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Ecologist Alejandro Frid’s second book, Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene, offers a refreshing perspective in the face of climate and biodiversity disaster. It offers hope.
Frid, the ecologist and science co-ordinator for the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance, has not lost sight of the enormous environmental challenges, nor waylaid his astute scientific gaze, but he can imagine a future with positive change. Human change. Seismic in nature.
In an interview from his home office on B.C.’s Bowen Island on March 2, Frid said he is “aware of human potential to do better than we have so far.” He bases this optimism, in large part, on his work and experience with Indigenous peoples in a modern context.
Frid would like us to imagine a new story, to see ourselves as survivors. We must stop telling ourselves we are only capable of destroying our planet, he writes. Humans have, after all, survived for thousands of years. “This reinterpretation of ourselves is not mere fancy … rather, it is consistent with the world views and actions of Indigenous cultures that took shape millennia ago … and are still very much alive, integrating the traditional and modern, teaching others and learning from others.”
A scientist poet
Frid is a kind of Oliver Sacks of ecology. He’s a scientist/poet, who finds wonder all around and passionately describes his many experiences, from the vivid thrill of underwater diving, the joy of fishing for herring with Kitasoo/Xai’xais fishers, spending time in nature with Tsilhqot’in friends at a sacred subalpine lake or studying the breeding habits of eulachon or Dungeness crabs. His respect for people and nature is infectious. His writing quickens the senses.
“Clouds of gulls and large groups of Steller sea lions commingle in the small coves where amassing herring roil the water,” writes Frid about entering Kitasu Bay. “Farther out in the bay, three humpback whales dive and surface and dive again. Flocks of seabirds — black and white surf scoters, their males with bright orange beaks, and common murres in drab grey winter plumage — float as far as the eye can see on a grey surface the rain pricks into tiny ephemeral craters.”
For all his delight in nature, Frid is profoundly aware of “the precariousness of existence.” Hard-hitting facts punctuate the book. For example, he writes that two-thirds of the CO2 that we emit on any given day will spend decades to centuries warming up the atmosphere before the carbon cycle captures it. The other third will remain in the atmosphere 1,000 years. Humans are the cause of these and many other disastrous environmental effects. Humans are, Frid writes, the dominant force in the current geological epoch, the Anthropocene, a time that arrived only recently, after 11,000 years of stable climate.
Changing Tides not only takes the reader underwater, but dives into human history as well. The book traces human development from hunter/gatherers and human settlement to the colonization and industrialization of the Anthropocene. Frid is unabashed in his description of colonial treatment of the First Peoples and its consequences. Mainstream society is “blinded by racism” and has not valued traditional knowledge as it should be valued.
Interface of science and traditional practices
"Ecologist Alejandro Frid is profoundly aware of 'the precariousness of existence.' Hard-hitting facts punctuate his second book, Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene."
Changing Tides offers many approaches for improving conservation practices, all derived from a combination of modern science and ancient traditions. Frid believes traditional knowledge and science, both empirical and observation-based, are complementary. Science can provide information about ecosystems from distant parts of the world and observe what the naked eye can’t see. Traditional knowledge, passed from generation to generation as stories and laws, offers deep-rooted, place-specific understanding of ecosystems.
Humans must be managed so that ecosystems aren’t jolted into alternative states, and if they are jolted, as Frid predicts they will be, we must be prepared. Models for navigating the unpredictable future may be found among Indigenous cultures, which have “socially complex practices that epitomize sustainability.”
Throughout the book, Frid is careful about whose stories he tells. He understands Indigenous stories belong to Indigenous peoples. But he also believes it is important to live by the laws of the First Peoples. “I come from far away,” explained Frid, who grew up in Mexico. “But if I'm going to live here, I'm going to be naturalized to the laws of the place. And I don't mean the laws of the government of Canada, although, obviously to some extent, I have to do that, but the laws of the first Inhabitants that are still here.”
Indigenous people and preservation
Before industrial practices, writes Frid, First Nations living along the northeast Pacific Ocean maintained healthy ecosystems. They used a variety of ancient techniques, such as selectively harvesting vulnerable fish like yelloweye rockfish, and building environments like clam gardens. And they continue to find innovative ways to support nature. In Bella Coola, where hungry grizzlies come into town searching for food, the people have constructed platforms over the Bella Coola River where they drop fish remains. The fish carcasses feed nutrients to the river, and keep grizzlies from the garbage bins and orchards that they’ve turned to as salmon become scarce. Like all the stories in Changing Tides, the grizzly story intersects with nature, science and people.
