Field Notes

Extinction Point

Technical Details: Nikon D200 RAW 60mm Macro F4 1/125s ISO 400
Location: Broughton Archipelgo, BC, Canada

I first visited the Broughton Archipelago in the summer of 1990. I had recently emigrated from England and drove two days straight from Calgary to visit this special place. Robson Bight, famed for its orca ‘rubbing beach’ and known internationally as a place of immense natural wonder, is the gateway to the archipelago. 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.

This spring I returned, albeit to a very different archipelago, for the potential of a barren (not beautiful) British Columbia lay before me. This visit I was afforded the dubious privilege of bearing witness to a species on the cusp of extinction. At the turn of the last century, without due care or diligence, without examining the loss and damage that had occurred in European waters, the government of B.C. permitted salmon fish farms to be introduced into the Broughton. Now, a decade later, we have rampant sea lice in the farm population that has spread directly to the wild salmon population. Sadly, the wild juveniles rapidly succumb to sea lice, for they are not yet provisioned with scales and a layer of much-needed armour. This situation is dire and compounded by a negligent bureaucracy that has permitted wide-scale use of Slice (emamectin benzoate, not approved for use in open oceans and systems), a highly potent neurotoxin, to help control the sea lice in the farm population. Unfortunately, Slice, combined with fecal effluent and excess feedstock from the fish farms, has rendered the ocean floor fallow and barren for many miles around each farm. There has been widespread observation of tumors and parasitic infections in flat fish caught in the region. This is the backdrop to the accompanying image.

Prior to flying into the Broughton, I had pre-visualized this image; I wanted 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 (Weston, Mapplethorpe, et al.). 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 are suddenly faced with the full horror of the sea lice, and the title Extinction Point becomes self-explanatory.
Last year, the Broughton’s Meetup River only returned 89 chum salmon; historical averages had been in excess of twenty thousand fish. This river is now devoid of fish, its unique genetic salmon strain extinct. The number of adult salmon returning to their ancestral birth rivers in the entire Broughton ecosystem is now in free fall and following the history of the Meetup. How many adult fish will return this year and in the years to come?

British Columbia’s government displays a wanton disregard for the bounty this coast affords and the generosity provided by the salmon cycle. If any one of our politicians stood in a barren Scottish river they might have cause to pause and engage in a logical, intellectually honest and rational line of reasoning that could only conclude in the permanent discontinuance of fish farms.

The image was forged by photographing a live, lice-infected pink salmon juvenile in a specially constructed research tank during the last 24 hours of its life. In poor light and marginal conditions I shot approximately 200 images of which just one was satisfactory in focus. (It is a little soft for my liking.) This image was cleaned up in Photoshop, converted to black and white and lightly sepia toned. The fish were then layered over a textured background to emulate the look and feel of the 20th century fine art aesthetic.

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 DFO 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.

I was totally unprepared for the effect that making this image has had upon me. I suspect that in some small way my feelings of desperation are similar to what war correspondents and photographers experience when their pictures of maimed and dead children make no impact upon the leaders who continue to order the bombs to drop. The evidence is clear and the science is sound. What does it take for our politicians to become true leaders and affect a fast change on the coast?