What is Lost and Found on the Fraser River

In the southwest corner of British Columbia, a great river flows from a canyon in Hope. Hope marks the start of an historic aquatic corridor in the Lower Fraser River Valley. Here the river runs along rich floodplains, through metro Vancouver, and, ultimately, to freedom from the bounds of land at the Salish Sea. For centuries the region has sustained populations of people and wildlife alike, a fertile crescent of the West. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

The following is the unabridged story that documents the travels of a photojournalist team as they explore the ecology and culture of the Fraser River Valley. An excerpt was originally published in the Spring 2018 Print Edition of SAGE Magazine.


Introduction: Wild Salmon Chase

Most people know Vancouver, British Columbia as a thriving, modern metropolis of the Pacific Northwest—the last stop before civilization gives way to the wilds of the province. Salmon know it as the last obstacle to pass through before they make it from Hope to the Salish Sea on their journey through the Lower Fraser River Valley.

Sockeye, pink, chum, coho, and Chinook. They run to the sea, only to return, each generation pulsing back to their natal waters of the Fraser River.

Salmon are as much embedded in the lifeblood of Vancouver as they are a mirror to the city’s struggles. Like so many regions today, the city seems struggling upstream toward a rebirth; battling back the heavy currents of change and development.

The scientists rely on the knowledge of local stakeholders, and especially the generational knowledge of the First Nations. Some, like 37-year-old Steve Stark—a member of the Tsawwassen First Nation—have witnessed the chipping-away at their culture. Stark says 20 years ago salmon nets used to be full, but now his small fleet of fishing boats targets mostly crab—though these stocks, too, have been slowly depleting over the past 18 years. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

Thanks to the influx of foreign investment, real estate prices in Vancouver have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, traditional fishing and canning industries and the local jobs they support have floundered. Wild salmon that once accounted for 60 percent of fishery profits now comprise closer to only 20 percent. Local politicians either champion or condemn the industrial development around Port Metro Vancouver’s expansion and export operations. Conservation teams struggle for funding to conduct even basic science that could provide the information needed to find solutions to wild salmon stock depletion; while indigenous communities battle for the right to sustain the cultures and the identities—inextricably linked to the salmon—that they have built over the past 10,000 years.

This is the story visible from the surface.

Instinct drove us, outsiders, a pair of Northeasterners with a soft spot for endangered species and a good story, to dip below. And so, the Lower Fraser River Valley region was revealed through the fractured light of competing desires occupying the same prismatic conundrum—the salmon are disappearing.

***

Part I: The Real Science of Salmon

Charlie Clark (left) and Dave Scott (right) assist conservation scientist Misty MacDuffee (background) as they seine for salmon fry in the Lower Fraser River estuary. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

It is 5 a.m. and we are on the water.

The small boat cuts through the channel on the south side of Westham Island as the sun rises behind us, tentacles of warmth touching between tall pines. The moon hasn’t yet given up the sky.

We are loaded with waders and nets. Canteens of drinking water roll across the hull and the engine of the tiny craft chugs as our guides, Misty and Dave, describe the Delta surroundings—see there, hundreds of kilometers of dikes cut off the river from the floodplain; there, to the south, is Robert’s Bank, the site of Port Metro Vancouver’s Terminal 2 expansion project.

Westshore Terminals, self-proclaimed “North America’s premier mover of coal”, manages and operates the site, where the project’s additional 2.4 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of container capacity would serve exports to primarily Asian markets.

Visions of shipping containers stacked like misfit toys on a peninsula jutting into the Delta dance in my head as we cut the engine. We float along with miles of marsh lying ahead. It is silent but for the occasional birdcall. We could be nowhere.

Raincoast researcher Dave Scott holds up a juvenile chum salmon to be measured and counted. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

In reality, we are in one of the last swaths of protected habitat for salmon that call the Fraser home. Elsewhere, amid the lights, sound, speed, jetties, and causeways of the industrialized river, dikes have destroyed the natural shoreline and eliminated access to smaller channels, confining migrating fish to the Lower Fraser’s main strait.

For a moment I breathe in the quiet. Is this what it feels like to be a fish? To float freely in the shelter of the eelgrass beds, warm in the sand flats and salt marsh?

I’m jarred from my reverie as the boat tips. The scientists disembark, preparing for the morning’s work of catching, counting, and measuring.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation (RCF), our partners on this journey, want to know who is where and when. Which different species of salmon come down from the headwaters? What parts of the estuary are they using more? How long they stay?

Their interest extends far beyond the fish. Salmon move through the whole ecosystem. Birds and bear feed on them; their bodies fertilize the forests. And we’re losing them.

We’re losing them.

Lia, a young RCF scientist, is obscured by tall reeds as she records conditions. Misty starts the engine and drives the boat just far enough to drag the seining net across to the opposite bank where Dave and Charlie are primed, ready to haul.

Their motions are clean and quick; muscles strain against the mud and the current. Something gets stuck and Misty moves across the stern of the boat with implausible stealth for someone clad in weighted rubber. Time is of the essence—specimens will be lost if the net lags even for a second.

