Copyright © 1997. All Rights Reserved.
By Nick Devlin
For George Oling, the splash of a gill net hitting water was more than the sound of money, it was a way of life. At 60, the lines in Oling's weathered and weary face bespoke a lifetime of hard work dragging aboard nets heavy with fish from the rich waters of the Fraser River, and the pain of lean years in which the nets came back far too light.
But five years ago, Oling spent his fishing days drinking beer in the ramshackle shed where his nets lay neatly across a grid of cedar hurdles, waiting. Because five years ago the fish didn't come. More than 100,000 prized sockeye salmon from the Stuart River run disappeared. Just vanished. Into the nets of poachers or the netherworld of Department of Fisheries and Oceans statistics.
Like a farmer whose horses have long fled his empty barn, the DFO rushed to slam the stable doors, shutting down the commercial fishery after only three miserly days. There was anger and recriminations as tension hung over a starving river like the smell of roe rotting on the gutting tables. Missiled words were aimed at the natives, the sportsmen, the scientists. Someone to blame, as long as that someone was anyone else. In frustration, the in-shore fishermen took to the streets of Vancouver, briefly blockading the roadway in front of the Department of Fisheries office, demanding action.
Back then there was really no one to blame but ourselves. No thieving Americans, no dastardly Spaniards, just homegrown mismanagement. Time passed, tempers cooled and eventually the fish came back, though fewer than before.
Today, a blockade of another sort is playing out. This time there really is someone to blame - Alaskans are callously taking our fish in blatant contravention of international law, as the Canadian government is quick to point out. Somehow, such subtleties seem lost on the salmon.
Perhaps the problem would be best solved by breeding smarter fish. If we can clone sheep, why not genetically engineer fish which understand the simple concept of property rights and can read a map for good measure. Canadian fish that stay on the Canadian side of the line, that imaginary little line down the middle of the Pacific coast.
Or maybe the fish already are smarter. Instinctively they know what mankind seems determined to learn the hard way: ecosystems have no borders. Nor do environmental disasters we work so hard to create. Fallout and floods do not recognize artificial boundaries any more than flocks of migratory birds or herds of elephants do.
Instead of teaching nursery school kids, "This land is my land," perhaps they should be singing, "My smog is your smog." One earth, one mess. The concept of yours and mine had no place in nature. We cannot lay waste to one corner of the world and hope to contain the damage.
And that's why a fish war with the Americans is so fundamentally unhelpful. For a few more days or weeks we'll have a place to point our fingers, and enough political posturing to distract us from the one real problem: too many fish are being caught. If we don't all stop, there will be nothing left.
Back To Main Contents
Back To This Issue Table of Contents