As an academic and community researcher on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, I have the privilege of living in the coastal temperate rainforest, the traditional territory of the Nuu Chah Nulth people, now called Clayoquot Sound. My home is situated on a narrow peninsula that lies between the surf driven shoreline of the Pacific Ocean and the calm shallows of the Tofino Mudflats, a significant migratory bird habitat for shorebirds from around the world. Sentinel western hemlocks and old growth cedar trees surround our house. A mountainous backdrop constantly reminds us of our relatively short human life cycle in this longer ecologic time-line.
Living here and raising a family with my husband has deepened my understanding of how to be present in this beautiful ecology while experiencing the challenge of creating and sustaining a livelihood in a small rural town. Over the last 10 years, Tofino and the adjacent town of Ucluelet have experienced a significant decline in forestry and commercial fishing, but also a surprising swell of economic growth in the number of surf shops, whale-watching and sport fishing charter businesses. Similarly, we’ve seen an increase in the number of Atlantic salmon open-pen aquaculture sites and a corresponding dependency on fish farming related employment.
In contrast, there are alarming declines in local wild Pacific salmon populations. The Clayoquot Biosphere Trust Marine and Aquatic Committee have financially supported salmon river fish counts over the past four years. Results of this research reveal as few as eleven returning Spring salmon where historically there would have been thousands. Biologists studying these local salmon populations are puzzled as to why the returning populations are so low.
Certainly there is a complex multi-scale socio-ecological feedback process contributing to these declines. However, it is an equally complex topic to openly discuss, given the range of potential ecological stressors at play and the uncertainty of people’s livelihoods. An uncomfortable tension exists between families who earn their living from salmon farming and those who are reliant on wild salmon populations. Moreover, it’s hard to ignore the paradox that this area, and its surrounding deep-water Sounds, are collectively designated as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, yet also hosts one of the highest concentrations of Atlantic salmon net-pen cages in British Columbia.
One question I continue to explore, as both a researcher and a resident of this community, is how to engage people in meaningful conversations about the complex systems in which we live. How do we give voice to these stories of multi-scale socio-ecological impacts and stresses in the words of people who have experienced these changes? In what ways can we most effectively communicate across multi-levels of governance to inspire long-term institutional innovation and change? And how do we learn from these experiences, and thereby prevent the tendency to apply short-term “quick fix” solutions to complex socio-ecological dilemmas?
These types of questions have been a preoccupation of mine for some time. Prior to living in Tofino, I lived in Nova Scotia and worked with fishermen to design a community-based fisheries allocation plan in response to the Northern Cod fisheries closures in 1994.
In my experience, engaging in systemic social change requires an initial period of collective-action leading to resistance, followed by a rapid period of re-organization leading to institutional innovation.
This observation was confirmed in my doctoral research on the evolution of co-management in the Nova Scotia snow crab fishery . In my research I discovered that when changing circumstances permitted a new bridging-dialogue to emerge and for “lifeworlds” to mix and collide, surprising opportunities for innovation and multi-level collaboration were created. However, the initial adoption of institutional innovations, such as co-management agreements, might not necessarily shift deeply rooted institutional norms if the original motivation for collective action diminishes or changes over time.
The cycles of collective action, resistance, re-organization and innovation I observed and experienced in Nova Scotia throughout the mid-to-late 1990’s, appear to be consistent with the evolution of forestry and fishery co-management institutional arrangements in Clayoquot Sound, over a similar period in time. However, as these socio-ecological systems continue to change, particularly as salmon populations continue to decline, the initial conditions for collective action are also changing. Many fishermen who fought for policy change in the resistance phase have lost their employment opportunity in the local commercial fishing industry. Furthermore, several phases of government initiated salmon license buy-back programs in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s have resulted in a dramatic re-organization of labour, significantly reducing the number of independent owner operator fishing businesses on the west coast.
In some similar yet different ways as well, the conditions that motivated the infamous “Clayoquot Forest Wars” in the early 1990’s have changed. The resulting institutional innovations such as the Clayoquot Scientific Panel recommendations on ecosystem-based forestry management policy have only been partially implemented. Furthermore, the innovative BC Provincial government supported co-management body that also emerged at this time to oversee these recommendations, the Central Region Board, is no longer in existence.
Over the next 5 years as I participate within the Community Conservation Research Network, I am interested in exploring the re-organization and innovation phase of the co-management cycle of evolution, using the lens of socio-ecological resilience thinking. In particular, I’m asking how this phase has evolved at the community scale over several stages of socio-ecological transformation in Clayoquot Sound. I want to engage my fellow community members in reflective and meaningful dialogue to explore the question “what changed?” after the initial phase of collective action and resistance in the 1990’s. Through this process of inquiry, I also want to explore how our ability to tell stories can give shared meaning to our collective socio-ecological experience.
Laura is an Adjunct Professor with Royal Roads University and teaches several courses in the School of Environment and Sustainability. Previously an Assistant Professor in the faculty of Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Laura co-authored a textbook entitled Institutional Economics and Economic Organizational Theory: An Integrated Approach. In 2008, she was nominated for the Vinus Zacharisse Award in recognition of excellence in social science writing for her published article: Patterns of Fisheries Institutional Failure and Success: Experience from the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence Snow Crab Fishery, in Nova Scotia, Canada.