Pacific Wild sails into eco-controversy to get the visual story

Mychaylo Prystupa climbed aboard the Habitat to write about how Pacific Wild gets stories out from remote locations to audiences around the world.

Young sea lion on Great Bear Sea being photographed - Ian McAllister
The Habitat - Pacific Wild ship - Ian McAllister
The Habitat - Pacific Wild ship - Mychaylo Prystupa
Heiltsuk roe on kelp herring fishery - Ian McAllister
Heiltsuk girl crying DFO Bella Bella fishery conflict April Bencze Pacific Wild
Pacific herring Great Bear Sea - Tavish Campbell, Pacific Wild
Carousel images: [1] Young sea lion with diver Tavish Campbell, by Ian McAllister; [2] Central B.C. herring spawning grounds, by Ian McAllister; [3] Pacific Wild Habitat ship, by Mychaylo Prystupa; [4] Heiltsuk roe-on-kelp harvesting; [5] Heiltsuk girl cries during DFO herring protest on Denny Island in April, by April Bencze; [6] B.C. coastal herring, by Tavish Campbell.

Last spring, every news outlet had it: a daily, unfolding enviro-political struggle on the remote central B.C. coast, shown with world class 4K video and photography.

The Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, population 1,500, faced down the federal Harper government and a fleet of commercial herring boats seeking to resume a scientifically controversial herring catch in what's increasingly called the "Great Bear Sea."

Heiltsuk said the populations of the tiny oily fish were on the brink of collapse.  So when the commercial fishery was officially opened in late March against their wishes, and with no warning by the Department of Fisheries Oceans, Heiltsuk sped out angrily in boats to intersect.

That’s when the Habitat ship sailed in too, armed with state-of-the-art visual recording equipment and a crew of three.

"This is about First Nations people… fighting for the very survival of arguably one of the most important species on the coast," said Ian McAllister, wildlife photographer and co-founder of Pacific Wild.

Video interview of Pacific Wild's Ian McAllister in Bella Bella in April by Mychaylo Prystupa.  Wildlife and scenics by Ian McAllister, April Bencze and Tavish Cambell.

"There’s not a species that can’t trace their existence on this coast back to the herring,” he added.

From the deck of the Habitat, McAllister flew out a video drone to hover above a large seine herring boat that he'd tracked for days to the annoyance of the boat's captain and crew.  A scuba-diver then went below to capture the boat's vacuums sucking up hundreds of tonnes of netted herring with industrial efficiency.  

Pacific Wild's resulting imagery that week was carried by national and international media.  Combined with the group’s Facebook site, the conservation group, which insists it took a “back seat role” to the Heiltsuk, ensured the herring war was seen by millions of people.  For a small enviro-charity, operating in such a remote part of the B.C. coast, it was a TKO.  

Heiltsuk girl crying DFO Bella Bella fishery conflict April Bencze Pacific Wild

Heiltsuk girl Latoya Windsor crying at a DFO herring protest in Bella Bella area in April.  Video still by April Bencze, Pacific Wild.

Crews talked with PR-sophistication about “news cycles” and sailing to a high-speed Internet dump spot to upload just-shot and edited material to Dropboxes for the media.  The TV networks ate it up too —not just the wildlife visuals, but Pacific Wild’s interviews with scientists and Heiltsuk officials too.

A crew member joked that they had made mainstream media "look so good."

Heiltsuk leaders Marilyn Slett and Kelly Brown DFO herring conflict April 2015 -

Heiltsuk leaders Marilyn Slett and Kelly Brown praying with Elders during their "lock down" occupation of the DFO office on Denny Island in April.  Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Ultimately, Heiltsuk leaders Marilyn Slett and Kelly Brown locked themselves inside the DFO office to force a negotiated settlement.  By morning, and still sleepless, they held their hands out a window to Elders for a group prayer.  

Eventually, a DFO director flew up under pressure, arriving to a respectful, but emotional welcoming.  Nearly everyone —from Elders to kids —wore war paint and solemn faces.  There were two days of talks.  A deal was finally struck to the end the dispute.

Sue Farlinger DFO Heiltsuk chiefs herring fishery negotiations protest Prystupa

DFO Pacific director Sue Farlinger greeted by Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs during a herring fishery dispute in Bella Bella in April.  Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

As as they did, there was ironic news.  The herring pursued by the commercial fishery were too few in size and number to bother catching.  This was proof of how fragile the stocks had become, locals said.

With the protests subsiding, Pacific Wild resumed its visual documentation of what McAllister calls “one of the greatest natural history events on planet earth”: the annual herring spawn on B.C.’s coast.

Pacific Wild BC Central Coast herring spawning grounds - Ian McAllister

B.C. central coast herring spawning grounds in April.  Photo by Ian McAllister, Pacific Wild.

Habitat seems designed for this purpose.  The sloop rigged 46-foot catamaran, capable of reaching 18 knots with full sails, is packed with photographic equipment.  Lenses are scattered everywhere.  

It anchored April 1st in such a remote and people-less ecological paradise on the B.C. central coast that one had the feeling of being a Robinson Crusoe castaway on a remote Pacific island.

The undisclosed spot — with breathtaking azure-blue / green waters — was so chosen for the female herring now bursting out sticky roe eggs by the millions.  It’s an annual protein-feeding frenzy for orcas, sea lions, sea birds, wolves and grizzlies, that are all increasingly under stress due to fragile herring stocks, said McAllister.

Habitat sailig boat Pacific Wild - Mychaylo Prystupa

Pacific Wild's Habitat catamaran photo documenting surface birds feeding on the herring spawn on B.C.'s central coast in April.  Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Pacific Wild’s approach is to tell this story with world class visuals, and recast the herring with the public as the “foundational” species for the B.C. coastal ecology.  Nearly everything that breathes around here depends on the fish and its eggs, including local people, he argues. 

“It’s unfortunate that there are not more journalists and outlets that are covering these issues, because they’re so important —not just to Canadians, but to people around the world.  We truly have a globally unique ecosystem on the B.C. coast.”

herring school BC central coast - Tavish Campbell Pacific Wild

Pacific herring among the tidal sea kelp and grasses.  Photo by Tavish Campbell, Pacific Wild.

As one climbs aboard the Habitat, three questions are asked: Did you bring a newspaper?  Chocolate-covered coffee beans?  Baileys?  Answering “no” or "sorry" results in lessons about the proper things to bring to an ocean craft, amid laugher from crew. 

More in Environment

Pavlof Volcano erupting in Alaska on March 26, 2016.

Flights cancelled in and out of Regina, Yellowknife after volcano in Alaska

VANCOUVER — More flights have been cancelled after a cloud of ash spewed from a volcano on the Alaska Peninsula. WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said the airline cancelled three flights from...
Canada geese mating ritual

Egg addling program shakes up Canada geese population in Okanagan

VERNON, B.C. — Airborne flocks of Canada geese can be symbols of beauty and freedom, but the mess they leave behind on landing can quickly foul parks and beaches. The Okanagan hosts large numbers of...
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.