Since time immemorial, Byron Charlie said the Ahousaht First Nation has been taking care of the salmon rivers within their traditional territory around the Clayoquot Sound, off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
“This has been our job since the beginning of time,” he said. “The only thing more integral to the fabric of coastal B.C. than the ancient rainforests is the Pacific salmon.”
Charlie has been working as a full-time guardian for the Maaqutusiis Hahoulthee Stewardship Society (MHSS) for the past year. It’s a role the Ahousaht man considers his sense of duty.
“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has mismanaged our salmon for a number of years,” he said. “Our goal is to preserve what we have left and do our best to bring back the plentiful, pristine beauty that our lands once held.”
Vancouver Island’s once “legendary” runs of Chinook salmon, coho, Chum, sockeye and pink have starkly declined over the last 50 years, said Charlie.
It’s been around 30 years since salmon have returned to Anderson Creek, said Charlie. But after carrying out restoration work last year, two chums returned.
“That was a big win,” he said.
To continue this vital restoration work, MHSS created a stewardship fee and guardian program.
Through the support of local businesses and organizations, such as Paddle West Kayaking, Tofino Water Taxi and Redd Fish Restoration Society, Charlie said MHSS is able to undertake restoration work and sustainable management within Ahousaht’s hahoulthee, or traditional territory.
“Our role is to exercise stewardship [and] sustainable management of our resources and our hahoulthee,” said Charlie.
The goal is to blend Indigenous ways of life with western values to preserve the ecological integrity of the region, he said.
On March 24, Charlie invited supporters to the Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society to present plaques of appreciation and show how the funding is being used.
Ryan Rogers was among those honoured by MHSS. The Paddle West Kayaking owner said, “it just feels good to give back.”
Paddle West is one of many kayaking companies in Tofino charging a $15 stewardship fee on top of their tour rates. The additional fee is given to MHSS, who is putting the funding right back into the rivers, said Ahousaht Tyee Ha’wiih Hasheukumiss (Richard George).
The stewardship fee has been well-received by visitors, said Rogers.
“Especially when they know that it’s going towards the hatchery, or the rejuvenation of salmon rivers,” he said.
This year, MHSS was able to present the Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society with $10,000 from the funding collected. Hatchery manager Doug Palfrey said it will be used towards river enhancement work within Ahousaht territory.
The stewardship fee funding will also be used towards informational signage placed throughout the nation’s territory, bathroom upgrades and the installation of bear caches on Vargas Island, said Hasheukumiss.
“For the last 25 years, the tourism industry really hasn’t acknowledged the First Nations,” said Hasheukumiss. “We’re trying to bridge the gap within the tourism industry.”
There’s a reason why Ahousaht’s land is pristine, he added.
“What we protected in the past is what we're still protecting,” Hasheukumiss said.