Field Notes

 

Extinction Point, II

Prolific photographer illustrates the stark decline of wild salmon and waterscapes in B.C.'s salmon farming wake

By MARK HUME, Published in the Globe and Mail July 2, 2008

VANCOUVER -- Nature photographer Andrew Wright first visited the Broughton Archipelago, off Vancouver Island's northeast shoulder, in the summer of 1990, shortly after emigrating to Canada from England.

"It was glorious to paddle a kayak in the company of bears and whales and to witness the source of energy in this productive bio-system, directly attributable to thriving salmon, numbering in the millions," he writes in an e-mail.
One day he found himself in a flimsy kayak, surrounded by a pod of killer whales.
"Unbelievable," he says of the experience. "I was so scared I didn't even pick up my camera. But I still have that memory with me. I always will."

Judging by the images of wild and beautiful places posted on his website (http://www.cold-coast.com), his experience in the Broughton helped shape his photography, which he pursues as "a passionate amateur," donating to charity whatever he makes from selling prints.

This spring, Mr. Wright, who works as an electrical engineer to pay the bills, returned to the Broughton Archipelago - and he was shocked by what he found. The rich, thriving ecosystem where bears and killer whales feasted on schools of wild salmon had been replaced by an increasingly empty waterscape where almost every major inlet is home to a salmon farm.

Some scientists, most notably Alexandra Morton, have linked the decline of wild salmon in the Broughton Archipelago to the presence of the salmon farms, blaming the aquaculture operations for infestations of sea lice that are plaguing young wild fish. Mr. Wright visited Ms. Morton's research station and decided he had to use his photographic skills to somehow capture what is happening in the Broughton Archipelago.
"This visit afforded me the dubious privilege of bearing witness to a species on the cusp of extinction," he said. "I wanted somehow to illustrate that." Instead of turning his camera on the stark, physical beauty of the landscape, as he has done in many wild places, he set up beside one of Ms. Morton's lab tanks.Inside swam a small school of tiny pink salmon infested with sea lice.

Mr. Wright shot 200 frames before he got the one he wanted, of a small, almost translucent salmon, its mouth slightly open as if in shock, and two dark lice affixed to its midsection, where they are literally draining the life out of the fish. It's a beautiful, haunting image. "It might look dead, but it's alive, swimming in water," he says of the salmon. "As a passionate photographer of the natural world, I decided to create a classic, fine art black-and-white, lightly toned print reminiscent of the shells, flowers and fish of the great 20th-century photographic masters. These prints, if you have ever had the good fortune of seeing them, directly draw the viewer in with their beauty. I wanted to create the same emotional response, except as one gets drawn into the beauty of the fish, you face the full horror of the sea lice."

Mr. Wright said that, in England, he grew up in a tamed and degraded landscape, where hills were barren because forests had been logged off centuries earlier and where most rivers had long ago lost their salmon runs. He fears he is now seeing the leading edge of that kind of change coming to British Columbia. And that has unnerved him. "It really gets to you, to think we are headed in the same direction," he said. "Bearing witness to a species on the cusp of extinction is indeed a dubious privilege and the experience, combined with the making of this image, has left me deeply angry. I am angry for so many reasons - at the intransigence of the B.C. government and [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] officials who are charged with protecting this coast; for the thousands of hours that many well-informed scientists, researchers, conservationists and eco-campaigners have committed to educate this government - yet to no avail; that I am impotent to effect a change; that it is unlikely my children will be able to take their children to an abundant and bio-productive Broughton. It is an anger that endures."

And it is an anger that has created a beautiful piece of art from the most unlikely of subjects.
Mr. Wright has turned a dying fish into an iconic image that will no doubt find a place in the ongoing debate about salmon farming in B.C.