Two weeks ago, I sat quietly in evening golden-hour sunshine on a cedar-wood bench, staring contemplatively out at a golden sand beach and working through a plate of vegetarian lasagna. Out of the corner of my vision, I caught sight of a blurry brown figure dashing across the shore; a yearling grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) was making haste across the beach to escape an angry interaction with an older male bear, his rapid gait sending white flurries of shorebirds into flight.
Sunny views from my vantage at Koeye Camp.
The moment was one of those remarkable, albeit clichéd, instants that suspend your breath. In the unusually warm October sun, surrounded by friends, eating warm homemade food, physically tired after a day of hard work, and watching the spectacle of a young grizzly dash across a beach, I was filled with the utmost gratitude to be a Conservation Scientist lucky enough to be hosted by the Hailzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation at Koeye Camp, a place where youth come to learn about culture, the land, and science (among other things).
Traces of neighbours on the beaches of the Koeye River estuary. Human and non-human animals alike rely on functioning ecosystems and liveable climates to thrive.
Yesterday, I thought back to those experiences at Koeye. After hastily-consumed-espresso-number-two and between reading academic articles in the ACS Lab, I poured over the media summaries of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report. For those who may have missed it, the report outlines the varied and severe consequences that face global ecosystems, and consequently humanity, should we continue on our rapid collective path forward towards 1.5- or 2-degree Celcius temperature increases. My head spun as I considered the implications for the ecosystems and social systems – or otherwise the species, friends, colleagues, and everyone who calls The Great Bear Rainforest (and the rest of this world) home.
Such, perhaps, is the life of a Conservation Scientist in the Anthropocene. We are granted the joy and responsibility of having one foot in the field, and one foot in the office, eyes partially trained on the narrow questions and systems that define our research, and yet aware of the global realities that increasingly impact both. Experiences in the territories of the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Wuikinuxv, and Nuxalk Nations of BC’s Central Coast, and those during various field projects worldwide, have allowed me to glimpse the complexity, diversity, and beauty within functioning socioecological systems. They provide the fuel that compels me to continue pursuing research that informs ecosystem management, social justice, and Indigenous rights on local scales, despite the immense challenges we all globally face.
To engage in research that seeks to answer complex questions about environmental policy, human values, and ecosystem management in complex systems is daunting; to do so in the face of the forthcoming consequences of climate change is even more so. To be fortified by moments surrounded by friends and colleagues, with vistas of the incredible biodiversity and life-sustaining resources we risk losing, however, is to believe in our collective power to adapt and overcome.
It’s a misty, bracing morning on the banks of the Koeye River. Before long, the summer sun will rise to burn off the fog and reveal a world dazzling in shades of greens, blues, and sandy beige, and buzzing with biodiversity. But in these soft, quiet morning hours, a different shade of gold slinks along the brackish river. A grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) –a yearling– slumps along the shore, head low. He is patrolling for mussels and other oceanic protein along the beach. The crunch of his success, crushing calcium-rich shells, rings across the fog-steeped coastline.
Coastal carnivores of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest (as it is now known) are captivating to say the least. Grizzly, black (Ursus americanus) and ghostly white spirit bears(a form of the black bear; Ursus americanus kermodei), stalk forests in search of abundant salmon streams and ripe summer berries; genetically-distinct, salmon-eating wolves (Canis lupus) swim across islands for better access to ungulate prey; cougars (Puma concolor) perch in trees alongside bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), quietly awaiting unsuspecting marine or terrestrial targets.
While these predators are often revered for their majesty or falsely feared for their ferocity, their complex and vital ecological roles are less often at the forefront of conversation. The disappearance of predators has potentially catastrophic consequences and can lead to the unraveling of entire ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere. Predators regulate co-evolved prey in numbers – and in behaviour through their mere presence. Via cascading effects, the presence of carnivores in ecosystems supports the biodiversity of plants. In the Great Bear Rainforest, predators also act as essential vectors of nutrients from the sea onto land. In what is a nearly poetic interconnectivity, bears, wolves, and other carnivores partially consume salmon, and spread nutrients in leftover carcasses, urine, and faeces to provide typically-limited marine-derived nitrogen and other nutrients to the “salmon-fed forests” of the Great Bear.
But these iconic and important coastal carnivores face harm. Many of the pressures that challenge most of life’s biodiversity in today’s world, particularly large carnivores, likewise imperil Kermode bears, grizzlies, wolves, and other carnivores of the Great Bear Rainforest. Habitat destruction in the pursuit of extractive forestry, mining, and tanker traffic expansions put the homes and marine and terrestrial prey that these species rely on at risk. Further human-induced risks put direct pressure on these individuals and species – namely in the form of human-wildlife conflict and the commercial and recreational trophy hunt. Both forms of trophy hunting of grizzly bears were recently banned in British Columbia (hunting for bears for cultural reasons remains legal) in a stunning victory for conservation advocates and coastal First Nations alike.
