SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2003

by Ian Lordon

Given the choice between wet boots and a brief moment of indignity, I’ll opt for indignity every time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this ever-lengthening life, it’s that in most cases it’s best to allow pride to take a back seat to more pragmatic concerns like common sense. And so it was that I found myself riding piggyback through the shallow waters before Kiusta, an old Haida village at the northwest corner of Graham Island which today looks across Parry Pass at the decidedly occupied and bustling sport fishing community harboured at Henslung Cove on Langara Island.

“Ho, ho! Will you look at this! Ian Lordon, the elected Regional District representative arrives at Kiusta on the back of a Haida warrior!”

Of course every now and then a case can be made that pride should prevail over pragmatism. And on this day it would have if only I had known I’d be greeted in this fashion by a chortling Michael Nicholl Yaghulaanas. My boots would dry eventually, but I sense Michael will remind me of this moment long after my wet feet would be forgotten. It’s not that I’m ungrateful to Alex Spence, Michael’s ‘warrior’ who I later learned is a staffer at the Rediscovery Camp in Lepas Bay. After all, he is keeping my feet dry, and his generous offer to pack me over the intertidal zone from the skiff to the beach was welcome and appreciated. It’s just that this, and by this I mean Michael’s obvious delight in my predicament, is not exactly how I want my visit to begin.

I’m here researching this story about sport fishing lodges on Haida Gwaii and I’m getting my first ever glimpse at the industry in action.

In truth, there is something to the symbolism in Michael’s amused observation, because I really am here on the back of the Council of the Haida Nation, though as writer rather than elected representative. Michael is here, along with Council of the Haida Nation President Guujaaw, Old Massett rep Lawrence Jones, and administrator May Russ, as part of a fundraising effort they’ve got planned over at the Rediscovery Camp. I hitched a ride on the plane they chartered so I can spend some time checking out the lodges with the Haida watchmen who conduct creel surveys and scale samples on the docks in Henslung Cove for the Haida Fisheries program. This will give me the opportunity to observe firsthand what really happens out here when in the past all I’ve had to go on are the reports and descriptions of others.

So far, from the vantage of Kiusta, I’m decidedly awed by the magnitude of what I see: ships and barges crowd the small bay, roads and even a funicular lead up the southern slope of Langara to what look like some fairly large buildings by Island standards. Planes and helicopters come and go, and of course, there’s a steady stream of small runabouts buzzing everywhere. What impresses me most is the amount of activity — I don’t think there’s another place on-Island with so much action. Charlotte and Masset never seem this busy.
But I’m distracted from these initial impressions by Guujaaw who offers to give us a tour of Kiusta.

“Twenty years ago, this is where I got my Haida name,” he begins, gesturing toward the contemporary longhouse that marks the site. “At the opening ceremony, after we built this.”

He leads us west along the front of the old village. Very little remains of the original longhouses, of which there were obviously many, except some remarkably deep excavations and fallen, decaying, totem poles recognizable to me only by their location. Moss envelops everything, but the forest behind the village is young, and we’re told it’s because vast gardens were once tended there where crops of food and tobacco grew.

“I spent a few nights sleeping here,” Guujaaw says, pointing to bottom of one of the mossy pits where a longhouse once stood, but before he can elaborate the tour is cut short by orders shouted from the beach that we are to head to Lepas Bay immediately.

The commercial sport fishery is one of the youngest major industries on Haida Gwaii, the first lodge didn’t appear on the Islands until 1985 at Langara Island, aptly named Langara Lodge, less than twenty years ago. Today, however, most government officials and even lodge owners will concede the area is saturated. There are between 15 and 20 large lodges operating along the north and west coasts of the Islands and in Naden Harbour every summer. The number fluctuates because some lodges are little more than ships which sometimes anchor a few weeks where the fishing is good before they move on. Others are established operations that return every summer to the same location they market from. With some exceptions the lodges are generally floating transients — ships or barges sailed or towed to their locations in the spring and away again in the fall, but there are a few permanent dryland operations installed at Langara Island and Port Louis. Add to these the charter operations out of Masset, Port Clements, Sandspit, and Queen Charlotte, and what you have is one of the most successful and vibrant sectors of the Islands’ economy.

Unfortunately, all this economic activity doesn’t translate into the level of local prosperity one might expect. Most of the guests bound for the lodges rarely stop in local communities to shop or see the sights, the lodges typically fly their equipment, gear, food, and other necessities in with the clients, the lodge-owners themselves are mostly headquartered off-Island, and with some exceptions, few of the employees at the lodges are locals.

And while the lodges’ economic contribution to Haida Gwaii never exactly endeared them to locals, their appetite and politics made matters worse. The number of lodges grew from one at Langara in the mid-eighties to eight in the Langara-Naden Harbour area alone by 1990. Chinook fishing along the south coast of BC had fallen off significantly and the industry saw Haida Gwaii as an area with untapped potential where they could offer guests reliable fishing opportunities. Hand in hand with this rapid expansion of facilities through the eighties, the catch statistics also swelled. In 1985, only 500 chinook were reeled in by Langara anglers, but five years later that number had quickly reached 17,000. Today it hovers around 35,000 — and that doesn’t include coho, halibut, or rockfish. This rapid expansion coupled with the accompanying impacts on the area and resources attracted the ire of the Haida, local fishermen, politicians, and environmentalists.

Inevitably conflict ensued and 1990 was the year the rift hit the fan. Matters heated up in January when the CHN sponsored a public commission of inquiry into the industry. The three-day exercise featured presentations from local and provincial politicians, government workers, fishermen, Haida elders and leaders, lodge owners, concerned locals, and questions from the general public. The proceedings were recorded for posterity and in hindsight the commission report predicted many of the developments that eventually came to pass over the following decade.

