LONDON — Oceans around the world are facing a plastic pollution crisis. But there’s one species that may be getting a little too excited about it: hermit crabs.A chemical that is leaked from plastic dumped in the ocean is probably arousing hermit crabs, according to researchers studying the impact of climate change, plastic and other molecules in the ocean on marine species.The team of scientists from England’s University of Hull examined 40 crabs found in the waters off the Yorkshire coast and found signs that the crustaceans may be “sexually excited” by oleamide — an additive released by plastics found under the sea.Oleamide elevates the respiration rate of hermit crabs, which indicates excitement, researchers said, adding that the product is already considered to be a sex pheromone for some insects. “Our study shows that oleamide attracts hermit crabs,” PhD candidate Paula Schirrmacher said in a statement released Tuesday.“Respiration rate increases significantly in response to low concentrations of oleamide, and hermit crabs show a behavioral attraction comparable to their response to a feeding stimulant,” she said.Schirrmacher noted that oleamide has “a striking resemblance to oleic acid, a chemical released by arthropods during decomposition,” which may explain way it is mistaken for food and ingested by animals — which potentially increases their consumption of microplastics.The new findings come as governments around the world continue to grapple with the major issue of climate change and its impact on the planet.At a recent three-day summit in Cornwall, England, leaders from the Group of Seven gathered to discuss the growing crisis along with other pressing topics. During the June meeting, leaders pledged more-ambitious climate goals and reaffirmed their support to be carbon-neutral by 2050.Without action, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050, a study published by the World Economic Forum in 2016 warned.More than 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which estimated that at least 90 percent of birds have plastic in their stomachs and that 1 in 2 marine turtles have consumed plastic — including bags and straws.“The problem of plastic in nature, particularly in our oceans, is a global crisis,” the organization said in 2019 as it called on people to work together to help nature become plastic-free by 2030.Read more:
If you’ve been to the beach this summer, whether in the UK or abroad, the chances are your charming vista will have been spoiled at some point by a piece of plastic litter: a disused face mask buried in the sand or ring can floating in the shallows.
Such is the scale of the world’s plastic waste problem that microplastics – tiny plastic fragments, particles or fibres – have been detected in the most remote corners of the planet, from Antarctic glaciers to deserts. One survey estimates that somewhere between 15 and 51 trillion particles are floating around in the world’s oceans.
For many years microplastics were largely considered an environmental issue, with scientists mainly concerned about their impact on the ocean’s fragile ecosystem. But their growing omnipresence has steadily increased the risk of human exposure.
Microplastics from waste dumped at sea, and even from our swimming costumes and suncreams, are working their way into the water cycle, and being consumed by the animals and fish that ultimately end up on our plates. Oceanographers have found microplastics in high quantities in shellfish such as mussels and scallops. Last month, research by the University of Portsmouth found microplastic levels in seafood may be underestimated – tests showed that when the plastics are covered in the microbes they attract in the ocean, they are more likely to be ingested by oysters and other edible marine species.
They’re working their way into our bodies in other ways too – in tap and bottled water, or meals microwaved in plastic containers. Tiny plastic fragments have been found to be ubiquitous in the air of many cities. The weathering of car tyres, clothing, paint coatings, and the leakage of pellets and powders from factories all contribute to a fine plastic dust being continuously released into the atmosphere. Based on current surveys, we are likely to be consuming or breathing in anywhere from dozens to more than 100,000 microplastics each day.
Now concern is growing over just what microplastics are doing to our health.
As a professor of public health at Imperial College, London, Frank Kelly has devoted much of his career to studying the impact of air pollution. But over the past five years, Kelly has become increasingly concerned by the threat of microplastics.
“One of the things which worries us is that plastic tends to be very hard to break down,” says Kelly. “In the outdoor environment, it takes decades to fully degrade. So microplastics may accumulate in the body, which probably isn’t good, but we haven’t got any hard evidence at this point that says they’re having an impact on human health. This is what we need to find out.”
Earlier this year, the first concrete evidence that microplastics are lingering in the body was obtained by obstetricians at San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome, who discovered microplastics of different shapes and sizes in placenta samples. At Imperial, Kelly’s research group is now examining lung and intestinal samples from autopsies to see if microplastics can be identified in these tissues as well.
For scientists, this represents the first step towards convincing policymakers that microplastics are a serious health problem.
Most agree that the vast majority of microplastics which get into our body are likely to end up being excreted. The human body is highly capable of filtering out waste. Our immune system contains cells called macrophages, which are specifically designed to gobble up anything potentially harmful. “We evolved in a world of particles,” explains Bart Koelmans, a microplastics researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “We are creating them and ingesting them all the time.”
However if the doses ingested are particularly high, and the particles are small enough – those 1–10 micrometres or less in size – they could cross the epithelial lining in the lungs and intestines, work their way into the bloodstream, and slowly accumulate in organs like the kidneys and even the brain, a potential risk which has already been demonstrated in experiments with mice. The smallest plastic fragments of all – so-called nanoplastics, less than 0.1 micrometres in size, too small for scientists to even measure with current technologies – could pass directly into our cells.
Early evidence suggests that plastic accumulation may not be at all good for the body. Since 2019, Dick Vethaak, a professor of ecotoxicology at VU University Amsterdam has been leading a series of investigations, looking at the effects of microplastics settling in various human cell types in petri dishes. “We’ve seen inflammatory responses in different tissues, and impaired brain and placental cell function, and impaired airway growth,” he says.
Similar results have been found in other studies which have exposed either human cells or rodents to microplastics, resulting in DNA damage, inflammatory and immune reactions, and neurotoxic effects in brain cells. Kelly also points out that we know that factory workers who consistently inhale large amounts of fine, plastic dust, are more prone to developing lung injuries and cancer.
All these studies have involved extremely high doses of microplastics. Most of us are unlikely to be exposed to such concentrations on a daily basis. As such, scientists are trying to gather concrete data on exactly how many microplastics the average person is consuming each day, how much this varies depending on where you live, and whether continuous exposure can be proven to cause us harm.
To address some of these questions, Kelly is planning to set up the first ever human challenge trials for microplastics. This will involve getting a range of volunteers, from the completely healthy to those with respiratory conditions such as asthma or rhinitis, to inhale different microplastics through their nose.
“By doing that, and then looking at the reaction of the epithelium in the nasal airways, we can start to understand how the body is reacting to these microplastics in comparison to other particles,” he says. “We’ve done this kind of thing in the past, exposing volunteers to the type of diesel exhaust they would experience if they were shopping on Oxford Street, and seeing how normal airways and diseased airways actually responded to that environment.”
Microplastics are not all the same: some may contain pigments or additional chemicals which are far more toxic to the body than others. Kelly says that human challenge trials will enable scientists to identify which microplastics are inert, and which are problematic.
Koelmans is looking to obtain more accurate data on the typical levels of microplastics in our daily diets. So far, scientists have found evidence of these particles in around 20 per cent of the foods one might encounter in a supermarket shop, from fish to honey, but their levels in the remaining 80 per cent – which includes cereals, meat, and vegetables – remains unknown. “We urgently need more solid data on this, if you want regulators to make decisions on the amounts of microplastics which should be allowed in our food,” he says.
There are other possible hazards as well. Some scientists suspect that microplastics could act as transporters for antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as viruses, making it easier for them to penetrate deep into the body. This remains an area of open investigation.
Governments are beginning to wake up to the urgency of the problem: the EU is financing five new research projects looking at the impact of microplastics on health.
