Canada | Environment

SA: First Nation puts science to work to protect the environment

"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."

Get the Story:
First Nations Tribe Combines Science with Legacy of Conservation (Scientific American 8/9)

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