UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Historical Ecology in Burrard Inlet : Summary of Historic, Oral History, Ethnographic, and Traditional Use Information Morin, Jesse; Evans, Aaron B.


The marine ecosystems surrounding the Lower Mainland area of British Columbia have undergone a series of profound changes, resulting from poor fishery practices, pollution, and habitat destruction associated with the development of a large urban centre and Canada’s busiest port. The early extent of these impacts has not been well-documented and is not widely appreciated within recent scientific literature. This has resulted in a situation of shifting baseline syndrome, wherein each generation of researchers assumes that the conditions they observed were the historic baseline, while each successive generation documents a further degraded ecosystem that they assume is the historic baseline (Baum and Myers, 2004; Dulvy and Kindsvater, 2017; Pauly, 1995, 2019; Pinnegar and Englehard, 2008). In turn, these ecological impacts have significantly impaired the Indigenous peoples’ ability to harvest traditional foods. Indigenous people, such as Tsleil-Waututh, have lived in this area for millennia, and their pre-contact subsistence was overwhelmingly reliant on marine foods (Chisholm 1986; Lepofsky et al. 2007; Morin et al. 2021). Thus, the profound negative changes in local marine ecology have had a disproportionate impact on local Indigenous people and their lifeways. To gain a better understanding of pre-contact ecological conditions in Burrard Inlet and surrounding waters, and to assess the scope and magnitude of negative impacts to key species, an extensive review of historic, archival, ethnographic, Traditional Use Studies (TUS), and other relevant materials was undertaken. This body of information provides unique insight into the past abundance of species across the study area and identifies key periods of change. Almost all of the taxa identified in the literature review displayed evidence for decreased abundance in modern compared to early historic times, and in many cases, this decrease was profound. Specifically, this review identified major population reductions of herring, smelt, eulachon, salmon, sturgeon, groundfish, clams, crab, whales, and waterfowl. For all taxa reviewed, save for cod, where the data make it possible to estimate, this review indicates that estimated current population abundances for focal species ranges from less than 1% to 50% of their mid-19th century and pre-contact levels.

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