“We need to act quickly,” says Koelmans. “We know we are being broadly exposed to these particles but we need to find out much more about the quantities we’re consuming, and what they’re doing to us.”
The same types of plastic containers EPA blamed for pesticides contaminated with PFAS may also be used to store food, raising alarm bells at the Food and Drug Administration.
At issue are fluorinated containers made of high-density polyethylene, a material widely used in food packaging because it can easily seal out moisture and other temperature changes. The packaging is generally used during the manufacturing process to hold large quantities of ingredients like oils or flavorings.
This spring, EPA determined that such containers were responsible for contaminating pesticides with per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals” and linked to thyroid disease and cancer even at very low levels.
Now, FDA is warning the food industry that unlawful fluorination processes for similar containers could be contaminating food with PFAS, too.
In a letter sent yesterday, FDA reminded the industry that only certain fluorinated polyethylene containers are approved for contact with food. Fluorinating packaging after it has been molded, or in the presence of water, is not allowed. Only fluorine gas and nitrogen can be used during the fluorination process, FDA warned, as using other gases like oxygen or argon can cause those gases to attach to carbon atoms and create PFAS.
“It is the responsibility of food packaging manufacturers and distributors to only market fluorinated polyethylene containers that are manufactured in compliance with FDA’s regulations,” the agency wrote.
FDA has allowed the use of certain PFAS in packaging since the 1960s, as long as they did not exceed certain levels. It wasn’t until 1983 that the agency approved fluorination processes for high-density polyethylene containers. Even at the time, agency documents show, FDA was concerned that manufacturers not use any gases other than nitrogen and fluorine during the process. The documents, obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund under a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with E&E News, also show that the agency was worried about “fluorinated carbons” — now called PFAS — contaminating foods after the fluorination process, but ultimately determined that any contamination would be too small to be of concern.
In the intervening decades, new research has shown that certain PFAS can be toxic to people even at very low levels, in part because they remain in the body for some time and accumulate.
Yesterday’s letter follows an investigation by EPA that was kicked off this winter when the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed the presence of PFAS in certain pesticides (Greenwire, Dec. 8, 2020). EPA then determined that the chemicals were leaching into the pesticides via the barrels that contained them, and warned FDA that some of those containers could also be used for food products (Greenwire, March 5).
“We are concerned that such containers could be used in contact with food,” FDA wrote in its letter.
Yesterday’s letter yielded mixed responses from public health groups concerned about PFAS contamination in food and consumer goods.
Environmental Defense Fund Chemicals Policy Director Tom Neltner has petitioned FDA to revoke its existing approvals allowing PFAS to be used in food packaging (Greenwire, June 3). No fan of the agency’s approach to chemicals, Neltner said he is “really impressed with FDA’s actions.”
“They did a good job, and I don’t normally say that,” he said.
Though Neltner agreed that there are “more steps to be done,” he said the letter was important for clarifying what specific manufacturing practices are allowed or not approved.
Based on the letter, Neltner said, he was able to go online and identify food packaging manufacturers using processes FDA would not approve of.
“We can identify through their marketing materials companies we think may be breaking the law, and if we can do it, I assume FDA can, too,” he said, adding, “The next step is for FDA to investigate.”
Neltner said he hopes FDA will investigate not only whether unlawful containers are being used for food but also whether they are being used for cosmetics, noting that the amount and types of PFAS found in cosmetics from third-party testing would match with contamination from storage containers.
But other groups said the focus on containers is too myopic, and that FDA should be warning the public about which kinds of foods might have become contaminated through their use.
“It seems illogical to ask states to discontinue use of the pesticide that was contaminated, and then not inform the public about which foods might have been contaminated,” said Kyla Bennett, New England director and director of science policy for PEER.
Bennett added that the letter “begs a whole bunch of questions” and leaves the public unclear about which companies and what food might be affected. “If it’s ‘not lawful,’ why aren’t they taking enforcement?” she asked. “Why did this take so long? This entire process has been way too slow, not transparent, and is clearly not protective of human health or the environment.”
The Environmental Working Group similarly panned the letter. In a statement, EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews asserted that FDA should do more to protect consumers.
“Our food should not contain toxic forever chemicals,” Andrews said. “Once again, the FDA has put the needs of the chemical and food companies ahead of the needs of the public.”
Bennett also expressed frustration with what she said is a seeming lack of coordination between agencies. When EPA addressed issues around PFAS in pesticides earlier this spring, the agency said it was in “close communication” with FDA and the Department of Agriculture.
But documents obtained by PEER through a FOIA request shed little light on the issue.
Exchanges shared with E&E News spanning the period between Jan. 14 and March 17 of this year indicate that the three agencies had only one meeting to discuss the problem. On an “ag issues forum call,” members of EPA’s chemicals office provided a brief update, per one email.
Bennett called the documents the “farthest things from ‘close communication’ I have ever seen” and said she worries about the seeming lack of prioritization from the government.
EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A recent survey found that 84 percent of U.S. shoppers said that they are concerned about plastic and packaging waste.Consumer Brands/Ipsos polled 1,530 people in July and concluded that boomers have the highest level of concern as 87 percent of respondents said they are worried about packaging waste.Additionally, 79 percent of Generation X said they are worried about packaging waste, while 83 percent of millennials and 85 percent of Gen Z said they are concerned as well, according to the survey.The poll also found that 47 percent of Americans would choose to buy recyclable products if given that option, while 20 percent would opt for compostable products.However, consumers have limited environmental-friendly options when it comes to packaging. Companies reported that only 65 percent of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, according to a 2020 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment.Still, some companies are offering environmentally friendly packaging. For instance, Procter & Gamble recently said it plans to test refillable shampoo bottles and launched a shampoo bottle in 2017 that is made up of 25 percent of recycled beach plastic.Other individuals have taken matters into their own hands and proposed different concepts to degrade plastic waste. Last month, two U.S. scientists won a 1 million euro ($1.18 million) prize for creating a food generator concept that turns plastics into protein.The 2021 Future Insight Prize went to Ting Lu, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Stephen Techtmann, associate professor of biological sciences at Michigan Technological University, for their project. It uses microbes to degrade plastic waste and convert it into food.Consumer Brands/Ipsos are optimistic about the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan currently being discussed in the Senate, saying it designates “historic” levels of funding for recycling infrastructure.”Not only is this an important step forward for the CPG industry, which has long called for more federal involvement in our broken recycling system, but it is also an important win for consumers who want to protect their environment and ensure items tossed into their bins are actually recycled,” Katie Denis, Vice President of Research and Industry Narrative at the Consumer Brands Association said in the survey.
Global plastics production totaled 368 million metric tons in 2019. The only decline in the past 60 years came because the COVID-19 pandemic choked production of goods worldwide as factories sputtered and shipping slowed down.In May, the Plastic Waste Makers Index revealed that 20 companies are responsible for producing 55 percent of all single-use plastic waste generated globally.The report also identified the banks and financial institutions that fund the production of single-use plastic, tens of millions of tonnes of which ends up as pollution each year.
Over 80 percent of Americans said that they are concerned about plastic and packaging waste with boomers generation having the highest level of concern, according to a poll. The picture above shows a paper cup, small bits of plastic and an overgrowth of algae in the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, California. April 2015.
Maureen Sullivan / Contributor Getty Images
Nearly half of the United States population, 150 million other American adults, are coffee drinkers.
Now think about the cups. Unless you’re drinking your brew at home, you’re likelypicking up your java in a paper cup to go.