Lia Chalifour is a young scientist working with regional nonprofit Raincoast Conservation Foundation (RCF) to gather data about where and how salmon in the region use the Lower Fraser River estuary, a critical stopover on the Pacific Flyway. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

Mike and I sit oddly in the middle, both observers and participants in this. Lia calls out numbers (net in time, net out time, etc.) that I scribble on a clipboard while Mike sloshes to capture the action on film, swinging his camera aside to help haul.

We look on as the scientists take stock of their inventory. Small crustaceans, minute marine life. And there it is. Tiny and glistening, no more than two inches. A Chinook? A chum?

“What’s the body shape?” “Look at his parr marks.” “There, on the right side?” “No adipose.” “It’s June.” “He’s really little.” “His head, it’s pretty chummy.”

A chum. It is determined.

We move through the channel and repeat. Once. Twice. Three times more until the tide turns out of our favor.

Later, back at the field station, the fry goes into the freezer. It is funny, the business of specimens—sacrifice to save.

The field station is a basement apartment built into a hillside in Vancouver’s Richmond suburb. It is furnished only with a few folding tables and chairs, a mattress on the floor here and there. In the freezer beside frozen organic peas and smoothies are baggies with salmon. Nothing to be grilled for dinner though—no, the nymphs will not be eaten.

Lia will look for clues in their ears. Growth rings are laid down in the tiny otoliths each day, ion deposits in the bone material marking migration, like years etched in the trunk of a tree.

What if our ears took count of our years, our fears?

Even in the early summer, the light lasts longer than we’re accustomed, and when the moon doesn’t show until 10 or so my equilibrium spits at me on this strange coast.

It will be 5 a.m. again tomorrow. The bald eagles will be picking at trash heaps; the fry will be pushing their way through the reeds; and the scientists will pull on their waders, throttle the choke on the small boat’s engine, and set to work the business of documenting decline.

***

Part II: Heirlooms and Herons

One branch of the Fraser River’s forked-tongued mouth meets the Salish Sea at the end of Steveson Highway. The long road runs the length of Steveston, a former farm village just beyond Vancouver city limits in Richmond. Tidy, newly-constructed houses with perfectly trimmed hedges now lead the way to the sea. But right before the manicured overlook, a plot of land remains and upon it sits single a farmhouse. This is the home of Harold Steves. His name is no coincidence.

Harold Steves in his family farmhouse, looking at paintings of days long past. Steves’s family of farmer-fishers settled in what is now Vancouver’s Richmond suburb in 1877. Residential and industrial development and decline in fish populations led Steves to get involved in local politics and education as a way to conserve habitat and restore salmon. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

The only indication that we are in the right place to find Harold is a small stand at the front of the property with a hand-written sign advertising seeds for sale. These are not just any seeds—they are heirlooms, saved from crops grown for generations in the Fraser River Valley, right there at the river’s mouth.

The front porch sags unevenly from age and the slow sinking that happens in tidal areas. A knock at the door goes unanswered. We walk around back to find a woman stooped, following chickens around and between small pens.

Yes, her husband is at home, and yes, of course, come in, come in.

Entering through the kitchen, we find ourselves entering another world. Fish out of water. No surface seems empty, yet the space is less cluttered than curated. Victophones, portraits, books, clocks, odd collectibles, and old toys transport us through time. Faded wallpaper peels from the damp air brought up by the river – the salt marsh.

And at a long wooden table, Harold Steves tells of an era long gone by, but a war he is still fighting.

Vancouver local Chris Gadsden ties a fly. Like Harold Steves, Gadsen and his family have long relied on, respected and recreated in and around the Fraser. Gadsen, too, still an avid fisherman, leads conservation efforts within his community and beyond. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

I was a fisherman at one time.

Steves’s family settled the area in the mid-1800s and spent their days and made their living farming and fishing. He remembers the days when salmon spawned beside this very house – before the dikes were built and the slews were cut off. He worked the canneries and he fished. And he saw the salmon populations depleting.

In 1968, Harold was elected to the city council on an environmental ticket – he and his supporters opposed sewage runoff from new development that was negatively impacting the fisheries. They won – that time.

And then the port came along.

That same year, plans were in the works to industrialize the Fraser River. Of course, the salmon, already suffering from overfishing, habitat loss, dikes and development, would feel even more pressure.

They wanted the whole river. And the Minister of Industry announced at that time that the Fraser Valley was going to be industrial all the way from Roberts Banks to Hope. And we said, “the hell it is.”

Harold’s seeds are just part of the next battle. They, like the salmon we’d come to ask him about and like Harold himself, are native to the place and grew in ground fertilized by fish and fowl alike. He is intent on preserving the future by planting seeds of the past.

The delta dikes are a problem; that was clear. But signs – from Misty, other locals, and now Harold – also pointed conspicuously toward the port.

We say our goodbyes and leave the sanctuary of the old farmhouse. With no GPS and no set direction, we let instinct guide us. It takes us to the terminal road. An endless freight train follows the horizon the length of the peninsula, ending at what appears out of the water as a hulking constellation of metal and tarmac, unidentifiable structures, and shipping containers. Not the emerald Oz we’d imagined.

