Comment: Pipelines, tankers threaten B.C.’s heritage

I have been fishing around Vancouver Island for 40 years and run a freezer troller/prawner out of Cowichan Bay, fishing commercially for salmon, prawns and octopus. This coast is my home and my livelihood.

Fishing has been the backbone of B.C.’s coastal economy and an important part of the social fabric of this area throughout history. The proposals to run Alberta pipelines through B.C. and increase tanker traffic in our waters threaten our fishing industries and livelihoods of B.C. families and communities.

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First, when there is an oil spill, we fishermen will be directly affected. (Raising the odds to 400 or more tankers a year in our treacherous coastal passages makes the likelihood of an oil spill extremely high.) An oil spill could decimate marine ecosystems, contaminating or even exterminating the fish populations on which we rely.

When you look north to Prince William Sound in Alaska, the repercussions of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill are still being felt, with significant amounts of oil still affecting bird and mammal populations and the tourism and fishing industries still struggling to recover.

Damage to the fish populations would not only rob coastal communities of food on their tables, but would also threaten the food security of the whole province.

As any seafarer can attest, accidents happen on the water. From the cotter pin that failed, causing a B.C. Ferry to crash in 2005, to a short period of inattention that caused the sinking of the Queen of the North in 2006, there are many factors that add the possibility of danger to sea travel.

In this area, we contend with powerful tides, strong winds and, increasingly, extreme weather events, all along a rocky, island-choked coast.

On the ocean, we see first-hand the effects of climate change. What happened in the Philippines last week was a dramatic example of the extreme weather we can expect from increasing climate change, but even here in B.C., we are already being affected in ways that fishermen and sailors are aware of.

Within the fishing community, the consensus is that over the past decade, weather patterns have begun changing. In my own experience, it used to be that maybe once each fishing season, a storm would blow so fiercely you would drag your anchor. Now stronger storms can blow through multiple times in a season, or conversely, not at all for an entire summer.

Along with unpredictable weather comes unpredictable fishing. While fisheries science is not exact, there are basic patterns. In the past, an experienced fisherman or scientist could predict run size and where the fish would travel each season. Now, the predictability is gone. Fish are moving to different areas and the feed in their offshore grounds has changed, dramatically affecting run sizes. We have had extreme fluctuations in run sizes, from record runs like 2010 to worryingly small ones.

Whether there is an oil spill now or in 20 years, our oceans will be affected if we build more pipelines and increase oilsands production. Burning even more oil will accelerate the affects of climate change on our oceans, whether through ocean acidification, species dislocation, rising sea levels or extreme weather events.

At the moment, our governments are simply paying lip service to carbon-emissions targets. You cannot build a pipeline and say that you are doing something about global climate change. The two are mutually exclusive. We want our governments to invest in developing alternative energy strategies. We burn oil for our fishing vessels and as individuals we do not have the capacity to design or develop new energy systems. That is the responsibility of government.

Investing in the development of clean energy is the right economic choice. It safeguards vital jobs in the fishing and mariculture industry, while providing high-tech jobs in designing and manufacturing the components of a new energy infrastructure.

I will be attending the No Tankers! No Pipelines! rally in Victoria Saturday to show our politicians that building new pipelines is unacceptable if we want to continue fishing on our coast. I want to see a next generation of fishermen, a future possible only if the government takes action now toward a carbon-free future.

Guy Johnston is a local fisherman and secretary of the South Island Local of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. The No Tankers! No Pipelines! rally takes place Saturday at 1 p.m. at Clover Point.

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