And that’s the problem across the world: nearly 16 billion paper to-go cups are used every year, which leads to 6.5 million trees being cut down and 4 billion gallons of water being wasted. The inside of most paper to-go cups is also coated in a thin layer of plastic, making them unrecyclable.
With these issues in mind, many places, ranging from small towns in England to New Zealand’s most populated city, have introduced a new solution in recent years: deposit-based reusable cup systems. These systems allow consumers to pay a small deposit, use a reusable to-go cup, made of 100% recyclable polypropylene, and then return it for their cash back after they’ve had their morning brew. One of the largest such schemes in Europe is Germany’s RECUP, which is offered through more than 8,000 partner locations across the country.
Florian Pachaly and Fabian Eckert, the organization’s co-founders, started testing their idea for a deposit-based to-go coffee cup scheme in Rosenheim, near Munich, in 2016, with 12 partner locations. A year later, the pair officially launched RECUP, rolling out to 60 additional partners in more cities. RECUP also began offering reusable bowls, called REBOWLs, for to-go meals last year.
For consumers, a RECUP costs 1€ ($1.18), while a REBOWL costs 5€ ($5.91). Both are returnable for the deposit back. Non-returnable multi-use to-go-cup lids are sold for 30 cents. For cafés and restaurants, RECUP charges a monthly service fee, ranging from 25€ ($29.53) to 45€ ($53.15), plus deposits on each cup or bowl the establishment orders. The breakeven point for businesses is an estimated 12 to-go drinks per day.
The feedback from both partners and consumers has been positive.
Bilal Hosni lives in Mainz, a small city near Frankfurt, where there are more than two dozen RECUP partner locations. He started using RECUPs because he thinks they are a “simple and brilliant” solution to to-go coffee cup waste. “It takes a little bit of effort,” he says. “But the more I know [about] the huge impact solid waste has on the environment, the more I appreciate it.”
But while the program is popular in Germany and elsewhere, it is difficult to gauge just how effective it is. Like with any reusable cup, the impact of its use depends on how many times it will be used over its lifetime, how it will be washed after use, and how it will be disposed of when it wears out. Each of those things, in turn, depends on individual consumer behavior, which is difficult to control. “I think models like RECUP have a great opportunity to control and ensure the environmental impact is as low as possible,” says Jonas Bengtsson, CEO and co-founder at Edge Environment, a sustainability advisory company. “But as often is the case, individual consumer behavior and choices are very important.”
The first hurdle is convincing consumers to use a reusable cup. Researchers in Australia, where a whopping 75 percent of the population drinks coffee every day, are conducting the most comprehensive and up-to-date research on effective ways to reduce to-go coffee cup waste and its knock-on environmental effects. One of those researchers, Sukhbir Sandhu, professor of sustainability and ethics at the University of South Australia, says that programs like RECUP are attractive to customers because of their low cost, convenience, and the “virtue-signaling” they allow consumers to engage in.
Sandhu also says that deposit-based systems work better than those offering small financial incentives to customers who bring their own reusable cups or imposing fees on those who don’t. Those programs are less convenient because they require consumers to carry bulky, messy, could-drip-in-your-bag reusable cups around with them. “The majority of consumers want to do the right thing and make environmentally-friendly choices but are often unwilling to sacrifice convenience,” she explains. “Deposit-based systems enable consumers to do the right thing without having to sacrifice convenience.”
Bengtsson notes that for any new solution to be adopted and used correctly, it should be designed with the consumer experience in mind. “The customer must know how to and actually use the cup or system appropriately. [It should be] intuitive, fun, and rewarding,” he says. Lisa Wernick, a member of RECUP’s PR and communications team, admits that at least part of the reason RECUP has been so successful in Germany is that Germans are already familiar with deposit-based systems, which are common in the country for things like bottled beverages and yogurt containers.
Research published last year by Sandhu and colleagues also shows that strong environmental messaging and the pressure of social norms play significant roles in getting consumers to switch to reusable to-go cups. Many interviewed for the study admitted they were swayed by popular Australian docuseries The War on Waste or by the behavior of their family, friends, or colleagues.
Systems like RECUP deliver on some of the tough questions, though, like water consumption and plastic waste. According to research from Edge Environment, if consumers handwash their reusable cups in hot running water every time they use them, they’re likely to consume more energy and emit more carbon than if they had just used a disposable cup. “It seems models like RECUP can significantly influence [this problem],” says Bengtsson. “They can effectively make sure the washing is done efficiently in bulk.”
When a RECUP starts to wear out after hundreds of washes — they’re built to replace 1,000 disposable cups — or if one breaks, RECUP collects it and transports it to its local production partner for recycling. The organization is also working with Crafting Future and the Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites in Hannover to develop a new material for their products that will be less reliant on fossil fuels.
Despite the uncertainties of consumer behavior, experts agree that widespread deposit-based reusable to-go cup systems are a powerful tool for preventing disposable coffee cup use and its negative environmental effects. Based on research from the German Environment Agency, RECUP estimates that its program reduces carbon emissions by 11,000 tons, conserves 1.5 billion liters of water, and saves 43,000 trees every year. Those are results that could be multiplied as more cities and businesses introduce similar programs, including coffee-giant Starbucks, which has promised to offer a deposit-based reusable to-go cup system across stores in 43 countries by 2025.
Plastic debris found in thousands of nests across the north west of Europe poses a serious threat to seabirds in the region, researchers have warned.A four-year study was led by scientists at the North Highland College’s Environmental Research Institute, part of the University of the Highland and Islands.Observers visiting seabird colonies for other monitoring activities were asked to help gather data as a cost effective and environmentally friendly way to conduct the study.Researchers examined 10,274 nests across the UK, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and the Faroe Islands – with 12% of them found to contain plastic debris.Information was collected from 14 seabird species in 84 colonies between 2016 and 2020.Atlantic puffins were found to be the most affected species, with 67% of their nests found to contain plastic.Entanglement Dr Neil James, a post-doctoral research associate at the Environmental Research Institute, was one of the scientists involved in the project.He said: “Marine plastic pollution is an increasing global environmental issue which poses a threat to marine biodiversity.“Seabirds are particularly affected because of the risk of entanglement or ingestion.“Our study found that a significant number of nests included plastic debris, with some species more likely to incorporate it than others.“As well as providing important information about our seabird populations, this type of study can also reveal valuable insights into the prevalence of plastic in the marine environment.”The results of the study are published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin and can be found online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2021.112706.Related: Plastic in our oceans may have already changed the planet…foreverSince you are hereSince you are here, we wanted to ask for your help.Journalism in Britain is under threat. The government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and our media is run by a handful of billionaires, most of whom reside overseas and all of them have strong political allegiances and financial motivations.Our mission is to hold the powerful to account. It is vital that free media is allowed to exist to expose hypocrisy, corruption, wrongdoing and abuse of power. But we can’t do it without you.If you can afford to contribute a small donation to the site it will help us to continue our work in the best interests of the public. We only ask you to donate what you can afford, with an option to cancel your subscription at any point.To donate or subscribe to The London Economic, click here.The TLE shop is also now open, with all profits going to supporting our work.The shop can be found here.You can also SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER .
Plastic waste imports are ‘unwanted’
Don’t postpone ban, green groups ask
Officials inspect smuggled plastic waste in the cargo container imported from the United States, in Lat Krabang district of Bangkok in 2018. (Police photo)
More than 100 environmental groups have called on the government to prohibit the import of plastic waste and instead encourage the use of domestic plastic waste for recycling as a way to safeguard the environment and promote the circular economy.The network of 107 civil society and environmental activist groups released a joint statement on Thursday demanding agencies formally announce a policy to ban plastic waste imports within the year, as well as amend laws and regulations to seal off legal gaps that allow the use of imported plastic waste in the plastic recycling industry.
