Traditional salmon fishery great for First Nations communities and sustainable businesses in Vancouver
Pacific salmon are a revered symbol of BC’s rugged wilderness and natural prosperity.
There are seven species of Pacific salmon—sockeye, chinook, chum, coho, pink, steelhead and cutthroat (the latter two were formerly classified as trout)—and they are collectively referred to as a keystone species because of their far-reaching impact on the environment (they can travel hundreds of kilometres during their two to eight-year lifespan) as predator and nutrient-rich prey, carrion and fertilizer.
Pacific salmon are anadromous, meaning they are hatched in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to mature and return to their birthplace (isn’t that extraordinary?!) to spawn and die.
Salmon Sustained First Nations Communities for Centuries
For thousands of years, BC’s First Nations people relied on salmon for their livelihood. Despite having the ability to overfish, members of the Lake Babine Nation in BC’s northern interior were able to manage salmon stocks (predominantly sockeye) from the Skeena River watershed while still having enough to support themselves and to use as a trade commodity with neighbouring tribes and European settlers.
In 1906 the Canadian government shut down their traditional salmon fishery, and over the next century the salmon population saw a marked decrease as coastal and mixed-stock fisheries became more predominant.
“[The fisheries crew] carefully remove and release any non-sockeye species,” says Greg Taylor, SkeenaWild’s Fisheries and Economic Development Advisor. “Note the person looking for the few other species that might be in the catch so they can be released before the net is hauled in.” (Image: Greg Taylor)
This past summer, over a hundred years later, the Lake Babine Nation celebrated the re-creation of their traditional salmon fishery, which culminated in the opening ceremony for a new smokehouse in August, which community members can use to smoke their own fish.
Lake Babine Nation Chief Wilf Adam says, “Harvesting natural renewable resources economically and for sustenance is critical to the health of the Nation. This project provides an important opportunity to express our aboriginal right to commercially sell our salmon and bring benefits back to our communities.”
Back to Basics with Sustainable Fishing Practices
“This is such a great news story for the Lake Babine Nation,” says SkeenaWild Conservation Trust’s executive director Greg Knox.
“Not only are they bringing significant benefits to their communities, but they are showing the world that these fisheries are sustainable and economically viable. Their location and harvesting techniques allow these fisheries to intercept strong runs while allowing smaller, weaker populations to reach their spawning areas. They are some of the most sustainable salmon fisheries in the world.”
Donna Macintyre, Fisheries Director for the Lake Babine Nation and a Nation member, says, “These fisheries are very important to the Lake Babine people who suffer from high unemployment and poverty. Some of the participants live on less than $200 per month, so this income is a major boost to their ability to support themselves and their families. We are hoping to start using profits from our fisheries to build more infrastructure in our communities, which have struggled for a long time.”
“The beach seine crew at work,” says Taylor. “Note that it’s all arm-strong. Western economics would dictate a power pack on the beach running a winch and one quarter of the people, but what benefit would this bring to a village with 80 percent unemployment?” (Image: Greg Taylor)
More than 80 members of the Lake Babine Nation are now employed by the fishery, which captures salmon as they return to spawn in their natal waters (called a terminal fishery), allowing them to target the select stocks of sockeye that are enhanced via spawning channels where the Fulton River meets Babine Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in BC.
“This is not just a job to the Lake Babine Nation, it’s a connection to their culture and who they are as a people,” says Greg Taylor, SkeenaWild’s Fisheries and Economic Development Advisor.
“It’s over 600 river kilometres from Prince Rupert where the sockeye enter the Skeena to migrate to the streams in which they were born,” says Taylor. “All other species of salmon and stocks of sockeye (there are 29 genetically unique sockeye stocks in the Skeena) have broken off and entered their own home rivers leaving only these sockeye (Fulton River sockeye) to be harvested.”
This is what’s so important about this fishery from an ecosystem perspective, says Taylor: the Lake Babine Nation’s sockeye are artificially enhanced and therefore very productive.
