats. Reversing the effects of extreme and wide-reaching measures introduced under Harper will take time. A new federal government elected in late 2015 has stated its commitment to improving environmental governance while, like the Harper government, supporting the controversial expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

Meanwhile, as in the 1970s, the government in Victoria, at least until very recently, has remained preoccupied with “dollars and sense” issues on the Strait (chapter 5); it was aligned with the Harper government’s vision of future prosperity based on hydrocarbon exports. But whereas the Harper government was partial to heavy-oil exports (as Ottawa continues to be), the province focused on exporting liquefied natural gas, while sharing Harper’s commitment to shrinking the machinery of government. The provincial Auditor General’s report for 2011 stated that Victoria’s Environmental Assessment Office had become virtually a rubber stamp for industry, rejecting only one out of 219 development proposals submitted in the previous fifteen years, while failing to carry out monitoring needed to ensure that these approved projects met their legal obligations for environmental management. The province’s approach to environmental assessment reflected a commitment to allowing industry to self-regulate whenever possible. Many citizens and local governments around the inland sea question whether this approach will be sufficient to prevent accelerating environmental degradation or respond to major accidents such as oil spills.

Local governments around the Strait are generally far more concerned than their senior counterparts about local damage resulting from industries’ self-regulated activities. But these lower levels of government mostly lack the capacity and legal authority to challenge initiatives favoured by Victoria and Ottawa. The larger and most vulnerable players among them, such as Vancouver, Burnaby, North Vancouver and other shoreline municipalities, will pursue whatever political means they have at their disposal to oppose the federally approved pipeline expansion project that would dramatically increase the movement of diluted bitumen through Burrard Inlet. Most First Nations, municipal and regional governments lack the technical capacity, and the defined legal authority, to participate effectively in environmental management on the Strait. But Indigenous people in particular wield considerable influence as a result of their unresolved land claims and could play a decisive role in future disputes with the province and Ottawa.

Some analysts have proposed provincial legislation that would create an integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) process. This process could involve all levels of government as well as a range of specialists and key stakeholder groups that would address and, hopefully, resolve emerging conflicts about and threats of environmental degradation on the Strait. This approach would allow more local influence over decisions about the Strait, decisions that are currently dominated by a distant federal government more often influenced by powerful industries and their lobbyists than by local interests. Echoing the sorts of reservations expressed last century by Roderick Haig-Brown, contemporary critics are skeptical that an ICZM approach can deliver the promised results. Such an approach has often proven to be a smokescreen that allows dominant players to continue to exert control over shared space and resources. Nonetheless, on a Strait threatened by large new projects with unknown and potentially disastrous consequences, even an imperfect ICZM process would be a marked improvement over the current free-for-all in which local interests are consistently steamrollered by powerful forces with deep pockets and the governments they influence.

Ferry service is declining

The Strait may no longer be the highway it was in the days when settlers travelled from town to town by steamship, but it is still a vital link for hundreds of thousands of people who live and work on Vancouver Island, the Mainland north of Howe Sound and the Strait’s larger islands. BC Ferries became semi-privatised in 2003 when the erstwhile provincial Crown corporation started operating as an independently managed company. Since then, the provincial government has progressively “eliminated subsidies” for what was earlier considered an essential public service. Fares on the larger ferries connecting the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island have been increasing several times faster than the rate of inflation, and on the smaller routes fares have risen almost twice as fast again. As a result, ridership on BC Ferries plummeted, its costs soared and its “losses”—which were earlier considered the cost of operating a necessary public service—continued. Vehicle traffic in 2012 reached its lowest level in thirteen years, passenger traffic, the lowest in twenty-one years. Meanwhile, BC Ferries’ many managers were receiving a variety of bonuses.

BC Ferries’ inability to deliver service while managing costs has been predictably damaging for communities that depend on the ferries to help them move people and goods around Strait. It has been particularly hard on communities that depend on seasonal tourism and recreation for economic survival. For example, journalist Stephen Hume reported that the “tourist dependent Gulf Islands” had lost a total of 2.7 million visitor trips since the privatised BC Ferries began reducing service and raising fares. He also blamed poor ferry service for a decline of more than $1.6 billion in the value of residential properties on the islands between 2010 and 2013 alone.3 Further cuts in service and fare hikes far beyond the rate of inflation were introduced early in 2014. A large number of people—roughly 20 percent of BC’s population and most people who live on the Strait outside of Vancouver—are affected by these continuous blows. They can only hope that the province will eventually recognise the essential nature of their marine links and begin, once again, to reinforce rather than undermine them.