The environmental groups are objecting to revisions to a plan to ban plastic waste imports by September 2020 by a subcommittee on plastic waste and electronic waste management.
The subcommittee reversed its resolution and postponed the plastic waste ban for another five years.
Penchom Saetang, director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (Earth), said despite the Industrial Works Department saying that no new plastic waste import licences had been issued, plastic waste was still flowing into the country, brought in by recycling factories in the duty-free zone, indicating a loophole in the regulations.
“We have found imported plastic waste of up to 150,000 tonnes was brought in in 2020, an increase of 2.69 times on the previous year.
“For this year, around 71,000 tonnes of plastic waste are imported into Thailand up until June,” Ms Penchom said.
She said the legal exemptions and postponement of the plastic waste ban allows foreign recycling factories to make a profit from cheap imported plastic waste at a great cost to Thailand’s environment.
This also jeopardises the domestic plastic waste trade and the country’s circular economy goals.
Meanwhile, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa said the ministry is working with the Pollution Control Department to present a control measure for plastic waste imports to the National Environment Board.
The measure would limit the quota for plastic waste imports this year to 250,000 tonnes, before phasing out that quota by 20% every year until reaching a total ban on plastic waste imports in 2026.
SAN IGNACIO, Mexico — For thousands of years, the gray whales of the eastern Pacific have undertaken one of the longest annual migrations of any mammal — starting in the cold waters of the Arctic, then down past the densely populated coasts and beaches of California before finally finding refuge in the warm, shallow estuaries of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. Only to turn around and head back north a few weeks later.Starting in December 2018, this magnificent migration took a fatal turn.The bodies of California gray whales began washing up along the protected inlets of Baja, where gray whales come every spring to nurse their young and mate. The first to die was a young male, beached along the shore of Isla Arena, in Guerrero Negro Lagoon. Two days later, the decomposing body of a young female was found sloshing in waves along a beach in Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, just a few miles south of the first.Then, on Jan. 4, 2019, three more young whales were found dead, all of them severely decomposed, in the same lagoon.A gray whale pushes her calf to the surface as visitors reach into the water to pet them in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California.“We’d never seen anything like that before,” said Ranulfo Mayoral, 56, son of Pachico Mayoral, one of the earliest proprietors of the region’s whale-watching ecotourism businesses. “This is a safe place for whales. It’s not where they die.”What Mayoral was witnessing was the start of a leviathan die-off that, for 2½ years, has alarmed legions of whale watchers and perplexed scientists up and down the western coast of North America. Gray whales are known for being hardy and resilient — “the jeeps of the ocean,” as retired U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist Wayne Perryman calls them — but something has gone badly wrong.Scientists are now scrambling to figure out what is killing these 40-foot-long marine mammals. The “what” is anything but obvious.Some scientists believe there may be too many whales for the population to sustain itself. Others say this explanation of “overcapacity” and “natural causes” overlooks the gantlet of hazards that grays now face — including ecosystem alteration, ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, plastics pollution, disease, ocean acidification and loss of kelp forests.A whale-watching group gets a view of a gray whale “spy hopping” in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, Mexico. The term refers to when a whale sticks its head above the water, possibly to get a view of surrounding objects. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Then there is climate change, which is melting ice sheets in the Arctic, altering oceanic currents, warming water temperatures and potentially changing the food supply for whales and other creatures.Researchers, however, agree on one key point: It is essential that science identify the key cause. Gray whales are a conservation success story — having survived commercial whaling and rebounded from near extinction with the help of wildlife protection laws. Their ups and downs are important indicators for the health of the oceans.“Like other top predators, gray whales are sentinels of the North Pacific,” said Sue Moore, an affiliate professor with the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels at the University of Washington. She notes that, while their current populations are far from being imperiled, these whales could be telling us something with implications for all marine creatures, and humans too.Since 2019 until July 29 this year, 481 whales have stranded along the beaches of North America, including 69 in California. Though it’s possible the die-off is part of a natural cycle, if the trend continues, “well, that’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night,” said John Calambokidis, senior research biologist and cofounder of the Cascadia Research Collective, a marine mammal research center based in Olympia, Wash.As 2020 started, many scientists hoped it could be a breakthrough year in unraveling what was killing whales in such large numbers. In March, however, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, and the world — including broad swaths of scientific inquiry — shut down. Flights were canceled, hotels shuttered, people were anchored to their homes, and science in all sectors ground to a halt.Ocean and marine mammal biologists were prevented from congregating in boats. They couldn’t directly study ocean and food conditions. Aerial survey missions were called off. Laboratories shut down and beaches were closed, limiting the number of scientists who could perform necropsies.Yet where the professionals had to pull back, amateurs — including retired experts and non-PhD observers — poured in. Dedicated whale watchers set out to observe the oceans and document, as best they could, the crisis off their coasts. They attempted to fill in knowledge gaps and, ultimately, recorded whale behaviors not previously documented or observed by scientists.These lay sleuths saw whales feeding in strange places and at unusual times of the year. And in some cases, they noted whales that seemed to forego the migration altogether.A gray whale swims into Los Angeles Harbor on Feb. 23, 2021. It’s not unusual for gray whales to stay in the harbor for a few weeks in February and March before migrating farther north toward Alaska. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Were these new behaviors? Or had the pandemic created openings for a new type of observation of these whales?“I guess that old adage applies here,” said Scott Mercer, a retired whale biologist living in Point Arena who spent nearly every day of 2020 with his wife, Tree, monitoring and recording the whales as they migrated, ate and played off the Northern California coast. “The more you know, the less you know,” he said.“Let’s just hope we figure this out before it’s too late.”Balvi Vasquez pets and talks to a gray whale in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, on Feb. 16, 2021. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)First hint of troubleIn 2019, things got weird.Beginning in January, Baja researchers and tour operators noticed gray whales were arriving there about two weeks later than usual. Nearly a quarter seemed atypically skinny — with their blowholes sunken into their backs like deflated, skin-covered bowls — and their vertebrae protruding along their spines.They also noticed very few mother-calf pairs — a pattern seen in Baja 20 years ago, the last time there was a significant die-off of gray whales. It was a worrisome indication that something was wrong.As the whales started to leave the lagoons on their normal northern migration, they began to die.As they were perishing in large numbers, the whales were also acting strangely.In spring 2019, dozens started appearing in San Francisco Bay — some lingering, some acting as if they were trying to feed. Although their presence delighted urban dwellers, it alarmed others, including Bill Keener, a whale expert at the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, who has studied whales for years.“It was amazing to see them here, so close … but really concerning too,” he said. Like the researchers in Baja, he hadn’t seen anything like this since the last time hundreds of gray whales stranded, in 1999. During that period, which stretched through to 2000, 24 whales died in the bay.Farther north, on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, a biologist for the Sun’aq Tribe started collecting reports documenting gray whales swimming far up coastal rivers, or rolling around in the shallow surf where the waves break. They were scooping up sand and sediment with their 8-foot-long jaws — sucking in the mud and creating craters along the ocean floor as they searched for sediment-dwelling amphipods, the small, shrimp-like creatures that are the whales’ food of choice.”Spy hopping” is a behavior exhibited by cetaceans, such as the gray whale above, and some sharks. