Yes — Little Positive Changes in my lifetime have also yielded some positive reflections on Earth Day:
I am reminded by Human Rights advocate John Lewis’s comment before he passed, on some people’s dissatisfaction with American Human Rights progress: “If you haven’t noticed some positive change you have not walked in my shoes!” Well, as a white male in Canada, I have been incredibly lucky to wear different shoes — but the concept that all is lost is equally a not valid conclusion for someone with a life devoted to ecological understanding. Some substantial progress is still needed — and that is my Earth Day message. Yet:
The Orca Tragedy of Yesterday Persists:
In my 65 years as a trained observer of wildlife I have witnessed the “decrease of Orcas from my count of 295 pod members in July 1958 to 78 JKL members today – so not all is well.
In the summer of 1958, I had just embarked on logging hours to become a commercial pilot in my little two-seater Taylorcraft. I spent many of these hours locating bald eagles’ nests. Later, as I changed professions, these foundational observations become my zoology graduate thesis. One day, as I circled Discovery Island off Victoria British Columbia looking for eagle nests, my eye caught a great commotion in the water immediately under my left wing. Within minutes we were circling hundreds of Orcas – in milling pods like I had never seen before. We decided to make a count. Fortunately, the wind was calm, and the whales’ movements easily detected: constantly rising and diving – in sight then out of site.
Within minutes we settled on a technique for counting the elusive mammals. Surfacing whales were readily seen by their white-saddled backs and dorsal fins. Then it became apparent you could also, for a few seconds, count the diving whales by their wake and diving wash circle, right down to the very calm circle of water that emanated from the whale’s final underwater tail flick – the whale’s footprint. Within 15 minutes we had circled the mass of whales that spread out over nearly a square kilometer of water and were trying ways of sorting out the whales’ direction and groups. In the end we counted what we thought was a minimum of 295 orcas, but we had no idea of the significance of this huge gathering.
Many years later, my school mate and the person I trained in falconry, Mike Bigg, who later became Mr. Orca, perfected the method of individually identifying each orca by its saddle pattern. One night as we were stranded on a nearby Darcy Island rock, having witnessed our little outboard drift off ignominiously in the fast current, he told me that this incredible assemblage of whales was probably gathering to undertake a mating ritual. These intermingling orcas were later to be defined as all three J, K and L pods.
Evolution had already taught these intelligent creatures not to interbreed and by these huge get togethers the males of one related pod could mate with the females of another unrelated pod. The whales were trying to survive — but for a few more years we did not always help.
Death by Firing Squad:
In the summer of 1964, I was on my first scientific expedition to Triangle Island, which is off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, to survey seabirds, peregrine falcons and ground nesting bald eagles. My wife and I were heading into the swells off Tofino Harbour aboard the Federal Fisheries Research Vessel the GB Reed, when a deckhand shouted — “Killer Whales off the port”. Panic broke loose. Someone rushed past me down into the hold and seconds later emerged – machine gun in arm. This was quickly mounted on a turret on the deck and as the Reed cut into the Orca pod, the machine gun blasted, the water boiled red and then the vessel turned north to resume our journey. That July day I witnessed our government research crew at work – paid orca exterminators. This was wildlife management at its peak in 1964.
Today the same Federal Fisheries Department is the protectors of the remaining 78 Orcas – the total of the JKL pods this week as I write. What numbers were shot, caught for Marineland exhibits or starved to death is moot. We have quit killing them by government decree, but we are still starving them to death by failing to conserve their food supply. We still have considerable amends to make. But now in 2021, we are considering a program to bring back their food supply. What a huge step forward from the 1960’s.
Herring Decimated by Greed in the 1960’s:
Herring, the most abundant food fish of almost our entire coastal ecosystem, was totally devastated by a greed-driven wasteful industry. It is hard to talk of the herring fishery and remain tolerant of the sheer avarice of humankind. Hundreds of ‘millions of tonnes’ of herring spawned throughout the Inside Passage, and along the outside coast from California to Alaska — but never more prolifically than in the bays of eastern Vancouver Island. These were wiped out solely due to wasteful government – approved excessive harvesting.
