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Proposed Northern Gateway pipeline threatens Haida Gwaii's reliance on food from the sea

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It would be an interesting exercise to put a dollar value on livelihood food. But it might be hard to find comparable quality for sale because seasonal bounties don’t necessarily conform to standardized commercial markets. So the best food from the most productive ecosystems goes to those who live close enough to find the bounty, those who are knowledgeable and willing enough to drive their truck out to the spit on a stormy winter day and load it up. The rest of us get to visit such places of wonder, and we do. Tourism is an increasingly prominent part of the Haida Gwaii economy.

Making a living: the Omega Fish Plant

Patricia’s husband, Todd White, knows seafood from both a commercial perspective and a livelihood perspective. He is president of the local chapter of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union and a member of the Haida Nation. 

From the commercial perspective, the Omega Packing plant where he works, owned by Oregon based Pacific Seafoods, employs about 200 Haida working two shifts at peak times. The plant processes Dungeness Crab, razor clams for bait, and dogfish. When the Canadian dollar was in the 70s, American companies used the plant. That was before the Canadian dollar fell prey to the “Dutch Disease”: a dollar driven so high by the price of oil that manufacturing and processing jobs are lost because products are too expensive for the export market.

In good years at the plant, there’s enough crab to saturate the more profitable market for fresh crab and the plant processes up to 5 million tons. But even then, people need to supplement their fish plant wages with traditional food sources. Moreover, the crab stocks have been down in recent years and so people are relying on traditional food sources and commercial clam digging more heavily than ever.

Making a livelihood: the food year on Haida Gwaii

In the winter months, along with the cockles and weather vane scallops that wash up on Rose Spit, people dig butter clams. In deep winter/early spring, people gather curly sea weed off the rocks. By gathering a variety of places, that harvest lasts into July. In the spring, people start fishing for halibut and spring salmon. Wild strawberries ripen on Rose Spit, and people take time off work to harvest them.

From May into June, sockeye start coming into the rivers and the Haida food fishery begins. Participation requires an able body, a vehicle, a boat and time off from work. Extended family groups camp for three or four days at time, setting gill nets, harvesting berries and picking wild crab apples. Fish gets delivered to family members who need it and traded or given away at potlatches.  

“By the time you divvy it up,” Todd told me, “it’s not a crazy amount of fish. I have six brothers and sisters. Three of us actually go fishing, along with maybe a dozen or so nieces and nephews. Then we share with at least four or five aunties, uncles and grandparents.”

“It’s a busy time,” he continued, “between canning and freezing and delivering fish. Then there’s cleaning the net, patching the holes, maintaining the boat. People have to have the right net, the right mesh for the river, and that all takes work, knowledge and time.”

Smoked black cod from Todd White's freezer

By summer, the razor clams have fattened up to become white and tasty. “A lot of people think they’re not good because they go into the bait market in February,” Todd told me, “but they’re one of the best sea foods that we have on the island.” The size of a man’s hand, razor clams have sharp, thin shells. “Clam diggers end up with cut fingers,” Todd explained. “It takes practice with the shovel to dig them properly. But it’s good money. A couple hundred people sign up for digging razor clams. When that’s going on there’s a daily grind to catch the tides right. Sometimes there are two tides a day.”

In August, commercial trolling starts on the Chinook and later on moves into coho. Some fishermen go earlier to be sure of the catch. Others gamble on getting bigger fish later in the season  -- if the 568 pieces of their allowable catch are big, they’ll make that much more money. But then there’s the risk that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will close the fishery before they catch their quota. “Some fishers have two quota so they can make a living,” Todd said. “It’s becoming more challenging every year given that it doesn’t get any cheaper to run a boat and pay for a license. You make tough decisions about when to fish and you get held up by things like weather, breakdowns, things that you have zero control over.”

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