For instance, in his presentation on behalf of the Northern Trollers Association, local fisherman John Disney expressed fears that the burgeoning sport fishing industry would begin to challenge commercial fishermen for stock quotas and access to fishing grounds, eventually squeezing them out of the picture altogether.

“If this new group is allowed to expand at the rate that they are expanding and we start losing our quota, the conflicts will increase because of a tremendous feeling of frustration at seeing our way of life starting to disappear,” he said. “I think this is just the beginning of it. These operators like the Oak Bay Marine Group have shown they can manipulate government agencies to their advantage. The prime fish stock is the chinook salmon. It is a high priced fish. It is abundant around the Islands and that is the species we target. So if we lose the chinook to this new user group, we lose our livelihoods and the communities of the Islands will suffer because of it.”

The problem was the sport fishing industry was marketing and targeting chinook salmon, the very species local commercial trollers principally depended upon for their livelihood. Most trollers owned boats too small to fish far from home, and Langara Island represented one of the prime fishing grounds, a nearby source of money fish for local boats. Disney’s concerns, like those of many others, stemmed from observation that while the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was imposing catch and gear restrictions upon commercial trollers out of ‘conservation concerns,’ it was simultaneously allowing benefits from these measures to be absorbed by a growing sport fishery.

What was particularly grating to many was that the lodges catered to wealthy guests from off-Island — people who could afford to spend thousands on a vacation, people who came to play the fish not make a living from them, and some argued this luxury was coming at the expense of working families in small-town BC.

“I find it very frustrating to know that the sports fishermen are coming in and taking fish that we haven’t been fishing home with them,” Pat Parish, representing Masset’s Associated Fishing Families, told the commission. “I would like to take the fish into Masset, into the BC Packers plant and sell them to support my family and my community. It is frustrating that those fish are being flown to Seattle. I agree that everyone has a right to make a living but I also feel that we have conserved these fish. We are in business too.”

To add insult to injury, confrontations between commercial and sport fishermen out on the Langara fishing grounds weren’t uncommon as fleets of trollers and sports skiffs jostled for position in a confined area.

“I feel that the sport fishing operations paint a much rosier picture of themselves than what we see as commercial and traditional Haida fishermen,” said Oliver Bell, a Masset fisherman with two small boats. “Competition on the trolling tacks is getting tougher. I personally have been sworn at, cut off, and generally aggravated by sports fishermen. This really bugs me because I am there trying to make a decent living with my family aboard.”

This lack of respect from the brash young sport fishing industry was a common theme running through the commission proceedings, and certainly one expressed by many Haidas including hereditary chief Alex Jones.

“There was an incident there three years ago. One of the lodge employees was taking a tourist ashore at Kiusta. My friends and I approached them and asked if they had a Band Council permit and this employee said ‘No.’ Then the employee turned around and he told me, ‘We know more about the Queen Charlotte Islands than you Haidas,’” he said. “That shows who they employ. They don’t respect the Islands. They don’t respect the commercial fishermen. They don’t respect the Haidas. All they respect is what they call the dollar.”

This lack of respect didn’t sit well with people who had a long history on the Langara fishing grounds, not only in the very old days when the Haida villages thrived, but even in more recent times when Old Massett and Skidegate would be deserted every summer in favour of the fishing camps on the North Island.

“The whole village used to move down to North Island. At least 45 to 50 houses used to be there. There used to be houses all over the place, there was room for everybody,” elder Adolphus Marks explained. “We used to move from here in the month of April, and most would start going home at the end of September. Some families used to stay later because there was no closed season in those days.”

Percy Williams also described the annual exodus from Skidegate. A fleet of Haida boats, little more than a memory by 1990, went north in an annual quest for fish.

“When I was a child there used to be 50 or more trolling boats anchored outside of Skidegate and every year in about May I used to notice a mass migration on the Skidegate coast going to North Island,” he said. “Most of the boats had five, six, or seven horsepower motors. They were 28 or 30-foot boats. A 32-footer was a monstrous boat. Most of the time those boats used to break down. It was common to see somebody dragging another boat to get up to North Island. We used to live ashore — the Massett people, I assume, granted our people permission to set up camp on North Island — because our boats were too small to live aboard.”

In light of this past, it was no surprise the Haida took exception to the new arrivals. The lodges were encroaching upon traditions, culture and history without much consideration for any of it.

At the time the Council of the Haida Nation took the position that there should be a moratorium imposed on any new sport fishing development until an agreement could be reached that would regulate the industry. The Haida wanted to restrict the number of beds, visitor days, and fish caught by the lodges under a Haida-led management regime that would oversee the fishery. Failing such an accord they threatened action, but there was hope among many that reason and compromise would prevail.

“I don’t think confrontation is going to solve any problems,” Miles Richardson Sr. said. “I feel that working together we can come to an agreement whereby we can all live happily together.”

Of course, it didn’t really work out that way…

So my feet are dry, if my pride is somewhat dampened, and I make my way down the trail which leads from Kiusta and the north coast of Graham Island to the west coast and the bottom of Lepas Bay, or Taalungslung as it’s known to the Haida. The hubbub at Henslung Cove fades away behind me and I begin to savour the old growth forest of Duu Guusd Tribal Park.

My companion on this leg of the journey is Bart Defreitas, a biologist with the Haida Fisheries program, and we’re moving at a fine clip along the well-worn and mucky trail even though we’re both packing gear bound for the Rediscovery camp. He’s relating little anecdotes about the lodges: how the guests all look the same and how I’m going to see them hauling in little five-pound halibut. In twenty minutes we cross a creek whose name I never learned, and shortly afterwards the forest gives way to sand.

