In this summer of drought and heat and fires, of coast-wide fisheries closures, and tense politics around the stewardship of old growth biodiversity, I’ve been pretty anxious. There’s a knot in my stomach for the problems my generation and future generations will deal with for the rest of our lives. But, when I think of the work I’ve done as a Raincoast scientist, the knot loosens. I’ve spent the last decade as a scientist with the salmon-carnivore program monitoring bears. The story of the bear project on the Central Coast is a story of hope. In Wuikinuxv territory, where I primarily work, the bear project is also a story of reciprocity, of accountability, and anticipation of future well-being.
I went to Wuikinuxv territory as a young researcher, bringing with me a method of monitoring bears that Raincoast was doing with other Nations in neighbouring territories. I was about to begin my graduate work, but did not yet have specific research questions. I knew I loved salmon, and I knew that bears and people had deep relationships with salmon in Wuikinuxv territory. My supervisor and director of Raincoast science, Chris Darimont, said that passion and curiosity was enough. Let the Nation guide the work, he said. He sent me there for two weeks in the fall of 2012 to learn and to listen; to be in their village at the head of Rivers Inlet where people and bears have shared a valley along a salmon river since time immemorial.
Wuikinuxv principle that guides the work
It became apparent quickly that any research we did with the Wuikinuxv Nation on grizzly bears would be premised in a deep respect for the well-being of bears. This meant asking questions about the bears’ population, habitat, and food sources. There is a cultural principle in Wuikinuxv of looking ahead over each other and the lands and waters. In the Wuikinuxv language, this practice of being a guardian or a protector is called n̓àn̓akila. N̓àn̓akila is the foundational value of the Nation’s stewardship activities in their territory; the Nation anticipates how their local and traditional knowledge can complement western science and monitoring activities to provide information for their decision-makers.
The Nation’s Stewardship Department directed me to put together an analysis that could assess how the actions of people fishing the sockeye fishery (locals or a commercial fleet) might impact the well-being of grizzly bears. Basically – in an era of fisheries collapsing up and down the coast, is there enough fish to go around for everyone – bears, people, and the ecosystem alike?
A memory of historic abundance
Rivers Inlet sockeye were once one of the mightiest runs on the coast. Millions of sockeye historically came each year, providing critical food for bears and people to get through long winters. In the recent past of 150 years, a combination of impacts from human activities – decades of cannery and commercial fishery harvest, industrial logging in salmon watersheds, and climate change – lead to an eventual collapse of the sockeye. That was in the late 1990s. When the sockeye population collapsed – down to as low as <10,000 one year – grizzly bears began to starve. Emaciated bears began to walk through the village. Whereas people and bears had coexisted for millennia, people were suddenly faced with conflict bears. Bears had to be killed out of mercy to protect the well-being of people; the hunters who had to do this cry when they tell me about those bears. It must have been terrible. As the years went on, the fishery began to rebuild anywhere from 100,000-500,000 depending on the year. With the memory of historic abundance but the threat of recent collapse, managers from Wuikinuxv and DFO alike are confronted with questions about how to move forward so as to not repeat the mistakes of the recent past.
It was my job to help identify what information the Nation needed to manage the fishery with an ecosystem-based approach. I was faced with many challenges to do this analysis. This wasn’t just a normal fisheries analysis to estimate maximum sustainable yield for a commercial fleet; I needed to think about how to incorporate reciprocity for bears and the ecosystem into an analysis that also considered the needs of local Wuikinuxv fisheries. To know about how peoples’ harvest impacted bears, I would have to know more about how many fish and bears there were in the territory, the population dynamics of the sockeye, how catch rates impacted those dynamics, and also how bear population numbers would respond to sockeye abundance.
I was overwhelmed. Fortunately, the Nation had already anticipated these knowledge gaps decades ago. The Nation had been compiling salmon monitoring data for decades and recently invested in a research collaboration to monitor incoming salmon with sonar to complement ongoing DFO salmon monitoring in the territory. They had sought out Raincoast’s non-invasive bear monitoring methodologies because our hair collection allowed us not only to identify individual bears with genetics, but also estimate the percentage of salmon that made up that individual bear’s annual diet using stable isotope analysis. Relationships in the literature had been published about salmon abundance, percentage of salmon in bear diets, and bear population density. After five years of monitoring bears in the territory, and with access to salmon monitoring and catch data, I had all the information I needed. The analysis took me two years, with a lot of help. I am grateful to the academic and DFO scientists who helped me untangle the web of data and analyses that went into our work.
We found that under current conditions, local people and bears can share salmon without harming each other’s interests. By setting sockeye harvest limits at ~10% less than those expected to maximize harvest for people, they expect to reduce bear densities by a similarly modest 10%, a trade-off that is not only operable, but honours the Wuikinuxv spirit of n̓àn̓akila. While the system may not support a large-scale commercial fishery again, it is clear that Wuikinuxv-driven fisheries for food, social, ceremonial, and economic purposes are possible.
This work is now published in the open access journal Marine and Coastal Fisheries. Our team of coauthors – from universities, DFO, and the Wuikinuxv Nation – are so proud of our values-driven and cultural-grounded quantitative assessment of the bear-salmon-human relationship in the Rivers Inlet sockeye. Well before this work was published in a scientific journal, it was informing in-season fisheries management by the Wuikinuxv Nation.
As I write this, the sockeye are running up past Katit (Wuikinuxv’s main village) through the Waanukv River, into the massive lake and the nine different rivers in which they spawn. As of now, over 200,000 salmon have swum past the sonar that monitors them. Wuikinxuv Fisheries technicians are out of the river conducting daily catch-per-unit effort surveys to assess the species and size of fish swimming up the river, and young Wuikinuxv creek walkers are preparing to head to the spawning grounds to count the fish once they get up that far. The run size isn’t millions, but it also isn’t in the mere thousands. As ever, Wuikinuxv is guided by the principal of n̓àn̓akila. They are as vigilant to the number of fish that get up to the spawning grounds where the bears will feast as they are vigilant to the number of peoples’ jar cases that get packed and freezers that get filled. There will be food for bears and for people this winter. For me, there is hope yet.
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