Despite this game-changer for the lives of individual grizzly bears, the trophy hunt for other coastal carnivores remains open, and grizzlies and other bears are not secure from future changes to government policy. In the face of political uncertainty, bold ideas are required to safeguard these animals. One means to permanently protect coastal carnivores is through the purchase of commercial hunting tenures in the Great Bear Rainforest. By purchasing the trophy-hunting guide outfitter rightsto thousands of kilometres of land in the Great Bear Rainforest, Coastal First Nations and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have joined forces to permanently extinguish opportunities for guided trophy hunting and respect First Nations sovereignty and authority in these large swaths of land. Simply, they are buying the rights to shoot coastal carnivores, but only shooting with cameras.
As a Conservation Scientist whose work occurs in partnership with coastal First Nations, I’m keenly aware of the scientific and cultural logic of conserving coastal carnivores. Having shared space and time with these animals, I’m also personally motivated to do what I can to help them thrive. I’ve now teamed up with colleagues to support fundraising efforts aimed towards the acquisition of hunting tenures and, thus, permanent closures to trophy hunting. I’m lucky to be surrounded by scientists willing to put in the extra mile (sometimes, literally) to apply our shared research and values.
As the golden grizzly club awakes from his après le diner slumber, he looks to the forest with concern. He’s listening for one of several giant grizzly males who may pose him harm. For now, however, the hardships he faces in the Great Bear Rainforest will not include the reach of the trophy hunt. With collective political will, continuation of conservation efforts, broader public education, and the tangible, permanent solutions generated through the conservation-oriented purchase of commercial hunting tenures, we may see him, and other coastal carnivores, permanently safe from the hunt.
If you’d like to help permanently end hunting of wolves, bears, and other carnivores in the Great Bear Rainforest through purchasing vast tracts of hunting tenures, please consider donating tothebuyout efforts.
Amidst news of mourning Orca mothers, raging wildfires, and growing mumblings of “hot house” Earth, the burdens of empathy and crisis of caring can become so heavy as a Conservation Scientist – and as a human…
But – the world is still buzzing with impossible beauty. The salt of the ocean still beckons. Murrelets and gulls still dance under gold-flaked sunsets as they chase forage fish. Salmon dive under unsuspecting zodiacs, highlighted by bioluminescence that makes the whole ocean seem like, certainly, some magical mysterious kingdom. Little golden grizzly cubs munch mussels between peaceful sleeps.
There is still time. You still have agency and energy and passion.
There is so much left to be saved and loved and seen. Wake up. Go.
In the dark, early hours of October 13th, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat and articulated barge surged south through the vast, turbulent waters modernly known as Seaforth Channel in the heart of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, in Heiltsuk First Nation territories. The American-based tug (also referred to as the “NES”) was returning to Vancouver Harbor after delivering nearly 8 million liters of jet fuel and gasoline to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Dawn on October 13th revealed the NES run aground on the reefs of Athlone Island, its crew being rescued off the sinking ship by the Canadian Coast Guard. Its hull was hemorrhaging diesel fuel and synthetic lubricants that would eventually result in the devastating spill of over 110,000 liters of contaminants into the Pacific ecosystem. On November 14th, 32 days after its grounding, the disfigured remains of the NES were finally lifted from the seafloor.
Athlone Island, where the tug and its barge ran aground, is a millennia-old harvesting site stewarded and managed by the Heiltsuk First Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia, whose unceded territory witnessed the disastrous end of the NES that dark morning in October. The Heiltsuk Nation has fostered complex and sustainable relationships with their traditional lands and waters for at least a documented 14,000 years, and likely longer. The NES spill site, known locally as Gale Pass (at and around the ancient village of Q’vúqvai), was and remains a focal and biodiverse community harvesting ground. The impacts of the diesel spill on the Heiltsuk cannot be overstated; not only do the fishing grounds represent an abundance of protein that supports physical subsistence, but also the area provides a powerful environment to practice traditional harvesting, knowledge transmission, and support Heiltsuk cultural revitalization efforts despite more than two centuries of oppressive colonization.