And what sand! Lepas Bay is a marvel, and while I’m not the writer to do it justice, I will relate a few impressions all the same. What I remember most clearly is a sense of awe as the extent and splendor of the beach opened up before me. It was late in the day. The sun, oddly enough, was shining. And the reds, ochres, and purples of the summer evening were bleeding into the few light clouds above us. The sound of the surf rose as we approached it, and a gentle breeze introduced the salty scent of the wide open Pacific. As we moved north along the beach towards the camp there came a realization that here was a place completely unspoiled, serene, and natural. It had a quality like that of a deserted tropical island from a dream. Haida Gwaii is exceptionally rich in natural wonders, but Lepas Bay outshines all but a very few with a beauty that demands acknowledgement from even the most hardened eyes.

Forgive the platitudes.

The camp, tucked away in the northern corner of the bay, consists of five longhouses, a staff cabin, biffies, and garden. Four of the longhouses are for sleeping and storage, the fifth houses a kitchen and dining area. It’s a simple, rustic arrangement and blends well into the landscape.

Later that evening the rest of the guests arrive. They’re from foundations the CHN is courting in a bid to find funding for the title case. Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, one of the lawyers representing the Haida in the case, is also among them. Marnie York, the Rediscovery coordinator, along with Alex Spence and May Russ have been in camp for days making it ready for their arrival. Roberta Olson has taken charge of the kitchen as she will be responsible for feeding the crew. Altogether there are ten off-Islanders and eleven locals in camp for what promises to be a weekend of heavy duty schmoozing. Because I’m here on other business, I try to stay out of the way while pitching in with the grunt work wherever possible.

It isn’t long before I become acquainted with Lawrence Jones owing to our mutual weakness for tobacco. The Massett rep on the CHN and a member of the fundraising committee, it only takes a couple of smokes before I have a feel for the extent of Lawrence’s experience in the area around Langara, and we agree to sit down for an interview the following day.

Long before my chat with Lawrence out at Lepas Bay, I had a chance to interview Russ Jones, another Haida with an interesting sport fishing history. Russ was among the five panel members who oversaw proceedings throughout the CHN’s sport fishing commission in 1990. Today, he’s a fisheries consultant and assists the Haida Fisheries program with planning and policy. He remembers the hot and heavy days of the early nineties when the sport fishing issue was all the rage, or all rage, and he still has quite a collection of documents and newspaper clippings from the period, including a copy of the commission proceedings he was kind enough to lend me.

Jones says at the time the Haida watchmen program was just getting off the ground and as usual finding money to fund it was a problem. Back then the approach was to ask the lodges to make contributions to support it. Some were willing to participate in the program, but others were more reluctant. It was decided that some form of action would be required to persuade the holdouts.

“At the time the decision was to stop their operations. So there were some peaceful demonstrations on the fishing grounds where the purpose was to stop the operations,” he recalls. “It started off with one demonstration and as a result of that the lodge in question, Oak Bay Marine Group, applied for and got an injunction against the CHN. That was followed by some further demonstrations. There was one instance where the commercial fishing fleet participated. They came and sat around the lodge and basically disrupted the operation of it for a day or two. It had a clear purpose in that the province said they were going to place a moratorium on development but never did anything about it. It was the status quo and the CHN was saying the status quo wasn’t acceptable.”

The injunction stemmed from an incident which occurred on the water during the demonstration involving a collision between a Haida canoe and one of Oak Bay’s float planes.

“They basically lied in court. They said a Haida canoe rammed their plane when in fact what happened was the plane ran close to the canoe. The propeller of the plane actually cut through the nose of the canoe. It was the Loo Plex, and it was lucky no one was hurt.”

In the eyes of the Haida, Oak Bay had two big strikes against them. First, they refused to participate in or contribute towards the watchmen program, and second, they had recently received a foreshore lease in a particularly sensitive location.

“It was right over top of a Haida fishing area,” Jones explains. “It was a halibut house. A halibut house is a place where you know you find halibut. Haida people have learned over time that there are certain places where you’ll catch halibut. At first you’ll catch little fish and later you’ll catch big fish. And the province gave the lodge a lease right over top of it so the guests could catch halibut right off the dock. So no Haida could go fish there any more and if they did the lodge would chase them away because they had a lease there and considered they owned the area.”

Meanwhile, the province idled around the larger issues doing a little talking but essentially refusing to take any tangible action to resolve them. And out at Langara the two sides became more entrenched as the conflict dragged on.

“What followed was two years of continued demonstrations which tried to stay within the terms of the injunction. One of the problems was those terms were fairly vague. You couldn’t go and stop the operation but we managed a camp up there manned by watchmen and volunteers. When a plane came in to land they would try and stop it from landing by sending a couple of skiffs out there which would try and stay under it and keep it in the air. Usually the plane would have to make several passes before it could finally get down. We were lucky there were no accidents.”

“So what happened in the end was that there were charges laid against several Haidas which went to court and we had some discussions with the province. The province at that point agreed they would do something about the development. An interim measures agreement was reached and signed. The province would look into the issue of expansion and discuss limits on beds and try to address the issues with the CHN. They also made a financial contribution to the CHN to maintain the watchmen program and one of the conditions was that we would no longer collect funds from the lodges.”

From then on new agreements with the province followed annually. All were temporary arrangements and none really satisfied the CHN’s concerns until finally, three years after the first demonstration, the province showed signs it might be willing to strike a deal which significantly addressed some of the major points of contention.

“What we were asking for was some real control. A limit on the number of lodges, a limit on the beds that each lodge would have, and those limits should be set at some sustainable level. We didn’t want to see this become another Campbell River. In the third year we negotiated an agreement which was much stronger in that it contained a commitment to do a five-year coastal use plan for recreational fishing for the Islands. Basically it said we would set a limit on the fishery using 1990 as a baseline and try to maintain effort at that level. Of course there had been some expansion since then but in the end the agreement wasn’t signed. The province walked away from it mainly due to pressure from the lodges that didn’t want limits. The lodges saw this kind of agreement as a threat because if there were limits on Haida Gwaii then what might happen on the west coast of Vancouver Island or the central coast?”

