FIRST NATIONS SCIENCE: William Housty (foreground), director of Coastwatch, collects grizzly hair from barbed wire at a hair-snagging station set up in the Koeye River watershed in Heiltsuk Traditional Territory in British Columbia. Image: Ian Jasma
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Editor's note: This story is the final entry in a four-part series that Anne Casselman, a freelance writer and regular contributor to Scientific American, reported in early June during a rare opportunity to conduct field reporting on grizzly bears in Heiltsuk First Nation traditional territory in British Columbia. For more on her experience there, see this slide show, story and blog post.
HEILTSUK TRADITIONAL TERRITORY, British Columbia—"Two sub-legal Manilas, 25 grams," says Ed Carpenter as he watches the electric scale's reading settle under the weight of the two clams. It's midday at the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD) on the north end of the community of Bella Bella. Field researchers from Coastwatch, a science and environment nonprofit serving this coastal tribe of First Nation people, are sorting through the bounty of this morning's clam surveys of Bachelor Bay and Odin Bay. The size and numbers of the clams they collect are submitted to the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who will use these figures to determine the sustainable oyster catch for the year based on estimates of the clam population's demographics.
For the Heiltsuk First Nation, science is proving to be one of the most powerful tools at their disposal as far as asserting their tradition of safeguarding natural resources for, as their elders put it, their "children yet to come." "Our people have been stewarding these lands for 10,000 years and our people already know what it takes to manage our resources...but nowadays you need to have that science side of things," explains William Housty, Coastwatch director.
In a traditional territory that spans 16,770 square kilometers of the Great Bear Rainforest, resource management decisions often boil down to data, baselines and environmental monitoring. Up until recently, much of that data was collected and owned by federal government agencies or visiting university researchers. In the case of fisheries, aspects of central coast marine resources were often neglected by government surveys, says Julie Carpenter, clam survey biologist and marine use planning coordinator for HIRMD, leaving local fishermen who warned of vanishing stocks impotent against the data-based management of government agencies. She cites the example of rockfish. "We've been seeing a serious decline for years now but [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] have never done any kind of survey work in our area to support that," she says. So instead, Housty and Coastwatch (the science arm of the Qqs Projects Society, founded in 1999 by social worker and Qqs executive director, Larry Jorgensen) conducted surveys of rock cod to "ground-truth" the observations of Heiltsuk fishermen.
"It really gives us more of a voice and more leverage in using the data we've collected for things like management and decisions," Housty says. As his sister Jess Housty, director of traditional ecological knowledge at Qqs (pronounced "kuks," it means eyes in Heiltsuk), says: "We're mostly interested in science for the sake of preserving our way of life, for informing the decisions that we're making on a management level and for continuing this unbroken model of traditional stewardship."
The merits of supporting Heiltsuk-driven science is readily apparent to those outside of the immediate Heiltsuk community. Eric Peterson and his wife Christina Munck founded the Hakai Beach Institute, a nonprofit research and teaching and conference center located on nearby Calvert Island, just over a year ago. In its second summer running, the institute is a hive of activity best described as a science-infused community center for the central coast. "We think the best way we can serve the community is by developing its scientific element," Peterson says. "The thing that makes this place unique is the combination of science and culture.... We have no choice but to look at the science we do here in the context of our setting which is a First Nations setting."
"You know, I always remind everyone that comes in for a commercial opening that they come and they take and they leave, and we're here for the rest of our lives," says Gary Housty, Heiltsuk hereditary chief. "And that's one of the things I really stress: that this is our area and we're going to continue to be stewards of our lands and waters." The Heiltsuk have drafted a 1,000-year management plan for their territory and have designated 51 percent of their territory conservancy, whereas the remaining 49 percent is to be managed using ecosystem-based management practices, a holistic way of managing a landscape that recognizes ecological interactions, rather than considering just one resource or species in isolation. And last but not least, HIRMD, the keystone of Heiltsuk resource management and culmination of years of discussions, was founded just over a year ago.
"I think the long-term vision [of HIRMD] is to test the effectiveness of ecosystem-based management (EBM) and to better integrate human and local economies into resource management," says Morgan Hocking, science director of Qqs. "And rather than keeping ecology and economy separate, trying to integrate them to have a more sustainable society in the long term." One of the broad goals of the project is not only to implement EBM but to monitor it as well, Hocking says, for example, "so to compare a number of indicators including sockeye [salmon] in conservancy sites versus EBM sites where they have current logging."
Another primary concern voiced by the community is the threat posed by Calgary-based energy company Enbridge, Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway tar sands oil pipeline, which would introduce crude oil tanker traffic to British Columbia's northern and central coasts. So the Coastwatch crew are busy getting, as William Housty puts it "an inventory of the kitchen so if anything did happen we'd know what was there and what was lost."
Many Heiltsuk would point out that their own land-management practices long predate any concept of sustainability as Westerners know it. The region included at least 56 "pre-contact" village sites in Heiltsuk territory and as many as 30,000 people. The First Nations of coastal British Columbia boasted one of the densest populations of any nonagricultural community, so rich were the region's natural resources. "We're taught by our elders and their ancestors you'll always be stewards of your lands. Just take what you need. Don't overtake. You always leave something behind so it can redo itself again," hereditary Chief Housty says. "And it worked for many, many, many years."
"What I find really cool is this principle of conservation biology, the precautionary approach, in most cases, is absolutely consistent with the philosophy the Heiltsuk evolved with culturally to manage their own resources," says Chris Darimont, chief scientist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation. "It's the same thing."
And Jess Housty points out: "What I'm starting to see is indigenous people on the coast realizing that they do have a really powerful voice and starting to think really hard about how they can leverage sound science to protect traditional values, which are often not that different from conservation values."
That connection to history and land might explain the Heiltsuk to approach land stewardship with, as Darimont put it, "one foot firmly anchored in the past and one charging into the future." Then again, it might be more simple than that. As 28-year old Coastwatch field crew member Collin Reid stated so clearly in the Qqs office where he stopped on his way to clean clams from the morning's survey: "What we're raised to do is protect our lands."