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At first, when the grizzlies arrived in their village, the residents of Oweekeno ignored them. It was September, and every fall for as long as anyone could remember, the bears made a beeline for the Wanuk River to gorge on salmon before winter hibernation.

In the past, Oweekeno was merely a transit route for the bears on their way to the river. But last fall they stayed. They prowled around porches and trashed smokehouses. One curled up under a house and stayed put. One morning, to the delight of Donovan LeBlond's children, two cubs pressed their noses and paws against his glass-patio doors.

Mr. LeBlond and other villagers were less enchanted. Something was wrong with the bears. They were skinny, weak and showed no signs of leaving. Soon, more than a dozen grizzlies were meandering on the dirt road that is the village's main street. By Christmas, conservation officers and villagers had shot 14 of them.

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Only once before had a villager been forced to kill an intrusive bear. The Oweekeno Indians, who have lived in the remote inlet on British Columbia's central coast for thousands of years, have co-existed with the grizzlies, each keeping a respectful distance.

But the starving bears were only a symptom of a greater tragedy unfolding in River's Inlet, a 30-kilometre stretch of aquamarine water that joins the Pacific Ocean about 400 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. The bears were hungry because the sockeye salmon, their main food source, had all but vanished from the Wanuk River, which feeds into the inlet.

Once the third-largest salmon run on the West Coast -- where millions of sockeye returned each year to fill the nets of B.C. commercial fishermen from Vancouver to Prince Rupert -- River's Inlet last July saw its salmon run virtually disappear.

Fewer than 3,400 sockeye returned, compared with more than three million three decades ago. This summer, the numbers are expected to be lower, perhaps non-existent. And no one knows what happened.

In fact, the collapse of the central-coast sockeye is one of B.C.'s biggest environmental mysteries. No one, from federal Department of Fisheries biologists to environmentalists, can explain why millions of fish simply vanished. And no one knows what to do to bring them back.

"I don't know of any place in B.C. that is such an environmental conundrum," said Vancouver consultant Geoff Meggs, who wrote a book on the issue. "It's just baffling.

"Most of the time, you can point to one thing, like logging or something else, to explain an environmental phenomenon. But not here."

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Theories abound, namely overfishing, ocean warming and logging, which is now moving into the central coast. But no one can pinpoint exactly why so many fish vanished en masse from River's Inlet.

Federal fisheries experts are also scratching their heads. To respond to the crisis, the department last fall set up a technical committee to start a recovery plan, but its chairman has conceded there might never again be a commercial fishery in River's Inlet. Instead, Ottawa's goal is simply to stave off extinction for the sockeye.

Others say the environmental disaster in River's Inlet is an ominous sign for British Columbia's wild salmon fishery. As human development, industry and transportation corridors inch their way up the coast, the numbers of salmon returning to spawn each year in coastal rivers keeps dropping.

"Sustainable development is really an oxymoron," said Blair Holtby, a federal fisheries official and chair of the technical committee examining the disappearance of the River's Inlet salmon. "It's possible, but it depends on strictly controlling what's going to happen on valley bottoms on the coast."

While the cause of the sockeye collapse is a mystery, the environmental fallout is obvious to anyone familiar with the watershed. Jim Fulton of the David Suzuki Foundation said simply: "The ecosystem has collapsed."

Salmon was the main food source for dozens of species of mammals, birds, plants and trees in River's Inlet. When the salmon failed to show up last summer, the bears appeared to be the main casualty. But others species who fed on the salmon are also suffering. No one has seen an eagle or wolverine for months.

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For humans, the repercussions are evident to anyone whose life was connected to the sockeye fishery at River's Inlet.

For more than 100 years, River's Inlet was the fishing hub of the central coast, where each summer more than 1,000 gillnetters, seines and trawlers converged to rake in their hauls.

Today, except for a few logging and sports camps, the inlet is deserted. Abandoned canneries long ago burned down. The barges that provided sleeping quarters for deck hands as well as fuel and groceries for fishermen have disappeared.

Landing docks, such as Dawson's Landing and Finn's Bay, where fishermen repaired their nets and socialized while they waited for the next salmon run, are ghost towns.

Gone, too, is the estimated $7-million the sockeye fishery contributed each year to the provincial economy. Instead, Ottawa has spent millions buying out the licences of commercial fishermen.

The sockeye disappearance has meant the end of a way of life for thousands of B.C. fishermen up and down the coast. But nowhere is it felt more acutely than on the banks of the Wanuk, by the Oweekeno Indians. According to legend, the Oweekeno people have lived in River's Inlet as long as the salmon. With millions of fish returning to the river each year, the Indians were freed of the burden of following game across the region. Their food supply ensured, the Oweekeno nation settled in the inlet and numbered more than 2,000 at the turn of the century. But intertribal wars and disease shrank the population; today the village doesn't quite number 80.