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Sun’aq Natural Resource Director Matthew Van Daele was both thrilled and amazed to see the whales at such an intimate distance. But like Keener, it also left him feeling uneasy.“It was crazy. They were right there. On the beach,” he recalled. “That’s not where they usually feed.”For the last two years, similar oddities have been reported along the whales’ migration route, including in Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon, where a Times team this February observed whales feeding along the shallow beaches.“Weird,” said Daniel Aguilar, a guide at Antonio’s Ecotours and son of the proprietor, Antonio Aguilar. “They don’t usually do that kind of thing.”Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer for the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, said the annual number of strandings along the west coast of North America has steadily decreased since 2019. However, the number of deaths is still abnormally high, with 172 in 2020 and 92 so far this year.Fauquier said it’s daunting to figure out the cause of such a large mortality. Even determining the cause of a single whale’s death is a major undertaking, she added.Over the last three years, NOAA has reported that 268 of the whales it analyzed were discovered in a state of advanced decomposition, making it impossible to tell what happened. Other variables made it difficult to pinpoint a single cause of death. For instance, all whales are highly sensitive to unnatural ocean noises. Such noises — for instance, seismic air guns or revving outboard engines — could have driven startled or frightened whales into shipping lanes, where they then got hit.Scott and Tree MercerScott Mercer, left, a whale biologist in New England, relocated to the Pacific Coast with his wife, Tree Mercer, right. During the pandemic, they spent nearly every day monitoring whales and recording data from a bluff near Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Along California’s northern coast, Scott and Tree Mercer have helped to fill the data void. For the last 15 months, the couple have taken a nearly daily excursion to the Mendocino Headlands in their minivan. Wearing matching blue windbreakers and carrying folding chairs and binoculars, they perch themselves on a bluff overlooking the crashing waves below, and scan the horizon for whales and other ocean life.They used to spend the summer in Maine, where they once lived full time — Scott as a marine biologist, who flew aerial surveys for the New England Aquarium and wrote three books about whales; Tree as a biology teacher.Mendocino HeadlandsGray whales can be seen from the Mendocino Headlands, where observers like Scott and Tree Mercer say they have observed gray whales year-round. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)In 2020, the pandemic anchored them in California — giving them more time to monitor the Northern California coastline.It wasn’t always easy getting out there; during spring 2020, sheriff’s deputies enforcing shelter-in-place rules regularly shooed away the couple. But they persevered, sometimes playing a little cat-and-mouse with the deputies.And as spring turned to summer, they began to notice things they’d never before seen — or expected to see. They started seeing gray whales nearly every day of the year — not just during the migration. Was this behavior related to the die-off? Were these whales eschewing the migration to forage locally? Or, as Scott Mercer put it, “Are we seeing things that had just never been recorded and observed?”Gray whales are far more abundant and less threatened than the right whales that are Mercer’s specialty. Still, the early stages of the West Coast die-off were unsettling.The two newcomers watched as the area’s kelp forests have progressively disappeared, and they documented the changed timing of the gray whales’ migration. Based on their data, the number of migrating whales had dropped from a high of roughly 1,100 in 2015 to a 2019 low of about 800.But was it just some form of natural variation? Scientists note that Eschrichtius robustus — the scientific name for gray whales — have long shown themselves to be resilient, and adaptable.“They’re opportunistic feeders,” said Moore, the University of Washington biologist, noting that they feed throughout the ocean water column — from the sediment to the surface. “They don’t call them robustus for nothing.”Back from the brink of extinctionGray whales were once found in oceans worldwide, with an estimated peak population along the eastern Pacific of roughly 26,000.Whale hunting history1700s-1800sAs whale hunting boomed in the 18th and 19th centuries, gray whales were spared the early slaughter. They lacked the kind of high-value blubber, bone and oil that nearly doomed their counterparts, such as sperm whales.They undertook enormous journeys, and still do. In 2015, one radio-tagged female traveled from the Russian-held seas of Sakhalin Island (where a small population of western north Pacific gray whales still lives) to Mexico and back in 172 days, logging almost 14,000 miles — at that time, the longest recorded migration of any mammal.In past centuries, other populations of grays were known to comb the Atlantic coastlines: On the western side, they summered along Labrador, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, and Greenland, swimming south to Florida for the winter; in the east, they congregated around Iceland and the Svalbard archipelago during the feeding months, traveling to the Mediterranean and North Africa for rest and relaxation.A small population of roughly 200 still roams the western Pacific waters, from Russia’s Sakhalin Island, where ExxonMobil has a major development, south to the Korean Peninsula.San Ignacio BayMexico’s Baja Peninsula, including places like San Ignacio Lagoon, provide warm, shallow estuaries where gray whale mothers come each year to nurse their calves, as other adults arrive to mate. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)It didn’t take long for fishermen in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to begin noticing the return of these leviathans.“Initially, they were afraid of the whales,” said Pancho Mayoral, a tour boat operator and brother of Ranulfo Mayoral. “They’d hit their oars in the water if the whales came too near, or banged them on the side of the boats to frighten them away.”Ranulfo MayoralRanulfo Mayoral is a guide with Pachico’s Ecotours, one of the first whale tour businesses in San Ignacio Lagoon. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Among Baja tour operators, legend has it that Pancho and Ranulfo’s father, Pachico Mayoral — then just a 31-year-old fisherman who lived with his five kids and his wife in San Ignacio Lagoon, 560 miles southeast of Tijuana — was the first to realize the whales were friendly.Soon, he was taking a small number of intrepid tourists and researchers out to see them.Before long, his neighbors also saw a business opportunity. Together, they established a nascent ecotourism business — with visitors from across the world coming to interact with the ballenas.A playful gray whale comes close to a boat of visitors and turns on his side to see. Whales are drawn to boats by the hum of their outboard motors, Baja guides say. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)In 1988, the Mexican government named the region a protected biosphere. In 1993, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Mexican government limits the number of boats allowed in the lagoon at any given time to 16, restricts the amount of time each boat can spend on the water and regulates fishing to certain times of the year.Reaching San Ignacio Lagoon requires a five-hour, bumpy drive from the nearest city with a commercial airport, Loreto. In early 2020, just as the coronavirus was circulating the globe but shutdowns had not begun, scores of tourists were making the drive every day.