Tending the wild is how Frid describes building clam gardens, a practice that has supported nature and people for over 3,500 years — and continues to this day. Clam gardens are made of “rock walls constructed in the low intertidal zone of tidal flats that have been intentionally cleared of boulders and modified to have a gentler slope … (This) reduces the time beaches are exposed to low tide, which boosts the growth rates and overall productivity of clams harvested for food. The rock wall itself also enhances biodiversity by creating habitats for sea cucumbers, crabs, sculpins, and other species,“ writes Frid.
Other ecosystems benefit from the clam gardens as well. Many were built “near estuarine root and berry gardens and stone wall traps for salmon,” he writes. Stone wall traps, another ancient technology, are up to 100 metres long, and capture and hold fish migrating upstream during falling tides. Fish can be selectively harvested from these holding pens.
Over time, Coastal First Nations have protected many culturally and dietarily important species such as salmon, rockfish, halibut, herring and eulachon (a fatty smelt fish also used for trade). If a species showed signs of decline, fishers chose to capture a replacement fish until the vulnerable population regained its health. Underlying this practice is a commitment to all living beings and nature. When First Nations use the phrase, “all my relations,” Frid writes, they are “referring to plants, animals, water and mountains as well as people.” And to the “permeability of boundaries between the human and non-human world.”
Biomass destruction by commercial fisheries
From the 1970s to the 1990s, industrial fisheries removed 90 per cent of the biomass of many rockfish species, which have been harvested by Indigenous fishers for over 9,000 years. With an estimated pre-colonial population of 8,500 living along the Barkley Sound middens in southern British Columbia, these fish could easily have been depleted. But Indigenous fishers developed practices that protected them.
Large, older yelloweye rockfish mothers are essential for the persistence of the species. They live up to120 years, occupy the deepest waters and produce the most larvae. Indigenous fishers could have fished them from the deep waters where they live, but instead they caught other rockfish species that are shorter-lived in middle-depth waters, ensuring the stability of the largest female yelloweye rockfish, and thus the species.
Fisheries in modern times have targeted the largest fish, and though they say they have not “overfished” these species, a more nuanced view reveals they have “longevity overfished,” writes Frid.
“In contrast to the Indigenous portfolio approach,” writes Frid, “modern industrial fisheries have a track record of targeting the best and easiest pickings first … until the near-annihilation of a resource … (a practice that) has thrived globally under perverse government subsidies, altering the oceans in irrevocable ways over the past 100 years.”
Because of reckless fishing, not just yelloweye rockfish are threatened, but many other species found along the Pacific Northeast. During the 1950s and 1960s in British Columbia commercial fisheries have wiped out nearly two-thirds of herring biomass, “year after year, for 13 years in a row.” Herring have been a staple for Indigenous people there for at least 2,500 years.
The eulachon are another endangered fish. Frid describes springtime by the Waanukv River when people from the Wuikinuxv Nation sing for the return of this sacred fish. Their “melodies,” he writes,” … merge with the mist of surrounding waterfalls.” Eulachon, unimportant in commercial markets, are being incidentally killed as bycatch by trawl fishers after shrimp.
The corollary to destructive industrial and recreational depletion of fish may be quite simple, writes Frid. “The greater the degree to which Indigenous people become legitimate governance partners in the modern management of fish and other resources that derive from their ancestral territories, the more likely the sustainability of that resource.”
Hereditary chiefs and Wet’suwet’en
“The hereditary chief structure is really paramount to … stewardship principles,” Frid said during our interview. Hereditary chiefs are responsible for “when, where, how, and who gathers resources in their chiefdom, and whether such harvests may extend to people of other lineages,” he writes. “The chiefs also maintain knowledge of resources and sustainable management“ and convey that knowledge intergenerationally.
A case that exemplifies a role of hereditary chiefs has played out between Coastal GasLink, which wants to build a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory, and the Wet’suwet’en Territory hereditary chiefs. The pipeline is in conflict with their role as protectors of their land, a role that is quite different from that of the tribal council, as Frid explained.
“Hereditary chiefs were recognized by the Supreme Court (of Canada) in 1997 as being the legal authority on Wet’suwet’en territory,” he said. “Tribal councils, or First Nation councils, are political bodies that were implemented by the Indian Act, basically to manage funds that go into the small footprint of Indian reserves. But when you look at the vast traditional territories, it's the hereditary chiefs who are the legal authority. So in the case of Coastal GasLink, the elected council said, ‘We're going to work with you,’ but the hereditary chiefs opposed that position. Legally, the elected council did not have the jurisdiction to accept work with Coastal GasLink.”
