An article recently published in the Journal of Human Ecology titled “The Rise of Vancouver and the Collapse of Forage Fish: A Story of Urbanization and the Destruction of an Aquatic Ecosystem on the Salish Sea (1885–1920 CE)” features Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
This research examined historical and archival documents, including Canadian fishery records, alongside archaeological evidence to track the collapse of forage fish – herring, smelt, and eulachon – in the Vancouver area from about 1885–1920.
The archaeological record indicates that forage fish, especially herring, were a significant part of Tsleil-Waututh’s pre-contact diet, likely rivalling salmon in importance, and were intensively and sustainably harvested by Coast Salish people in this region for more than 3000 years.
However, by the early 1900s they were nearly absent in Burrard Inlet. Historical Canadian fishery records and related documents revealed successive collapses of herring (in 1885), eulachon (in 1899), and smelt (in the 1930s), resulting in at least a 99% reduction in their populations by the early 21st century compared to when Europeans arrived in the territory.
Additionally, this research identified numerous impacts that contributed to these collapses, including destructive fishery practices (eg. using dynamite to fish for herring), overfishing, unfettered industrial pollution, and habitat destruction. Over a few decades, these impacts devastated fisheries that had supported dense Indigenous populations for millennia. Moreover, these fish are keystone species for the Salish Sea’s food web, and their collapses may have been among the most significant impacts to the entire marine ecosystem.
These severe impacts occurred long before detailed scientific descriptions of local ecosystems began, so the magnitude of these population collapses went generally unrecognized and are still poorly understood. This is a case of shifting baseline syndrome (Pauly, 1995), which occurs when each generation of researchers assumes that ecological conditions they encounter early in their careers are the most relevant reference point from which to measure future change. This means that modern descriptions of baseline marine conditions in the Vancouver area reflect already severely negatively impacted environments.
Furthermore, the collapse of forage fish populations and related ecosystem-wide effects is a crisis impacting Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s way of life, which depends upon healthy, abundant local marine foods and ecosystems. For more than the last century, ecological conditions have prevented Tsleil-Waututh members from harvesting many of their former dietary staples, infringing inherent and constitutionally protected rights.
Learn more about this important topic and read the full article in the Journal of Human Ecology.