Twenty months after the diesel spill, the Heiltsuk Nation is still grappling with the profound impacts of the social, cultural, and environmental havoc wrought those stormy early morning hours in October 2016. As a Conservation Scientist working at the interface of ecological and social sciences, and a partner to the Heiltsuk Nation in their work to uphold Indigenous management strategies in their traditional territories, I seek to understand these intersectional impacts of such catastrophes. While the environmental impacts of oil spills, in Canada and globally, can be measured by instruments of science, the profound personal, cultural, and communal impacts of the NES spill defy measurements by such instruments. Understanding these impacts, infusing their consequences into modern dialogues regarding the expansion of tanker traffic in Pacific waters, and working towards real reparation, requires sharing of the Heiltsuk lived experience, which only members of the Heiltsuk Nation can do. In poignant and eloquent words, Megan Humchitt, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, shares her perspective below.
I knew something was wrong when I heard the VHF radio blaring in our kitchen upstairs in the early hours of October 13th. My father worked for the Coast Guard auxiliary for most of his life, and whenever someone was missing or overdue out on the water he would go out looking for them. He saved lives and helped many people from Bella Bella and the surrounding areas. He was able to engage in rescue efforts in any type of weather, day or night, because he knows our territory like the back of his hand. The loud voices on the VHF that night reminded me of those days past when my family and I would sit in the dark, worrying and listening for word from him on the radio. I went upstairs after I heard him leave in the early morning hours of October 13th, where I found a note that read, “oil tanker aground, Gale Rocks”. Fear gripped me. In that moment I knew that I had to go out there – I had to try to help protect our territory. I had to see for myself what was going on.
Gale Pass is a sacred place for us as Heiltsuk; it is a spiritual place, a place that has sustained us through generations. A place of history and culture. A place of present-day Heiltsuk. A place we go to harvest clams, rockfish, lingcod, halibut, herring eggs, and salmon. A place we go to practice ceremony. All these thoughts were running through my mind as we raced towards the location the NES had run aground.
The Ocean is a part of us as Heiltsuk people; we are intrinsically connected to it throughout generations. For as long as I can remember I have been out on the Ocean with my family; it is where I feel most alive. Our health depends on the Ocean. The mood on the herring skiff with my Uncles, Cousin and Husband that early, dark morning as we raced towards the NES was heavy, all of us unsure of what we would see when we arrived at the incident site.
Chaos. What we witnessed was chaos and confusion. When we arrived at the site of the spill alongside other Heiltsuk boats, our Heiltsuk Guardian Watchmen were already at the site with the Bartlett Coast Guard Vessel. The weather conditions that day were moderate. The tide was falling. The NES tug was grinding on the reef and its connected barge swinging back and forth in the surf. What could we do?! We watched in abject disbelief waiting for the worst to happen. Heiltsuk Mariners tried hailing the Coast Guard on the radio to offer advice on how the tug could be pulled off the rocks, to no avail.
As the tide fell, the tug began to smash more heavily against the reef, and the chatter on the radio between the Coast Guard and crew was ominous. The pumps on the NES were failing, the hull was breached, it was time for the crew to evacuate the tug. The tug sank in moments. As soon as it was beneath the surface the smell of diesel fumes washed over us, and the water became milky around us. It was the single most helpless feeling that I’ve ever experienced. We think of our territory as part of ourselves – and this crushing new presence felt like a physical assault. The sea conditions were now building, and the tide was turning. The diesel was now flowing into the clam-rich beaches of Gale Pass. We went ashore and walked the beach while we waited for the booms to arrive. The oil washed across the sand and rocks, slick under my boots. My head was dizzy with the fumes.
As the day progressed we did what we could. We placed booms across the mouth of Gale Pass and around the tug. But the damage was done. Our world was changed. The ride back to Bella Bella was beautiful, the sun golden on the mountains and a humpback whale spouted in the distance. Tears streamed down my face and I grieved.
Making the Unseen Seen
As scientists and scholars, community members and environmental advocates, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, authors, readers, and humans – how do we talk about the impacts of the NES oil spill? Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.
“Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.”Tweet this
Along Heiltsuk shores, part of the temperate rainforest iconically known to the world and National Geographic as the “Great Bear Rainforest”, the irreparability of such spills defy calculation. For the Heiltsuk people, the impacts of the spill still ripple ceaselessly through their lives, nearly two years after the incident. While the oil slicks have disappeared from Gale Pass beaches, Heiltsuk people wonder if local black bears harbor toxins, if ancient cedar trees and their bark that is so culturally important are forever changed. How do we understand the magnitude of spill impacts for a culture that views the Ocean as home, and whose cultural, personal, and physical sustenance is supported by the abundance of species it houses? Perhaps we do so through poetry, through ecologically-embedded social sciences, or through improved cross-cultural communications. More importantly, perhaps we do so by restoring the Heiltsuk’s – and other First Nations’- rights to respond to environmental destruction in their own territories, and by recognizing their rights to dictate who, and what, navigate through their Oceans (and lands).
