Catch and Release
Two philosophies of fishing collide on BC’s North Coast
Jesus said, “Go fishing.”
The slogan, printed on a grey T-shirt, was pulled over the paunch of one of the trio of middle-aged men seated ahead of me in the Dash 8. They spent the two-hour flight in the twin-turboprop discussing, in western American accents, the salmon they were going to yank from the sea. After we’d landed at the tiny airport in Sandspit, I contemplated the backlit posters for fishing lodges on the walls; all seemed to feature a guy in a floppy hat cradling a gape-mouthed Chinook in his arms. Outside, a shuttle bus collected the sports fishermen.
I had a standing invitation to a fishing lodge, one of the dozens in the Queen Charlotte Islands, but still hadn’t decided whether to accept. Don’t get me wrong: I like fishing, and I like eating salmon. For a full minute, I envied the Americans. They would likely be whisked by floatplane to Langara Island, on the extreme northwest tip of the archipelago. They’d enjoy five-star meals cooked by chefs poached from Vancouver’s best restaurants, a spa, a gym and, if they wished, entire days pulling some of the world’s largest wild salmon from the Pacific.
But they had landed on the Queen Charlotte Islands; I had come to Haida Gwaii. The latter toponym means “Place of the People” in the language of the Haida. The former comes from the European boat that in 1787 brought the smallpox virus to the Haida that would reduce their population to one-sixteenth of its pre-contact level. The two names refer to the same archipelago: 1,884 islands off the west coast of British Columbia, and just fifty-five miles south of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, it boasts more than its share of superlatives, anomalies and out-and-out mutants.
On Haida Gwaii, as on the Queen Charlottes, there are black bears the size of Volkswagen Beetles, genetically unique spruce trees with golden needles, and secret quarries of a precious black slate whose location is known only to the Haida. In a place where ancient sea birds lay their eggs in the roots of 1,000-year-old cedar trees, where large squid wash up on deserted beaches, and where bald eagles are as common as city-park pigeons, it’s hard not to wander around as awestruck as the first man on the moon. Which place you end up seeing, though, depends largely on the kind of traveller you are.
I was more inclined to get to know Haida Gwaii. On a sunny Sunday afternoon I got into a Cessna float plane with pilot Brad Koop and flew south to Gwaii Haanas, the provincial park that is co-managed by the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation. We stopped at Hotsprings Island, where ravens mocked as we ran in our underwear from pools of hot sulphuric water to the cold breakers of Hecate Strait; we flew over pods of humpbacks, and what Koop was pretty sure was a minke whale, its spume fluorescing red and yellow in the sunlight as it sounded.
It was at SGang Gwaay, an abandoned village of longhouses and poles slumping into the rainforest floor, that I got the first hint that the fishing lodges are as unpopular with the locals as the all-inclusive resorts of Jamaica are with Rastafarians. I mentioned to James Williams, one of the Haida Watchmen who camp next to key cultural sites during the tourist season, that I was considering heading up to Langara Island.
“I’m not too big on those sports fishers,” Williams muttered. “They just come here, take the fish, and leave. Their workers often come from Vancouver. So little of the money stays here.”
News to me, but it wasn’t the last time the issue came up. I took a tour of Skidegate with native guide Gilbert Parnell. There still weren’t a lot of Haida-run tourist businesses, he confessed. There was Nonnie’s House, a bed and breakfast in Old Masset, famous for its big meals of traditional Haida food. There was Aay Oo, a Haida guiding service that offered cultural walking tours and took small groups out in charter boats to do a limited amount of sport fishing.
“But frankly,” Parnell said, “the fish are our life source and the way most Haida people would view sport fishing is that it’s insulting to the fish.
“It’s all about the adrenaline rush, the fight it takes to get it into the boat. These people are playing with their food; they’re disrespecting it. We have food fish rivers here on Haida Gwaii. This year hardly anyone got sockeye salmon for the table. One reason is competition from the sports fishery.”
We were standing on the waterfront, in front of a towering totem pole that featured a hooked-beak raven. A bald eagle flew overhead; Gilbert’s head jerked upward, and his gaze followed a piece of white down as it fluttered to the grass. All Haida people, he explained, were members of either the Eagle or Raven clans; Parnell himself was an Eagle. In Haida myth, the eagle represented honour and wisdom, a counterpart to the jet-black bird known for his cunning and gluttony.
Maybe I was as greedy as the raven; though I’d given up on the idea of visiting a fishing lodge, I still wanted to catch myself a salmon. Lynn Lee, a marine biologist, agreed to take me out on the skiff she operated with her partner. She explained they charged $500 a day, rather than the $1,000 you could expect to pay at a high-end lodge; but there was a catch.
“We only allow you to take the limit: four salmon per person per day,” she explained. “Those sports fishermen at the lodges, they stay out for eight hours at a time; they catch and release all day long, because they want the big ones.” Up to a quarter of all salmon can die from the stress of being released shortly after being reeled in, biologists have found. And that‚ “only in controlled conditions,” Lynn said, “where there’s no predators. Seals, sea lions follow the boats. For them, a released fish is free lunch! Catch-and-release is more about making people feel good than conserving the resource.”
I ate a lot of good seafood on Haida Gwaii. At Dave Phillip’s Copper Beech House Bed and Breakfast in Masset, I had chewy, salty herring roe on kelp, and smoked and sun-dried eulachon, or candlefish, so-called because they are so oily you can stand them on their tails and light them on fire. At the home of Roberta Olson, a Haida grandmother who organizes traditional feasts for visitors, I had the best smoked salmon of my life, and left with a jar of tender sockeye. I bought locally caught humpback shrimp from the back of a pickup truck, cooked them and tossed them up with basil and garlic—instant gamberetti al pesto.
But apparently I wasn’t meant to catch a fish, either on Haida Gwaii or the Queen Charlotte Islands. On my last day, low clouds had tangled in the spruce like cotton batten in a brush; Lynn called to say the sea would be too choppy for comfortable fishing.
I was all right with that. Jesus may have said: Go Fishing. But on Haida Gwaii, I was more inclined to listed to eagle, whose wisdom for raven was: don’t get greedy.