Pacific Salmon Declines and the Thread-Bare Promises of Modernity

By Neil Nunn, University of Toronto §

At every turn in my research examining the politics of mine-waste, salmon have spoken to me. They speak through a groundswell of activism over the last decade that amplify their struggles for life. They speak through the smell of their creek-side rotting bodies that remind me of their miraculous and seemingly impossible life cycles. They speak through the thickness of their absence and the chill of steady population declines.

In recent decades, the northwest coastal regions of Turtle Island/North America, have witnessed unsettlingly low returns of Sockeye, Pink, Coho, and Chinook salmon. In 2016, this part of the world recorded historical low for Sockeye salmon returns in British Columbia, well below a million salmon, less than one-quarter of average returns. These returns from 2016, eclipsed the already crisis levels of 2009 that led the Canadian Government to dedicate $37 million towards the formation of the Cohen Commission to investigate the drastic declines. These declines in salmon have prompted the complete and repeated closures of all fisheries, causing distress for various groups who rely on salmon for livelihood and sustenance.

Mount Polley Mine Breech August 4, 2014. Source: Canadian Press

My PhD research takes two instances of mine-waste contamination in British Columbia, Canada as starting points to ask broader questions about the vast relational configurations through which life is compromised. The first is the Mount Polley Mine disaster, an incident whereby a failing containment wall of an over-filled, lake-sized tailing-containment facility, released an estimated 25 million cubic metres of mining by-product into adjacent Polley and Quesnel Lakes. This disaster is the largest mine-waste spill in Canadian history. The second is a slower toxic event from a copper-laden tailings mound near the mouth of the Jordan River, the outlet of one of Vancouver Island’s largest watersheds. Copper contamination has impacted the coastal town of Jordan River and adjacent eco-systems for at least 75 years. This copper contamination, alongside various other historical industrial pollutants, has resulted in Jordan River currently being void of much of the marine life that once populated the riverine ecosystem.

A mound of eroding tailings waste at Jordan River that is a primary source of toxic copper contaminates. Source

Through my engagement with these two case studies, I turn to the notion of “toxic geographies” to think about the spatially and temporally relational configurations whereby life is systematically destroyed or compromised (Nunn, forthcoming; see also Nunn 2017). Which is to say, toxicity rarely sits neatly in place. Toxicity is often enrolled in vast connections and concatenations that hold the potential to provide valuable insight into relationships that exist everywhere and between all things. Toxic geographies, then, are about relationships that are produced and sustained in a way that transcends, and invites us to rethink, everyday orientations of space, time, culture, and intention.

Perhaps no other animal speaks to the vast spatial relationships of toxicity than Pacific salmon. The Fraser River Sockeye Salmon, for example, has migratory paths that reach thousands of kilometres into the Pacific Ocean and travel through sometimes more than a thousand kilometres of inland waterways. Through this incredible journey these salmon are unavoidably exposed to various polluted, disturbed, and contaminated sites, before reaching their final spawning location.

Cohen Graphic
Source: Cohen Commission Report.

In the cases of the contaminations at both Mount Polley Mine and Jordan River, research from both the mining industry and other industries that have had toxic impacts on these eco-systems (namely, hydro-power generation and logging), have made it clear that there is no single causal link between ecosystem changes by industry and declines in marine life (see e.g. Burt 2017: 20). It is without a doubt, however, that steady declines of Pacific salmon since the early 90’s have emerged concurrently with increases in the size and frequency of serious and very serious1 mine-waste contamination events during this same 30-year time period (See Bowker & Chambers 2015, Cohen 2013, IEERP 2015, Noakes et al. 2000). Many people, myself included, hope for singular solutions to the complex problem of the salmon decline. Some blame climate change and spikes in water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and various inland waterways. Others point to industries such as mining, fish farming, logging, and hydro-electric power generation. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the collapse in many Pacific salmon stocks is a complex problem with multiple causes and solutions. A classic case of death by a thousand cuts.

We need to look no further than the plight of the Pacific salmon, and the myriad entangled sources of their death, to recognize that promises of progress associated with centuries of modernist tradition have, on so many levels, failed to produce a better world. By modernism, I refer to an existing powerful cultural philosophy and ideological project, that adheres to beliefs in progress and is committed to realizing power of (specific variations of) Human to improve, reshape, their physical environment through experimentation, technology, and science. This is done by working to overcoming things that are holding back societal “amelioration” or “progress”. Over the last 300 years, the modernist project has transformed the world in far-reaching ways, and has relied upon deeply held notions of human exceptionalism and cultural supremacy at the core of instances of mass-global ecological transformation and campaigns of genocide, enslavement, and dispossession.

American Progress
“American Progress” by John Gast, is a visual depiction an cultural adherence to the thrust of modernity that continues to this day. In the painting the enlightened individuals are moving to the west and are guided by infrastructure, technological advancement, extraction of resources form the land. This same movement, is one that drives non-Western bodies and pre-existing “wild” ecologies to the margins.