As British Columbia faces ever-increasing pressure to allow tanker traffic and pipeline expansions through traditional Indigenous territories, understanding these impacts in real and meaningful ways has never been more crucial. On an objective scale, the calamity caused by the NES was small relative to the consequences that would have resulted had the tanker and articulated barge not delivered their payload before meeting an untimely end. Threats of catastrophic tanker spills in Heiltsuk territory persist – near misses occurring far too frequently. Proposals to increase tanker traffic across provincial coastlines only increase the chances of a spill that would result in irreparable cultural and ecological consequences; changes to protect the entire coast from the threat of oil spills must occur – before the unthinkable does.
As a graduate student, and perhaps particularly as a Ph.D. student, I am frequently reminded of the value of narrowing my focus. The advice is fitting; in the field of Applied Conservation Science, our scholarship is necessarily concentrated. Our diverse ecosystems, and the myriad ways humans understand and interact with them, are so complex as to require specific focus for deeper understanding. And for our scholarly work to contribute to change in the real world requires a long-term concentration on these geographic, ecological, and social complexities.
I pose with my cohort of National Geographic Early Career Leaders: 15 of us, hailing from 11 different countries, speaking 25 languages and with unique disciplinary focuses.
It’s a mutually beneficial process; to travel is to recognize and draw upon the sources of your knowledge and experience, and the unique way you look at the world. To bring the practice of territorial acknowledgment to stages on the East Coast of the U.S., where they are rarely witnessed in the last decades, for example, was an important opportunity to share this process with a broader international audience.
Through interacting with scholars working all over the world, and particularly through formal mentorship programs afforded to me through the National Geographic Society, I now recognize impossibly important and oft-overlooked perspectives. The kaleidoscope of color these cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural conversations have painted over my understanding of our world and my research, the passion of the individuals I’ve met, and the collaboration opportunities that abound, give me hope that we together might achieve our conservation goals. I’m honoured and humbled to bring this wellspring of hope and new conversations back to our work on the Central Coast.
I’ve been planning on writing about this article for some time, but its taken me months to figure out how to explain the emergent hope that this article awoke in this moment of deep political turmoil and social divisions in North America. I feel I still may fail to do this moment in history justice.
In her February Race Issue article, Editor-In-Chief Susan Goldberg approaches National Geographic Magazine’s histories of cultural appropriation, abject racism, and colonization. She also grapples with questions of race and identity, reporting on recent work supported by National Geographic which definitively evidences that there is no biological basis for the race construct (though the cultural construct of race has and continues to have profound biological impacts). In her article, Goldberg seeks to confront the“shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we [society at large and the National Geographic Society] are better than this.”
When I was first awarded a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant in 2015 for my work in partnership with Central Coast First Nations (the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Wuikinuxv, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk Nations) I felt an inherent tension living somewhere beneath my excitement. As a white Settler of European descent, I increasingly recognize the ways in which colonization and imagined racial constructs have, directly and indirectly, benefitted me at the cost of Indigenous peoples and diverse cultures worldwide. In articles from its far and recent history, the Society perched on colonial haunches, other-ing Indigenous peoples or portraying them as exotic caricatures. This history of colonialism is by no means unique to the National Geographic Society; it is a systemic and foundational underpinning of many of the systems so many of us live, interact, and work within (the discipline of Geography, the infrastructure of the academy, etc.). But through my interactions with the Society, and articles like this one, I have felt this tension ease and be replaced by a growing urgency to speak for decolonizing methodologies and lifestyles in support of Indigenous rights and Indigenous-led research, and hope for a future of multi-cultural and multi-species flourishing.
In order to begin to shed the old, ugly colonial and imperial skins which shroud our institutions and our lives still, we must begin with the uncomfortable process of acknowledging our racist and colonial histories, by being radically honest about where both systems of inequality exist in our lives and institutions, and by standing resolute in an unwavering commitment to learn more, strive for better, and fight for justice for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of all races.
“Sometimes these stories, like parts of our own history, are not easy to read. But as Michele Norris writes in this issue, ‘It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.'”
As National Geographic works to expand the field, push the boundaries of our knowledge, and conserve the places and things that matter most, I am deeply glad that they are also reflecting on their own history. It is a brave, bold, and fundamentally necessary exercise towards reconciliation, equality, and a better world. We have so, so much more work to do. But I feel strengthened to engage in that work through the support of the Society, mentors, and my incredible and tireless Indigenous partners.