“Baaa-leee-naaa! Baaa-leee-naaa!” sang a Baja-based Italian tour guide, Giuliana, who was balancing precariously in a panga, in early March 2020. As she sang, Giuliana and her four guests scrambled from one side of the 15-foot boat to the other, reaching out to caress a curious, playful female gray whale and her calf.Visitors interact with a gray whale and her mother in San Ignacio Lagoon. Some believe the whales are attracted to higher-pitched voices. (Video by Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)The tourists “come here and they touch them, and they start to cry. Or they break into song,” said Ranulfo Mayoral, who has watched tourists interact with whales for most of his life. “The people come here for this out-of-body, almost extraterrestrial experience. They go crazy.”Yet in this part of Baja, like elsewhere worldwide, the pandemic has crushed many small tourism businesses — including the Mayorals’, which was closed in mid-March 2020 and has remained shuttered. During a visit in February this year, this typically bustling resort area resembled a ghost town, with empty cabanas and tumbleweeds blowing around the dirt roads.Even so, the San Ignacio Laguna Ecosystem Science Program, a research team that has tracked the whales for 14 years in the lagoon, continued to collect data.In 2021, the researchers once again showed that gray whales had decreased in number and arrived roughly two weeks late.On a beach in the lagoon — one where tourists once stopped to eat prepacked lunches — a young male, newly dead, lay in the surf, his carcass snacked upon by a coterie of gulls and crabs, as a flock of vultures looked on.A gantlet of ocean perilsThe lagoons of Baja have long served as gray whale sanctuaries, especially for younger ones at risk of attacks by orcas, their main predators. But as they journey up the coast to the Arctic’s northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea, they face an array of hazards beyond those they historically navigated.Hugging the coast past California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, migrating whales must circumvent cargo ships, military vessels, fishing gear and recreational craft, especially near big port cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.Over the last 30 years, global shipping experts estimate maritime traffic has more than tripled. Some projections forecast it could grow 1,200% more by 2050.Beachgoers look at a decomposing gray whale while visiting Muir Beach on April 17, 2021. Scientists from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., found evidence the whale had been struck by a vessel. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)In a study published this year, a research team found that a variety of whales face risk of ship strikes. That was illustrated in May, when two fin whales came to port in San Diego, plastered to the hull of an Australian warship.But of all whales in the Pacific, grays are the most likely to be struck by ships, the study concluded. “Risk appeared greatest during south- and northbound migration when much of the gray whale population is moving through waters near shore” — places with “high vessel densities,” the study found.According to a NOAA database, 205 gray whales were killed by vessels between January 2016 and December 2020 in the eastern Pacific.Possibly because their feeding patterns are changing, gray whales are showing up more frequently and in greater numbers in confined bodies of water, such as San Francisco Bay — where 12 this year have been found dead since early March — and the ports of Southern California.Researchers, such as Calambokidis, think the whales may be looking for new food sources — digging through the shallow sediments of the protected inlets along their migration route, including San Francisco Bay, Long Beach Harbor and Washington’s Salish Sea.Ships, boats and submarines can also harm whales indirectly. As their motors and engines whir and their numbers increase, these vessels add to a cacophony of underwater sounds.“Whales are born into this din,” said Brandon Southall, a whale expert based out of Aptos, Calif. “Most of their lives they are now saturated in human noise.”Studies show this din can disrupt communication among gray whales and other marine mammals, and in extreme cases, can cause hearing loss and depressed immune systems, making them more vulnerable to disease.Gray whales don’t emit melodious sounds like those of the symphonic humpbacks, recordings of which are often heard echoing throughout New Age salons and yoga studios. Instead, they squeeze out “croaks,” “burps” and conga-like “bongs,” which describe some of the species’ six distinct calls.Those calls — and the ability to hear them — are essential for the survival of these creatures, especially for mothers trying to find their calves and working with them to locate food or avoid predators.“There’s a lot impacting these whales,” said Fauquier, the NOAA veterinarian. But she acknowledges it’s difficult to draw a direct cause and effect.A gray whale pushes her calf to the surface in San Ignacio Lagoon. In 2019 and 2020, researchers noticed a big drop-off in mother-calf pairs in Baja lagoons — a pattern seen when there was a significant die-off of gray whales 20 years ago. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Orcas — also known as killer whales — are part of this gantlet, but they’ve posed serious threats to whales long before modern times. Scientists are still studying this predator-prey relationship but say there’s little evidence that orca attacks are increasing.Another unknown peril is disease — a fatal virus or bacteria that is being transmitted among gray whales. Research indicates that whales can become susceptible to pathogens if their immune systems are compromised by other stressors, including noise, boat traffic and polluted runoff.Although pandemic-related lab closures have kept Fauquier from analyzing all the tissue samples collected from strandings last year, she thinks disease may be playing a role and testing will help to rule out common diseases seen in whales, such as a viral infection known as cetacean morbillivirus or a biotoxin exposure from harmful algae blooms.“We are hoping to have a better idea by the end of summer or fall,” she said.On their annual migrations, gray whales must also run through an obstacle course of whale-watching tours, ubiquitous from Baja up to Alaska and beyond. This spring in San Ignacio Lagoon, The Times saw tour boat passengers stick their fingers and hands in whale blowholes and mouths, and kiss their eyes and cheeks.Fauquier said it is unlikely humans can pass diseases, such as the coronavirus, along to the whales. But it still isn’t healthful to stick fingers in the leviathans’ orifices.Habituation — whales becoming too accustomed to human interaction — is another concern.Evidence suggests whale and dolphin populations decrease where whale watching has started. Researchers have also observed different swimming and diving patterns when cetaceans are followed by boats and people. In addition, blood and fecal analyses show elevated levels of stress hormones in animals followed by boats.This spring, a Times photographer spotted a kayaker and two paddle boarders approaching a gray whale swimming in Los Angeles Harbor.A dog in a life preserver, attached to a leash, jumped off one paddle board and swam toward the whale.The whale dived down — disappearing as the spectators drew near.
The first pull of the day was a Corona bottle, its label scraped off by the coarse sand just off the shore of South Lake Tahoe. How long it had been there was anyone’s guess.A freediver in the floating cleanup crew unearthed it from the sand — only about 12 feet deep here — and surfaced to dump it in a green floating trash raft named Darlene.
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It was a cool spring morning on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island when the ground began to buckle and heave. On the Richter scale, the earthquake reached a magnitude of 7.3 at a place called Forbidden Plateau. Seventy-five years later, it still holds the title as the most powerful onshore quake ever recorded in Canada. In nearby communities, brick walls fell and three-quarters of all chimneys collapsed. Two casualties were recorded that day: one man died of heart failure and another drowned after his dinghy was overturned by a wave generated when a piece of land gave way and thundered into the sea. For a while, that seemed like the end of the story. But over time, the changes wrought by the quake revealed a mystery that had lain hidden for generations—long enough to be forgotten.
Twenty-two kilometers from the quake’s epicenter, locals started noticing wooden stakes appearing in the intertidal zone of Comox Harbour on the east side of Vancouver Island. They ranged in size from the width of an adult’s thumb to the width of an arm, but stuck out little more than ankle high from the sand and mud. Locals pondered the mystery; many assumed they were the leavings of some relatively recent industrial activity, or a fishing scheme abandoned by immigrants from Japan.
In 2002, Nancy Greene, then an undergraduate anthropology student, walked among the barnacle-encrusted stakes and thought she’d found a fascinating subject for her senior project at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University). She had lived in the area since 1978, raised her children here, and was up for a new challenge. Little did she know it would consume countless hours, span more than a decade, or eventually reveal the largest unstudied archaeological feature yet found on the Pacific Northwest coast—one that would tell a remarkable tale of human ingenuity and adaptation in an era of climate change.
On the eastern slopes of the Beaufort Range, rain and meltwater flow down the Puntledge and Tsolum Rivers and converge in the Courtenay River before reaching Comox Harbour. These sheltered waters are part of the Salish Sea, which stretches from British Columbia’s Inside Passage down to Washington State’s Puget Sound. People have been living off the bounty of this marine environment ever since they began arriving in the region near the end of the last ice age, about 13,000 years ago. Comox Harbour lies within the protected waters of a broad, gently sloping estuary that covers an area of 9.6 square kilometers, slightly bigger than Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California. It is the traditional territory of speakers of the extinct Pentlatch language, whose descendants form part of the 342-member K’ómoks First Nation, which along with the communities of Courtenay and Comox now surround the harbor.
