Alive and kicking

By Briony Penn, October 2014

This summer’s marine life survey provides something to celebrate: resurgence.

On Bell Island off the northern tip of Vancouver Island this summer, I was restored to good health by, amongst other things, a wicked shot of vodka supplied by a passing group of Russians and Ukrainians wandering the coast on two small inflatable sailboats. They had an agreement amongst themselves not to discuss the war, while my own paddling companions—teachers—had an agreement to forget the strike for awhile. With the two dominant news items off the driftwood camp table, there was only our health and news of the coast to discuss around the vodka bottle at night. 

After sharing stories of our respective seasons on the coast from Victoria to Vladivostock, we concluded that there was indeed some good news in the world. The coast is not what it was—it is largely better—and that should recharge all of our continuing efforts to protect it. It also reflects on the fact that teachers have taught our coastal children well about what is important. The coast is alive and kicking—largely because of persistent efforts by BC residents to protect it. 

Whales and wodka share more than the first letter, they also rank up there for the Russians as the great healers. To watch fin whales, the second largest whales in the world, spout in unison, is to witness a natural wonder of the world. Whales, in fact, trumped wodka. I told my story of seeing nine of them off the south end of Campania Island, their huge exhalations illuminated by the rays of the setting sun. 

Campania Island is where the oil tankers are supposed to navigate a tight turn to Kitimat. Fin whales, at only 20 metres and 52 tons, can hardly navigate these tight turns, so good luck to tankers at 450 metres and 500,000 tonnes (DWT). The Russians and Ukranians were only too aware of the geopolitics of oil and the fate of innocent bystanders who get in the way of its delivery. 

Fin whales have been endangered since they were hunted into near extinction, but in the last 20 years have been returning at a roughly five percent rate of increase thanks to the moratoria on whaling, tankers, and oil and gas development in coastal waters. According to a marine mammal survey completed by Raincoast Conservation Foundation, fins are starting to return to historic levels when they were the most abundant marine mammal in the near-shore waters. Apparently, they surface like ex-Soviet submarines. Fin whales, that range from the Russian Aleutians to our coast, confirm that ecological restoration is possible and essential to every human spirit.

The humpbacks have also returned to most of their traditional pre-whaling haunts and are demonstrating their spectacular bubble-net feeding farther and farther south. You can see them from a BC Ferry from Port Hardy for a fraction of the cost of cruise ships (or the more adventurous can pick up a cheap ex-Soviet inflatable).

Transient, or Biggs, orcas are also appearing more frequently on the coast, especially in the Salish Sea, while the northern resident orcas continue to hold their own. The Biggs are benefitting from a healthy seal population. Orcas hunt and share their prey cooperatively. They learn those skills in small groups. Well-taught orca benefit not just themselves but the whole ecosystem. Perhaps Christy Clark should hang out with orcas occasionally.

This is equally the case for the shy harbour porpoise, which seems to be holding its own in inshore waters along the whole coast. Dall’s porpoise have a different culture than harbour porpoise, but they can peacefully coexist—our Ukrainian and Russian friends confirmed this. 

Then there are the Pacific white-sided dolphins which are surging back into the inland waterways. 

All these animals cannot leave you unmoved. They jump, they play, they spin, they turn to look at you and remind us that we are not the only mammals on the face of this fine Earth. A pod of dolphins beat every seaside attraction from here to Vladivostok. 

Steller sea lion breeding rookeries are on the rise, which is good news unless you are a natural resource or education minister. You can watch these sea lions providing support for young pups of widely diverging skills either live or through Pacific Wild, an organization that has established virtual eyes with webcams on their rookeries. You will see for yourself that arbitration works for other mammals. 

Elephant seals, which were virtually extinct, are now popping up everywhere. Typically you spot them from miles away, their two and a half tons rising like the turret of the ex-Soviet submarine for surveillance before they vanish underwater. 

Why are these marine mammals coming back? Largely because we aren’t hunting or harassing them. But there are other factors, as well—one being the direct benefit of the return of a keystone species: the sea otter. 

Sea otters were slaughtered almost to extinction, predominantly for and by the Russians to wear. The otters have repopulated a lot of the coast from their humble reintroduction in 1969 at the Bunsby Islands in Kyoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Now they congregate in rafts along burgeoning kelp forest highways stretching from Clayoquot right up to Queen Charlotte Sound and from southeast Alaska spreading down into the central coast. 

Russell Markel and various researchers with the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC have observed that where the sea otters have returned, there is almost a 20 times increase in the area of kelp forest, which means a corresponding increase in habitat for fish. Markel’s results, coming out later this year, show the correlation between sea otters and more fish—like lingcod, greenlings, and rockfish. They, in turn, mean more fish-eating marine mammals.

From the climate perspective, more kelp also means more carbon sequestration. The Russians we talked to were very happy to see the sea otters alive in the kelp. I have that on authority. 

The sea otters weren’t the only creatures doing well in the kelp. Nudibranchs, the hermaphroditic gastropods, were having planktonic relationships everywhere. 

Meanwhile, thousands of the dainty seabirds called phalaropes, which are anything but planktonic, were feeding on small fish near the surface. Alcids—members of the puffin family—were also mobbing in the thousands, revelling in the balls of sand lance, herring and other forage fish rebounding now that coastal First Nations have successfully stopped the commercial herring fishery on much of the coast with their recent court challenges. That is one of the best news stories yet.

Herring were also a factor in the salmon news story. Collectively, we vodka drinkers had covered a lot of estuaries from Juneau to Port Hardy over the summer and we were reporting schooling salmon flashing silver all over the bays; coho and sockeye doing well, too. 

The removal of fish farms in key migration routes likely is one factor for the good returns. Citizen groups and coastal First Nations have been unrelenting on this front. The continuing work in the Great Bear to reduce logging is another factor. The provincial and federal governments have been doing an elephant seal on these issues, but they have to come up for air at some stage. 

One memorable day after the first big rains had fallen, I walked a river as the salmon started to push into the rivers. It is difficult to describe the exhilarating release of tension when the salmon enter the rainforest. Everything from grizzlies to grubs are charged with the promise the salmon bring. The air is rank and the river is pulsing with fish and there’s a constant clamour from birds. Nothing can restore your health as much as knowing that somewhere—just somewhere—in the world today, there is some good news. British Columbians are part of it. 

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows and has been a columnist in Victoria publications since 1993. She lives on Salt Spring Island.