That was the last time the CHN and the province came close to terms on the issue of the lodges. The one lasting concession the CHN won after two years of demonstrations was a moratorium on the issuance of new leases on crown lands or foreshore tenures. Although the moratorium did represent something of a moral victory, in practice it did little to regulate the expansion or operation of fishing lodges on Haida Gwaii because many had never bothered to obtain one in the first place and no action was taken by any government agency to force them. A fact Lands and Water BC conceded in an e-mail responding to my inquiries on the subject:

“By 1990 there were eight lodges operating at Langara Island, Naden Harbour, and on the west coast of Graham Island. Some of these lodges obtained appropriate fore- shore tenures while others commenced operations without any tenure.

In order to control the rapid expansion of the sport fishing industry, former Crown Lands Minister, Dave Parker, established a moratorium by directive in February 1990 which ‘temporarily’ withdrew Crown lands (including foreshore) on the Queen Charlotte Islands from any further disposition for salt water sport fishing operations. The Province has not issued any tenure to new sport fishing operations on the Islands since the moratorium was introduced.

The moratorium has not been particularly successful in achieving its original objective because a number of sport fishing operations do not require Crown land tenures, namely, operations on private property and reserve land as well as operations based on transient self-contained and self-propelled vessels.”

And what about those Haidas who were charged for violating the injunction during the demonstrations? Well, there were twelve of them. Four saw their charges dropped for various reasons, seven received suspended sentences and 18 months probation. The last one was convicted and sentenced to two months under house arrest because he had a previous arrest record from his involvement in the protests on Lyell Island. And the name of that particularly troublesome rabble rouser was none other than one Lawrence Jones.

Lawrence and I have found a quiet rock along the beach of Lepas Bay. Today the weather is more in line with what one would expect out here— low clouds smother the beach and a fine mist steadily descends upon us as we enjoy the first of several cigarettes. Lawrence’s earliest experience in this neck of the woods came as a teenager during the seventies when he spent a few summers labouring on an archeological dig underway at Kiusta. He loved the work, and he loved the place.

Since then he’s been back many times. Several years as camp cook at Rediscovery, some time as a watchman for Haida Fisheries, and of course plenty of work at the lodges either on the docks or cooking for the guests and staff. Lawrence has worked at nearly every lodge up here at one time or another. Every one but the two ships anchored in Henslung Cove under the auspices of the Oak Bay Marine Group.

“I don’t think I’ll ever work for them.”

Lawrence tells me about the first protest at the lodges in 1990, the summer after the commission, where the commercial fishermen took part.

“We had about 250 boats out on the water and 350 people on the beach so that the Charlotte Princess (Oak Bay) couldn’t land any helicopter to bring their guests in,” he recalls. Lawrence says the commercial fishermen joined the protest because they were worried the lodges would take over the Langara fishing grounds. “They knew that once the sport fishery got going full gear they’d put a red line out here and they wouldn’t be able to fish Coho Point, or Andrews Point, or MacPherson Point. That would be all sport fishing and the commercial boys would have to go two or three miles offshore to fish. They knew they would lose their fishing rights in that area, and they did.”

The protest was peaceful, without incident, and successful. The Charlotte Princess was unable to execute its changeover — where the guests are flown in to begin their fishing trip and the group who’ve finished their stay fly home. The next summer, however, the stakes were raised when the Haida decided they wanted more than a token demonstration.

“1991 — the Haidas decided the Oak Bay Marine Group wasn’t going to move and North Island Lodge wasn’t going to move. We had a meeting in town about it and we decided we had to do something to let them know we were serious about them leaving. So we talked about which lodge would be the best one to target and we decided on the Oak Bay Marine Group because it was such a big operation,” he says. “I think it was July 11th when we had our first protest. There were about 30 of us out here from Massett and Skidegate. It was a changeover day for the Charlotte Princess and we had the Loo Taas out here, the big canoe, and we had our watchmen boats, three of them. Ernie Collison was the person in charge of the protest. He was on the Loo Taas, the steersman, and I was working for Haida Fisheries at the time so I had my own boat and there was one from Naden and one from Massett.”

“We headed out around nine o’clock that morning and we waited and waited for the first plane to come. We were all ready in our spots and we watched for the planes. You see when a plane lands it usually has to make a little circle. And we’d watch it and see which way it was going to land and we’d line our boats up with the landing path and we’d go right towards it.”

Lawrence says it was hair-raising business running your boat underneath a plane trying to touch down on the water. There were a few close calls as many came within feet of the boats beneath them before pulling out of their approach.

“It was crazy but it was good. We stopped all the planes that day. We were really happy and everybody was jumping around at Kiusta after the protest. Then Ernie Collison says ‘Yes, we had a good day but this is only the beginning so you guys don’t get too excited about it. We’ve got lots to do yet.’”

It was after the first protest that Oak Bay obtained an injunction against the CHN ordering the Haida not to interfere with the lodge operation, the changeover days, or the staff. But three days later, at the following changeover, the protesters took to the waves again employing the same tactics as before.

“The injunction was delivered to us, but we ignored it. They had the RCMP boat, five officers, and the RCMP plane come out. The first one to get arrested was Ernie Collison. They knew Ernie Collsion because he was the band manager. They decided we’ve got to get this guy out of here. So they arrested him and I can’t remember who came out to take over at the time, but we carried on with the protests and they ended up arresting twelve of us altogether.”

The protests carried on for five weeks. Three times Lawrence was served papers for violating the injunction before he was arrested on the day of the final protest. The RCMP flew him to Sandspit where he was met by the RCMP and the Justice of the Peace, booked, and released. The very next day Lawrence was back out at Langara but the protests were over.

