Our Rivers, Ourselves.

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The healthy trinity: watersheds, people, and salmon.

(TriCity News, October 14 2016. By Craig Orr.)

For many, fall evokes images of rivers teeming with salmon. In truth, it’s often painful to witness the plight of these iconic harbingers as news on Fraser River sockeye—and too many other Pacific salmon—is increasingly grim.

It’s not all bad but, given the nearly irresistible walls of self interest and burgeoning population growth, maybe salmon conservation has always been a rearguard action.

Thus, it has become increasingly apparent that we need a paradigm shift in how we go about protecting our values. Ironically, the key to improving the prospects for wild salmon—and ourselves—may lie in appealing to self interest. Let’s start by paying more heed to the links between the health or well-being of our watersheds and the people who live in them—that’s you and me.

Although we have long known that our health is critical to our sense of well being, only recently have we been deluged by a tsunami of scientific evidence showing that healthy watersheds also produce many “services” that improve our own health.

It’s a no-brainer that trees along and in rivers are important to salmon. Health scientists are now amassing evidence that trees also provide us with many health benefits. By pricking and probing an army of compliant volunteers, scientists have shown that spending time in nature many vastly improve our health.

Indeed, the list of “nature therapy” benefits reads like the platinum offering of the world’s foremost, but free, private clinic: lower blood pressure, stress levels, and heart rates as well as increased levels of cancer-killing proteins.

As Wallace J. Nichols espouses in his intriguing book Blue Mind, people are drowning in a sea of overstimulation, which exhausts us physically, emotionally, and mentally. Focused time in nature, away from constant distractions, helps free us from the “tyranny of the pre-frontal cortex,” the part of the brain responsible for most of our fatiguing ‘executive functions.” By temporarily immersing ourselves in nature, we may achieve a state of relaxation not unlike that sought by yoga practitioners, allowing other parts of our brains—those associated with emotions, pleasure, wonder, and empathy—to take over and provide a calming effect. The result is an almost immediate reduction in stress levels, and a notable improvement in our immune systems and sense of well-being.

These benefits appear to be related to the sights, sounds and sells of nature, including both green space and water. Hospital patients who can view nature are less anxious and require fewer medications. Symptoms of stress disorders of war veterans may be reduced through water-related activities. Such benefits can last for days or weeks, but only if those “services” are not eroded or missing.

Accordingly, the Coquitlam River Watershed Roundtable has mapped a first-in-Canada watershed plan that links the health of key ecosystem services to measures of personal well-being, a plan that includes a road map for relieving human pressures on such services as water and green space. The plan could benefit both people—and salmon—if implemented.

Still, the task ahead is daunting. Positive change will require education, a letting-go of old ways.

Most importantly, any hope of improving the lot for both people and salmon will require mobilizing an army of citizens, sufficiently driven by self-interest, who are willing to engage in a new relationship with politicians, regulators, developers, and fellow watershed residents, all in a way that respects the inseparable well-being of nature and people.


Craig Orr is an ecologist and conservation advisor with the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, and a member of the core committee of the Coquitlam River Watershed Roundtable.

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