Blood, sweat and Tavish Campbell
One man’s graphic video evidence spawns new awareness of fish farming dangers—and a government review.
by Briony Penn
(This profile first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 edition of Focus Magazine.)
IT IS MIDNIGHT ON BARANOF ISLAND, off the coast of southeast Alaska. Tavish Campbell, captain of the schooner Maple Leaf, has woken all of us up—crew and guests—to witness a mysterious phenomenon: the mass migration of small opalescent squid to spawn. The water is shimmering with millions of squid that have made their way up from deep on the continental shelf to spawn in the shallow bay in which we are anchored. Few people other than fishermen witness this summer spectacle, and it takes a certain passionate eye with experience to anticipate this kind of event.
Campbell has shared many of these types of moments with people around the world, whether it is the lucky guests aboard the ecotourism boats he captains, or the followers of his powerful videography blog. His latest video has gone viral, but it isn’t about squid or the extraordinary diversity of life on our coast—it is about blood…diseased blood, and lots of it.
On November 27, Campbell released his mini-doc Blood Water, documenting an underwater pipe spewing out blood and guts from a fish processing plant at Brown’s Bay, right on the edge of Discovery Passage, through which one-third of BC’s wild salmon migrate. The video points to the poorly-regulated and under-monitored treatment of waste from processing Atlantic salmon from open net fish farms. These farmed salmon threaten the native species, first when they are alive, and then when they are dead, by exposing them to viruses in the offal and blood. Blood Water is a visceral video, and was linked to and reported on by many news organizations.
Campbell was busy responding to calls about the video when I reached him where he lives in the Discovery Islands, near where the fish farms in the video operate. The response was international, and is finally getting the attention of the people that can change the narrative once and for all—Dominic Le Blanc, federal minister of fisheries and oceans; and George Heyman, BC minister of environment. On December 20, Heyman announced a review of fish farm processing plants to ensure that contaminated effluent does not endanger wild salmon stocks.
What has been most gratifying for Campbell is how the Blood Water video told the story of disease and viruses in a way that other attempts to raise public awareness of fish farming have failed over the years. “I was surprised at how far the video went and is still going. When we captured these images, we knew it was going to be an incredible opportunity to tell a story. Viruses are difficult things to show visually, and then suddenly the image was there to show viruses being released. What we have to do now is to direct the conversation, that even if the effluent is cleaned up, the fish are still infected by virus, and there is still the spread of disease to wild salmon.”
The release of the video coincided with the 100th day of the occupation of two fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago by the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw, a cause which Campbell supports and hopes people will connect to the Blood Water issue. “We are all coastal people who care about salmon and want open net fish farming to stop.”
Campbell has been working on environmental issues as long as he has held a camera and sailed a boat, which has been most of his life. He was described by CBC’s The Current as a naturalist and underwater videographer, which he was pleased with. “Sure beats being called an activist!” he laughs. “An activist is someone who wants change. I just want the systems that have been around for thousands of years to stay the same. I think the radical activists are the corporations wanting to change everything.”
Campbell is also a captain aboard various ecotourism boats like Maple Leaf, research vessels for organizations like Pacific Wild, and his own family mothership, Columbia III, which takes kayakers around the coast. A captain since he was 19, he has had the opportunity to explore a lot of the coast since his voyages on his first boat, which he and his twin sister, Farlan (also a captain), got at the age of 12. “We were allowed to sail anywhere on multi-day adventures as long as we could reach our parents on VHF radio. The only thing that limited us was the range of the radio.”
Today, there are few places at which Campbell and his extended family haven’t aimed their cameras. They still keep in touch from their respective boats by VHF. “Anytime we go out and poke around and ask questions, we find things that are surprising and unexpected.” In his travels, Campbell has worked with the Heiltsuk nation documenting the impacts of the commercial herring kill industry—largely owned by Jimmy Pattison—that included filming the incredible herring spawns of Spiller Channel. That fishery has now been stopped in Heiltsuk territory. Some of his footage has been used in CBC’s “Wild Canada” and BBC natural history productions.
He also captured the ill-fated tug Nathan E. Stewart when it grounded and leaked over 100,000 litres of diesel into the pristine waters near Bella Bella. “While my colleague April Bencze and I were documenting the damage, a hurricane-force storm came in. We spent the night out in Gale Pass where the boat ran aground, and got footage of the big storm and the tug being bashed out by the storm.” It’s worth noting: No one else was out there from the “world-class” oil-spill team at that point.
Campbell’s biggest passion has been documenting the clearcutting of old growth around his home in the Discovery Islands. The government has failed to live up to the spirit and intent of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, leaving decisions to industry. He attributes the problem to the BC Liberals’ “professional reliance” system, currently under review, where government sets the management objectives to be achieved, and professionals hired by corporations decide how those objectives will be met. Critics call it the “fox guarding the hens.” Professional reliance coupled with deregulation, leaves the public interest high and dry.
Campbell has recorded the details of the clearcuts, the stumps of old growth, the trashed wetlands, and riparian areas that even the companies’ foresters haven’t walked. He says, “The trouble is that no one is out on the land anymore, and the people who are, are involved in industry. That means people can get away with whatever they want because no one is watching. If a company’s sole motive is making profit, they are going to do surprising things. We are always able to find something that shocks people.”
For Campbell, the bigger story he wants to tell is that issues are related—from bloodwater to oilspills to clearcutting old growth. He also aims to encourage people to support a better regulatory system with rigorous, independent monitoring and oversight, instead of citizens having to monitor their own water and wildlife.
When Blood Water went viral, he was accused of having some bias. “People asked, ‘Why are you doing these films, what is in it for you?’ I was fortunate enough to grow up in the islands with a connection to the natural environment. If you see something you love getting hurt, you go to help, not because it benefits you, but because you care, and it hurts not to do something. It isn’t theoretical or academic; I genuinely care about the area, and that is what drives me to do what I do.”
Campbell fits his thoughtful documentations of coastal life into his work and spare time. It’s a labour of love, like getting up at midnight to witness the opalescent squid migration. To get a sense of this labour, go to his other viral video, This is Why I Care, and celebrate our wild beautiful place and the citizens who have tried to stop its destruction for the last 17 years.
If you are a community member who has seen land use practices that you don’t feel are in the public interest, you can submit your comments to the Engage BC professional reliance input process available until January 19: www.engage.gov.bc.ca/professionalreliance/
Briony Penn’s most recent book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the inaugural Mack Laing Literary Prize.