“We decided we’d proved our point. There were already twelve people arrested and we didn’t feel it would be right to get more people arrested. We felt that maybe the best thing to do was to go through the court system with it.”

And that it did. Slowly. At first the Haida facing charges were represented by two legal aid lawyers from Massett and Prince Rupert but they begged off the case because it was too great a commitment. Eventually four Vancouver lawyers stepped in to argue for the Haida. Then the Crown began delaying proceedings because it wasn’t prepared to try the cases. It was five years before a final verdict was handed down in BC Supreme Court in Vancouver.

“Then the judge calls my name. ‘Lawrence Jones, you’re going to go to jail for two months.’ Because of what I did in 1985 on Lyell Island, so they looked at that. They said we’re going to shut him up for two months. The courthouse was just packed. Lots of people there. We all stood up and gave each other hugs. I gave my blanket to Ernie. I didn’t want to take it into the pretrial center. At that time Miles Richardson was the President of the CHN and he was up in front. So I figured I’d go over and hug a couple of people but the sheriff tried to grab me because you’re supposed to go to the holding cell.”

Lawrence did get his hugs and goodbyes in, and was led away to serve his sentence, which it was eventually determined consisted of two months locked away in his girlfriend’s Vancouver apartment under electric monitoring.

“Ernie used to phone me once in awhile and ask ‘Lawrence, what are you doing tonight?’ just to joke around because he knew I couldn’t go anywhere.” So when his time was up the first thing Lawrence did was hit the town and call him back. “Quarter after twelve midnight I hopped on a bus and went downtown just to walk around. It was nice. I phoned Ernie and said ‘I’m free!’”

Nowadays Lawrence looks back on his experience with some frustration. He has a criminal record and the lodges are even more firmly established at Langara than they were before the protests.

“I can’t protest anymore. Well, I can, but they’d probably put me away for six months. To myself I feel a little bit mad because the lodges are still here and nothing was really accomplished for us. The sports fishermen, the ones who didn’t join the Fisheries Program are still here. They should have been dealt with a little better, been told to go.”

But they didn’t go. Unscathed in the aftermath of the Haida protests, throughout the mid to late nineties the lodges went on to battle with commercial fishermen and secure not only their claim to the fishing grounds at Langara Island, but also the highest place in the allocation pecking order for chinook and coho salmon.

How did this come to pass? In a word: scarcity. In the mid nineties chinook stocks on the west coast of Vancouver Island crashed hard. Returns were so poor that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans essentially banned any fisherman of any stripe — First Nations, commercial, or sport, from catching and keeping chinook salmon anywhere in the north. The extreme measures dealt a serious blow to the lodge industry which could only offer potential guests the opportunity to play with their trophy, not take it home.

The shortage set off a well organized and financed lobbying effort on behalf of lodge owners determined to ensure that once DFO did decide stocks had rebounded to the point where some chinook could be retained, they would be the first in line. This effort was led by the Sportfishing Institute — an organization funded by BC’s lodges, tackle suppliers, charter airlines, and anyone else who stands to gain from a prosperous sport fishing industry. In exchange for their annual dues, members could count on the Institute to pressure the appropriate decision-makers to make the appropriate decisions.

“They get me working on their behalf to make sure they keep fishing,” says Tom Bird, a former DFO bureaucrat now executive director of the Institute. Bird is involved in everything from salmon treaty talks between the U.S. and Canada, to stock assessment and marketing. “We’re involved in every bloody activity you can imagine in the province.”

The chinook closure set off a flurry of consultation and a series of independent, partisan, and government reports all addressing the same question: which sector will create the greatest economic benefit per fish caught? There was the Dr. Art May Report, the Stephen Kelleher Report, and the Samuel Toy Report. There were reports generated by the sport fishery, the commercial fishery, the fisherman’s union, and coastal communities. Of course not all of the reports arrived at the same conclusions, and few considered how the benefits from the resource would be put to best use, but at the end of the day Ottawa sided with the sport fishery and decided that when the going gets tough, the sporties would get priority when allocations are made.

It was no small tribute to the effectiveness of the sport fishing lobby when in 1999 DFO released it’s new allocation policy for Pacific salmon and it read like a lodge owner’s wish list:

“The opportunity to harvest chinook and coho salmon is the mainstay of the recreational fishery. It is also a major contributor to the tourism industry that in recent years has been British Columbia’s second largest sector, after forestry. Based on the evidence presented, providing a priority allocation for chinook and coho to the recreational sector represents the best economic use of the resource.”

What this meant to the commercial sector was that when chinook or coho stocks were suffering, they would be the first to feel the pain. Of course when stocks are very healthy the commercial fishery can enjoy a greater catch than what the sport sector reels in. Which is exactly what happened last year for the first time in ages thanks to recovering chinook stocks.

“We have a developing commercial fishery again,” says DFO’s Victor Fradette, a fisheries manager in Queen Charlotte. “Last year if memory serves they caught somewhere around 75,000 pieces. In the north coast it was the first economically viable fishery in probably the last five or six years.”

In many ways this recovery is too little, too late for many commercial fishermen. While the sport and commercial sectors fought for priority access to the resource the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was working to reduce the size and scope of the commercial fleet through area licencing and licence buyback programs. Today, the number of com- mercial boats fishing the north coast region is a fraction of what it was, and regardless of how plentiful the stocks become it’s unlikely we’ll see a return to the days when Masset and Queen Charlotte harbours bustled with commercial boats.

