Indigenous

New research strikes a balance between the Wuikinuxv Nation, salmon, and the grizzly bears

Scientists and the First Nation say grizzly bear diets could be largely protected if the human salmon catch were decreased by 10%

By Arrthy Thayaparan
August 7, 2021
Indigenous

New research strikes a balance between the Wuikinuxv Nation, salmon, and the grizzly bears

Scientists and the First Nation say grizzly bear diets could be largely protected if the human salmon catch were decreased by 10%

Part of a pole carved by Wuikinuxv Elder George Johnson depicts a person holding a single salmon. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Indigenous

New research strikes a balance between the Wuikinuxv Nation, salmon, and the grizzly bears

Scientists and the First Nation say grizzly bear diets could be largely protected if the human salmon catch were decreased by 10%

By Arrthy Thayaparan
August 7, 2021
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New research strikes a balance between the Wuikinuxv Nation, salmon, and the grizzly bears
Part of a pole carved by Wuikinuxv Elder George Johnson depicts a person holding a single salmon. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

The gentle rumble of the Waanuckv/Wannock river has been a constant in the lives of the people of the Wuikinuxv Nation, just north of the northern tip of Vancouver Island. 

The river has sustained and guided generations of the Wuikinuxv people to coexist with their surrounding ecosystem. 

But the river is not what it used to be: what once was the third largest commercial fishery in BC with millions of salmon teeming in the river, has in recent years barely been able to see a return of 100,000 sockeye salmon. 

For a multitude of reasons that all seem to stem from human impacts, the salmon runs of Waanuckv river have been in major decline since the ‘90s. 

The decline in multiple salmon stocks has not only hurt the First Nation, but has rippled out into other actors in the ecosystem—especially their neighbours, the grizzly bears. 

But a study released today by a team of researchers and managers from the Wuikinuxv Nation, UVic, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Raincoast Conservation has found that the Wuikinuxv Nation can return to their peaceful coexistence with bears—all it could take is reducing fish harvests by 10%. 

The research, led by Megan Adams, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia in partnership with the Wuikinuxv Nation, lays out an ecosystem-based fisheries management system guided by the Wuikinuxv principle of n̓àn̓akila

To the Wuikinuxv, n̓àn̓akila means to protect, or look out for someone or something other than oneself.

Co-author Danielle Shaw, who is also the community’s elected chief, says this work has been at the forefront of the community’s goals for years.

Just because a salmon population can handle a certain catch each year, she says, that doesn’t necessarily mean the ecosystem isn’t suffering from the loss.

“We're not taking into account the needs of the ecosystem as a whole for that one population,” Shaw said. “And therefore, that creates a population that is constantly in a chaotic state and trying to adapt to all the external pressures.” 

Researcher Megan Adams collects bear fur from a wire trap. The fur helps researchers identify the bears' diets and can enable DNA analysis. Photo: Grant Callegari / Hakai Institute

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The Wuikinuxv have been monitoring their own salmon harvesting for years.

Community standards deem that fishing is permitted only if the salmon runs exceed 100,000 by July; as a result, the community did not fish at all last year. That was a first for many members of the community, including hereditary chief Ted Walkus.

“Last year's run, we probably had the lowest run in history in the whole Wuikinuxv Lake watershed system... It was absolutely horrifically low to a point that we as Wuikinuxv people shut down the river for our food fisheries. First year in my life that I wasn't able to take food fish home for myself for the winter,” said Chief Walkus. 

The once thriving and bountiful Wuikinuxv lake watershed has not had any commercial fishing since the collapse of its salmon stocks in the ‘90s. 

Adams confirms that the fishery system in the area has not been stable enough to sustain the community, the bears, the rest of the surrounding ecosystem, and future salmon all at once. 

For Adams, this study isn’t just about the local salmon and the ecosystem of the Waanuckv River. She says it’s really setting up a new paradigm for fishery management, one that is co-led by the Indigenous people and is in line with their traditional principles. 

Their findings found that the current stocks of fish are not enough for the bears and the rest of the ecosystem. 

Their findings found that the availability of fish after harvesting by humans was not enough to sustain the bears and the rest of the ecosystem. Adams says the next step is to build policy based on what the study has discovered.