During the spring of 1964 and 1965 I was annually given the use of a 38-foot bottom trawler (another detrimental fishing technology that should have been eliminated 50 years ago!) to get ‘free herring’ from the spawning grounds of Departure Bay – beside Nanaimo, BC. These were to feed my developing rehabilitation center of injured seals, sealions, sea birds, cougars and eagles – to name but a few species. The night-fishery sustained about 50 ‘flood-lighted Herring Seiners,’ boats from 22 to 28metres long. These seiners had huge nets that were pulled around 100 tonnes of schooling herring as they rose from the depths to congregate at the surface as the hundreds of lights enticed them up.
Each boat nightly deployed two or three sein sets before the night was over: circling the swarms, pursing the net pulling the herring together into suffocating swarms prior to pumping them onto the ship deck.
Then the tension began. Would the Captain deem the dying herring worth keeping? At $20.00 per tonne a week’s salary was in a thumb-up or thumb-down decision. Remember, good jobs were paying $1.50 to $2.00 per hour!
Now 100 tonnes of fish and more water were not to be taken lightly. This was the industries most deadly fishery – on fisherman – as well as on herring! Many an experienced crew, encouraged by the quick dollars, had boats that sunk to the bottom because of bad judgement – just too many tonnes of fish and water to stay afloat. As a safeguard, hovering with a huge axe in hand stood one fisherman poised ready for the Captains dreaded order – cut her loose!
As I learned those evenings at Nanoose Bay, this was the common order. As the brailing started and tonnes of water and herring washed onto the deck the Captain and crew anxiously watched. Would the percent of herring or of herring and predatory dog fish prevail? Every night I was present over two different years, it was the dog fish that won. With a few sharks on the deck, sometimes five or six that were visible in a tonne of herring, it meant that the percentage of herring was not adequate for the processing plants. The entire 100+ tonnes of dying herring were cut loose.
The purse line was cut allowing the dying mass of herring to sink and follow the previous catch to the bottom of the sea — adding more bait to attract more dog fish sharks. It was considered unthinkable work to stoop down, pick up and throw a lowly dog fish overboard. It was better to kill and suffocate another 100 tonnes off herring to feed the waiting swarms of attracted dog fish than to stoop down and pick out the dog fish. This was another definition of conservation management in the 1960’s!
I never saw a seine set kept for the herring – but I was only present for a few days each year during these last years of the herring fishery. Nothing could sustain this waste for long. By the late 1960’s the commercial herring for reduction was over – the herring masses were gone. The herring fisheries literally died out for the more lucrative herring roe fishery that was yet to begin. Every other fishery, the salmon, halibut, cod and even the inshore shellfish industry suffered from the loss of the west coast prime herring – bait fishery. And of course, the whales, marine mammals, seabirds and eagles and coastal bears all suffered dramatically from the loss of their components of this food chain.
In the past five years, a few of the areas have seen small herring swarms return — a few hundred tonnes for an entire bay on Howe Sound or along Crescent Beach at Surrey. This herring fishery also played an important historical role in the First Nations rations for fresh fish and roe – the reasons the herring were swarming. We need to give the entire herring fishery a 10-year moratorium of harvesting so it might recover. Oh, how the entire coastal fishery and the total food chain would rebound! Can we act in such an enlightened fashion? Or will greed still prevail?
So here is a success story .…….
Bald eagles are North America’s Greatest Success Story for Recovery – but for How Long?
Bald Eagles, rare & wild in the 1950’s, are today breeding in huge numbers, throughout Greater Vancouver and its three million humans that share this wondrous corner of Super Natural British Columbia. Any local resident has probably seen a pair nesting in their corner park, a huge nest from the highway or fields of eagles as you drive the Fraser Valley. During the 1950’s many of my early days were spent entering a photographic blind before light, watching for an eagle to cautiously approach sheep afterbirth 100 m away, and then I would carefully slink away well after dark, so my presence was not detected. Eagles were rightfully cautious — they were shot and killed everywhere in North America, including British Columbia.