“I believe we’re at about 155 licences that are now issued for the north coast troll fishery, which is a significant reduction from what we used to have before area licencing was in place,” says Fradette. “We used to have 500 plus in this area. That’s because somebody with a troll licence, a salmon A licence, could fish anywhere on the coast. But then we went into area licencing and trollers had to pick their area of preference, and there was the licence buyback program, so in the end there’s approximately 155 licenced vessels for the northern troll fishery.”

Priority allocation, fewer commercial boats competing for the same fish. Could it get any better for the sport fishing industry? Well, yes. They also secured the no-go boundary along the north coast of Graham Island for commercial boats.

“What we have with our commercial fisheries now is when we do offer an opening it is subject to a one-mile ribbon boundary across the north end,” says Fradette, although he argues it has more to do with traffic concerns than preferential treatment. “It’s not so much to say to the commercial trollers that we’re trying to protect recreational interests and you guys don’t belong. It’s simply to address congestion. The commercial trollers can catch their fish over a very short period of time. So being inside that one-mile ribbon isn’t going to give them more fish and what it does is it creates more congestion in an area that’s already very congested. When you have nine different lodges plus First Nations interests plus independent interests, those fishing spots are already maxed out. We aren’t separating in any way the two fisheries on the west side where we have individual lodges but no congestion there, so there the commercial troller can go and fish the same areas as the recreational fishery.”

Fradette makes a good point, there is an unbelievable amount of traffic up there when the fish are in season, but the boundary is still another sore spot for many commercial fishermen, and former fishermen, who could see it coming fifteen years ago.

It’s quite a litany of sins these lodges have attached to them. They don’t contribute to the local economy. They wrestled prize allocations away from local fishing families. They set up on traditional Haida fishing grounds, some without lease or tenure, and had Haida protesters arrested when they didn’t like it. Is there any redeeming quality to this industry at all? I’m on my way to find out.

Lawrence Jones has volunteered to be my guide for this adventure, and who better to take me on a tour of this satanic cult of wealth, gluttony, and privilege than the man who’s spent most of his last thirty summers in the area and worked at nearly every lodge?

Early the morning after our interview Lawrence and I head back up the trail out of Lepas Bay to Kiusta where we are meeting the watchmen from Bruin Bay who will run us over to the docks. Lawrence is concerned that dropping a snoopy hostile writer on the docks might jeopardize the lodges’ cooperation with the watchmen’s creel survey, so he’s decided that when we arrive we’ll head up to the lodge and introduce me to the manager to avoid any hassles. I’m a little apprehensive about this plan, but it’s a gorgeous sunny morning and I’m not long bothered by imagined disastrous scenarios.

We arrive at Kiusta ahead of schedule so we pass the time smoking and I explore the rocky shore. Before long the watchmen circle into the bay from the east and we’re on the boat with Gene Bell and Eddie Davis.

Eddie’s been a watchman for seven years, Gene two. A crew of four watchmen are assigned to each of the two camps, one in Bruin Bay, the other in Naden Harbour. They work two weeks on, two weeks off. Every Wednesday a fresh watchman comes out to camp with the supply boat and the two week resident goes home.

Today Gene and Eddie are off to work the West Coast Fishing Club. The watchmen have a set schedule that takes them to all the lodges, which in addition to West Coast also includes Langara Island Lodge, Langara Fishing Lodge, North Island Lodge, and the Oak Bay Marine Group. One of the largest lodges at Langara, West Coast is situated onshore at the crest of the slope overlooking Henslung Cove. It’s also owned by Rick Grange who maintains a residence in Masset, is listed in the phone book, but wasn’t home when I tried to reach him.

It’s a short trip across the pass and in no time Eddie is easing back the throttle and we drift past Oak Bay’s sister ships the Marabelle and the infamous Charlotte Princess. Seconds later (the lodges are literally packed within a stone’s throw of one another) we’re tied to West Coast’s dock and out of the boat. Two things strike me immediately. One, there is an insane amount of air traffic next door at Langara Fishing Lodge (changeover day, I learn later) and two, there’s a fortune’s worth of boats and motors along the docks. Twenty, maybe twenty-five, skiffs neatly parked in a row, all of them outfitted with muscular-looking Mercury’s and fishing gear, just waiting to take off. In fact, most have just returned from the morning’s fishing, and more are on the way in.

Eddie and Gene get right to work. Eddie interviews the anglers as they get off their boats and Gene takes scale samples and measurements by the ice-house where the staff clean and dress the day’s catch. Lawrence and I stop briefly to chat to some locals we know working on the docks before catching a ride in the lodge’s Hummer which busses guests and staff up the steep slope to the lodge.

The lodge itself is big, bigger than just about any hotel on Island. From the outside it has a ski lodge quality, nothing architecturally remarkable, but clean, well-maintained, with plenty of windows. As we enter the building Lawrence takes his boots off, I follow suit, and we’re off in search of the manager. We don’t get far before we’re confronted by staff who politely ask what we want with a look of ‘what the hell are you doing in here?’ I quickly evaluate our appearance and decide that a couple of nights at Rediscovery might have been spiritually rejuvenating, but it also left us looking pretty scruffy.

We are told the manager is asleep and we should return after ten. I follow Lawrence back to our boots, feeling very much like a muddy dog ordered outside.

So now what? Plan A has been delayed and here we are on the premises. I want to shoot pictures but Lawrence insists I await my introduction and decides we should visit the staff quarters, the Penthouse as it’s called, likely owing to its location further up the slope behind the lodge.

I keep running into people I know. There were a couple of my soccer buddies working on the docks, a young woman from Charlotte in the restaurant, and I pass another local on the stairs on my way to the Penthouse. Lawrence also knows everyone here, and from the moment we arrive our progress is slowed by warm greetings and idle chit chat.

As far as staff accommodations go, I’m told the Penthouse is the best Langara has to offer. On the floating lodges most staff are lucky to get a window, more likely they’re stuffed below decks in a tiny compartment which reeks of diesel. But not the Penthouse, here staff enjoy a dorm-like atmosphere, catered cafeteria, showers, satellite TV and pool room.