Map data by OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS
There had always been a few bits of wood poking up through the sand and mud of Comox Harbour, but after the quake of 1946, thousands of stakes emerged across vast stretches of the intertidal zone. This was likely a result of liquefaction, a phenomenon in which shaking reduces the strength of the sediment and leads to erosion. Subsequent periods of dredging near the mouth of the river may have also contributed to the process. It was clear the stakes formed patterns, but just what those patterns represented was a puzzle until quite recently. In her interviews with members of local Indigenous communities, Nancy Greene found only one clue: a K’ómoks elder said that her grandmother told her the stakes were used to catch salmon, and that families owned specific weirs and were tasked with maintaining them.
Cory Frank, manager of the K’ómoks Guardian Watchmen, encountered the stakes as a child and also pondered the mystery. But when he asked his elders what they were, they didn’t seem to know. What was well known were the frequent battles that took place in the harbor before colonization. Those foolish enough to attempt a raid on the people living here, or their rich resources, faced harsh consequences. “What we did with people like that was chop their heads off, put them on a spear, toss them in the sand, and leave them as a reminder for other people not to come.”
Frank clearly relishes relaying the tale, a testament to the abundance of salmon and the tenacity of the people protecting their claim to Comox Harbour. Now, as the history of the stakes is becoming known, he says they are a source of pride in his community.
Nancy Greene studying the massive fish trap complex in Comox Harbour on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Nancy Greene
Uncovering that history required hands-on research. In 2003, after surveying the entire estuary, Greene pulled on her gumboots and set out with pin flags and a laser theodolite to take geolocations of stakes across an area encompassing a total of approximately 30 hectares. She enlisted her husband, retired geologist David McGee, and a team of volunteers to help find and mark the stakes while trying to outrun the incoming tide. Because not all tides are created equal, she had to account for variations in how much area a tide exposed, available light, and weather. After months of reconnaissance, then weeks of recording geolocations, she recalls that first moment seeing the information they had collected displayed on a computer screen. Suddenly, those individual nubs of Douglas fir and western red cedar became 900 little black points on a field of white—like a photographic negative of stars in the nighttime sky. Patterns began to emerge and repeat. It took months of analysis, she says, before she began to realize what they represented—the remains of an immense, highly coordinated, and sophisticated fish trap system, the largest such system discovered in North America, if not the world.
Think Hotel California for fish—they can easily check in, but they can never leave. Such is the purpose of fish traps, ingenious systems for catching wild fish and practicing fishery management the world over. Fish weirs, like the ones that appeared in Comox Harbour, are a specific kind of fish trap built as an obstruction across a river or tidal waters. Fish seeking shallows, or spawning grounds farther upstream, swim in with the tide and can’t escape. The ancient technology relied on a deep and intimate knowledge of local fish behavior.
Evidence suggests that complex hunter-gatherer cultures around the world invented fish traps independently at different places and times. Unlike wooden stakes, rock assemblages used in other fish weirs are difficult to date, but radiocarbon dating of adjacent middens (piles of fish bones and shells) offers a kind of proxy. Some of the oldest confirmed traps in North America are on mainland British Columbia at the mouth of the Fraser River (4,500 to 5,280 years old) and in Maine (5,770 years old). The oldest-known fish traps, between 9,000 and 7,000 years old, were found in northern Europe. But the technology is probably far older. A line of stones found on the shore of an ancient lake in the Kenya Rift is reminiscent of the fish weirs used by the local people in modern times. It dates to the time of Homo erectus or at least 490,000 years ago. If this was indeed a weir, it would mean the technology predates modern humans.
At high tide, fish would be directed inside the traps; as the tide receded, they were stranded inside. Animation by School District 17 Indigenous Education and Fox & Bee Studio
The scale and complexity of the fish weirs found in Comox Harbour is staggering. Multiple traps were likely in use at the same time and, collectively, would catch immense quantities of fish. Over the course of her research, published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology in 2015, Greene and her team recorded the position of 13,602 stakes. Radiocarbon dating of 57 stakes revealed ages ranging from 1,300 to just over 100 years old. Greene, now a research archaeologist, conservatively estimates there are approximately 150,000 to 200,000 stakes in the harbor, which represent the remains of more than 300 fish traps. She knows of no other site approaching this scale of stake density.
In Comox Harbour, the patterns of the stake alignments reveal two distinct designs: one heart-shaped and one chevron-shaped. In both designs, removable lattice panels were likely lashed to the stakes to act as fences designed to lead the fish into the traps during high tide. When migrating fish encountered the barrier, they were directed into an opening at the crease between either the lobes of the heart or the wings of the chevron. As the tide receded, the fish inside the trap were stranded. The heart-shaped design mirrors historical fish weirs found in other sites along the Pacific Northwest coast, the east coast of North America, and coasts in other parts of the world. Depending on the height of the tide, the traps could have also served as holding ponds to keep fish alive in shallow water until people were ready to collect and process the catch. After the people had all they wanted, they removed the panels to allow fish to pass.
The stakes from the heart-shaped traps correspond with the earlier dates returned from radiocarbon dating. They ranged in age from 1,240 years old to a little over 840 years old. Because of their proximity to nearby middens, and the preponderance of herring bones in those middens, Greene suggests the people of Comox Harbour used heart-shaped traps to catch herring. They built, operated, and maintained those traps during a prolonged era of warm temperatures and frequent droughts—an era that was coming to an end.
The people changed the shape of the fish traps to adapt to changing ocean conditions. Illustration by David McGee and Mercedes Minck
On the east coast of Vancouver Island, there was a marked increase in precipitation around 850 years ago. As the air got cooler and ocean temperatures dropped, fish ranges shifted. The archaeological record reflects these changes. After using and maintaining the heart-shaped traps for over four centuries, local people abruptly replaced them with the chevron-shaped design. Greene found no evidence of a period of trial and error. Knowledge of this new design probably already resided within the local population, or they quickly obtained it. “There were heart-shaped traps, and then there were chevron-shaped traps,” she says. “There were no traps in between.” It was a rapid technological adaptation to an altered climate.
The new chevron-shaped traps, which worked on the same principle of corralling schooling fish into a holding pen, were designed to catch much larger fish—up to 30 times the mass of herring. Local people built the traps to take advantage of a species multiplying exponentially in the cooler temperatures, a species that would come to support the very foundation, stability, and fluorescence of culture in Comox Harbour and all along the Pacific Northwest coast—a complex and sophisticated society that did not rely on agriculture. For the next five centuries, the people of Comox Harbour expanded, rebuilt, and maintained those traps for catching salmon.
Construction of the fish traps began above the high-tide line in the temperate rainforest. The people of Comox Harbour selected saplings then cut, trimmed, and pointed them. They waited for a favorable low tide, then measured, spaced, and drove the stakes into the intertidal sand and mud using pile drivers before the tide came rolling back in. Examples of pile drivers from the Pacific Northwest coast include some with handles and others with ergonomic thumb and finger grips etched into the stone. They repeated the process dozens of times, likely over numerous tide cycles, in order to create a single chevron-shaped salmon trap. Once the stakes were secure and the lattice panels were lashed in place—but before any salmon were taken—tradition dictates the people would pay respect.
At the waters’ edge, a shaman would stand on a platform with his face painted red and eagle down in his hair—a symbol of peace and welcome. He would shake his ceremonial rattle and sing, then head out in his canoe. He would harpoon several salmon and put aside the first one he caught. The entire community would stand on the beach and watch, anticipating his return. When he came ashore, he would sing to and honor the first salmon by sprinkling it with eagle down. Once it was cooked and the feast complete, fishing could begin.