In the context of the immense geophysical and chemical transformations at Jordan River and Mount Polley Mine, the common response to contamination has been industry hired and vetted environmental testing, that often results in an inability to link industry-caused contaminations to direct impacts on eco-systems. Therefore seemingly “objective” scientific methods, are often used as a tool to denounce assertions responsibility for cleaning up toxic sites. This signals to a serious challenge that exists through the production of toxic landscapes: that despite the immense geo-physical and chemical changes from industry on adjacent landscapes, responsibility to life relies solely on the imperfect and malleable outcomes of science. Throughout my research, I have spoken with various individuals who attest to the very real problem whereby the outcomes of science-based environmental impact assessments are routinely manipulated by large resource corporations. This ultimately gestures to a larger socio-political problem, whereby the same inadequate modernist frameworks (e.g., Western science, technology, politics) are relied upon to fix these crises produced through these very frameworks. This, I argue, speaks to the need to radically expand our conceptions of both the problems and solutions.

JR Monitoring Wells
Monitoring wells used for testing groundwater contamination are a common feature across the toxic geographies of Jordan River. As more contamination becomes identified, more testing is required, and more monitoring wells are put in place. There are now more than 34 monitoring wells scattered across Jordan River area, and there has yet to be any sustained action towards remediating Jordan River’s various contaminated sites.

Placing salmon and the toxic outcomes of the modernist project into a much broader socio-historical examination of settler colonialism is a useful starting point for beginning to reconsider how existing toxic realities are thought about. Scholars such as Kim Tallbear (see e.g. 2015, 2017) have made the important point that extant ecological issues, across North America and beyond, is NOT a human-produced crisis, rather it is a crisis connected to the construction of a specific socio-historical and political mode of being Human. Which is to say, we can’t understand our current toxic era, and the Anthropocene, outside the systems of Eurowestern supremacy and colonization that characterize this same era. Speaking to how similar structures of power are deeply intertwined with toxicity, Mel Y Chen and Michelle Murphy call for a better understanding of the normative logics that operate through toxic conditions, by examining how toxicity has been constituted through the racial, humanist, and colonial structures (Chen 2011; Murphy 2013).

Throughout the history of the colonial project, and ongoing still today, Western scientific, legal, and economic frameworks have been regarded as a gift of modernism and were, and still is, central to the European mission to civilize the world. And while these systems have been successful in providing a sense of a progress and advancement, in many ways, the opposite has occurred. Modernist institutions and ideologies have recoded myriad elements of life in a way that disavows their complexity. The still prominent 18th century Linnaeus system, for example, reduces vibrant interconnected forms of life to singular units and hierarchies. Capitalism fractures and fragments complex living relationships by processing and packaging them as commodities for private consumption. Modernist legal frameworks, like property, bracket life in a way that “delimits the sphere where interactions take place” and ignores surrounding relationships (Blomley 2014: 133). In the context of Jordan River and the Mount Polley Mine, for instance, private interests mobilize legal, political, and economic practices to bracket off the vibrancy of life. This is done by recoding eco-systems through ideological matrices capital or property that leave adjacent ecosystems at worst highly irrelevant, and at at best simply a calculation of risk.

Cariboo Screenshots
This satellite image of the Cariboo Region of British Columbia, shows a fractured and fragmented modernist landscape. On the far right is the Mount Polley Mine, which displays the aftermath of Canada’s largest mine-waste contamination; on the far left is the Gibraltar Mine. In between are various clearcuts, roads, highways and agricultural areas. The image was taken from Google Maps.

Although modernist institutions and ideologies feel like a natural part of Western society, they are anything but natural. This sense of naturalness is in fact the product of centuries of ruthless, often genocidal, colonial campaigns. Take the Canadian national residential school system as an example. For many generations, this national project of assimilation, stripped heterogenous, place-based languages, practices, laws, and traditions from nearly every Indigenous child in Canada and worked to supplant them with Western values and belief systems.

How might bringing this point about the extreme history of implementation of modernist beliefs to the fore help to conceptualize beyond our current era of toxicity? What might it take to reject this threadbare lie that unquestioned faith in modernist institutions will lead to “progress”? Metis scholar Zoe Todd (2017: 107), suggests that we combat our current toxic realities by tending to the “reciprocal relationality we hold with fish and other more-than-human beings” to learn about adhering to the “narrow conditions of existence” in this world. Turning to powerful socio-legal orders that predate and continue through our current colonial era has already proven to be a productive approach. Indigenous peoples in Canada, for example, have historically, and still to this day, continue to apply laws to manage all aspects of political, economic, and social life, including the harvesting of fish and the managing of lands and waters (Napoleon 2013). This acknowledgement and honouring of complex relationships that exists at the core of Indigenous law is a powerful alternative to our current toxic realities (Borrows 2002). As Starblanket (2017) demonstrates, Indigenous socio-legal frameworks hold the potential to deconstruct violent and hierarchical orientations to each other and to life. The ideological frameworks that have been violently suppressed and erased through colonialism are evidence that frameworks that offer hope for vital new futures already exist.