The climate is changing

Among the few truly new issues that have arisen around the sea in recent decades are those related to accelerating climate change. Sea temperature rises have been recorded all along the BC coast over the past fifty years, while the biggest increase—of 1.5°C—has been recorded in the Strait of Georgia. This warming trend is expected to continue, causing some marine species to thrive while others move north to cooler waters, or perish. Pink salmon, for example, are the smallest and most thermally tolerant of the indigenous salmon species, and it appears they will be the best adapted to deal with such rapid temperature changes. Other salmon may prove vulnerable to these rising temperatures.

Sea levels are rising in many places around the Strait and along the rest of the coast. The effects are likely to be relatively modest along many rocky shorelines but far more dramatic in low-lying areas, such as coastal estuaries and the alluvial plains behind them. Most of these low-lying areas are rich habitat for a wide variety of animal species, and a great deal of the region’s agricultural, industrial and port activities occupy this land as well. Moreover, a boom in residential development in the Lower Mainland is making much of this low-lying land ever more densely populated. Andrew Yan, a local urban planner, has estimated that the City of Vancouver, with its over 50 kilometres of shoreline, will be obliged to spend more than $500 million on dikes and seawalls in the twenty-first century, and billions more to purchase the land for these structures, just to keep pace with rising sea levels. Damage to shoreline real estate and infrastructure is predicted to cost a further $25 billion.4

And the inland sea is becoming more acidic. Up to a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere globally is absorbed by the world’s oceans, where it produces carbonic acid that in turn enhances the oceans’ acidity. As with rising sea temperatures, acidification may be more extreme on the Strait than in the open Pacific, though scientists are still debating this point. Regardless, acidity levels are likely to broadly follow those of the open ocean, where the average pH has already declined from 8.2 to 8.1 in recent decades and is expected to fall to 7.8 or below over the rest of the century. It is more difficult for marine species to adapt to this kind of trend because they cannot escape it by moving. Even an individual species that is not very sensitive to acidity will be affected by the deaths of other species that are further down the food chain—zooplankton, for example. Shellfish farmers on the Strait have already begun to suffer from diebacks of those bivalves, such as scallops, that are most sensitive to increasing acidity.

Responses to these trends by governments in Victoria and Ottawa have resulted in a kind of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they have now acknowledged that climate change exists and have committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are one of its leading causes. BC has a Climate Action Plan, while Canada has signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and has worked with the provinces to find ways to meet our commitments under the agreement. On the other hand, both governments have remained determined to increase the production and export of hydrocarbons, mostly heavy oil from the tar sands and gas from hydraulic fracking processes that generate much fugitive methane. These are the same fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases when burned, gases whose generation both governments insist, meanwhile, that they are determined to dramatically reduce.

The great majority of the world’s climate scientists have concluded that most of our hydrocarbons should be left in the ground if we are to avoid runaway climate change by the end of the century. The hydrocarbon industry and the politicians who are beholden to it remain anxious to extract and sell the stuff as quickly as possible. That is to say, they are displaying the same kind of short-sighted, profit-seeking, chronic imediatismo that has characterised so much of our resource industry around the inland sea over the past two centuries. This approach will contribute to disruptive environmental changes of the sort already starting to appear on the Strait. Such local changes, as dramatic as they may be, will be a drop in the global bucket. Climate change will inevitably affect the Strait to some degree for many years to come, irrespective of whatever policies we adopt locally now or in the future. And our losses may prove relatively modest on a global scale—think of the hundreds of millions whose lives will be disrupted in the coastal plains, agricultural regions and fast-growing cities of Africa and Asia. But climate change will directly and significantly affect the people who live around the inland sea. How much climate change will directly affect us, including influencing where and how people will be able to live and work on the Strait, will depend in large part on the policies of our governments, and those of our global partners, today and in the decades ahead. Our governments know this already; they need to start acting like they know it.

What does the Strait’s history mean for today’s policy-makers?

The five portraits of the Strait in this book were inspired not just by a love of this place and a desire to understand and explain it, but also by my experiences in many other beautiful and resource-rich places. Since the 1970s, I have often found myself working with clever, capable people whose home regions have been plagued by human folly. Think, for example, of the Aral and Caspian seas, until recently rich and vital marine ecosystems abounding with life that are now largely toxic cesspools, ruined due to decades of abuse by industrial agriculture and the oil industry. Of the beautiful eastern Congo, so rich in people and land and valuable minerals yet now a chaotic, violence-prone mess of shattered communities and broken infrastructure after a few generations of external manipulation and chronically bad government. Of Haiti in the heart of the Caribbean, like BC a rainy and mountainous place—the rich and fertile treasure chest of the French Empire barely two centuries ago, it is now eroded to the nubs, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Are there lessons for us in these places? All of them could and should be much better places to live. All are, or were, resource-rich; all are, or were, prized spaces where local factions backed by powerful outside interests pursued their competing claims to these lands and their riches, at the expense of most people living there.

