In May 2016, I had the pleasure of spending part of a week with the Coastal Stewardship Network at the Hakai Beach Institute on the central coast of BC.
Wilburforce Foundation has funded the Coastal Stewardship Network since 2012, but this was the first opportunity to attend the Network’s annual meeting, which brings together staff from the nine Coastal First Nations for three days of strategizing on how to most effectively protect the habitat, wildlife, and ecosystems of their territories.
The Gathering provides stewardship staff an opportunity to share in person what they’ve learned over the past year. Although the Stewardship offices and other staff have regular conference calls, it’s not the same as an in-person meeting for knowledge sharing on best practices for resource management. But, stewardship offices are isolated and visits between communities require either a long boat ride or a seaplane flight, making them relatively rare. The Gathering also gives the entire Network an opportunity to contribute to the creation of a collective conservation vision and strategy for the coming year.
The Network supports the stewardship offices and secures funding for regional activities; facilitates partnerships with non-governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations and universities; and helps build relationships with relevant government agencies. An important part of the network are the “Guardian Watchmen” who work for their Nations, acting as the “eyes and ears” for their communities – that’s a phrase I heard over and over during the course of the Gathering. These staff provide a field presence protecting wildlife, cultural sites, and other resources. Their brand unites them – their jackets are embroidered with the Coastal Guardian Watchmen insignia and when on patrol, they fly the Coastal Guardian Watchmen flag on their boats and vehicles. They greet visitors, let them know they can be called upon in an emergency, and inform them of regulations – for instance, where and how long they’re allowed to set crab traps out, and that Coastal First Nations have banned trophy hunting of bears in their territories. This is important: the Province of BC doesn’t have the resources to patrol like this. Plus, for some wildlife, the Guardian Watchmen’s work literally saves lives. For example, for a beached whale last summer, the eight-hour effort of the Gitga’at Guardians and others kept the orca hydrated until the tide came in and the whale was freed.
Photo: Jana Kotaska
My biggest takeaway from this Gathering was the strength in unity that the Guardian Watchmen and Stewardship Directors have found through the Network.
Part of the Gathering included workshops led by research scientists to learn about new tools and techniques, like a CTD – an instrument cluster that calculates conductivity, a measure of the salinity of ocean water; it also measures temperature and depth. We lowered the CTD into the water to take the measurements, then returned to the lab and plugged the instrument into a computer to upload the data. Another demonstration started on the beach, where we set a seine net and dragged it onto the shore to collect a sample of fish. We measured and identified them — that is, when we had the speed and dexterity to scoop them from the tank and get them into the viewers. My success rate was pretty dismal.
By far the most popular workshop had to do with Hakai Institute’s drone. Before heading outdoors, we learned about the regulations for drone use and how Hakai uses drones for aerial surveys of forest and nearshore resources and the 3D modeling that can result from the captured footage. There was some disappointment that we didn’t get to fly the drone ourselves, but we understood the demonstrator’s reluctance to turn over controls. It was not only due to cost – such drones cost about $2,000 each — but the fact that they were now on drone #3. #1 is hung up in a tree somewhere on the island, and #2 is in the ‘hospital’ for repairs after crashing into a rock. Even experienced handlers have trouble managing drones in shifting winds!
Another part of the week provided training in the latest ways to use the Network’s Regional Monitoring System, which includes a database into which Guardian Watchmen upload information to create a regional picture of what’s going on – for example, where invasive green crab are showing up. The Regional Monitoring System was designed to standardize methodologies and protocols across the Network. Guardian Watchmen use paper field cards and/or a hand held mobile device — called a CoastTracker — to collect data while on patrol. The data are then uploaded to an online data management system that allows the Coastal Stewardship Network to compile data, share information, analyze regional trends and report information in ways that meet the needs of their of member First Nations – and the data is partitioned in such a way that each individual First Nation’s input is confidential. Just like me, locals are extremely reluctant to give up their best crabbing spots! While on patrol, the Guardian Watchmen are reporting on whales, bears and other wildlife; commercial and sport fishing; tourism; crab; impacts to significant sites; and eulachon (commonly known as smelt or candlefish).
My biggest takeaway from this Gathering was the strength in unity that the Guardian Watchmen and Stewardship Directors have found through the Network, whether it’s opposing an energy pipeline or building healthy and resilient communities with opportunities for young people to find purposeful and rewarding employment in their territories and abundant natural resources. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to be part of their amazing annual gathering!
By Carol Orr, Program Associate for Alaska / British Columbia