While it is true that colonial histories cannot be completely “undone”, we can look to our current ecological reality—disconcertingly low numbers of most species of salmon, and Orca whales at the edge of extinction, for example—to find inspiration to refuse the status quo. To be sure, this does not mean completely replacing existing laws with Indigenous laws and ideologies. This is the very logic that reduces the implementation of Indigenous legal orders to a lofty dream and stands to contradict the relational principles that underpin these legal orders. Rather, I am suggesting that a far broader segment of society open their hearts and minds to new paradigms.

What can be done, then, to value other-than-modernist frameworks that embrace relationality of life? In New Zealand, we have seen the Māori tribe of Whanganui river upset the humanist tendencies of modernist legal institutions by winning the battle for the Whanganui river to be granted the same legal rights as human beings. The Faculty of Law at University of Victoria, in British Columbia, announced the world’s first law degree program focussed primarily on engaging with Indigenous legal orders. Both examples, speak to a growing acknowledgement of the importance of non-Western paradigms in shaping our collective future.

To begin to grapple with the complexity mine-waste and begin to think about possible routes forward, I start by recognizing these legal orders outside of our current deeply entrenched modernist ideologies, and have turned to the salmon to better understand our shared vulnerabilities and the myriad relationships within which we are together located. My engagements with salmon, and the ecological world more broadly, teach me about relationality, respect, and love for life, those aspects of being that the toxic realities of late modernism have proven unable to attend to.


1 Here I follow Bowker & Chambers (2015) definition of serious mine-waste containment facility failures as having a release of greater than 100,000 cubic meters and/or loss of life and very Serious failures as having a release of at least 1 million cubic meters, and/or a release that travelled 20 Km or more, and/or multiple deaths (generally ≥  20).

Works Cited

Blomley, N. (2014). Disentangling law: The practice of bracketing. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 10, 133–148.

Borrows, J. (2002). Recovering Canada: The resurgence of indigenous law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bowker, L. N., & Chambers, D. M. (2015). The risk, public liability, and economics of tailings storage facility failures (Environmental Policy Report) (pp. 1–56). Stonington, ME.

Burt, D. (2017). Jordan River Water Use Plan Sythesis of Monitoring Programs Conducted from 2005 to 2011 (Water Use Plan Report). Burnaby: BC Hydro.

Chen, M. Y. (2011). Toxic animacies, inanimate affections. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 17(2–3), 265–286.

Cohen, B. I. (2013). The Uncertain Future of Fraser River Sockeye: The Sockeye Fishery. Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River.

Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel. (2015). Report on Mount Polley Tailings Storage Facility Breach (Government Report). The Province of British Columbia.

Murphy, M. (2013a). Chemical Infrastructures of the St. Clair River. In S. Boudia & N. Jas (Eds.), Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945 (pp. 103–115).

Napoleon, V. (2013). Thinking about Indigenous legal orders. In Dialogues on Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (pp. 229–245). New York: Springer.

Noakes, D. J., Beamish, R. J., & Kent, M. L. (2000). On the decline of Pacific salmon and speculative links to salmon farming in British Columbia. Aquaculture, 183(3–4), 363–386.

Nunn, N. (forthcoming). Toxic encounters, settler logics of elimination, and the future of a continent. Antipode. DOI: 10.1111

Nunn, N. (2017). Emotional and relational approaches to masculine knowledge. Social & Cultural Geography, 18(3), 354–370.

Starblanket, G. (2017). Beyond rights and wrongs: towards a treaty-based practice of relationality (PhD Thesis). University of Victoria, Victoria, BC.

TallBear, K. (2017, March). DNA and the Racial Re-Articulation of Indigeneity. Conference Keynote presented at the The Politics of Life: Rethinking Resistance in the Biopolitical Economy, Wilfred Laurier University.

TallBear, K. (2015, December). Matters of Life and Death. Presented at the Anthropocene, Ecology, Pedagogy: The Future in Question Lecture Series, University of Alberta. Retrieved from

Todd, Z. (2017). Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, 43(1), 102–107.

Neil Nunn is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. His work engages anti-colonial, environmental justice and critical race frameworks to gain insight into the relationships between toxic geographies and ongoing structures of colonialism. His doctoral work is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Human Geography: A New Radical Journal small research grants program, and the Comparative Program on Health and Society doctoral fellowship program at University of Toronto’s School of Global Affairs.

This post is part of our thematic series: Toxic Bodies.