Traveling Companions

Gray whales are leading tourists, conservationists, and business operators on a rocky voyage toward economic and environmental salvation

Despite taking on investors, Vernon ran a company with a human face. He set his company's minimum wage at $12 an hour, substantially higher than other local businesses, after doing a survey of Tofino's cost of living including housing, food, transportation, and utilities.

Vernon's concern for his employees' well-being included their emotional outlook.

It is a common practice for fish farmers to shoot seals and sea lions. The pinnipeds, whose numbers are at historic highs, attack the fish farm nets, looking to devour the caged salmon. Vernon's farm averaged 16 seal and sea lion mortalities a year until last year. In 2000, Clayoquot Sound was host to an unusually large number of hungry sea lions and the staff at Creative Salmon killed 50.

Some tour operators offer deluxe accommodations for 
eco-tourists in Tofino.
Michael Lacey
Some tour operators offer deluxe accommodations for eco-tourists in Tofino.
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the 
less expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot 
Sound offered by Remote Passages.
Michael Lacey
Tourists in Tofino, called "gorbies," take one of the less expensive whale-watching trips on Clayoquot Sound offered by Remote Passages.

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The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population. In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Baja to the Bering Sea to tell the complex tale of a creature whose 12,000-mile instinctual journey places it squarely in the path of myriad human cultural conflicts. The trek follows the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists, tourists, and local residents.

In this last installment of the series, Executive Editor Michael Lacey joins travelers in search of the gray whale to examine the burgeoning eco-tourism industry along the Pacific coast, the people who venture into the wild, and the impact of the whale-watching business on local communities and cultures.

Read Shades of Gray, A series documenting the perils, cultural conflicts and global and ecological warnings surrounding the gray whale

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Vernon told the Leggatt/David Suzuki Foundation Forum on Salmon Farming that the sea lion "invasion" caused his company to re-evaluate its practices.

"It became more of a moral issue for our company. We had to consider if killing these numbers of animals was consistent with our claim to have respect for our staff, our environment, or our communities. We made the choice to remove all of the guns from the sites, and to date, in the year 2001, there have been no marine mammals lethally removed from around our farm sites."

In whale-watching companies where Langer and the FOCS have trained the guide, eco-tourists will be given a lecture against salmon farming that includes charges of abuse of antibiotics as well as hormones. Visitors are warned that domesticated salmon often escape and breed with wild stock causing irreparable harm. You are encouraged to quiz local restaurants and boycott the farmed salmon, which is what is most commonly served in Tofino.

Vernon does not pretend that salmon farming has not had problems, but he claims his adversaries are "Merchants of Fear."

He says that in 12 years of handling nearly 4 million fish, approximately 2,000 of his domestic Chinook salmon have escaped, a statistically insignificant number in the wild. Use of antibiotics is lower than in almost any farm animal, having been cut drastically in recent years -- by 98 percent -- and significantly lower than what humans use themselves.

Vernon says he has never used hormones in his fish.

"A segment of this community use the gray whales as this great symbol," says Vernon. "If you can link it to forestry, link it to salmon farms, somehow if you cut trees there will be no more grays ... they have to sell something."

Vernon was not prepared to suffer through what he saw as the paralysis that afflicted the green council that assumed office in '96. Reflective of the chamber that had been in power since the mid-'80s, he felt the politicians were long on talk and little else.

Echoing what former Councilman Nicolay described, Vernon says that no matter what came before the council, you could count on opposition.

"It was all about process. A lot of them had the time to be process-driven. They beat people up as sport. A lot of folks were bullied."

One incumbent, when declaring his candidacy, said the next council would have to be "more democratic."

It would also have to shift priorities. Voters had rejected a pet project of the green council, a community hall that would have cost residents between $2 million and $3 million.

In 1999, with a voter turnout of approximately 70 percent, Vernon-backed candidates swept into office.

Vernon and the others in TBA feel a lot of the finger-pointing in Tofino is misplaced.

A flier put out by FOCS lists several bullets' worth of alarm over untreated sewage in the ocean -- not the human kind, but rather the waste from farmed salmon.

While the council refused to address the millions of pounds of human waste dumped untreated into the ocean, Vernon was required to put in $11,000 toilets at the fish farms.

In June of this year, the village released "VisionTofino: The Official Community Plan."

Required by law, the document is a 90-page, single-spaced testimonial to environmental consciousness and grass-roots democracy. People from all segments of the community wrangled with each other in town meetings for nearly two years.

Although former Councilman Nicolay says there is a strong undercurrent of resentment about the influx of eco-tourists, there are no plans to curb visitors.

Many of the plan's goals would honor any community that adopted them. Notes of idealism tinkle throughout the bureaucratic prose: "The district will promote site planning that manages the high energy natural systems of climate, such as wind and intense rainfall."

In matters aesthetic, no detail is too small to be considered.

"Dog owners will be required to clean up after their dogs on all beaches and public property" and enforcement is called for.

Sandwich boards are forbidden downtown. So are chain-link fences.

Under landscape and sculptural features there are 18 separate guidelines, several specifically addressing the question of planters.

"Metallic colors or fluorescent colors shall be prohibited."

Numerous hopes for an improved relationship with First Nation's people are expressed and all manner of arts are encouraged.

Says one urban planner who reviewed the final document: "These folks are grooming their pet chimpanzees and ignoring the 900-pound gorilla in the room."

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