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Still, the nation survived, in part due to the huge supply of salmon at its front door. Villagers worked in canneries and as deck hands, and some even owned their own boats.

While the sockeye represented a paycheque to commercial fishermen and canners, it remained the Indians' main food source and ensured at least one link with the old way of life. They ate salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They ate it smoked, dried, barbecued and pickled. Even today, the village consumes up to 3,000 salmon a year.

Ken Walkus, who grew up in Oweekeno, described the Wanuk River as "our floating grocery store." In the fall, the villagers filled their freezers and smokehouses with salmon and supplemented their store-bought diets all winter with fish.

Every adult villager has a vivid memory of the summer months when the sockeye returned and the river swelled with salmon. "It looked like pebbles falling from the sky, with all the fish jumping," said Valerie Shaw, 48, who once owned four gillnetters and fished River's Inlet for 10 years.

"When you have millions of fish going by every year, it seems endless," added Frank Hanuse, 60. "The whole river used to just boil."

But by the late 1970s, the miracle of millions of returning fish waned, and stocks dropped to under a million salmon. Fearing the region had been overfished, Ottawa's Department of Oceans and Fisheries responded by closing the fishery for four years, from 1980 to 1984.

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By the 1990s, the numbers were again dire and in 1996 Ottawa banned commercial fishing in River's Inlet -- this time for good.

Despite the ban, the number of sockeye continued to fall off the radar screen. In 1996, there were just 65,000; in 1998, the numbers dropped to 52,000.

Each May, Indian elders eagerly wait for the arrival of salmonberries. They believe that a bumper crop means there will be lots of salmon. Last year, the bushes were nearly bare.

By July and August, the salmonberry prophecy proved true. Fisheries officials had been hoping for about 35,000 sockeye. The river yielded fewer than 3,400. Instead of stuffing their smokehouses and freezers, many villagers resorted to expensive store-bought food, flown or shipped by barge from Port Hardy, a town of 5,000 approximately 80 kilometres south of River's Inlet, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

However, the grizzlies didn't have that option. When they found the river empty, their giant snouts led them to Oweekeno.

The scrawny grizzlies were a sad sight for the Indians, who used to take pleasure watching the bears stuff themselves each fall. One sow, with its two cubs, was particularly troubling. A video shot by Mr. LeBlond shows a bear foraging in a back yard for food. Two dogs are yelping at the bear and its offspring, but the grizzly appears too weak to defend its young. Later that week, after it began sleeping beside a villager's porch, Mr. Hanuse shot the bear and its two cubs.

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Mr. Hanuse said the sow, which normally gains up to 135 kilograms before hibernation, hardly had any body fat. Environmentalists have accused Ottawa of abandoning the River's Inlet fishery, saying federal fisheries officials should have acted sooner when salmon numbers began to drop.

Mr. Fulton questioned the effectiveness of the federal committee that will examine the River's Inlet fishery, saying experts must first find out what happened before they can recommend what to do about it.

"If you lose your third-biggest salmon run, bells should be ringing," Mr. Fulton said. "It just seems amazing that Parliament should not be somewhat more intellectually rigorous on this."

However, fisheries officials defended their track record in the inlet.

Mr. Holtby said Ottawa closed the River's Inlet fishery as soon as the numbers dropped off in the early 1990s.

"The department has not stood idly by and watched this happen," Mr. Holtby said. "That's simply not true."

He added that scientists looking at the problem have made some headway. For example, they have ruled out logging as the chief culprit because the sockeye have also disappeared in nearby Long Lake even though loggers have never touched that watershed.

Mr. Holtby said scientists believe the sockeye are dying soon after they reach the ocean. Some of the factors they're looking at include warming temperatures and the presence of new predators.

"Other than that, we just don't know," Mr. Holtby said.

Meanwhile, in Oweekeno, villagers are just as uncertain about their future.

"With no salmon, there's no Oweekeno," Mr. Hanuse said.

UNDERSTANDING THE SOCKEYE

Below, the life cycle of the sockeye salmon. Spawning grounds stretch down the Pacific coastline from Alaska down to Oregon. The adult fish return after one to two years at sea to the very spawning grounds that they came from. Spawning takes place in freshwater. The sockeye favour rivers fed by lakes and its is within or near to these lakes where spawing grounds are found. As the salmon grow they travel down the river toward the sea. This can take up to two years. In the saltwater oceans, the sockeye may travel many hundreds of kilometres, as far as the Bering Sea. Source: Fresh and Saltwater Fishes of the World

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