Traditional Fishery Teams Up with David Suzuki, C Restaurant
In BC we’re lucky to have so many forward thinking residents who deeply care about the environment and tirelessly work to make a difference.
Back in November, C Restaurant had a fundraising dinner hosted by environmental activism guru David Suzuki that benefited the David Suzuki Foundation and the C Blue Foundation (a not-for-profit, founded by restaurant owner Harry Kambolis in collaboration with executive chef Robert Clark).
In this C Blue Foundation video, Clark, a founding partner of the Vancouver Aquarium’s OceanWise program says, “When you can connect to the people that grow your food, you get a sense of belonging to a community. Eating locally-grown foods is probably the most important decision anyone, any citizen, can make to affect their local economy, for the sake of their environment, and for the future of their children.”
When consulted, Taylor knew exactly where to source sustainable salmon for the dinner.
“I was asked if I knew where to access selectively harvested salmon for the fundraising dinner [and] I immediately said yes and organized for C Restaurant to obtain the Lake Babine Nation sockeye. C Restaurant has been absolutely fantastic in dealing with a new product and supporting the Lake Babine Nation. The chefs are enthusiastic, open to new ideas and obviously want to support both sustainable seafood products and indigenous fisheries.”
Where Can You Get Lake Babine Nation Salmon?
In December I joined other local media for a dinner at C Restaurant celebrating the Lake Babine Nation salmon and hosting two special guests: Macintyre and Taylor.
The Kushi oyster topped with salmon jerky, pumpkin soup poured over cold smoked salmon, and salmon tartare with nori sauce (clockwise from top left) were made especially for the media dinner, but the seared salmon with creamed leeks, roasted vegetables and caviar-lobster hollandaise (bottom left), $35, is now a regular menu item. (Image: Catherine Roscoe Barr)
Kambolis and Clark, along with chef de cuisine Lee Humphries, are proud to now offer Lake Babine Nation salmon on C’s regular menu.
That night, Humphries prepared us a special five-course meal featuring the Lake Babine Nation’s salmon in dishes including a Kushi oyster topped with salmon jerky, pumpkin soup poured over cold smoked salmon, salmon tartare with nori sauce, and seared salmon with creamed leeks, roasted vegetables and caviar-lobster hollandaise.
The incredible meal was further elevated by new general manager and sommelier (formerly of CinCin) Sarah MacCauley’s always-fabulous wine picks: Sumac Ridge’s Stellar’s Jay Brut (BC), Joie Farms’ A Noble Blend (BC), Wapiti Cellars’ Viognier (BC) and Nicolas Fueillatte’s Brut Rose (France).
Before sitting down to dinner, we were treated to scrumptious black pepper and chili pepper salmon jerky based on Macintyre’s family recipes. The eco-friendly outdoor store Patagonia has teamed up with a family from Terrace, BC to build a new plant there that will manufacture a variety of salmon jerky flavours, as well as cold and hot smoked salmon, using salmon sustainably caught in in-river and terminal fisheries, including those from the Lake Babine Nation.
The salmon products, labeled as “Patagonia Provisions”, will be available at Patagonia stores and through their website sometime later this year.
Patagonia and Raincoast Trading Scoop Up the Nation’s Catch
On the Patagonia website, founder Yvon Chouinard says, “Unless you catch a salmon in its natal river, you don’t know where it came from. The Patagonia Provisions Salmon Project is our effort to change the fishing industry, the same way we’ve changed how we make our clothes.”
Vancouver-based Raincoast Trading has been selling high-quality sustainable seafood products since 1978 and, says Taylor, have bought, processed and are marketing the majority of the Lake Babine Nation’s salmon caught this year.
Knowledge is power, and writing this story has given me so much new information and food for thought about what’s on my dinner plate and how it got there. As I embark on another new year I hope to come across and learn from more inspiring characters like those of the Lake Babine Nation, the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the Kambolis restaurant group.