They gathered to discuss one of the greatest environmental success stories of the past 50 years – the return of sea otters to the West Coast of North America – but ended up talking about the threat of an oil spill and Ottawa's Enbridge decision.
In a conference at the Hakai Beach Institute, a former fishing lodge that has been reborn as a science base camp in the Great Bear Rainforest, scientists and native leaders from B.C., Alaska, Washington and California on Wednesday joined forces to write a letter expressing their fears about the Northern Gateway pipeline project. Initially the letter was going to be sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government this week approved the controversial pipeline. But after much debate throughout the day the group decided to write to Premier Christy Clark, and to drop Mr. Harper, feeling he simply wasn't listening anymore.
If the pipeline gets built, a series of speakers said as the letter was being drafted, it would be devastating to the marine ecosystem on the Northwest Coast, and to the native communities that for 12,000 years have subsisted on food gathered from the sea.
Violet Yeaton, an environmental planner from the Sugpiat village of Port Graham, Alaska, told the gathering of the damage done by the Exxon Valdez tanker accident, when 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Alaskan waters in 1989.
"This [was] a very pristine area, very vibrant and alive . . . 2,800 sea otters . . .900 eagles . . . 250,000 sea birds died . . . and there are several species that have not recovered," she said.
Ms. Yeaton a few years after the Exxon Valdez spill the world's best king crab fishery was closed in her area because there were so few crabs left. It hasn't re-opened.
"If and when this Enbridge thing goes through we are going to face the same thing as our friends in Alaska," Chief Wumakn, from the coastal B.C. village of Kitamaat, said in urging delegates to sign the letter.
Dr. Anne Salomon, a marine ecologist from Simon Fraser University and one of the conference organizers, said all except one of the 50 delegates had expressed strong opposition to the pipeline project.
In the final version of the letter, the indigenous leaders, elders, artists, ecologists, archaeologists, botanists, science students, staff at the Hakai Beach Institute and marine biologists state that they are worried about the long-term implications of Ottawa's decision to approve the pipeline.
"The risks of this project – including oil spills, ocean noise and introduced species from ballast water – threaten coastal ecosystems, livelihoods and economies," states the letter. "We reject the proposition that there are any conditions that make the Enbridge project acceptable."
The group, which included native leaders from all over the B.C. coast and Alaska, as well as scientists from several Canadian and U.S. institutions, warned that the decision to approve the project "would have repercussions for the health and well-being of future generations of all living things."
"We really have to do something and seize the opportunity [for a joint statement] while we're all together," Nancy Turner, an ethnobotanist at the University of Victoria told the group.
Guujaaw, past president of the Council of Haida Nation, said the Enbridge decision had put the West Coast at risk of being ruined by an oil spill.
"They have forfeited the moral authority to manage these lands and these waters," he said of the federal government.
Eric Peterson, who with his wife, Christina Munck, runs the non-profit Hakai Beach Institute which lies just south of the proposed tanker route, told the delegates that writing to the Prime Minister might be a waste of time, and the provincial government would probably be a better target.
"The federal government is not listening. The provincial government would be a powerful ally. If they hold the line . . . that project is going nowhere," he said.
Wickaninnish, former president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, agreed and although the letter was first drafted to both Mr. Harper and Ms. Clark, in the end the Prime Minister was dropped.
Skil-Hiilans, a Haida Hereditary Chief, said native participants were signing the letter as individuals, not as formal representatives of their tribes, but he felt coastal native communities were united in their concerns.
"With this [Enbridge decision] our livelihoods are under attack," he said. "It's all about our food [being at risk]."
The week-long conference is aimed at coming up with policy recommendations to help the government manage the burgeoning sea otter population on the West Coast, which has rebounded since being wiped out by the fur trade in the 1800's.