“We can analyze the data. And they can craft a policy from this and not only regulate themselves, but really show some leadership in a new era of management where they're being asked to come back to the table… That's really new and quite special, and it all stems from that cultural concept of n̓àn̓akila.”

Study coathor Jennifer Walkus. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

‘It’s not their fault’

The Wuikinuxv have shared space with grizzly bears for as long as they have lived by the Waanuckv River.

According to Jennifer Walkus, coauthor of the study, “Bears are just a part of the Wuikinuxv way of life” and are intrinsically tied to their traditions and daily living. 

“They're supposed to have been the ones who taught us what we should eat,” Walkus said, “They're these magnificent animals, it's not their fault we've screwed up so badly. So trying to find ways to ensure that we can live together peacefully is very important for us.”

But the collapse of the sockeye salmon has strained the relationship between the community and the bears. 

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It’s not uncommon in recent decades to see a starved, thin bear at the banks of the Waanuckv River. Hungry bears have even been known to wander into the village and pillage garbage, desperate for food. 

The worst encounters were in 1999 when 15 starving bears had to be destroyed for the safety of the community. 

“Destroyed” is the word the community uses—not killed, or put down. That is how the community views the purposeless death of bears: destructive and against the Wuikinuxv way of life.

This memory has been a driving force in a lot of the Nation’s ecosystem-focused conservation work and research.

“Our community coexists with the bears. We are on a river, so we basically live in their dining room… Without fish, they really didn't have anywhere to go,” Shaw said. “[The destruction of those bears] had a severe impact on our community and our people. It's something that we've never forgotten, and it's always at the forefront of what we do. We just never want to see that happen again.” 

Bear witness to the future of conservation

While this Wuikinuxv-led study determines that Indigenous nations are capable of managing their own fisheries and ecosystem conservation, implementing such a system would be a challenge. 

The largest issue, according to Walkus, is the need for political will to push for policy changes, like that of allowing Indigenous Nations to care for their own management in land and water use, ecosystem conservation, fishing, and much more. 

But she adds that more data is needed for federal agencies and the scientific community to take the First Nation seriously and consider an Indigenous-run management system.

“The current management style is so siloed, like lands manage lands, bears manage bears, and fish manages fish—they each have their own department. So where the two intersect, because nobody manages intersections, it leaves that very poorly planned for. I think the way First Nations tend to think is a lot more sort of holistic in nature. So [the study] tried to find a way to marry that traditional ecological knowledge with the Western science in order to try and push Western management styles to [consider] more of those intersections,” said Walkus.

To Shaw, this place, this home with all of its creatures and resources, is worth every effort in saving and protecting for future generations. 

She recalled the sense of calm she felt as a child when arriving in Wuikinuxv during the summers. 

“Coming up the inlet, you turn a bend to get to the head of the inlet and that's when you see the mouth of the river. That's when you see our community. At that point, I've always felt—just looking from the inlet up the river and to the lake, within the valley, with the mountains on either side—this sense of ‘take a deep breath,’ and you feel that weight come off of you, and the sense of peace like, ‘Okay, we're here now.’” 

She hopes to maintain this spirit of serenity for the younger generations, which she believes are much more equipped in carrying forward their conservation efforts. 

Adams believes there’s only one appropriate solution for all the challenges faced by the First Nation, the salmon, and the bears: an ecosystem-focused fishery management led by Wuikinuxv.

“The people who live here live out the consequences of what happens to the sockeye. They are the ones that have to deal with emaciated bears, and make sad, hard decisions about what to do with them,” she said. “They're the ones who have to hold space for sadness of not accessing traditional foods. And because they're so intimate with the consequences, it's my opinion that they are also in the best position to be accountable to the system.”

Nation-driven research and stewardship, says Adams, would allow the watershed to be managed as it was centuries ago and would give the ecosystem much-needed time to heal.

“They’ve lived here for millennia. Coexisted with bears for millennia, and will continue to share this resource for so long. They know how to do it. It's time we just let them do it again.”

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New research strikes a balance between the Wuikinuxv Nation, salmon, and the grizzly bears