At the Penthouse I encounter another of my soccer pals. We sit down for a chat and he tells me that at the end of the season he’ll walk away with ten or twelve thousand dollars in his pocket after a summer where his room and board are paid for. Not bad for a kid just past twenty. To me it seems like the ideal job for a university or college student. A summer of hard work, hard partying, outdoor fun and a good chunk of cash with no place to spend it to help cover tuition and expenses in the fall.

After a cup of coffee and the requisite smoke Lawrence and I head down to the lodge to see if the manager has risen. He hasn’t. So it’s back to the docks where Lawrence finally relents on the photo ban. I snap off a couple dozen shots of the various lodges, planes landing, fish getting gutted, the watchmen in action, and the board.

The board is where the lodge keeps track of the guests’ success. Beside room numbers the various fish are listed by weight. I note that most of the chinook are in the twenty-five pound range. But there are a few thirtysomethings and one in the forties.

We happen to be here on the last day before changeover and this means it’s ‘Kill Everything Day.’ Yesterday the salmon were chased away by a pod of killer whales so many of the guests were skunked. Today they’re keeping nearly everything they land in a race to catch their limit. As I watch the guests waddle up the docks in their bulky survival suits I’m reminded of Bart’s observation that they all look the same. They do. They’re uniformly white, middle-aged, male and sporting a few or many extra pounds.

Eventually we return to the lodge and finally get to meet the manager. He’s a fastidious-looking somewhat stocky English guy named Michael Pitman, and wears a tidy shining key ring round his neck like a coach’s whistle. He’s cordial and clearly knows Lawrence quite well. They spend some time catching up before I remark on the surprising number of locals working at the lodge. He tells me it’s policy to try and hire from the Islands and that lately most of the new employees are taken on by way of referral rather than application. This is encouraging and I understand Rick Grange is behind it.

Pitman can’t chat for long as he’s gearing up to serve lunch so we bid him farewell and return to the docks where the rest of the afternoon passes in much the same fashion as the morning did. Towards the end of the day Eddie runs us over to North Island Lodge where we enjoy coffee with the manager there, a Greek Canadian by the name of Plato. Go figure. He regales us with animated and entertaining fish stories from his days as a hotel manager in the Caribbean.

North Island is a much smaller operation than West Coast and the only lodge not located in Henslung Cove, but it is only a few hundred metres east. Here the staff numbers around eight compared to over 40 at West Coast. The two lodges are affiliated and the North Island guides stay at the Penthouse. There is also a board here, and I see someone recently nabbed a fifty-pounder. A rare feat this season.

Eddie and Gene finish their day and we all pile into the skiff. They drop us off at Kiusta and Lawrence and I make our way back to Lepas. We’re going to pick up our belongings because we’re catching an early boat to Masset and we’ll be staying with the watchmen at their cabin in Bruin Bay. When we reach Rediscovery we learn all the funders are up the beach with Guujaaw enjoying the evening sunshine. I ask Roberta to pass along my thanks and goodbyes, get my stuff together, and enjoy a final Lepas beach walk before joining the trail to Kiusta.

Gene and Eddie are waiting in the boat for us when we emerge from the forest. On our way to the cabin we stop to have a word with Monty Stewart-Burton and his crew of commercial fishermen anchored in the pass after a hard day’s halibut fishing. The boat is loaded to the gills and Monty is trying to unload some of his catch on us. We take a small halibut for supper and make our way home. As we round the point into Bruin Bay a bear silently observes us from its perch on a log down the beach.

Later that night Lawrence demonstrates his culinary gifts and prepares a simple but tasty meal of fresh halibut and rice. Not long after the dishes are done we’re off to bed and my Langara adventure draws to a close with our return to the Islands community the next morning. It’s funny, but one of the last things Lawrence tells me on the ride home before we part is that he’ll be back out there soon. He’s going to look for work at one of the lodges.

The last in the long litany of issues attached to the Haida Gwaii sport fishing industry is one of regulation and monitoring, which was highlighted by the recent sinking of the Samson Lodge in Naden Harbour. Oddly enough there is no one government agency with clear jurisdiction over sport fishing, nor is there any specific legislation or regulation governing it. A business licence is all that stands between a lodge owner and his first guest, although a liquor licence is definitely a valuable companion to it.

Once these minor hurdles are overcome and the operation is up and running, a lodge is governed by much the same rules as any other business in the province. While anglers themselves are subject to DFO’s restrictions like catch and possession limits, the lodges have so far managed to escape the notice of lawmakers both in Ottawa and Victoria. And because those laws and regulations which do apply to the lodges fall within the purview of several agencies from both levels of government, those responsible for enforcing them often see their thin slice of authority over the industry as a luxury they can rarely afford to enforce, particularly given the resources and logistical challenges involved.

“It’s kind of on the edge of our priority list in terms of where we can get the best bang for our buck with our resources,” says Alex Grant, an environmental safety officer for the Ministry of Water Land and Air Protection in Smithers. “I know politically there’s sensitivity, but our priorities are set more on environmental risk.”

Grant tried to address these enforcement challenges by coordinating the first of three multi-agency inspection tours of Haida Gwaii’s lodges beginning in 1996, and subsequently in 1998 and 2002. Representatives from every agency with some form of jurisdiction over the industry were invited to tour all the Islands’ lodges in one fell swoop. Not only did this approach reduce site-inspection costs by sharing them among all concerned, but it also ensured that any problems encountered during the inspections would not go unnoted or ignored because it’s ‘not my department.’