As salmon arrived in the harbor, in search of the freshwater surge from the Courtenay River and the spawning sites upstream, some encountered wooden panels that formed a barrier forcing them through the narrow opening of a trap. One by one, the salmon followed each other inside, where they found themselves directed back along the wings of the pen, unable to escape.
During the salmon run, numerous fish traps would be in operation around the harbor. Men of high-status or lineage probably controlled access to the traps. Traditionally, in cultures along the Pacific Northwest coast, men were responsible for catching fish. Women and young children most often processed fish; slaves, who were considered genderless, were also likely given this task. The traps worked day and night, in concert with the tide, until either the salmon run subsided, or the people had their fill. They would then remove the panels and store them for the next run or season.
The people of Comox Harbour designed their traps to be semi-permanent. This allowed for the selective catch of salmon while the panels were in place; once the panels were removed, the rest of the fish could easily pass between the bare stakes to spawn in the rivers and streams beyond. An example of just such a panel, nearly six meters long and radiocarbon dated to the late 14th century, was discovered in Comox Harbour. The traps were highly consistent in form and were likely built using standardized units of measurement. One series of three linked traps, which may have been in use at the same time, stretched over a distance of more than three football fields (320 meters). The traps ensured both the fish and the fishery thrived.
The remains of a removable fence were found in the harbor a few years ago. Photo courtesy of Genevieve Hill
Greene suspects the fishery in and around Comox Harbour would have supported a high population density. She believes the enormous number of fish caught and processed here would go to feeding not only the local people over the coming winter months; they likely traded fish up and down the coast and across the Salish Sea. Prior to the smallpox epidemic of 1862, there were about 30,000 Indigenous people living along the coast of British Columbia’s Inside Passage. The fishery at Comox Harbour may have been the center of cultural activity in the northern Salish Sea for at least 1,300 years.
Deidre Cullon, an archaeologist and adjunct professor in the geography department at Vancouver Island University, works for the Laich-Kwil-Tach Treaty Society. She has studied Pacific Northwest fish traps and wrote her doctoral dissertation on the relationship between Pacific Northwest peoples and salmon. “What I find,” she says, “is that the more we do and the more we learn, the more questions we have.”
Cullon, like Greene, found it challenging to obtain any information about historical fish traps in the Indigenous communities she surveyed. Why has the cultural memory of these features and this technology all but vanished? She points to a “perfect storm” blowing out the flame of cultural memory.
The smallpox epidemic of 1862 claimed the lives of half the Indigenous people on the coast of British Columbia. In that catastrophe, not only were keepers of knowledge lost; entire communities were abandoned. Lost, too, was the need for a high-production fishery—there were far fewer mouths to feed.
“And then, right on the heels of that, the Canadian government chose to support commercial fishing for canneries,” Cullon explains. The government declared the traps illegal and sent their fisheries officers to destroy them. This was followed by the advent of the notorious residential school system, in which Indigenous children were removed from their families by the government and religious institutions and taken to far-off boarding schools, effectively separating them from their communities, language, and culture. This resulted in a profound disruption in the transfer of traditional knowledge, including the purpose and use of fish traps.
As the tide recedes in the harbor today, remains of the stakes poke out of the estuary. Photo courtesy of Nancy Greene
Although the ways and means of fishing changed, salmon retained their place at the heart of Indigenous society on the Pacific Northwest coast. Among many First Nations on this coast, it was taboo to toss salmon remains on a rubbish heap, as was done with herring and shellfish. People released the remains of salmon into the sea out of respect for what they considered nonhuman kin.
“The ocean was the water of life,” Cullon explains. “It had resurrection properties that allowed them to be reincarnated so that they can then return to the human world the following year.” In the Indigenous belief system, this respect and these traditions ensured the salmon’s return.
But for over a generation now, the number of salmon returning to the coast of British Columbia has fallen sharply, due to more than a century of commercial fishing and development. In addition, climate change is threatening the ecosystem itself. This strikes at the heart of both Indigenous communities and society as a whole. If not the continued return of the salmon, what will the future bring?
On the Pacific Northwest coast, and around the world, change is underway again. On a bright summer day in 2020, a fisherman hauled in evidence little more than 80 kilometers south of Comox Harbour. He was fishing for salmon but described his catch as “a meter long and all muscle and all teeth.” It was a Pacific barracuda, an aggressive, predatory species common in the subtropical waters off Baja California, over 2,000 kilometers to the south. William Cheung, the Canada Research Chair in Ocean Sustainability and Global Change at the University of British Columbia, says that warmer-water fish, such as barracuda and ocean sunfish are arriving in local waters with increasing frequency. He predicts a future in which sardines, a fish more associated with Southern California, will become common on Canada’s west coast.
Cheung’s research also opens a window into the past. He can corroborate the shift in ocean surface temperatures approximately 850 years ago, temperatures that favored salmon. And now, he sees another shift underway. After centuries of relative stability, ocean surface temperatures will likely continue to rise on the coast of British Columbia over the next 30 years. His projections suggest this warming will bring a 30 percent decline in sockeye salmon, but that’s only part of the story. Episodic marine heatwave events, such as the Blob, will exacerbate this baseline temperature increase—doubling the impact on fish like salmon.
Cheung says the temperature increases he’s seeing now are resulting in changes that are beyond what people have experienced before. He’s concerned that adapting to those changes will be less straightforward in the future. What’s certain is that unprecedented change in the global marine ecosystem is taking place, and human-induced climate change is one of the primary drivers.
The archaeological record shows the people of Comox Harbour used and adapted their fishing technology to help provide a nutritious food source and to ensure the sustainability of natural systems. They organized their society around it. Today, as climate change accelerates, and we continue the exploitation of global fish stocks to or beyond their capacity, modern society is leaving evidence of our commercial fishing philosophy in intertidal zones, on beaches, and adrift on and littering the bottom of the sea—much of it plastic. But on British Columbia’s central coast, just north of Vancouver Island, the Heiltsuk Nation is looking back to a traditional technology to help safeguard the future of their fishery.
The fish traps extend over the 9.6-square-kilometer harbor. Photo courtesy of Nancy Greene
William Housty, conservation manager for the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, says evidence of ancient stone fish traps and cedar stake fish weirs is found throughout Heiltsuk territory.
“It’s not like throwing a net in the water and catching every salmon that’s swimming by,” he says of the old traps and weirs. They represent what he calls a brilliant technological approach because they were adapted on a creek-by-creek basis, which allowed for intimate knowledge and management focused on sustainability. Now, he says, the technology has proved to be invaluable for research.
Today, biologists commonly use weirs for monitoring fishery health, but the technology is rarely used in the Indigenous territories where it evolved. In 2013, the Heiltsuk Nation built a fish weir, based on a traditional design, on the Koeye River, an important salmon-bearing stream. It has allowed local people to identify, tag, and release salmon; to understand critical relationships between rates of salmon survival and spawning; and to monitor stream temperature fluctuations—in short, to assess the health of the ecological system.
“I think it’s genius,” Housty says of the technology that has a history of being adaptable to climate change. “One, to be able to feed yourself; two, to be able to maintain ecological diversity in the watersheds and stream systems; and three, just being mindful and respectful of the salmon themselves and making sure that we’re giving them the opportunity to spawn and come back—knowing full well that, in previous times, salmon were the main staple of our ancestors.”
The salmon caught in the new Heiltsuk weir are not yet used for food or ceremonial purposes. That will only happen once local managers are confident sustainability objectives have been met. Housty looks forward to that day. When it arrives, he says the first fish taken will be welcomed with honor and respect.