Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis by June 3

Goal: $100k
$43,026

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.

“Definitely.”

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.

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

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.

8 a.m.

“What am I doing here?”

Fish ladder.

“Does any of this matter?”

No fish.

“Is my work doing harm or good?”

Fish ladder.

“Did I go through six years of university for this?”

No fish.

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.

Keep reading

As a 70-something person, who's taken the environment to heart since back in the day when Frances Moore Lappe's book about the environmental cost of various "protein foods" and how to efficiently get a full spectrum of essential amino acids from vegetable sources. Back then, the default was that all of them had to be consumed at each meal, which proved to not be the case. It used the protein complement of a chicken egg as the standard for 100% net protein utilization (NPU).
The more I learned, the more I realized that individuals' health, and what's good for the environment were pretty much always one and the same.

I avoided the bad stuff in household and personal care products. Avoided as many additives as possible. Reused everything, metal, paper, plastic, whatever. Repaired things that could be repaired, etc. Didn't buy stuff I didn't need (never mind that for most of the time I couldn't afford all of what I *did* need, let alone what I didn't.
Back then, before computers and the internet, books and records were in the "need" category, along with basic household references, like dictionaries.
The thing is, over the decades and generations since the WW2, a smaller and smaller proportion of the population saw their lot improve (beyond belief, some of them), and a larger and larger proportion saw their lot degrade compared to childhood.
It is those who saw the huge increase in income and wealth, who made the "bad decisions" ... believe me, there are plenty of "us oldsters" who were "good climate citizens" to the fullest extent possible, going back to teen years.
We are still here, doing what we can, trying to educate friends and neighbours, and railing that we have no good choices to make on election days.
So, as in the old Fugs song, we end up voting for the least bad of the bad choices presented.
I would, however, suggest that the solution isn't always to run for office. Indeed, many of the people who do are utterly unqualified for the positions they seek. They'd do better to volunteer for the best candidate with a chance of winning. Otherwise, all they're doing is splitting a "protest vote" that at times could have been a deciding factor in kicking the bums out.
As a note to the author, I expect a sizeable proportion of the population feels the same distress you do. And I think you're making the sane choice, aligning with others seeking to build momentum. The truth is that fear and anger both feed anxiety and stress, all of which "go to a better place" in the face of action. Even if that action turns out to be not quite the perfect thing to gain the desired end, it's better for health, and better for the environment, to do what one can.
And as a sidebar for "the new generations," I've lived long enough now to realize that each generation has had reason for existential fear. My great-grandparents left starvation and war, coming here with nothing and living very hard lives. My grandparents had WW1 to deal with, my parents, WW2. Then came nuclear proliferation and the cold war, with "duck and cover" drills that only the very young, and the very stupid, thought useful at all.
Since then, governments have become very good at spinning malarkey, dividing people along identity lines, presenting effects as cause, etc.
The best thing anyone can do is still to always be truthful.
Because without truth, there can be no understanding, no analysis, no solution to anything ... but worse, on a personal level, no relationship. Honesty breeds integrity, which is probably the greatest super power anyone can have.
It's not prior *generations* that have screwed things up: it's been the richest-few-per-cent of generations who've had their thumbs on the controls, for generations, same as now.
New battles, same war.

Kudos to the author; such a well-written piece. Though I’ve been around for many more years than he, I can identify with so much of what he writes and I share many of his thoughts, concerns and influences.

It amazes me the tenacity and perseverance of activists – journalists and other writers/documentarians, scientists, ordinary folk, whatever – who continue their work for the common good in whatever happens to be their chosen(?) domain.

I’ve just finished listening to the audio version of Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers, and in there, I remember, is the observation that solutions to the problems inflicted upon the First Nations by settler society require that Canadians, en masse, act to have them solved.

I think that observation holds to other domains, such as our ecosystems.

Thanks to the author for taking the time to write this and submit it.

One immediate question came to mind in the description of the fish counting woes. Biologists on other large rivers – I’m thinking specifically, of the Fraser – manage to count transiting fish; how is that done? Is something similar not useable on the Peace near Site C? (I’m assuming they are using physical traps).

Thanks Auston for your honesty and integrity. I know you can't eat that, but it's still invaluable.
Paul