Natalie Groulx and Alex Barron in Churchill, Manitoba


Lost in Translation: Fishing Tales and Coastal Conversations Across Canada

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

This winter, CPAWS staff braved snowstorms and a two-day long train ride with no WIFI or cell reception to have conversations with communities about their hopes and concerns for the coast and ocean that they call home.

There are two times in my life when I have been acutely aware that I am not at the top of the food chain. (Mum, you should probably stop reading this now).

The first, was nearly falling off a boat in South Africa while studying great white sharks*. The second, was a few weeks ago, staring out across the frozen shores of Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba, knowing there was a slim chance that in that vast icy seascape, a polar bear could be lurking.

A few hours earlier, my CPAWS colleagues were sharing amazing facts like “their stomachs can hold up to 350 pounds of food” and the top speed of a polar bear is over 30 kilometres an hour.”

If there was a bear around, I didn’t stand a chance.

But we weren’t in Churchill to see bears or beluga. We were there to meet people and engage in conversation on the ocean and learn how people in Canada feel about protecting it. (You can start reading again now, Mum).

Churchill was the last stop on a tour of coastal communities across the country. Over two months, we visited British Columbia, Quebec, the Bay of Fundy, Newfoundland, and finally Churchill, Manitoba. What we learned was fascinating.

People share similar concerns about the many threats to our ocean.

Pollution from ships, the effects of overfishing, and destruction from trawling are the top concerns we heard across the country. A warming ocean was also seen as a looming problem.

People experience these threats in real terms – you can’t buy locally caught fish in most communities, and there are few locally-owned fishing boats. As that direct link between people and the ocean fades, we also lose the knowledge and culture of coastal communities.

Sharks and whales are cool, but salt marsh and small fish rule.

Sure, everyone loves whales, but what really got people excited was surprising.

New Brunswickers spoke with passion about the importance of salt marsh, not just to sea life and wildlife but also to New Brunswick history and culture.

In St. John’s, Newfoundland, capelin, a small fish of the smelt family, doesn’t just support the food web, it also supports families and cherished memories of harvesting with kids and grandkids.

And, in Campbell River, British Columbia, participants spoke fondly of the kelp beds that used to line the waterfront and were their favourite childhood fishing spots, long since disappeared.

We are all part of the web of life.

Coastal people see the intricate balance of marine ecosystems being destroyed by overfishing, bycatch, and damage to important coastal nursery habitats.

But they also know that nature is strong and given a chance, will recover. (Cue Elton singing the Circle of Life.) Which brings me to…

Business as usual is destroying the ocean. Marine protected areas are a new solution that we need try.

In Newfoundland and Quebec, people shared first-hand experiences of the cod collapse and the devastation it caused to communities. Alarmingly, the same things are happening again, right now, with salmon and halibut in British Columbia, shrimp in Quebec, and capelin in Newfoundland.

Despite claims of sustainable fisheries and better management, coastal communities know that things are not okay and that we cannot carry on with business as usual. Coastal residents support trying new solutions like Marine Protected Areas and want to see they are well-managed and that activities like bottom trawling and dumping from ships are banned to help nature recover fully.

People are amazing, and we should talk to each other more!

This has been, by far, the most hopeful and inspiring project I’ve ever worked on.

With all the divisive vitriol that we see online, it’s a bit scary talking to people about conservation. Every time we went to a new community, I worried about what might happen.

And yet, every time, we listened to a group of strangers have an engaging conversation about the ocean. They shared what they love, what worries and fascinates them, and their hopes and fears for the future. People enjoyed it so much we couldn’t get them to leave when the session wrapped!

It was tough listening to the many problems that coastal communities are facing, but this experience left me inspired and determined to keep fighting to protect our coast and ocean, for the fish and wildlife, and for the people that depend on them.

I never saw a polar bear, but I hope to make it back to Churchill.

*Had I fallen off the boat in South Africa I would most likely have scared the sharks away. Sharks are incredibly cautious creatures – our crew would advise people about to go into the shark cage not to make eye contact with them as it may scare them off. Honest, Mum.

Alex Barron
National Director Ocean Program

Top banner: Natalie Groulx, National Manager, and Alex Barron, National Director of CPAWS’s Ocean Program, on the shore of a frozen Hudson Bay, off Churchill, Manitoba