“It's really emblematic of a lot of the themes that I'm dealing with,” he continued.
Turning things around — Dungeness crabs
Battles regarding the right of Indigenous people to protect their land and waterways are being fought on many fronts. The good news, according to Frid, is progress is being made. He finds hope in a story about Dungeness crab, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xa’xais, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk peoples.
Thirteen years ago when Dungeness crab populations were declining, the Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xa’xais, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk requested closure of commercial and recreational fisheries at their traditional fishing sites. Legally, they had precedence over the resources, but DFO argued there was no evidence of a conservation problem and allowed commercial fishing to continue. In 2014, after many attempts to stop non-traditional fishers, these nations turned to traditional laws, forcing the closure of 10 bays or channels.
Frid, along with people from the four nations, undertook a large-scale ecological experiment to see if fisheries were impacting the crab populations, and to prove what they had observed. They continuously monitored 20 sites. The results showed what they expected — without fisheries, the adult male crabs became more abundant and larger. They presented the findings to DFO. DFO claimed the observations were irrelevant. When the nations threatened to sue, a shift occurred.
A joint technical working group was created between Central Coast First Nations and DFO’s scientific staff in 2017.
“I … saw a shift in the zeitgeist of DFO crab managers, who dramatically improved their willingness to work with First Nations in the collaborative management of culturally significant species,” writes Frid. “I believe this shift symbolizes something bigger, something that transcends the Central Coast of British Columbia — a sign that, globally, it may be possible for governance and resource management systems to become inclusive of Indigenous peoples and their wealth of knowledge about ecosystems.”
Frid believes that listening to hereditary chiefs and following, or including, Indigenous laws in environmental decision-making could alter our future.
“If you had a council of hereditary chiefs who are active in their traditions being part of big decisions about how we manage our relationship to resources … we would be living in a very different world,” said Frid. Then he explained how this relates to Coastal GasLink. “You have the elected council saying, ‘We want to develop this gas.’ You have the hereditary chiefs saying, ‘We want to protect our traditional territory, we are inseparable from the land.’ The elected councillors are coming from a very short-term, neoclassical economic, Indian Act context in which we need to pull people out of immediate poverty no matter the long-term cost.”
“The hereditary chiefs are coming from really old traditional principles in which they say, ‘We're here from the beginning of time and we're staying here until time ends,’” he continued.
Two laws, two stories
Changing Tides, published by New Society Publishers, is full of stories and examples of how science and traditional knowledge can merge to protect fish and benefit the environment. It also includes other practical solutions that Frid believes are attainable and imperative. His last words in the book are: “We are on a knife edge and this is the time to act.”
We must stop believing that burning fossil fuel equals prosperity, he writes. We should avoid jet flights, enact carbon laws that cut down on meat-eating, reshape land management, scrap fossil fuel subsidies, and price carbon for its actual damage to the planet. And we must change how we live, and think about how we live. For this, we need stewardship, wisdom, and common sense.
Another way to protect the environment and ecosystems is to return to First Peoples the land that belongs to them. In 2014, Canada’s Supreme Court came down with a ruling honouring an older Supreme Court ruling that recognized oral narratives as legally valid evidence regarding land title. The recognition of this earlier decision enabled the top court to extend Tsilhqot'in land title from a small reserve to 1,700 square kilometres of land historically and currently used for hunting, fishing and other cultural practices. Once this land was returned to the Tsilhqot’in, Frid writes, resource extraction companies could no longer do business in the titled lands.
The inclusion of traditional Indigenous laws with modern laws, like the combining of science with ancient conservation practices, is yet another way to protect the environment. With traditional law comes a deeper respect for, and recognition of, the kinship between non-human species and humans.
“Indigenous peoples do not need the rest of the world to initiate their healing. What they do need is a just society that cares for the land, fish, animals and plants that make everyone whole. The question is whether the rest of us will choose to live up to our potential of widely practising reciprocity, with each other and with our non-human kin,” writes Frid.
Frid probably won’t publish another book for four years. He’s promised his wife and daughter he’d take three years off from book writing; his full-time job is enough to keep him busy. So take advantage of the wealth of information and wisdom in Changing Tides. It’s an opportunity to turn the negative tide and enjoy some beautiful writing. At a time when everything feels dark and unknown, Changing Tides, short-listed for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, offers hope and new ways of seeing who we are and what we can be on this troubled Earth.