“This isn’t something we’ve done anywhere else on the coast. This was the only sector audit, as far as I’m aware, done anywhere in BC,” Grant says. “We’d had a couple of places that we had problems with. There were a couple of files started up by local conservation officers related to fuel handling, occasional spills, burning stuff, and batteries being dumped over the side. And we thought ‘well, what’s happening at the other places? Let’s have a look.’ So that’s when we initiated the general survey. It took pooling our resources, but the approach was that if all of the agencies are there, the issue of jurisdiction won’t come into it.”

Grant says there isn’t any set timetable for these multi-agency audits. While the early visits did unearth some concerns, subsequent inspections found that most of the lodges had done their best to address them, leading him to conclude that more regular and rigorous inspections are probably unnecessary.

“It depends on the need. It’s either every other year or every three years. I would say based on what we saw last year there’s no need for us to go back this year. They all require follow up, but based on the difference that we’ve seen from three years earlier, things were pretty stable. There are no environmental disasters happening.”

I should mention that I interviewed Grant before the Samson Lodge sank, so his comments lack the benefit of hindsight. It is, however, interesting to note that Samson Lodge had raised red flags among agency reps because one of its barges was in such a poor state of repair that several felt it would eventually wind up on the bottom of Naden Harbour if action wasn’t taken. The irony is the lodge went down first, while the barge remains barely afloat. That these observations were made over a year ago and the condition of the barge hasn’t improved speaks volumes about the ability of government to enforce the concerns raised by the inspections. Of course Samson will be held liable for the costs of cleaning up its sunken lodge, but obviously it would be better for all concerned if government had the authority to enforce preventative measures before the salvage and cleanup crews are called in.

If nothing else, the Samson episode demonstrates the need for some kind of government watchdog to manage and monitor the industry, however, this would be an unexpected development for a number of reasons. First, the lodges fall in a jurisdictionally ambiguous area between federal fisheries and provincial tourism and accommodation. Second, the lodges would likely lobby hard against any proposal along these lines. And third, in these times of fiscal restraint there is little money and likely less appetite to sort out the jurisdictional mess, craft legislation, and create a new branch of government to implement it. For the foreseeable future it looks as though Grant’s sporadic multi-agency audits will be the extent of government’s involvement in the industry.

As for me, did my visit to the lodges change my impression of them? Not really. I still feel they haven’t given back enough to the Islands to compensate for what they’ve taken. I’m happy to see some of the lodges like West Coast are making an effort to hire from the communities on Haida Gwaii, but I understand they are the exception to the general rule which is that staff are hired from elsewhere.

Certainly I’m always grateful for an opportunity to experience things firsthand, particularly if I’m going to write about them, so in this sense it was a very rewarding trip. But the lingering question I have is how did these guys manage to come out of nowhere and secure a virtual monopoly over one of the best fishing spots on the Islands and priority access to the stocks?

I decided to put that question to Joy Thorkelson, the north coast representative for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union over in Prince Rupert.

“I think that the sports lobby is full of very important and powerful people,” she says. “And the lodges have been smart enough to curry favour with those kinds of people. And it’s only those kinds of people that can afford to go to the lodges on a regular basis. People with money. And we’re just poor people who struggle to make a living. That’s what the difference is.”

Thorkelson believes the decline of the commercial fishery was part of a deliberate move by government to privatize a public resource, a move to get individual boat and licence owners, family fishing boats, off the water and replace them with corporate ownership.

“We know that about 20 years ago the politicians decided that the commercial industry was a sunset industry. It’s not only a decision to reallocate towards the sport fishermen but also to allocate away from common property and owner-operators. To privatization where large companies, large corporations own access to the resource and lease it out to people who just become tenants. So it was a decision that was made twenty years ago and sport fishing just slid into that decision. They’ve transferred allocation to large resort owners who live on the south coast. They’ve transferred allocation away from individual owner-operators. They’ve privatized the resource and that means that you can stack (to possess and fish multiple licences) and people in our communities can’t afford to stack. So we’re the ones who end up leasing our licences out to the high rollers who actually do stack.”

Thorkelson suspects this trend will eventually spill over into the recreational sector. She sees a future where the lodges may feel their share of the stocks are threatened even by local anglers looking to catch a fish for supper, or decide that they don’t want to compete with local charters for the same fish.

“I don’t believe that you’ll just see privatization of the commercial fishery but the next thing you’ll see is privatization of the lodges as well with each lodge being allocated so much of the quota. And then what you’ll see is lodges like Langara saying that they’re getting crowded out by people who’ve taken their fishing boats and made them into home-based charters. They’ll say they’re crowding into our allocation and they’ll start demanding quotas or enterprise allocations. You won’t just have Canadians going out there paying fifty bucks and catching fish all summer. They can charge higher rates for the same fish so they’ll demand priority. That’s exactly what will happen, I guarantee that’s what will happen.”

She paints a bleak future, but to me the present looks bad enough. When I read Percy Williams’ description of the Skidegate exodus and the food fishery at Langara the past seems so much less distorted, so much more appropriate and just, and I realize how far we’ve fallen. The idea of local people enjoying the local bounty makes more sense to me than commodifying the experience and selling it off the shelves of the global economy so that it’s reserved for people from far away who can afford the thousand dollar a day price tag. Under this “new world order” local people are denied the pleasures of their home and forced to watch from the sidelines as privileged strangers savour it instead. Today, Islanders are told we are lucky to cook and serve the food of Langara’s new occupants. Lucky to bait their hooks. To clean their fish and toilets. •
Lodges anchored just off-shore at
Langara Island, Haida Gwaii

for a map showing the location of
fishing lodges surrounding
the Islands.
Approaching the Charlotte Princess at Langara Island during the Council of the Haida Nation demonstration.
Ernie Collison aboard the
Loo Plex at Langara Island.
Lawrence Jones
Haida Gwaii Watchmebn Eddie Davis (back) and Gene Bell.