‘Salmon are the heartbeat of our coast, our people, everything around us’

Coastal First Nations Community Storyteller Emilee Gilpin in conversation with Haíɫzaqv cultural leader and conservation manager Dúqva̓ísḷa, William Housty on Oct 11, 2022. Audio clips of the interview are included throughout the story.

A shocking video of over 65,000 dead pink and chum salmon in Heiltsuk territory spread across social media last week and was picked up by news outlets like BBC, CBC, the Guardian, CTV News, Global News, The Narwhal, and more. 

While Indigenous peoples and scientists have been trying to raise alarms about the unprecedented rates of climate change for some time, footage like the chilling view of thousands of dead fish trying to spawn in an important coastal watershed hit home for many. The original video at the Neekas watershed, which is about 20 km north of Bella Bella, was taken by German anthropologist Sarah Mund, who was assisting crews of creek-walkers that are counting returning salmon as they come to spawn in Heiltsuk territory. 

Dúqva̓ísḷa, William Housty, a cultural leader for his community and  the conservation manager for the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD) says the video speaks to a larger issue of climate change, which is happening too fast for some species to adapt. When he shared the video on his Twitter it took off — currently with almost 200,000 views. 

In an interview with Coastal First Nations, Dúqva̓ísḷa says that while they knew things were bad, they didn’t realize just how bad. The find should be an alarming wake-up call for all of us to work together to find solutions, he says.

Gilpin: Can you explain what we’re seeing in the video?

Dúqva̓ísḷa: I think what had happened is: we had a couple days of light rain… the salmon rely so heavily on environmental triggers, that once the rain started coming in, that’s kind of their cue, to head of the rivers. And so I think that’s what ended up happening is they went into the river and then weather conditions dried up again. 

As the pools started to shrink and some of the salmon started to die, they either died of lack of oxygen or ammonia poisoning, cause salmon give off a lot of ammonia once they die. The pools were so small that everything just died away. We had a reconnaissance into the Neekas, by our DFO colleagues just in the last couple of days and he reported that there was not one survivor in there.

Gilpin: Did you realize conditions were so bad?

Dúqva̓ísḷa: We knew that all the systems were pretty dry and pretty low. We didn’t realize that this sort of thing was happening. It was pretty shocking to see, to get word of what was going on. That triggered us to start to look at what’s happening in the broader territory. Understanding that we still have projects that are ongoing until the end of October, so we don’t have all of the data and observations compiled, but the general consensus from our field crews was that  pretty well every system in the territory is bone dry and Neekas is definitely the worst case. They are seeing some traces of pre-spawn mortality in some of the other creeks because of how dry things are. 

Gilpin: I know that you were born and raised in Wágḷísḷa, in Bella Bella. Tell me about significant changes you’ve witnessed in your territory in your lifetime.

Dúqva̓ísḷa: I’m 40 years old and in the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen drastic changes in lots of different areas, not just with salmon, but with other species as well, like herring and migratory birds. For the most part, the changes are to do with the migration patterns and when they’re coming, when they’re spawning, where they’re spawning and how they’re spawning. 

The thing is that the changes are so vast and so rapid that none of these species even have time to adapt to the changes.

It’s just killing them off. Even just hearing other stories from my own Elders about how high the tides are getting and how we used to be so much more beach back in the 30s and 40s and things like that…just realizing that unless we’re tuned in and know that this is happening lots, it’s not something you really notice until you have instances like this where it’s a kind of an eye-opener. 

Gilpin: What message do you think this video speaks or should speak to the general public?

Dúqva̓ísḷa: I think the main message is that this isn’t just a Heiltsuk problem. It’s not just a First Nations problem or a BC or Canada problem. It’s a world problem and a human problem. It’s unfolding right in front of our eyes. It’s all of us that need to find a way to band together to slow down and reverse the impact.

Everybody can do their own small little part, however they want. But until we come together collectively as a human race around the world, we’re gonna continue to see these effects and they’re gonna get worse and worse and unfortunately, it’s gonna force us to start thinking about things like extinction of certain species in certain places. 


Gilpin: Can you tell me a bit about the significance of salmon for your people?

Dúqva̓ísḷa: Salmon are the centerpiece of Heiltsuk culture. When you go back and look at all of the different archeological digs that our people have done over time, there’s one thing that’s consistent from the bottom of the pit of time immemorial right through to the present, is salmon. Our ancestors never would’ve survived to where we are today if salmon weren’t there. 

Our ancestors realized how vital salmon were to our existence. They had a high level of respect for the salmon and what they meant to us and how they’re the driver of all life in this part of the world. 

Our stories talk about how the salmon are so closely connected with twins and how when twins are born, well, there’s gonna be a big salmon run, because they’re all gonna come and celebrate the birth of a twin. Those kinds of connections on a human level have existed for thousands of years, and it’s really heartbreaking to know that the salmon populations are as low as they are, because that impacts the relationship we’ve had with salmon since time immemorial. 

To see how important salmon is to us in a potlatch or a feast, not only as a meal, something to eat, but the way they put it in, in academia is, you know, ‘the keystone species’ sort of thing — that’s true in our culture. They’re the heartbeat of the coast, of our people and everything around us. It’s a really important relationship that we’ve had for a long long time and we really need to find a way to help them recover and help them continue to be the centerpiece for life here. 

Gilpin: What are the most significant factors in your mind that are contributing to climate change?

Dúqva̓ísḷa: Deforestation around the world. We always just assume that because there’s not a lot of logging and we have a lot of old growth forest here in our territory, that we’re okay. But when you look at it on a global scale, deforestation is causing a huge impact worldwide. It’s not just in the place where the forestry has occurred. Those sorts of things stand out as being the most important things that we need to tackle, allowing our forests to exist and to grow and continue to nourish the environment. 

We’ve taken trees outta the forest all around the world at a horrid pace. 

That’s having a huge impact on the climate and there’s not enough carbon offsets. I think it’s everything right down to the vehicles that we all drive. Even just a place like Bella Bella, where there’s a lot of vehicles and you tally that up around the world, that’s a lot of exhaust in the atmosphere. We just need to be greener in the way we live our lives, not be so dependent on oil and gas and all those sorts of things. It’s a big, big problem that is gonna take everybody to get rid of.

Gilpin: What steps have you seen your Nation take to find solutions to climate change?

Dúqva̓ísḷa: We’ve taken some small steps as a Nation to contribute to going in the right direction, with the climate action network that we’ve established and the strategy they’ve put in place. We’ve done smaller things like revamp our recycling and garbage facilities so that we’re recycling a bit more and reusing a bit more. We’ve been a lot more aware of forestry in our territory and been aware of how important old growth is. We’ve put a stop to all commercial logging, there’s been no commercial logging in our territory for five years now while we figure out what’s sustainable. I think just smaller steps like that, that the Nation has taken to just kind of lead by example for our own people.

Gilpin: Anything else you’d like to share?

Dúqva̓ísḷa: What we do now is so important because we have to think about the world that we’re leaving for our children and grandchildren. We’ve seen a steady decline of species and salmon in general our entire lives. We just really need to think long and hard about what we’re leaving behind and make sure that the way we live our lives now is a good example for our children to carry out, carry it on, and make sure that we’re living by our values and making sure that we have everything in place that our ancestors fought so hard to hang onto for us.