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A detail of a painting by B.C. artist, Mark Hobson, called "Surface Tension". It was the winner of the Pacific Salmon Conservation Stamp art competition and depicts a Chinook salmon feeding on herring. (Pacific Salmon Foundation/Pacific Salmon Foundation)
A detail of a painting by B.C. artist, Mark Hobson, called "Surface Tension". It was the winner of the Pacific Salmon Conservation Stamp art competition and depicts a Chinook salmon feeding on herring. (Pacific Salmon Foundation/Pacific Salmon Foundation)

Things that Work: the First of 10 stories of a Better B.C.

Salmon art project gets stamp of approval Add to ...

The Pacific Salmon Conservation Stamp is a little idea that's had a big impact in British Columbia.

Since it became a requirement for anglers to buy a stamp and affix it to their federal salt water licences each year, the stamp - a reproduction of a painting by a B.C. artist - has directly raised $10-million for the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

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And that money has been leveraged by the non-profit society to provide over $70-million in funding for more than 1,000 habitat restoration projects.

"It's a big part of what we do … it's our cornerstone," says Brian Riddell, president and chief executive officer of the PSF.

Mr. Riddell said the program began in 1989 when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans agreed to make the stamp a requirement on fishing licences.

The stamp, which costs $6.30, must be affixed to a licence if an angler wants to retain any salmon caught in salt water. For each stamp sold, DFO returns about $1.12 to the PSF.

Mr. Riddell said the government takes most of the money raised by the stamp and puts it into general revenue, but he is hoping that in negotiations this year the PSF can arrange to get a bigger share.

The PSF chooses a new piece of art each year in an annual competition that - with a $10,000 prize - attracts entries from some of B.C.'s best painters.

In the past, great wildlife artists such as Bruce Muir, Bill Munsie and Sam Jackson have won with dramatic, realistic portraits of salmon in their natural habitat.

This year Mark Hobson won with a painting, called Surface Tension , of a large chinook breaking the surface as it swirls after a school of herring.

Mr. Hobson, a biologist who has been a full-time painter for about 20 years, said he got the idea after watching big salmon boiling around a ball of herring in Clayoquot Sound, where he works in a floating studio.

"There is probably nothing more dramatic to salmon fishermen than when you see that surface action," he said. "I just tried to imagine what it looked like through the eyes of the herring, with this big, dark shape cutting through the school."

Mr. Hobson is a scuba diver and he said depicting the light and colour as it appears under water isn't easy.

"You have to go underwater and just sit there for a while," he said of how he came to understand the dynamics of subsurface light.

"I would go down there and look up at the surface and hold up my arm just to see how the light plays on it," he said.

"When the light reflects off the side of a salmon it is kind of like light reflecting off metal. … I got some inspiration for that from looking at the kettle in my kitchen," Mr. Hobson said.

He said about halfway through the painting he realized the water surface, as seen from below, was too dark and the bubbles weren't right either - so he had to partially strip the canvas and repaint it. It took him about five days to complete the painting.

Mr. Hobson's float-house studio is just outside Tofino, and he gets there in about 20 minutes in his Boston Whaler.

When he's there he'll make one cellphone call to his wife, to check in, but other than that he works undisturbed. "It's a perfect place to work … a dream," he said. "Sometimes kayakers or power boats come by, in the summer, but after September it's unbelievably peaceful."

Winning the Salmon Conservation Stamp art competition (he also took the prize in 2003 and 2005) is an honour, he said, because so many talented artists enter each year.

"But in the art world the competition is very friendly," he said. "The others are always happy for you when you win."

Mr. Hobson said it's unusual to see a large portrait reduced to the size of a stamp, but he gets a kick out of it, especially when he's asked to autograph one, because his signature is bigger than the picture.

The PSF keeps the original painting and offers prints for sale that help raise more funds.

Under the PSF rules, an artist can't win two times in a row, so Mr. Hobson will sit out the competition next year and serve on the panel of judges.

He said he's looking forward to seeing what his colleagues produce - and how they handle the challenge of underwater light.

The first in a series

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