Day 71: Station
I have to admit, it’s a pleasure being in Canada. To my friends with Canadian roots (Jess, Mandy, Alexis, Chris Leader) — your countryfolk are doing you proud, with hospitality that wells up like a spring. Last week I pulled up to a small dock on a small island among thousands, taking a rest and looking for somebody to ask whether the thin channel on my old chart from the 1980s still goes through. Turns out it doesn’t (Not since the big earthquake, eh?) — so I’d have to go around. But Hal quelled my disappointment by inviting me in for a mug of cocoa and a plate of fresh baked bread, veggies, and butter. I told him this meal would motor me right around the island. “Yeah,” he agreed, “you’ll feel like ya got a 50-horse on that kayak, eh?” and sent me on my way with a thick roll of homemade venison sausage. And just the other night, I passed the lighthouse on Addenbroke Island, 100 years old this May, and hailed the caretaker on my VHF radio. Dennis hoisted my kayak up on the dock with his crane, and invited me to stay for the night, feeding me a sumptuous whitefish dinner and making up my first real bed in 3 weeks. But the best hospitality has come, as it were, from the Canadian Gods: the weather has finally turned! The northwesterly winds, which tormented me for 10 days as I crawled my way up the coast of Vancouver Island, have finally laid down, and at times even turned around and helped push me towards Alaska. Compared to the early going, for the past week I’ve been flying, and it surely does elate the spirit.
Paddling through the labyrinth of the Broughton Archipelago, I stopped to visit a wonderful place that is perhaps the closest analogue of Inian Islands Institute that can be found: the Salmon Coast Field Station. Quiet and beautiful, Salmon Coast brings researchers and student groups out to the Broughtons. They have a bountiful garden, rustic laboratory facilities, and even its small-scale capacity (at around 20 people) is similar to that of the Hobbit Hole. When I arrived, a student group from the Broadreach program was just giving their final presentations after a week spent studying whales — from the SCFS library shelves, and from the boat out in the fjords. I sat in the homey open space that served as kitchen, dining room, library and den all in one, and listened about whale feeding, physiology, echolocation, and especially interesting, the controversy around releasing captive orcas back into the wild. No powerpoint — the students simply sat in a circle and spoke to one another, the way people do.
And Salmon Coast certainly shares the joys and challenges of remote, off-the-grid field station life. When I met Coady, one of the caretakers (a wonderful, bearded guy), he was off to fix the freezer before all the fish melted & spoiled. As soon as he finished with that, he came to join the student presentations for a moment, only to find that the water was shut off for some reason, so he headed off to fix the cistern. The students dealt with the water situation with grace and humor — secretly, I think they loved it. It’s like the feeling when the power goes out in a thunderstorm. People come together in such moments, in a small way, giggling and smiling in the shared experience of something new and different. And after presentations were over, Coady put the students to work stacking firewood and cutting back the salal (a native bush that grows prodigiously, quick to cover every inch of ground where it isn’t chopped into submission). Out here, it seems like the ocean and rainforest are eager to devour the buildings and pathways of our tenuous habitations, reclaiming the space that was always theirs and will be again — it’s an avalanche of maintenance. Later, when we had a chance to talk, Coady told me that he loves it out here and doesn’t mind keeping the place up. The problem comes when he has to do the organization and administration on top of the maintenance — then he’s overloaded. It’s a good take-home message for Inian Islands Institute (one among many from this visit): let the caretaker be the caretaker, and put the programmatic side of things in someone else’s hands. My hands, I reckon.
Salmon Coast has an interesting history. The property belongs to a remarkable woman named Alexandra Morton. She first came to the area in 1984, seeking, in her own words, a place with whales, children, and calm waters. Trained as a biologist, and ever the student of her ecosystem, Alexandra watched the Broughtons closely. Especially the whales, for whom she had an out-of-the-ordinary fondness, like a kinship. Over time, in the 1990s she began to recognize that the resident orca whales of the Broughtons were disappearing, her sightings dropping steadily. She began sounding the alarm among the public, and soon she was hosting a bevy of researchers and volunteers studying the problem, right out of her private home. Their early work pointed at one high-profile cause for the orca decline: salmon farms.
It was the Norwegians who first brought wild salmon into the pens. As Atlantic salmon were in the throes of a death by many cuts (the deepest being dams, weirs, logging, overfishing, and development and pollution along waterways), enterprising Norwegians discovered in the 1960s that they could successfully bring the whole life cycle of salmon to bear in floating sea cages. Feeding off the demand of the marketplace, salmon farming grew incredibly fast, expanding from Norway into Scotland, Chile, and British Columbia among others: places with an abundance of cold, clear, oxygen-rich waters in protected fjords, where salmon can grow big and strong.
