A Tŝilhqot’in elder from the Tl’etinqox cultural camp was among 48 knowledge keepers interviewed to understand their perceptions of the long-term health of Pacific salmon. | Andrea Reid
In British Columbia’s largest rivers, salmon stocks have fallen to a sixth of the levels seen 50 to 70 years ago, according to interviews with 26 First Nations knowledge elders in the province.
The interviews were conducted as part of an extensive research project with 48 knowledge keepers from 18 First Nations – spanning the Fraser, Skeena and Nass rivers. Of these, more than half said salmon stocks had fallen an average of 83% below their historic abundance.
“The history of fisheries in British Columbia is dark,” said Andrea Reid, Nisg̱a’a citizen and senior researcher at the Center for Indigenous Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.
“This story was about taking, not giving back.”
Since European settlement of British Columbia began in the mid-1800s, settlers have established canneries and taken the best fishing grounds using thousands of years of Indigenous experience about where and how to fish, a said Reid.
At a time when salmon fishing is at historic lows, the researcher added that the series of interviews offers a way to reclaim this knowledge and make it readable to the world.
“Fishing doesn’t exist without people in the equation,” Reid said.
Andrea Reid’s latest research draws on the testimonies of BC First Nations to understand their historical experiences with declining salmon stocks. Andrea Reid
A Return to the Nisg̱a’a
In the summer of 2018, Reid packed up her car and set off on a work trip that would turn into something more.
A member of the Nisg̱a’a Nation, Reid’s family has a violent history — his grandmother is a survivor of the residential school system and his father was a victim of the Sixties Scoop, a period of approximately 20 years the Canadian government forced the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system.
“I didn’t grow up with Nisg̱a’a culture, ceremonies, practices — none of that,” she says.
What she grew up 4,500 kilometers away on Prince Edward Island was a life surrounded by water and fish.
As an adult, Reid would spend time in fishing communities around the world, in places like Uganda, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands.
All of this work with aboriginal fisheries has been heavily invested in western science – as Reid puts it, “I approached it from a fisher’s perspective”.
But as her research led her to explore British Columbia, things changed.
Four months of road trips, flying in small planes to distant cities and spending long weeks with communities helped her find the roots she never had as a child.
“I was driving everywhere camping,” Reid said.
Andrea Reid flies over Work Channel en route to Khutzeymateen Inlet. Andrea Reid
Some communities, like Musqueam in Vancouver, were easy to get to. Others have asked Reid to drive down the back of Forest Service roads near Fort Babine or visit the remote village of Ging̱olx, across from the southern end of the Alaska Panhandle.
An elder she met at Burns Lake was determined to take her to traditional fishing grounds. The interview took place as they bounced down a road in his truck, down winding trails and in a canoe.
Others were made on the back of a quad, in a smokehouse or by the river.
All of the interviewees were chosen through a torturous process, where Reid would attend a community meeting, feast or cultural camp to seek consent from the elders or council and ask who was best placed to respond to his questions.
“What became very clear – the same names kept repeating themselves,” Reid said.
All of the 48 people Reid settled on were Elders or Elders-in-training between the ages of 56 and 93. The mix of chiefs, matriarchs, ceremonial leaders, healers, and former or active fishers came from the Katzie, Nat’oot’ten, Nisg̱a’a, Stó:lō, Secwépemc, and Tŝilhqot’in, among others .
“For so many people I’ve spoken to, they started fishing when they could walk,” she said.
They would tell him, “’Salmon is part of who we are.’ »
Andrea Reid interviews a matriarch in Ging̱olx, B.C. Mikayla Wujec
To quantify how much salmon had disappeared from the communities’ local fishing grounds, Reid’s interviews began by asking about how much they could catch today at a specific location.
She then went back in time asking “How many salmon did you catch then?”
Some might say they caught 10 a day or 100 a week. Other Elders counted the fish that were netted or hooked by the hour.
Of the 48 respondents, 26 said they had enough knowledge to answer these questions.
The 83% average decline in salmon abundance aligns well with other trends in salmon access for First Nations, as well as previous research that describes a broader decline in freshwater life around the world on similar periods.
The number also masks some regional differences. Along the Fraser River, the declines were even smaller, consistent with government statistics for decades.
On the Fraser River, for example, sockeye salmon returns averaged 9.6 million per year between 1980 and 2014, with up to 28 million per year. In 2020, the return of salmon dropped to 293,000 salmon, the lowest since record keeping began in 1893.
Threatening salmon, threatening humans
Fish farms, climate change and commercial fishing have been identified as the biggest threats to Pacific salmon, according to the Elders.
Indigenous knowledge keepers have also raised concerns about industrial development as well as a combination of contaminants, hydroelectric developments, poaching and infectious diseases.
Threats to Pacific salmon, they said, directly threatened human health.
As one Nisg̱a’a elder who has since passed away told Reid, “Who are we as Nisg̱a’a without salmon?
For a long time, if Indigenous knowledge was used, it was used to fill in gaps in Western science, Reid says. Rarely has it been understood that Elders can offer a radically local perspective that respects the ecosystem of a single tributary and the tailored recovery plan it requires.
“We have to get people involved if we’re going to take care of the fish,” Reid said. “They want this kind of information to be known.”
Chum salmon at the end of their life cycle at Fish Creek. Andrea Reid
But in his interviews, many of the threats to salmon identified by the Elders were beyond the control of Aboriginal people.
In a surprising twist, Reid said a third of elders spontaneously spoke about the decreasing quality of their waterways.
“When he drank the river, he could taste the salmon,” Reid said of an Elder’s experience. “It’s an amazing way to think about how people existed. It’s an incredible difference to the way people can’t touch [water] today for fear of what’s inside.
Marked by loss, the lengthy interviews were emotionally draining, Reid said. But at the same time, the experiment paved the way – by putting the fate of the fish in the hands of the people who know them the most and depend on them the most, they may have a chance of survival.
“I am often reminded by my elders of the very real responsibilities we have as Indigenous people in this country,” Reid said.
“We have a unique role to play against this government…to take it to court to defend the interests of fish and water.”