Until I cracked open Terry Glavin's Dead Reckoning: Confronting the Crisis in Pacific Fisheries (Greystone), I thought fish had no more significance to me than the wasabe and the soy sauce on the side. Now I know different. Glavin's book is a fascinating study of fish, aboriginal life, and Canadian history and culture, and how they all fit together. Why did the cod stocks disappear from the east coast, and why have west coast salmon runs declined from 160 million fish to 7 million annually?
Blaming the Spaniards or the Alaskans or, most recently, B.C. First Nations, is a lot easier than looking at the real reasons. One is habitat loss, mostly the destruction of spawning streams by logging and other development. A second is pollution, both large-scale (the "first flush" when a good rain after a dry spell flushes accumulated toxins out of storm drains) and small-scale (you washing your car). A third cause is overfishing, partly because we have more mouths to feed but also because, for example, by the early 1990s "many trawl vessels in the overcapitalized fleet were finding themselves forced to overfish and misreport their catches in order to make any profit at all."
Industry and technology are not inherently bad for a resource. We know that aboriginal people lived on the salmon resource for some ten millennia before the Europeans got here, using nets, traps, weirs, hooks and harpoons, and they fed thousands of people without depleting the stocks. Their fishing technology—small-scale, sustainable, and economically, environmentally, and politically viable—was shut down by a federal fisheries officer in the early 1900s, in order to free up more fish for the canneries. Mechanization has damaged the resource not because of too many boats catching too few fish, but because of "too many boats with too much mobility, too much catching power and not enough accountability." Meanwhile, our government agencies busy themselves with "costly hatchery projects that have immediate political payoff but potentially harmful downstream side effects."
When I was a little kid, I liked to go hunting for crabs on the beach. It was easy—you find a good-sized rock in the wet sand and roll it over. The crabs scattered quickly but you could usually catch one or two. One day last summer I went hunting for crabs again. After a few tries, I gave up, figuring I must be doing it wrong, because I didn't unearth a single crab. Now I'm not so sure. Was I doing it wrong, or are there simply none left?