For a vast majority of people in the world today, the ocean begins and ends at the surface. It is an endless plane of gray reflecting an overcast sky, the blue of an atlas, an unblemished turquoise canvas from the plane window. We wait for ferries to cross it, dip our paddle in it, walk its shore, contemplate life while the sun sets or rises on its boundary. But most of us are unaware of the vast and complex world that lies below the surface. Of the ocean’s great drama we see only the first act, that dance of light with waves, spray, and sea birds that unfolds up top.
Canada’s Oceans Week, from June 3 to 12, is a chance for us to slip beneath the surface and learn more about the underwater landscapes that surround us and contribute to our well-being. On the Pacific coast of British Columbia, marine landscapes are a source of cultural significance and sustenance for countless peoples. We are constantly uncovering new facets of the complex relationship between land and sea, forest and river.
This interplay between marine and terrestrial environments is the cornerstone of biodiversity on the Pacific coast. This is perhaps most notable in the way wild salmon connect the ocean to the forest. Each spring young salmon swim from the river to the sea where they feed resident killer whales and countless other marine animals. Come autumn, bears, wolves and eagles feast on adult salmon returning to rivers to spawn. These predators help scatter important ocean-derived nutrients from salmon carcasses throughout the forests that flank these rivers, which is in turn a vital contributor to the health and biodiversity of coastal forests.
To understand salmon, one must also look at herring. These small, silver fish are foundational to the web of life on the Pacific coast. Each spring, herring migrate to inshore waters to spawn in a spectacular event of such nutritional significance that it draws millions of birds, seals, sea lions, and whales from all over the oceans. For millennia, herring populations along this coast remained stable under the care of First Nations. However, in the last 100 years, four of the five major herring fishing grounds in B.C. have declined to near historic low levels. Irresponsible fisheries management is largely to blame for these drastic population declines. A sustainable herring fishery, one that allows herring to continue to spawn throughout their life cycle instead of being killed in nets, is still practiced by First Nations on the B.C. coast, and is a fishery that would allow for herring stocks to rebuild.
Following the lead of the peoples who have stewarded these seas since time immemorial, we might begin to restore balance and protect these keystone species. As Canada works towards the goal of protecting 30 percent of oceans by 2030, we must hold our leaders accountable and ensure they create and uphold rigorous protective measures to ensure the survival of these ecosystems. Marine Protected Areas are one emerging framework that aims to protect biodiversity – though many still allow destructive practices, such as bottom trawling (clear cutting the sea bed). Such paradoxes have no place in an effective conservation strategy, and create devastation within these supposed safe havens for marine biodiversity.
The oceans are vast and, for many of us, mysterious. Like terrestrial ecosystems integral to human survival, we tend to think of oceans as an endless resource – infinite, life-giving and exploitable. But we are seeing how our actions reverberate back to us through the webs of life that exist in these great bodies of water, and in ways we do not always expect. The plankton, herring, salmon and bear; the kelp, river and forest. The ocean’s great drama unfolds from sea bed to tree-tops, each act integral to the next. Let’s take this week to learn a little more of this spectacle, and to study our place and purpose among its many actors.