On the surface, it seems a cruel irony that a world renowned photographer might even consider hazing a crab with a cardboard box. And yet, that is exactly what photographer and conservationist Jim Woods does — as part of his ARCHER trophy hunt for British Columbia’s sturgeon, one of North America’s longest-lived fish and a threatened species.
It all starts with a simple question, the first real hoot of the afternoon: “So, can you handle a cardboard box?”
Toss a box over the side of a boat and in walks Jim Woods, the curmudgeonly Pacific Coast salmon fisherman and founder of British Columbia’s International Salmon Genetics Association and the ARCHER trophy hunt, the country’s oldest and largest collection of sturgeon. Unloading the box onto the concrete ledge through the same hole he used to take the pictures, Woods did his best to make sure it hadn’t fallen off. From here on out the 10-day-a-year hunt for 100-plus specimens of British Columbia’s sturgeon, Woods has a score to settle: He will take the safest box and show the fish inside until he successfully harvests the prize.
And that is just what the first tray, cooked and ready for display, contained: A simple example of the fact that true male sturgeon don’t need to look for a mate to give birth to their eggs. The species long ago lost its breeding instinct to survive, and one box set was just as likely to produce a male dam as a male. Now, as sturgeon have been wiped out in much of the world, British Columbia’s landfills are chock full of atypical sturgeon, some inside cardboard boxes, including a male caught out in the water in 2002.
The box Woods showed with the open butter fish lid held the male’s box-scraping talons as if he’d fallen out of it, but that was not the case.
“These sturgeon have never been discarded and [the boxes] are not for eating,” Woods says. “They just help hide them from predators. This is a 40-pound trophy that I will be locking away for years.”
The sturgeon fishermen’s annual battle to keep the species alive is the latest edition of a B.C. tradition that goes back in time to trophy hunting in the 18th century and the days when hundreds of thousands of trophy mare’s heads rotted on the forest floor under overfishing.
“People who hunt with this idea are less likely to suffer from dental problems,” says senior scientist Sue Rotz of Wild Salmon Advocates, a conservation organization that sponsors the hunt. “They love it. They do it for many reasons, but mainly for these other reasons.”
Until recently, a host of mostly unknown, trophy sturgeon — which can reach two meters in length and weigh as much as 1,000 kilograms — have flocked to the glass tank on the back deck of The Wooden Whaler, the tiki-dock restaurant in Vancouver’s Sooke Harbour, one of the richest salmon landing spots on Canada’s north coast.