On hope

Three moments that tell of action, agency, and inspiration.

“I’M A MONSTER!!!” Riley yells triumphantly, ripping out an enormous daphne plant. Metallica plays in the background.

Pulling Daphne, or spurge laurel, is tough but rewarding work. Interspersed with exclamations of astonishment, “Look at the size of this one!” “How deep do the roots go?!?!” are satisfied calls of “yesss!” and “arrrggghhh!” as invasive plants are ripped out by their roots. 

On this day at QENENIW̱ (Hay Point, South Pender Island), I am joining the youth working on the SX̱OLE – Reef Net Project in doing invasive species removal, led by PEPÁḴEṈ HÁUTW̱ Foundation. QENENIW̱ is a sacred W̱SÁNEĆ place. Unfortunately, invasive Daphne has taken over the forest understory, choking Indigneous plants and sucking up nutrients and water. Daphne sap is toxic for the respiratory tract and to the skin, so proper guidance and precautions are necessary for removing it.

Our Daphne-pulling day was brief, but effective. Being able to look at swaths of forest now clear of daphne, we could see the land being healed.

“You never see any animals here, no large fish or seals or anything.” SṈIDȻEȽ (Tod Inlet) looks pristine, but has been severely degraded by a legacy of industrial development, invasive species incursion, and boating..

Today we are out on the water, paddling in and around Brentwood Bay to collect water samples. With support from the Blue Water Task Force and the Vancouver Island Surf Rider Foundation, we will be testing for enterococcus bacteria, which can cause sickness in people and is caused by fecal contamination from humans and some animals.

We have paddled to SṈIDȻEȽ, named for the Blue Grouse which was once found in abundance at this a special W̱SÁNEĆ place. Technically, boats are only allowed to be here for a cumulative total of 14 days in a calendar year. However, many stay more, adding to the overall number of boats anchoring in the Inlet.

Salish Sea Emergin Stewards walk out toward the Salish Sea and Achiever.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

The seabed within the inlet is a fragile ecosystem. Unfortunately, years of industrial activity from a cement plant have contaminated it. Eelgrass beds have recently been restored on the northern side due in large part to the efforts of Sea Change Marine Conservation Society, but should be far more extensive across the seafloor. 

The eelgrass ecosystem is a nursery for fish and crabs, and is highly sensitive. Each time a boat puts to anchor, it dredges up and damages recovering eelgrass . Boats block out sunlight, and plants beneath them can easily die in a week without light. If all that were not enough, boats leak fuel and waste into the water.

“There are so many boats…” someone says. “Let’s sample among them,” everyone concurs. Kaleah and I paddle into the centre of the boat channel, where Kaleah takes a sample. In Brentwood Bay, Laila takes a sample from the beach, close to the docks.

A day later, when we shone UV light on the cell packs containing sample water, distilled water, and enterococcus food, we were surprised to find no bacteria. But we did wonder about what other contaminants may be in the water. A solution to the boat problem to help the water and seabed heal at SṈIDȻEȽ is still needed.

“What would your ‘management plan’ for the Salish Sea be?” I ask the youth gathered. We are having a conversation about wild Pacific salmon and Southern Resident killer whales with Misty MacDuffee, Biologist and Wild Salmon Program Director at Raincoast.

Landon, the Coordinator of the SX̱OLE Project, knew what he would do: We just need to stop. Stop overfishing, stop the boats, stop everything. It wouldn’t be popular and people wouldn’t like it, but that is what we need to do.

Three Salish Sea Emergin Stewards paddle out in their kayaks.
Photo by Jaya Scott / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

“I am with you on that,” urges Misty, “you wouldn’t believe how deeply I feel that.” Our group had just talked about how KELȽOLEMEĆEN (killer whales) have culture; grandmothers pass on knowledge within families, Transient and Resident killer whales have different dialects and diets, and pods share behaviours and ceremonies that are learned behaviours, taught to each new generation. Misty gave us hope – when we had previously discussed the dire threats facing the Southern Residents, we had concluded with a bleak outlook, feeling dejected. But Misty taught us that in recent photographs, the pods have been looking healthy – not emaciated. In the last year, more calves have survived. The forced pause on commercial fishing and shipping brought by COVID-19 gave the KELȽOLEMEĆEN a chance to recover.

“There are lots of people working on this, and they are listening to you,” Misty said to the youth. She pointed to their work with the SX̱OLE (reef net) as leadership which the region can, and should, follow. If the communities around the Salish sea are to be successful in stewarding thriving salmon and killer whale populations, we need to listen to the voices of leaders from the W̱SÁNEĆ and other Coast Salish Nations.

This summer, the youth working on the Reef Net project – Landon, Riley, Kaleah, Laila, Patrick, Edna, and Desiree – inspired me. I got to know them not only as amazing, kind people, but I also got to witness them be leaders, take action, and demonstrate their agency. As this region grapples with environmental challenges on land and at sea, seeing these young people  becoming stewards of their Territories gives me hope for the future of the Salish Sea.

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