On the night of August 14th a Ford Econoline van drove out of the dark and into the illuminated mouth of the Queen of the North. For the ten passengers rolling on-board, the bright sodium lamps of the midnight ferry signaled the beginning of a two week journey.
It was a trip with a very specific mission to shadow salmon.
Conserving wild salmon, the cultural connections and the biological diversity that run with them takes many forms. Some people snorkel the rivers with fry, some raise public awareness by bicycling the salmons range from north to south, while others protest open-net salmon aquaculture and poor logging practices that destroy habitat. Kimiko von Boetticher, Watershed Stew-ardship Coordinator for the Haida Gwaii Marine Resources Group Association, believes there is also another approach rooted in discovery and the mentoring of youth. Hitting the road, pursuing the waterways of wild sockeye and chinook runs, from the deep salt seas surrounding Haida Gwaii, to the clear fresh waters of Salmon Arm on the mainland is the focus and pursuit of the Headwaters to Coast Salmon Run Youth Exchange.
If you have spent your whole life on a cattle farm in the interior is it possible to imagine a river like the Yakoun or the way the wild waters reach for the sky at Skidegate Point? Travelling from the familiar to the unknown was the best way von Boetticher could imagine to introduce young people to stories about salmon. And so, the summer job for seven youth, grades five and six was to explore the diverse waters salmon inhabit, and the forests, fields and towns that rise up around them. Rolling onto the ferry at Skidegate Landing was just the first step of the journey.
For some time, a common thread kept rising in the conversations von Boetticher was having with colleagues and the public about salmon and salmon habitat. There are many people working in their own communities on salmon habitat issues. However, often there is a lack of com-munication between the different groups and some-times these groups are working on the same stream only a few kilometers apart. In other instances, they are as far away as fresh and salt water can be. She thought that by linking people along the rivers with people near the ocean you may be able to close the circle while raising awareness of each others activities and perhaps benefit the salmon and its habitat.
Earlier this year, students from all Island elementary schools were invited to apply for a place on the salmon- run-road-trip. George M. Dawson principal, Mike Wood, helped von Boetticher get the word out and the packages into classrooms. With gas and food money from the Gwaii Trust and a mighty discount on mileage from Herb Riddall, at Masset Services von Boetticher, Andrew Merilees, students Zachary Jackson, Jade Pollard, Nick Grosse, James Gordon Widen-Shaw, Raven Engel, Kelsey Kricheldorf and Charlene Squires, and Haida Gwaii Marine Resources Group Association summer student Alicia Collison, packed for Salmon Arm.
Salmon habitat accounts for much of British Columbia, but coastal communities are miles away from the cities and towns that run along rivers like the Skeena, Thompson, Fraser and Nechako. There are 2,592 documented runs of Pacific Salmon on the north and central BC coast alone and the factors that influence salmon habitat change, sometimes dramatically, as you travel eastwards through the valleys of the waterways. Along the way, you encounter con-centrated populations of people in the cities and large-scale agricultural operations in the areas between the cities.
The Salmon Run Youth Exchange was designed to introduce Island youth to people of all ages living along the rivers. With many stops along the way, the journey became as important as the destination. It provided the team an opportunity to ask questions, not only about geography, but also salmon and the positive and negative impacts people have on their habitat, and they lent a hand to action people were taking in their communities to improve the quality of habitat along their stretch of river, says von Boetticher.
From Prince Rupert, the van rambled towards Moricetown, along the Bulkley River. Here the group watched Wet suweten Fisheries employees selectively catch, tag, and conduct scale sampling of returning salmon. After a night spent in Prince George, hosted by the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council, the group traveled to Horsefly to stretch their legs and hear about the significance of riparian zones along the Horsefly Salmon Habitat Trail.
As the students learned, headwater streams and the riparian zones located im-mediately adjacent to the banks, serve as the source for most nutrients entering streams. Riparian zones sup-ply organic matter that falls into the water as leaves, twigs, insects and woody debris forming the basis of riverine food webs. The streams serve as essential catalysts in drainage networks, trans-porting sediment and organic matter to the lower reaches. Riparian zones keep water cool, reduce erosion and provide in-stream protection to fry.
In Salmon Arm, the team learned how towns, cities and farms affect salmon habitat and play a vital role in determining the health of salmon stocks.
Most of the kids had never been on a farm, said Boetticher. We visited three farms in Salmon Arm. One was a cattle farm where the Salmon River flows through the land. With cattle moving [up and down] the banks, there was no riparian zone along the river. This site offered us an opportunity to see an erosion control project in the making as the stewardship coordinator for the region had begun planting willow to restore the banks, tells von Boetticher. The group also spent time with a dairy farmer who was operating a fish fence, counting the salmon that swam up river through his property.
It was clear from the visit to the farms that land-use decisions made in head-water communities, such as Salmon Arm, are also felt in coastal communities. The health of wild salmon populations rest with the cooperation and common vision of all the communities where fish run, says von Boetticher.
At Scotch Creek, the students helped catch sockeye for the Adams Lake Band, and near Ashcroft the Bonapart Band Traditional Fishery showed the students how to tell the difference between a male and a female salmon and the way eggs are taken and fertilized for their hatchery program. Next stop was a visit to the Kingfisher Enviro-nmental Interpretive Center, located in Enderby, a community just outside of Salmon Arm. Along this 30-kilometer stretch of road running beside the Shuswap River is one of the most biodiverse areas in the province. The narrow corridor is a transition zone between the dry region of North Okanagan and the wet region of Shuswap. Over the past 15 years, the Kingfisher Centre has grown from a community run hatchery program to a year-round interpretive centre focusing on fisheries, wildlife values and education. The hatchery program that began with two small hatching boxes set in the ground is now a volunteer led coho and chinook program hatching tens of thousands of fish a year.
When the team arrived at the centre, the Kingfisher volunteers charged them with the release of 25,000 chinook fry. Hauling pails of fry to the edge of the river, the group released the salmon which will eventually make their way to the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii.
Recently, the Raincoast Conservation Society released a report entitled, Ghost Runs The Future of Wild Salmon on the North and Central Coasts of BC. According to this report, the value of linking people to salmon, throughout the vast ecosystem they inhabit, grows in-creasingly critical as research continues to show the gaps in our knowledge about wild salmon and their noted states of decline. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, Pacific salmon have disap-peared from almost half of their original range along the northwest coast of North America within the past 100 years.