In my studies of the last 65 years I have seen the entire Greater Vancouver eagle population go from three breeding pairs in 1964 to more than 560 pairs today — and most are relatively tame, not at all wild. And our Lower Fraser Valley is also the winter home of more than 35,000 northern Canada and Alaska breeding eagles. This is quite wonderful if you are a naturalist or an eagle biologist. Today the City of Vancouver has 21 breeding pairs, North and West Vancouver another 21 pairs, the City of Surrey 44 pairs. The City of Delta has a world shattering 83 breeding pairs – this must surely make the City of Delta the home of the world’s largest bald eagle breeding population. Can they sustain this record?
In 1953, as I was learning to fly, instead of doing lazy circles above Victoria to build up hours and experience, I flew at 50 metres above the shoreline around all the adjacent British Columbia Gulf Islands and US San Juan Islands — locating eagle nests! At 15 I discovered that the US islands did not have a single pair of breeding eagles – a mile away on the Canadian Gulf Island that I covered I found 136 nesting pairs. On my 16th birthday, when I got my drivers license and my pilots’ license, I took Dad’s car to Blaine Washington and there on the docks was the answer. Each Alaskan salmon gillnetter that wintered along the sheltered Washington coast had a little white bucket in the stern – containing eagle legs. Alaska offered a $2.00 per pair bounty on bald eagle legs and these Alaska fishermen could pay their gas to and from the Alaska fishing grounds with a bucket of legs. Gas was $0.24 cents an imperial gallon — just over 5 cents a liter!
Of course, the legless eagles had their northern migration interrupted and their breeding plans ended. The government bounty had terminated the previous year, but the fisherman had not heard the news. Over 120,000 eagles donated their feet to this cause. And it is estimated that seven to ten eagles died for each one earning a bounty. That meant over one million eagles died for this insanity and greed of mankind – so a few fisherman and game wardens could make a few extra dollars and show their prowess over defenseless wildlife. Our human jealousy of competitors was nourished and promoted to foster the gun industry – whether they made guns, shells, scopes or provided services. If you doubt this, please go to the library and find a major sporting magazine of the early 1950’s and look at the ads – so often eagles are in cross-hairs!
These dead eagles were largely our southern British Columbia breeding eagles and the huge percentage of the population of high-arctic tundra and boreal forest breeding eagles from across Canada and Alaska. While the bounty payment was made only in Alaska it was these Alaskan fishermen living across from Boundary Bay, just south of Vancouver and the lower Fraser Valley in Washington State that largely killed our breeding and wintering eagles as they would fly to Washington ports of Blaine and the Skagit and Nooksack Rivers – never to return.
These northern eagles depend upon our area providing the only non-frozen rivers with spawned out dead fish carcasses to provide their main winter food. Since the 1950’s and the removal of the bounty a truce came to ‘eagledom’ and slowly eagles have moved back into our farmland and cities because of the huge quantities of food available — but they came back mostly because they learned we would not harm them. This was a gradual 20-to-40-year lesson. A lesson both eagles and humans learned almost too late to save the species.
The Hancock Wildlife Foundation has documented this incredible return and has pioneered putting live streaming CAMS into eagle nests to bring the world of wildlife CAMs to the public. Also, on our website www.hancockwidllife.org, you can follow eagles that we have trapped and installed with gps trackers so their daily flights and migration paths can be learned.
It seems since British Columbia hosts the biggest world gatherings of bald eagles, from a few thousand pairs breeding along the southern coast and the Lower Fraser Valley and hosting probably in excess of 35,000 to 50,000 migrants each winter, we should learn something of where they come from to winter here or where our breeding pairs and their young depart to when they leave here in August and September. That continues to be the challenge of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation research.
I want to say this is not an entirely positive story. I have recently been to Hokkaido, Japan, the Aleutian Islands and South Africa to study other large predatory – scavenging raptors and how they have suffered huge declines as I believe our eagles are about to do. But that is another story, although again totally related totally to human greed.
