Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Far From Desolate
Desolation Sound sits at the north end of the Salish Sea on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. Its waters are deep, warm, and usually calm. Yet, despite its name, the Sound is far from desolate. As one of the largest marine parks in BC, the area is protected from damaging human activity and thus acts as a safe haven for many plant and animal species.
The Sound is 8,449 hectares of pristine waters, vibrant intertidal zones riddled with sea stars, oysters, anemones, and rugged shorelines for seals to nap on. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. However, the Sound has not been isolated from the damaging effects of climate change.
Climate change is not limited by borders; it is a global issue. Its effects are visible and tangible, impacting the environment, wildlife, and our health. Before my trip to the coast, I had heard people describe the Sound as remote, isolated, and untouched. I wanted to discover for myself if that was true.
Climate Change in Desolation Sound
On a four-day sea kayaking expedition through the Sound, Powell River Sea Kayak guides Alix Paiement Courtois and Marie-Joëlle (MJ) Lauzier convey to me the importance of the ecosystems that live in the Sound. In addition, they share how we, as tourists and visitors to the land, can help protect them by practicing “Leave No Trace.” Both Alix and MJ are passionate about the environment. Alix is currently studying outdoor leadership in Montreal and continues to share his knowledge of the history of Desolation Sound. Although it is MJ’s first year as a Desolation Sound and Powell River guide, her experience of fire fighting in the BC coastal area has provided insight into the impacts of climate change on plant species indigenous to the area.
MJ explains that during her time as a firefighter, she noticed that many native plant species, like salal, were drying out and dying. “Plants like salal—the thick leaf plants you can see growing in bushes everywhere […] their leaves can hold a lot of water so they can stay green and healthy for a long time in dry conditions.” The evergreen plant, when healthy, displays shiny dark green leaves with bell-shaped white and pink flowers that bear sweet edible berries. Salal is native to the BC coastal area and can thrive in the varied conditions of the west coast. More importantly, salal is an indicator plant, meaning that it can illustrate the overall health and conditions of the local environment.
Nancy Turner, an Environmental Studies professor at the University of Victoria, explains that climate change has more than likely played a fatal role in the rapid die-off of salal, citing “warmer and drier winters” combined with “hot, dry summers.” Turner’s work is centred on helping to preserve Indigenous plant knowledge and has played an important role in highlighting the cultural significance of salal. Its berries are sweet and feed both wildlife and people. Coastal First Nations have used salal as a central component of cooking and medicine for thousands of years. The rapid die-off of salal plants all over the coastal area is deeply concerning to these communities.
MJ notes that changes to the climate have made it as if the rainforest conditions are moving north and being replaced by the hot and arid conditions of the BC interior. The temperature rise is especially concerning in light of the increasingly dangerous wildfires that continue to plague BC each summer. The extreme heat waves have compounded wildfires, too. The most recent heat wave in June 2021 claimed the lives of over 400 people in BC alone. However, it is not just people and plant life suffering in these conditions.
The Impacts on Oyster Farming
Along Desolation Sound, oyster farming is abundant. The area has a long history of oyster agriculture, dating back thousands of years. Oysters are also filter feeders that help clean the water. Today, BC produces approximately 60% of Canada’s oyster supply. Unfortunately, the industry has not gone unscathed by the heat wave. It has been estimated that more than one billion intertidal animals (including oysters) have essentially baked to death in the extreme heat and low tides. However, marine life had been suffering long before the heat wave.
According to an article published in 2014 by the Globe and Mail, Desolation Sound and the surrounding BC coast have experienced a massive die-off of oysters and scallops. One oyster farmer they interviewed noted an 80-90% mortality rate in his shellfish crops instead of the usual 50%. The article found that the pH levels of the water had continually decreased over time due to rising CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, which resulted in more acidic water. The acidity in the water lowers the level of calcium carbonate. Shellfish need calcium carbonate to form their shells. Calcium carbonate is the same compound that makes up coral, a vital part of marine ecosystems.
Climate Change Knows No Borders
Alix came to Desolation Sound seven years ago. He describes the Sound as pristine. “We’re just on the fringe of civilization […] Orcas show up in the inlet with ten or fifteen boats trailing behind them as they jump out of the ocean, splashing all over the place […] time stops here.”
However, Alix is aware that despite the remote wilderness and the protections in place that keep Desolation Sound pristine, global climate issues won’t stop to draw a border around the Sound. He explains that the ecosystems in the ocean are all connected. When one piece of the ecosystem changes, the rest adapt or die. This pattern became apparent when rising ocean temperatures helped to spread a virus that greatly impacted the sea star population of the Sound.
“[The virus] started in California and made its way up the coast within two years. When I started working here, there were pictures all over the place of these sunflower stars – huge stars up to 20, 24 rays, and you could actually see them move […] I haven’t seen them again. They all died of wasting disease.”
Alix says that at one point, the Sound had nearly a dozen different species of sea stars. Only three remain today. He notes that ochre sea stars were hit hard by wasting disease as well. “They are still here, but there are way less of them, and because they are a keystone species, they have a huge impact on the environment.” Ochre stars eat mussels in the intertidal zone. Mussels take up a lot of space if left unchecked, meaning that they can take the space of another species in the same way a weed can overtake a garden. “Suddenly, the balance is off.”
Balancing a Global Issue
Balance is the key to the ocean’s ecosystems, which make up 71% of the earth’s surface. It is a crucial part of the earth’s water cycle and, as such, regulates temperature and drives weather systems. The ocean also produces oxygen, absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, and provides home and food sources to millions of species—including humans.
While the ocean has helped maintain balance in our climate by absorbing 90% of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gas emissions, its internal chemistry has been disrupted. Due to ocean acidification and the presence of chemical pollutants, Earth can no longer keep up with the emissions we create. Plus, as the planet continues to warm up, glaciers and polar ice caps are melting, causing sea levels to rise. As a result, flooding, erosion, saltwater intrusion (flow of seawater into freshwater sources and salt content in soil), and habitat destruction occur. These changes do not include the work of filter feeder species like oysters cleaning the oceans that humans pollute.
Species of fish that cannot withstand the warming temperatures will seek colder waters if they can, deserting long-standing fishing grounds. Rising water temperatures are a challenge for salmon species across the globe and have only been perpetuated by the building of river dams.
We might consider the ocean the first line of defense against climate change. When the ocean is in balance, food sources and marine ecosystems thrive in the natural order. Weather systems remain relatively predictable along with the tides and currents. When the ocean is out of balance, temperatures increase, food sources like fish disappear to colder water, and coral and marine plants die off, displacing habitats and oxygen sources. The weather becomes increasingly extreme, resulting in natural disasters and droughts.
While there have been efforts to restore populations of marine life throughout the world and along the West Coast, Alix feels that too few people are trying to bring about change on their own: “Collectively, we need to do more.” He explains that it’s hard to “act now” when you’re still trying to convince others that climate change is real.
Nevertheless, both Powell River guides believe in bringing people to Desolation Sound to connect with nature. The hope for Alix and MJ is to bring awareness and help inspire people to protect the landscape by showing them the beauty of the outdoors. For instance, my own experience in the Sound had a huge impact on me. While I only spent a handful of days there, I often find myself missing it – desperately longing to go back. It is a trip I will never forget and as such the Sound has become a special place for me; a place worth protecting.
While Desolation Sound may not be untouched by climate change, it is still a remote paradise whose future survival is worth fighting for.