The sun sets as I walk into Fernando Lessa’s yard. I notice his wetsuit drying on a hook screwed to a wooden arch that also holds a climbing hangboard. Despite the humid Pacific Northwest cold, he went diving again this morning.
As we catch up over a beer, Fernando shows me his loot of the day. He scored photos of aquatic plants, three creeks, and of course, salmon. There’s pink and chum salmon, and cutthroat trout of all sizes.
Fernando dives almost daily in the Metro Vancouver watershed. He does it for fun, but also for Urban Salmon, his two-year project that documents the state of the fish in British Columbia’s largest city. His project’s photography book is now available for pre-order, and in a few days he will donate his archives to local salmon foundations and streamkeepers associations.
“In only a few hours, they pulled out 85kg of trash ranging from fishing gear to metal debris.”
Salmon used to thrive in Vancouver, but decades of pollution and urban development destructive to the local watershed left their future in the area in jeopardy. The water quality was bad and the access to the network of streams and rivers that allowed salmon to return to their spawning grounds was complicated, if at all even possible.
However, through the hard work of volunteers and environmentalists, as well as the legendary resilience of the fish, their outlook is changing. Urban Salmon’s two-year immersion in the world of the local salmonids offers hope—the salmon are making a return and are starting to thrive again.
"Polar bears and pandas have always generated more money than fish."
While the future looks brighter, there is still work to be done. During a session of underwater photography in a natural pool in the fall, Fernando came across some rusted metal parts. He looked around a bit and noticed the place was littered with garbage. He contacted the local streamkeepers, and less than a week later, a group of volunteers joined forces to clean the pools. In only a few hours, they pulled out 85kg of trash ranging from fishing gear to metal debris.
Polar bears and pandas have always generated more money than fish. Some financing is available to streamkeepers and protection organizations, but most of the work to protect salmon is done on a volunteer basis. Urban Salmon is no different. While it did attract some sponsorship and support from salmon protection foundations, and even Patagonia Vancouver, this selfless effort remains a project from the heart.
Keeping the watershed clean and safe is good for the environment, but also for divers and fishermen who want to get wet close to Vancouver. They can choose from numerous pools, rivers, and streams to enjoy aquatic life in the area. And if everyone pitches in to keep the ecosystem clean, the salmon will continue to return every year to make their run to the very river where they were born, allowing everyone to marvel at this incredible phenomenon of nature.