"This we know: Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
-Chief Seattle in 1854 trying to get the president of the United States to understand the Native point of view.
The ethic expressed so well by Chief Seattle more than 100 years ago might be expressed in terms of the physician's oath: "First, do no harm." It is one reason why Native people are so nervous about the Ontario government's new Heritage Hunting and Fishing Act. Some people are telling us that this Act is just a gift to Mike Harris' old hunting and fishing buddies, keeping his promise to the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters before he leaves as premier. But we think it opens a door that will be hard to close.
Let me explain by way of example. Sportsmen's clubs in our area (Georgian Bay and Lake Huron) are introducing thousands of Pacific-coast salmon to the waters around the Bruce Peninsula in huge numbers. They assure us these salmon are good for the local economy and are a harmless addition to the ecosystem. The salmon might help boost the economy of the area by attracting other sportsmen to fishing derbies, but I'm not so sure they are harmless.
Pacific salmon are not from here. Their ways do not suit the ecosystem they are being put into. Our streams are different. Pacific salmon might swim up the Sydenham River to spawn, but what do they do when they get there? They may lay eggs, but how many are fertilized? And how many hatch? Apparently not enough to support a wild population because the clubs collect the eggs every year and incubate them in their own hatcheries. Then they dump the fry into the water in the spring. This is not a self-sustaining population. It's not a natural population.
The top predators in these waters used to be nmebin (our word for lake trout) and naame (sturgeon). In fact Owen Sound bay, long before there was an Owen Sound, was called chi-namewikwedong-Big Sturgeon Bay. These two fish ruled the waters here but they did so without interfering with one another's ways.
This is not the case with stocked Pacific salmon (stocked, I might add, with the financial and technical assistance of the Ministry of Natural Resources).
Salmon are voracious eaters. They target alewife and rainbow smelts-the same species lake trout feed on. The MNR itself has collected evidence that Pacific salmon interfere with lake trout. Studies by its own biologists on one of the last native lake trout populations in Lake Huron show that salmon are invading the spawning beds of the lake trout and violently disrupting lake trout spawning activities. And lake trout caught as part of the study showed marks consistent with attacks by the larger, more aggressive salmon.
Our own biological staff and the independent biologists we frequently consult tell us our fears, sparked by our own ecological knowledge of the area, are well founded. Stocking exotic species (that is, species not native to the waters they are stocked in) is a risky business. There are numerous studies in the scientific literature documenting the ecological down-side of stocking exotics.
For example, exotics can over-graze the forage base (other, smaller fish), compete with native species for food and spawning space, alter the natural bio-mass of streams and rivers, and they can alter dramatically the communities of other species.
We cannot see a single ecological benefit to the stocking of Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes. The only benefits salmon stocking seem to provide are economic and recreational. That is not only my opinion, it is the opinion of some pretty well known biologists as well. For example, last year, Dr. Howard Tanner (considered the godfather of salmon stocking) had this to say about salmonine introductions in the Great Lakes:
"Sportfishing has become the key value for almost 100,000 square miles of productive freshwater."
This is not a value we share.
And way back in 196, the esteemed fisheries biologist Dr. Henry Regier warned us about the threat of ecological tinkering on natural species of Great Lakes fish.
"Recent attempts in the Great Lakes to introduce exotics are not all 'a slow, careful searching for and evaluation of new species to supplement the old'. ... I suggest that we try to identify whom we are seeking to please by providing 10-pound salmon or striped bass!"
The folks the Ministry of Natural Resources are seeking to please, of course, are the hunters and anglers of the province. Their provincial organization, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, has lobbied hard for a "right to hunt and fish." It seems they are about to get it with the Heritage Hunting and Fishing Act. This is troubling. Will sportsmen now take it as their "right" to tinker so dangerously with the environment? Will they insist the government support their tinkering? Will they insist they have a "right" to introduce other exotics to Ontario's lands and waters, just so they will have more and more species to take? Will they assume their new "right" and their close partnership with the MNR trumps our hard won, constitutionally recognized, Aboriginal and treaty rights?
Yes, certainly, the last question is of immense concern to Native people. For years the federation of hunters and anglers has had a severe case of constitutional envy. But the damage they will do to us with their new "right" will be matched only by the damage they will do to the environment. Manipulating the environment to support the sports industry is not good conservation, and neither is this new Act.