A group of First Nations and Fraser River supporters gathers near Port Metro Vancouver terminal. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

Our vehicle is not registered to go beyond the guardhouse, and very quickly it becomes very clear that neither we nor our cameras are welcome without “official” business or a scheduled tour. Americans on a mission.

We take the coast road back toward the lab, passing through a First Nations reservation. We stop at a small community center. Where were we? What did we think we were doing here?

We get out of the car and putz around an empty skate park, waiting for kids to show up and tell us something. Anything. They never come.

We stare out across the marsh where the bluff is shifting on the other side of the estuary – undulating slowly as the bows of strange trees hang heavily in the wind, weighed down by the bodies of hundreds of herons waiting to feed.

Demonstrators supporting indigenous rights and food systems, salmon conservation, and ecological preservation march through downtown Vancouver at the end of the Wild Salmon Caravan’s week-long advocacy journey along the length of the river. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

***

Part III: First Ceremony

We are supposed to meet the caravan for a blessing ceremony at the Cheam fishing station. I am with Ross in his beat-up little sedan that is full of more shit – maps, hiking gear, and leftover supplies from a recent expedition – than my ’87 Benz in college. His car smells like lavender because he doused it with essential oils before a date last week. Mike pulls in behind us in our very American rental SUV – own little caravan.

Eddie Gardner, a Sto’lo Nation leader, stands in the rain with the traditional drum he has been playing during a ceremony honoring salmon. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

There aren’t any other cars at the camp. We are early. Or in the wrong place.

At the far end of the lot lawn chairs and a little grill sit outside an RV.

A few meters out from the beach two boats are chugging along; they are filled with boys – probably college kids – hollering drunkenly across the water, chasing, and throwing around thousands of dollars worth of fishing equipment.

We get out and begin to unpack gear. Even if we’re not in the right spot, Mike will want to get a few shots of this view of the river.

As we start across the gravelly lot, a long-haired man rounds the corner of the distant RV. A small girl dances by his side. He moves slowly and deliberately to the sand beside a tree near the bank, eyes on the water, eyes on the boys in the boats.

Ross searches for cell reception to find out where the caravan is, while Mike and I make our way over to where the stranger stands – his presence draws us toward him; the girl-child a quiet nymph pulling us closer still.

By now the boys on the river are spinning. Their loudness bounces between the tall pines that hold up the bank and those on the island. We’re in the middle of a wide part of the river, and it hurts to hear them, to see them. They’ve got aquatic crotch-rockets, the Fraser is their city freeway, and they are here.

We introduce ourselves to the man – sensitive to the circumstances – we’ve practiced and adjust our approach for each source; each stranger we come across may be able to color in the lines of our story just a little fuller than the last. We’re a photojournalism team from the States doing a story on the Fraser, the salmon, and their significance to B.C. – and to the First Nations people. Read: we come in peace, we’re not assholes.

Sydney is a Sto’lo elder. He is acting as camp warden for the season. The “put-in” for the fishing boats is on what some Americans would call “Res” property – First Nations property. So each season when it starts to warm up and the travelers start to come through someone from the community volunteers to shack up for the summer to monitor the site. Yes, we are in the right place.

Sydney’s granddaughter looks at us curiously. Her short dark hair frames her face as she twists her body from side to side holding onto the fabric at her waist the way little girls do when they are wearing skirts.

The granddaughter of a Sto’lo First Nation elder wades in the Fraser River near Cheam, upstream from Vancouver. Powerlines loom in the distance. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

The white boys on the river are still spinning. Loudly, aggressively.

Sydney says they pay hundreds of dollars an hour to charter the boats. Hundreds of dollars an hour to get drunk and chase the salmon around, if there are any to be found.

Sam Waddington straddles many worlds. He is the owner of an outdoor gear and guide store, active in BC’s ecotourism industry. At just 25, Waddington was elected to the City Council in Chilliwack, a small city east of Metro Vancouver along the Fraser. Part of a new generation of locals, he stresses the importance of building relationships between First Nations and the broader community, especially when it comes to development decisions. [PHOTO CREDIT: Michael O. Snyder]

When I hear this, anger and maybe violence simmers under the surface and might crack at out at any point so I do not look the boys in the eye; I am embarrassed and ashamed to be white because they are white – and on this land that puts us in a box together. Our skin reflecting off of each other and the water reflecting it back at us.

Instead, I look up and out at the mountains that frame the Fraser, a perfect Hudson School painting; something familiar on this unfamiliar coast.

The boys spin. The little girl twirls. Three bright flags screen-printed with tribal art – the open mouths and curved fins of the salmon – are tied to thin poles and cross each other on the beach, waiting to wave the caravan in.

Courtney L. Sexton and Michael O. Snyder

Courtney L. Sexton and Michael O. Snyder

Courtney L. Sexton is a 2018 recipient of a D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Fellowship. Her work has been featured in The Fourth River, High Country News, Sierra, Earth Island Journal,and elsewhere. She received her Master of Fine Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. Michael O. Snyder is a photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on the intersections of social justice and environmental sustainability and has been featured in magazines and galleries by National Geographic, High Country News, and others. He holds a Master of Environmental Science degree.

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