A recent genetic study of Skeena Sockeye salmon scales revealed that in the past 100 years, their population has decreased by over 75 per cent. This is no surprise to the Indigenous peoples of the Skeena watershed, as we have been watching this decline take place for generations.
Our oral histories speak to times when the salmon were so plentiful that you could walk across creeks on their backs, and when the rivers would become viscous from their slime as they made their runs upstream. Sadly, this is not the case on the Skeena anymore, despite being one of the last great salmon bearing rivers unimpeded by dams and development.
The issue at hand is that our baseline understanding of a healthy salmon population has been occupied by those who have no relationship with the salmon. Time and time again, we have seen that British Columbia’s management of wild fisheries has had very little context with which to imagine historical Sockeye populations in the Skeena watershed. Instead, their decisions revolve around maintaining historical profits from the exploitation of these species. Their baseline understanding is informed by the yields of the commercial fisheries that caused this crisis in the first place.
Our understanding is based on a perspective that salmon have agency and a right to live — they are not simply a species that was put here to bring prosperity to humanity. It is only through their generosity and sacrifice that we are permitted to sustain ourselves, and it is only through our gratitude and admiration that they allow this relationship to continue. For these reasons, the people of the Skeena have upheld countless protocols and practices when it comes to taking the life of the salmon nation. The only protocols that the colonial fisheries seem to follow is ensuring that the bare minimum are allowed to survive and spawn. In the context of changing climates and warming oceans, this may prove fatal.
Perhaps the genetic study on Skeena Sockeye populations will awaken the settler population to the struggles of our salmon populations. As Indigenous people, these are the issues we have been communicating to the settler population for centuries, but for the most part, our existence is a wildfire: incommensurable and incomprehensible to the colonial mind. Recognized as a complex, powerful, and renewing human influence within nature, but suppressed in order to protect settler property and revenue.
This campus was once a site where this wildfire was a frequent occurrence amongst the Garry Oak meadows, as ignited by the Lekwungen, the Chekonien, for millennia. Currently our understanding of this space is occupied by the presence of the University of Victoria. For the settler population, it is difficult to imagine the alternatives to what we have now. For Indigenous peoples, it is difficult not to remember the alternatives to what we have now. For now, we do not expect the settler population to understand, but we do ask that you trust us when we tell you that something is unsustainable and harming our relations.