Photos: Indigenous knowledge and science meet off B.C.'s Central Coast
Research expedition at sea making waves as an example of science partnerships that honour 'hereditary' data, First Nations participants say
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Aboard the Coast Guard's 40-metre mid-shore ship Vector, a team of scientists are working closely with First Nations along British Columbia's Central Coast this week.
Using a high-tech camera system lowered on a winch, scuba divers and scientific experts both on board and on shore, they're getting a first-ever glimpse of species up to 400 metres underwater.
But what makes the research expedition unique is that it is a partnership that includes Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais First Nations and the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance.
"There needs to be more than just the current data they use," explained Michael Reid, Heiltsuk Nation's aquatics manager. "We have a lot of knowledge — you could call it corporate knowledge, or hereditary knowledge — about the resources.
"We've been here a long time. We have lots to contribute."
Reached by satellite phone aboard the Vector, marine ecologist Robert Rangeley said the expedition hopes to makes waves not only for its findings, but also how it brings together communities.
"It's been absolutely astounding to me on the expedition to realize how profound this partnership really is," the Oceana Canada science director said. "You think you know what you know, but you find out you actually don't."
The ship is conducting a habitat survey "linking the shore to sea, essentially," he said, "learning about the marine system from those who have experienced it and from elders and resource managers in the communities who tell us their perspective on those resources.”
The ship hosts a scientific lab and remote controlled camera system to capture high-resolution video footage of the seafloor, but also has First Nations locals collecting data closer to shore.
"With both, we can study these areas of high conservation value," Rangeley added, "and start to explore some areas where no one's ever taken a camera down before."
It's a ground-breaking approach from Reid's perspective — but it highlights a long-standing "gap," Reid said, with scientists "sitting in offices behind desks" more typical in the research and management fields.
"The information I've learned over time came from my father and grandfather and so on in all these areas what the populations used to be," Reid explained. "Even in my time, I've seen huge declines."
Such drops in population aren't just B.C.'s iconic salmon, sacred to peoples up and down the coast, which Reid estimated are at just 20 per cent of what they should be. He's also observed declines in urchin, sea cucumbers, gooey ducks, cod, herring, and crab.
Tammy Norgard, Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada's marine spatial ecology and analysis program head, was stunned by the number of species and habitats seen at 400 metres underwater off the coast, including coral and rockfish which were captured in one of the expedition's videos.
But where to find rockfish exactly required pairing DFO modeling with on-the-water Indigenous experience, she said.
"Working with commmunity representatives to ensure we're collecting data that's important is a direction that's becoming more of a trend," she told Metro in a satellite phone interview from the Vector. "It's the way we should be going.
"You have to really build relationships — you can't just drop in and say you have an idea. But a lot of people are really excited to work on science together, I find, there's so many common objectives between First Nations and scientists."
The expedition's website is live-streaming its dives and camera drops online, and also hosts journey charts, videos and photos as it progresses.