The North Salish Sea has finally come into its own as a gateway to a powerful East Asian economy that is itself finally realising the ambitions of its citizens and the long-standing expectations of its European and North American trading partners. Not only has the Strait become a portal for this trade, it also serves as a “resource mine” for these pan-Pacific economies, just as it had been for the US and, earlier, the British Empire. It has become a place between the world’s two dominant powers—the US and China—with strong ties to both. With BC’s exports evenly split between these two countries, the province now occupies a position well known to Kazakhstanis and Congolese: being relatively weak and dependent compared to powerful external interests. These comparisons will seem outlandish to many. Such suggestions always do, until you experience a faraway place and see its obvious flaws, then return home to discover local versions of these same shortcomings. Consider, for example, our crumbling provincial (and, until recently at least, federal) civil service; our often short-sighted or venal political leaders; our traditions of squandering valuable shared resources, of bullying and even outright theft of public property by dominant individuals and corporations, and so on. These five stories of the evolving relationships between the Strait, its resources and its people offer many disturbing examples of similar failings in our own past. As competition for space and resources intensifies around the Strait in the twenty-first century, the threat of future transgressions against our common interest will also intensify. Those of us who wish to prevent them will need to act vigorously and take a stand against them.

This vision of the Strait’s past and present, and its future prospects, will seem unjustifiably pessimistic to many. In response, I cite one of Haiti’s choicer proverbs: “A paranoid is someone who understands the situation.” Many of our political leaders have hitched their wagons to the hydrocarbon industry—the twenty-first century’s tobacco industry, on steroids—with its inherently corrupting influences. The administrators—our provincial and federal civil services—are still repositories of much valuable expertise but their ranks have been decimated and their effectiveness hobbled by debilitating cuts and repeated “streamlining” over the course of decades. And though Canada’s resource base is still vast by global standards—faint praise, perhaps—around the inland sea we have rapidly squandered an immense wealth of renewable resources. Now some leaders are telling us that our future wealth and happiness depend on using the Strait to facilitate the fastest possible extraction and export of non-renewable resources whose use threatens global stability. What comes after that?

Taken together, these five stories confirm what we already know, and what those who make decisions affecting today’s Strait should know: it is a highly valued, complex and contested space whose management is remarkably challenging and is certain to grow more challenging in the future. Effective stewardship of this space will be impossible if we continue to treat it with benign neglect, “streamline” our regulation of it and allow the industries that use it to mostly self-regulate. Companies may make the right decisions for their shareholders, in the very short term at least, but they cannot reliably manage how the Strait’s diverse resources are shared with the millions of BC residents who also have high stakes in this valued space. If we intend to pass this precious sea and its shores on to future generations with its inherent richness and diversity somewhat intact, we must carefully guide the wide range of public- and private-sector interests whose actions affect it. Getting these players—especially from the private sector and the federal, First Nations, provincial, regional and municipal governments—to work together effectively will almost certainly require some sort of coastal zone management framework. This is the best available option, despite the recognised flaws of such an approach.

To make such a management approach work effectively around the North Salish Sea will take time and effort. It will inevitably need to be improved through trial and error, determining what can take root in this unique context and what can’t. Approaches and attitudes imported from outside the region—ways of doing things that have worked in other places—will not succeed here unless they can be carefully adapted to our local needs and capacities, our constraints and opportunities. Many of our American neighbours living around the different lobes of the Salish Sea are deeply committed to assuring its future well-being, and we need to include them in our new approaches. But we cannot let inevitably complex negotiations with partners in the US become an excuse for inaction in our own backyard.

To paraphrase George Orwell, everyone’s home is special, but ours is more special than most. Whether we’ve had the good fortune to be born near the North Salish Sea or the good sense to move here, we know that we live in an extraordinary corner of the world. And by most measures, we are among the world’s most privileged people. We have no excuse for squandering this place, ruining it for our children and their children, in our rush to satisfy short-term needs or fulfill the shifting priorities of industries or governments that are demonstrably not acting in the best interests of our local or global communities. It is our duty to begin treating this place with the care it deserves. We need to learn from our past successes and failures, then re-dream our future here and make it happen.


1. Daniel Pauly, “Anecdotes and shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10 (1995), 430.

2. Roberta Stevenson, “The View from My Desk, Tidelines, BC Shellfish Growers Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 2013), 2, accessed 2 June 2014, http://bcsga.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Tidelines_Fall_2013.pdf.

3. Stephen Hume, “Rising ferry fares, service cuts an ‘economic’ disaster,” Vancouver Sun, 8 February 2014: D1; Hume, “Ferry cuts mean lost tourist dollars,” Vancouver Sun, 1 March 2014: A9.

4. Daniel Wood, “The big chill of ocean warming,” The Georgia Straight, 20–27 October 2011, 19–21; Kelly Sinoski, “Rising sea levels putting landmarks at risk,” Vancouver Sun, 4 August 2012: A4.