At first glance, salmon farming might seem like a slam-dunk — economically and ecologically friendly. If the wild stocks of Atlantic salmon are collapsed, let’s breed the fish instead, bringing the market into a setting we can control and taking the pressure off wild fish stocks. But look again: salmon are powerful and far-ranging, insatiable carnivores. What is Salmo domesticus fed in pens around the temperate world? Wild fish — in futuristic pellet form — as much as 10 pounds of wild fish for every pound of salmon flesh produced. Far from easing the pressure on wild stocks, salmon farming exacerbates the pressure. And of course that’s just the beginning. Add in pollution (decaying salmon excrement in the fjords tends to create anoxic dead zones), energy costs, escapement and invasion of local river systems, and the spread of disease (an inevitable by-product of keeping lots of animals in close quarters), and things are shaping into an ecological boondoggle. For all these reasons, salmon farming is outlawed in Alaska. Walk around my home state awhile, and you’re sure to see a bright yellow bumper sticker reading “Friends don’t let Friends eat Farmed Fish.”
I passed a number of salmon farms paddling through the Broughtons. From a distance, they’re pretty innocuous: a couple of floating green sheds, and some vaguely geometric shapes and buoys in the water. But then I happened upon one up close. I heard it before I saw it: the chugging of the generator, and then the feed dispensers, twirling in the center of each pen with a sibilant scraping sound like the sharpening of a knife. Coming up alongside, the circular pens were much bigger than I expected, draped with netting. I paddled out of sight behind them, wondering if it was illegal for me to see and photograph here, the way it is in feedlots. Watching the storyless fish swim in dumb circles, occasionally breaking the surface with a thrash, one word filled my mind: unnatural. We can have a philosophical discussion about what the concept of natural means; the border between human and natural systems is awfully blurry, and I won’t claim to have the perfect definition. But after seeing this floating factory, whose fish live in a cage in the wrong ocean, producing pallid white flesh that must be dyed to render it salmon colored, I do now know what unnatural means.
Still, ridden with problems as they are, how might salmon farms be responsible for the decline of resident orcas in the Broughton Islands? The resident orcas feed on wild Pacific salmon: as the salmon go, the orcas go. And there are a number of ways that salmon farms may negatively impact the wild stocks. Farmed salmon may escape and populate local rivers, displacing the native Pacific salmon, viruses may spread from the pens, and the farms may attract additional attention from predators to areas where wild salmon migrate through. But the biggest issue may be sea lice: little crustaceans that attach themselves parasitically to the outside of fish, feeding on their skin and blood. Adult fish may collect a few sea lice and be none the worse for it — I’ve found plenty of the little bastards on salmon and halibut caught up in Southeast Alaska. Normally, the infected adult salmon migrate up the rivers at a different time than the young smolts are migrating down, reducing the chance that the vulnerable youngsters get infected. But salmon farms, with fish swimming thicker (and much more stationary) than any school, are potent breeding grounds for sea lice — all year round. A recent study co-authored by Alexandra Morton showed that this allows the parasites to infect young salmon before they’ve developed protective scales, inflicting fatal damage. Orcas, then, so visible and so cherished by the local people, are what are known as an indicator species: watch them, and you can learn whether things are healthy in the lower levels of the ecosystem, and perhaps in time even unravel complex stories like this one.
When you approach Salmon Coast Field Station, you see a huge banner hanging from the upper building that reads, Salmon are Sacred. It’s a fitting motto for a species that ties so much together: land to ocean, forests to fish, people to place. And I believe it’s true, in my own way. Later that night, drinking a beer with Cody in the lab while the students spent their last night watching a movie on the projector, I noticed another banner, folded to the side, reading Salmon are Scared. A laughable typo? A silly joke? A commentary on the threats to wild stocks posed by salmon farms? I didn’t ask.
With such important work on salmon farms coming out, Alexandra’s Broughton Archipelago home was an important place for doctoral students and researchers, and she was very regretful when she announced that she had to sell the place. It tumbled the research projects into uncertainty. But then a beautiful thing happened: a philanthropist (whose wealth came from the board game Trivial Pursuit, of all places) bought the house and sold it right back to Alexandra for one Canadian dollar, to serve as a field station. Nearly a decade later, Alexandra Morton is as outspoken as ever (a recent Seattle Times profile of her was entitled “Meet salmon farming’s Worst Enemy”), and the Salmon Coast Field Station continues to host students and researchers in this beautiful rainforest outpost. They found their angel to buy that special property to serve a special purpose. It gives me faith that we at Inian Islands Institute will find ours.