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An urban whale tale
Expired · 25th May 2010
Ray Grigg
The grey whale that appeared at the mouth of the Squamish River on May 4th astounded locals. At first, they couldn't believe what they were seeing. A humpback, perhaps, because they are sometimes sited in Strait of Georgia. Certainly not a grey. But it was. Said Squamish resident John Buchanan, "It's the first time in anyone's living memory that a grey has come into the estuary in 100 years."

By the next morning, the healthy and feeding adult of about 13 metres and 36 tonnes – likely the same grey whale – had made its way from the north end of Howe Sound to the waters off Stanley Park. Just before noon it was sighted swimming under the Burrard Street Bridge, past the Granville Island Market and into False Creek.

To the amazement of Vancouver residents and visitors alike, the great mammal repeatedly surfaced and dove as it searched for food within easy view of the street cafés and highrise condos. By 2:00 pm, the whale had ventured beneath the Cambie Street Bridge, even further into the heart of the city. A fleet of kayakers and small boaters were now following it at a discreet distance. The police and Coast Guard were on hand to be certain the rare visitor was not harassed. Said Jeremy Patterson, the operations manager of the little passenger ferries that shuttle commuters back and forth from Granville Island, "People think it's neat. They want to go for longer trips now." In 20 years of working at his job he had never seen anything like this, although a few years earlier he had seen some dolphins in False Creek. But this was special. And people were clearly excited by the anomaly of this giant creature in an urban place.

About 2:30 pm, the whale reversed its course, passed its earlier landmarks and swam toward open water. A few enthusiastic sightseers, anticipating its journey, accompanied it by road for sightings at Jericho Beach and Spanish Banks.

The sensational visit of this grey whale was the buzz of conversation in Squamish and Vancouver for several days. But what accounted for its rare visit?

Biologists speculate that a healthy herring spawn in the Strait may have lured the whale in for important nutrition on its long migration from Baja California to the North Pacific. Then it discovered the sand and mud of local estuaries and bays where it could filter the bottom for ghost shrimp, crab larvae and other delicacies.

What is not speculation, however, is the rarity of this grey whale's visit, an event that would have been unmentionably commonplace 140 years ago. Historical records suggest that some grey whales might have been permanent residents of the inland waters now being called the Salish Sea. They would have shared the 6,500 sq km of the Strait of Georgia with an estimated local population of 596 humpbacks. As a July 13th edition of Victoria's Daily Colonist reported in 1868, early marine travellers would likely have seen whales whenever they went out in their boats. Orcas, dolphins, porpoises and seals would have been far more numerous than they are today. The waters were also teeming with huge seasonal runs of herring, eulachon, krill and salmon. Copious quantities of shellfish, crab, shrimp and abalone would have populated the estuaries and bays now so rarely visited by grey whales.

In The Last Great Sea, Terry Glavin writes that, "the North Pacific, at the beginning of the 21st century, contained the planet's most productive fishing grounds. More than 25 million tons of fish were being harvested from the North Pacific annually. Close to 800,000 tons of those fish were salmon. That's an amount of salmon equal to the weight of the human population of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon combined every year."

Catches of red snapper and lingcod in the Strait of Georgia were huge in those early years. One memoir relates that between 1914 and 1920, with no market for red snapper and with the average boat catching three or four of them for every lingcod, "The fishermen simply threw them overboard as they caught them – I can recall seeing long strings of these bloated red fish floating away from the stern of every cod fishing boat...miles of them." In February, 1942, the catches of red snapper at the Vancouver fish docks were mostly three feet long (90 cm). As late as the 1950s, recreational fishers were boasting "450 pounds of cod, two rods, two hours". Aboriginal people recount that lingcod of 20 kg, together with their eggs, were a plentiful and reliable winter food.

So, what would happen if British Columbians resolved to reconstitute the original ecology of the Salish Sea by employing the same heroic resolution used by the Georgia Strait Alliance and the numerous conservation groups trying to restore salmon runs in our steams and rivers? What would happen if we ended the herring and krill fishery so the foundation of the food chain could re-establish itself? What would happen if we banned open net-pen salmon farms and gave the same priority to the spawning and rearing habitat of all species of fish that we give to our financial system? What would happen if we turned the entire Salish Sea into a fully protected marine reserve?

Imagine if we gave the same focused effort and vigorous enthusiasm to rebuilding this once bountiful ecology that we now give to hockey, computer games, movies, Boxing Day sales and battling the Harmonized Sales Tax. The recreational and economic gains would be huge. The environmental benefits would echo throughout the entire ecology of the West Coast – salmon alone feed an estimated 200 species. All the creatures from songbirds and grizzlies to herring and humpbacks would increase in plentitude. And we smug locals could look up from our lattés, knowingly smile at the astonished visitors, and casually say, "Oh, it's just another grey whale feeding in False Creek."