We humans can change for the better. However, can we change fast enough to overcome the destructive forces of our greed? Earth Day is a reminder of our good turnarounds but also of our uncaring destructive bad attitudes and deeds that we must overcome.
Bald eagles also let us focus on some more positive changes.
Since the 1950’s through to about 2010, I had to just stand by and watch as every developer with an eagles’ nest in the road of his plans simply cut the nest tree down – the screaming eagles that circled overhead be damned. My protests or angry neighbors also be damned! Oh, the British Columbia government had a Wildlife Act that offered full protection to Bald Eagle nests but by “Ministerial Approval” this could be overcome. And it consistently was – every nest tree was simply cut down in the name of economic progress. This began to change and today with a new government in power things have changed considerably for the better. Yes, for the better!
Today, no eagle nests in British Columbia can be removed without an ecological plan showing how the nesting pair might be provided with an alternative site nearby, and, additionally, to make up for the past destruction of previous developers, two additional bald eagle territories should be supplemented with a new alternative nest tree option. These are usually modifications to a large tree that the eagles could not do themselves. This encourages eagles back to areas where all their natural huge nesting trees have been removed but food still remains.
This nesting Mitigation Plan has been a marvelous tool to keep our eagles nesting around our developing areas and allows eagles to nest where all their natural large trees have been removed. The Ministry of Forestry, Lands and Natural Resources and the elected government is to be complimented. These pioneering changes enabled governments to demand more respectful treatment of our resources by developers. While this enlightened management practice has primarily been in the built-up Lower Mainland, it is spreading wherever a concerned public demand and someone speaks on behalf of the eagle’s needs. I have had that audacious pleasure – both to speak for the eagles and try and manage the responsibility to see that mitigation plans made sense for both the eagles and the developers.
Today we have worked through how to construct an artificial alternative eagle nest in trees that eagles could not hang their nest in. We can use braces and relatively large long-lasting cedar supports that eagles could not lift. Today, after learning we did not have to offer alternative nests because our first choice was always their choice, we have developed an option of alternative nests being provided in other areas that lacked big enough trees for natural nesting. This is expanding the eagle nesting habitat.
However, the biggest challenge in keeping the eagles happy and using our artificial foundations has been around timing. The time to remove the old nest and construct the new nest must be done when the eagles are off on migration and not witnessing people climbing up their sacred trees and into or around their nests.
When the eagles return from migration and find their nest gone – perhaps blown down – they look for a new acceptable tree in their territory. And surprise, surprise, there, just 100 meters or so away is a new fine fully supported nest platform 25 to 30 meters up in a nearby tree!
We have been fortunate that, when we choose the timing of the original nest removal and undertake the construction of a new nest, we have 100 percent occupancy of the nesting territory and the developers have been able to carry on with their plans — only slightly modified to meet the eagle’s needs. All players in this drama have had their interests largely met: the developers kept developing, FLNRO administering the Wildlife Act and the City administering Tree Bylaws were heroes; the neighbors not losing their eagle friends were happy; and the eagles kept their home territory! Needless to say, our Hancock Wildlife Foundation is pleased to be a part of this successfully evolved management plan. All our eagle CAMS in Delta and Surrey are in nests we have built to replace previous nests. Please have a look: www.hancockwildlife.org.
Other successful eagle nests have been built in North Vancouver, Vancouver, Richmond, and Chilliwack. This is Mitigation at its best. The challenge is can these “best management practices’ be employed around the province? Or elsewhere? And can they be successfully applied to some other species? This millennia is seeing some simple technical advances demanded by caring citizens. Let’s keep that up!
David Hancock, West Coast Biologist, specializing in Bald Eagles, Orcas & Sea Birds. Hancock Wildlife Foundation, Surrey, BC 604-761-1025 [email protected]
Note: The HWF has hours of videos from the Nest CAMs and trapping and following the eagles should you wish some to post on a parallel Streaming site. You may copy any images or videos from our web site to accompany this article should you wish. If some other site wishes to replicate the above Earth Day Reflections please do so with credits. David Hancock HWF