I’m sitting in the departure lounge of the Vancouver airport waiting for a flight to northern B.C. It’s April 26, 2021, and this is my first excursion into the field as a newly minted fisheries biologist. My manager and I make small talk aboard the cramped jet for the two-hour flight. He sees me — a fresh Ontario transplant — gaping at the mountains below.
“Excited?” he asks.
The mountains fade away and the land begins to open up. Rivers weave around cornfields and gas wells light up the clouds. We’ve arrived in the Peace Valley. The plane rattles onto the landing strip and we make our way to the site, where I’m patted down and our truck is searched with a drug-sniffing dog. It’s at this point that I realize this isn’t any ordinary field site.
Site C is a multibillion-dollar mega dam on the Peace River. It will flood 128 kilometres of one of the most fertile and biodiverse river valleys in North America. We were tasked with monitoring the effectiveness of a fish ladder at allowing passage of migrating fish past the dam. Our job for the next two weeks was simple: implant tracking tags into any fish that arrive at the fish ladder. The tags would allow us to monitor their movements to see if they reached their spawning grounds. It seemed like a dream project. Impactful, on the ground, and high stakes.
What transpired in the following days was a shock. Show up at the fish ladder at 8 a.m. — no fish. Show up at the fish ladder at noon — no fish. Fish ladder at 2 pm. — no fish. This carried on for the rest of my two-week trip in what was supposed to be the peak migration for Arctic grayling. I heard many explanations for our lack of fish:
“Water’s still too cold.”
“Maybe we’re too early.”
Nobody ever brought up the obvious: maybe the fish trap was bad at trapping fish.
I made seven more trips to Site C over the rest of the year, each one spiralling me deeper into a pit of self-loathing and cynicism.
Opinion: I could never shake the nagging feeling that I was standing on the sidelines, watching idly as ecosystems around me fell like dominoes. #climatecrisis #SiteC #anxiety #climateanxiety
“What am I doing here?”
“Does any of this matter?”
“Is my work doing harm or good?”
“Did I go through six years of university for this?”
In the spring of 2021, fewer than 10 Arctic grayling made it through the fish ladder.
But it was the plight of the bull trout that did me in. Bull trout are an often-forgotten relative of Pacific salmon, and in most parts of the province, grow between three and five pounds. Not in the Peace River. In the Peace, males can reach lengths of more than one metre and weigh over 15 pounds. Adults travel hundreds of kilometres between their hunting grounds and their spawning streams, often crossing provincial boundaries. Females create massive nests known as “redds,” using their broom-like tails to excavate layers of gravel and dirt from the streambed to create a protected nursery for their eggs. I first saw the redds during an aerial survey, desperately trying to keep my lunch down while frantically scribbling on a data sheet as my co-worker trained his eyes on the river below.
“There’s a huge one.”
I can still picture it. A stark, white oval set clearly against the gold-brown gravel of the streambed. As if you took a pressure washer to a dirty sidewalk. The two bull trout spawning on the nest were at least a metre long.
In 2021, less than 10 bull trout made it through the fish ladder.
The futility of our work was exacting a psychological toll on me. Without fish to tag, we killed time wandering around town and found ways to draw out the simplest of tasks. Downloading data became a three-person job — one to open a box, one to write on a sheet, and one to plug it into the computer.
I started filling this free time with books, starting with Alexandra Morton’s Not on My Watch, an autobiography of the renowned scientist’s lifetime spent fighting government regulators and aquaculture companies to protect wild salmon. On another trip, I binged Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a manifesto on how unfettered capitalism led to our climate crisis. The next year, I picked up Sarah Cox’s Breaching the Peace, an exposé on the bullying and misinformation tactics used by BC Hydro and the BC NDP to push through the hugely unpopular Site C Dam — the project I was actively a part of.
I got through half of David Wallace-Wells’ prophetic The Uninhabitable Earth until I had to put it down. I was emotionally burnt out. It was mid-July 2022 and I had since made 14 trips to Site C, burning untold amounts of jet fuel without any tangible conservation gains to show for it. Our work wasn’t going to stop the flooding of the uniquely beautiful Peace River Valley, and it certainly wasn’t going to help the people of West Moberly First Nation who were battling BC Hydro in court over violations of Treaty 8. Here I was — a supposedly knowledgeable, passionate, and degree-holding scientist — sitting on the sidelines creating technical reports and recommendation memos to be stacked in a filing cabinet.
The term “eco-anxiety” is used to describe a growing sense of dread related to the state of our overlapping environmental and social crises. Youth today are forced to reckon with the fact that the failures of previous generations have already locked in some terrifying and irreversible aspects of climate change.
My generation was raised in a “be the change” green movement that encouraged recycling and turning the lights off. In school, I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth, The Story of Stuff, and Planet Earth, listening to each respective host lament about how the fate of the world was in our tiny hands. At recess, I would sort through our school’s blue bins with the eco-team, riffling through the milk-stained, sticky bags for the perfect nugget of recyclable material. School taught me about the damage that adults had dealt to the environment, and I couldn’t wait to get older so I could help fix it.
Fast-forward 15 years and I had landed a coveted full-time job in the environmental sector. I had a work laptop, a company card and health benefits. Friends knew me as “the guy who saves the salmon.” As my image as fish-superman grew, I felt increasingly guilty being associated with it because I did not, in fact, save any salmon. Yet, pretending I did helped me rationalize staying at my job, and after living at the poverty line as a graduate student, being paid was nice, too. But I could never shake the nagging feeling that I was standing on the sidelines, watching idly as ecosystems around me fell like dominoes.
In mid-summer of 2022, after months of inner turmoil, I made the decision to leave my job. I had just finished my 15th trip to Site C. I left behind job security, a paycheque and many coworkers-turned-friends. It was an impossibly hard decision to make as a young renter in a tenuous financial situation. I got involved in local, community-led conservation movements and rediscovered the collective sense of purpose that we all had when we first watched Al Gore proselytize about global warming.
To anyone in a similar situation, I have this advice for you: consider what else you have to offer to the environmental movement, and if you’re able, try something new. You have everything to lose, but even more to gain.
Auston Chhor is a fish biologist and science writer living in Vancouver, B.C. He holds a master of science from Carleton University, where he studied the impacts of sportfishing on fish survival. He's interested in climate issues, green urbanism and community-based conservation.