Sunday, February 26, 2012

Turning Tides – Neil Brookes- BCO March 2012

Turning Tides – Neil Brookes

“Stewardship knowledge is based on Awareness, familiarity, conceptualization, and beliefs acquired about an ecosystem. Its relationship with an ecosystem is maintained by accumulating experiences, conducting non-formal experiments, and developing intimate understandings.” Niel Brookes knows these words well, they are the words of James (Sa'ke'j) Youngblood Henderson and they describe the philosophy of the Kingfisher Interpretive Center where Niel has been working tirelessly for 30 years, educating the public and reshaping outdated attitudes toward salmon conservation.

Niel, at 64 years young, is a single dad with three kids who came to BC from Alberta nearly 40 years ago. A design engineer by trade who worked on everything from jewelry to artificial islands, he was forced to look over the horizon when a downturn in the economy necessitated a move to his family property in Kingfisher. Niel had always been involved with wildlife conservation in Alberta, primarily with birds, so when his older brother started hatching salmon in a jar in the fridge and asked him to produce a slide-show about the life-cycle of salmon, Niel was all for it and “the bug had bit” as they say.

From the jar in the fridge the brothers went on to build a small hatchery on a local creek which was really little more than a hatching box and a small garage made of plywood. In 1988, the property was sold and the new owner asked the fledgling hatchery managers to leave and so they moved, this time to the head of the Shuswap River at Mabel Lake. The new facility worked very well despite being constructed from baking trays and window screen but was unfortunately too dangerous for the general public to visit and so another exodus was in order, this time to a perfect spot on the banks of the Shuswap courtesy of a long term renewable lease with the Crown. Niel was able to negotiate a deal between the government and an industrial polluter who was receiving an environmental fine to use money from that penalty to build the main building that the Kingfisher Society resides in today.

Originally government officials were somewhat skeptical of the mission of the Kingfisher society, they seemed to believe that they were helping to build a private poaching ground for a bunch of Shuswap locals but nonetheless, through the available unemployment programs of the day; labour and cash grants were provided and the interpretive center was born.

Today, 3500 children and their guardians visit the center each year and are led through a curriculum provided by the DFO known as “Stream to Sea”. Every fall Niel visits 47 schools and provides classrooms with fertilized eggs which are lovingly attended to in small aquariums while students are taught the life-cycle of the salmon. In the spring when the fry are ready, the students travel to the center where with great ceremony, the fledgling salmon are released back into the river. At that time the students are led through creek-side education stations where they learn the effects of various man-made complications on the watershed in a very understandable, hands-on process. One young student was heard to exclaim after such a demonstration “I get it now!” To date some 80,000 kids have been through the program, that's a lot of awareness spread amongst children at a very impressionable age!

Every year the Kingfisher society releases 200,000 young Chinook into the Shuswap River. The DFO, uses the center's property for it's own stock assessment and considers the spot an indicator location on the health of the fishery. Niel is proud of these numbers but as he says, “our ultimate goal is not to grow more fish as it was in our earlier years, but to cultivate the seeds of stewardship in our human population,” to that end it is clear that Niel has been successful. Poaching on the river is declining and now adults who went through the program as kids are bringing their own children to learn about the salmon and how to preserve them for future generations. There is more catch and release fishing taking place on the river and people come with garbage bags to clean up the mess of other, less-enlightened fishermen.

Alberta's loss has been British Columbia's gain. Niel Brookes is a pioneer and was an environmentalist before being an environmentalist was cool, or even considered normal. The people of BC owe much to Niel and we can only hope that since the project is ninety-percent community funded that others feel the same and will continue to donate money and time to Niel and his very worthy cause.

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