Taking a Moment; A Field Season Wrap-Up

I am going to take a moment to celebrate.

As I depart a field season that was, with certainty, the most transformative three months I’ve experienced, celebrating is both important and overwhelming.

I am immensely lucky. Let me try to tell you why…

I spent my summer working with, for, and in, four First Nations Coastal communities that, though geographically close, are radically distinct. These communities — Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Wuikinuxv, and Klemtu — are set in, have relied upon, and stewarded complex and diverse ecological backdrops since time immemorial.

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A Day in the Office: Heading out of Bella Bella for some drop video sampling.

My goals, made explicit elsewhere on the blog, were to document and understand traditional and local knowledge surrounding changes in groundfish populations and BC’s coastal marine systems over the last century. Building upon my collaborator’s on-going ecological studies, this historical data will inform marine-use plans and strengthen conservation goals developed and implemented by the Wuikinuxv, Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Nuxalk (Bella Coola), and Kitasoo/Xai’xais (Klemtu) Nations. I aim to accomplish these goals over the next few months, as I set out to establish key themes in rockfish populations and significant impacts on ocean systems through transcriptions, analyses, community follow-up workshops, and more interviews.

What I’d like to share with you today are the common themes that people have shared. They have emerged from distinct places and cultures.

Oolichan feast: Freshly caught and steamed forage fish in Wuikinuxv.

Oolichan feast: Freshly caught and steamed forage fish in Wuikinuxv.

They materialized as I passed through communities and overnighted at research stations, bubbled to the surface during long days on waves in metal boats, and seeped out over conversation and shared smoked coho.

Showcased over fried oolichans and bannock in Wuikinuxv, expressed by gifts of canned salmon in the Broughton, or conveyed through stories over cedar smoke in the mountain shadows of Bella Coola, the people of BC’s coast showcased a propensity for extreme generosity and openness. Never will I be so saturated in carefully harvested and splendidly roasted seaweed than my weeks with the Heiltsuk. I’m forever indebted to the Kitasoo and Xai’xais for the wildlife sightings their local knowledge afforded me. Though a newcomer and short-timer, I was consistently treated with generosity in each community that hosted me. I was spoiled and well-fed.

Cedar-smoked chinook in Bella Coola; be still my heart.

Cedar-smoked Chinook Salmon in Bella Coola; be still my heart.

Beyond bigheartedness that left me well-nourished and humbled, I was struck by my newfound friends’ retained sense of natural wonder and ecological appreciation. I was able to spend summer evenings patiently watching immature grizzlies saunter through salmon-laden streams and shared moments of excitement and awe over humpback flukes with Guardian Watchmen who’d spent half a century on the water.

My enthusiasm for wildlife and beautiful coastal vistas was never met with anything but agreement, understanding, and shared environmental fervor.

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Traditional dance by youth of Kitasoo/ Xai’xais — Klemtu.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the individuals who have called BC’s Central Coast home for their lifetimes retain a sense of natural awe. The cedar, hemlocks, and spruce-capped peaks that shoot out of productive Pacific waters are staggering to the most seasoned Coastal traveler.

Sometimes, it's the little wonders too. Velella velella, Hakai Institute.

Sometimes, it’s the little wonders too. Velella velella, Hakai Institute.

Through my work, less heartwarming themes also emerged showcasing the threats to this awe-inspiring sea-and-landscape; observations of extreme resource depletion, the echoed destruction caused by commercial draggers and a growing influx of international sports fishers, changing seasonal temperatures, and a slipping access to the waters, and fish, that sustain traditional life-ways and cultures were repeatedly expressed. My interviews and casual conversations were often predicated upon an understanding that this is an opportunity-laden but frightening time for Coastal communities faced with Enbridge and LNG development, commercial fishing expansions, and other harrowing realities.

I’m bound home to Victoria, BC tomorrow, where I’ll begin slightly less action-packed, certainly less salmon-fillet-filled analysis and writing. But, once initiated, you never leave the Central Coast.

Nuxalk Oolichan Totem in Bella Coola, BC.

Nuxalk Oolichan Pole in Bella Coola, BC.

Once you have spent time in the inviting and canned-filled homes of friends, the art-filled gathering rooms of Coastal First Nations, contemplated ornate and beautiful Oolichan carved into a pole that stands by a glacial river, or danced barefoot in a recently reconstructed Big House….

A piece of you becomes nestled into the framework that supports, with such inspiring vistas of sea-marrying-cedar, a network of some of the world’s most charismatic land mammals, most fantastic predators, most impossibly beautiful oceans, and most economically and culturally vital fishes. Of these valuable fishes, my research, my interviews, and my summer focused heavily on rockfish and lingcod. Rockfish, my tiny focal window into the world of what-has-been and what-is-to-come for our Great Bear Rainforest and Great Bear Sea, my elders-of-the-sea, showcase the complexity of our coast and just how worth protecting it is.

Yelloweye Rockfish - my window into the complexities of Coastal Conservation.

Canary Rockfish – my window into the complexities of Coastal Conservation.

Potentially impacted by the loss of forage fish (sardines, herring, and eulachon), decades of commercial catch quotas set without full understanding of complex system processes, global climate change, and a range of dissimilarly motivated fishers from all over the world, the rockfish story will be a complex one to relate…

The story, like many shared with me this summer, exudes a moral of interconnectedness and ecological integrity. Sure, we Ecologists talk a big game about understanding systemic complexity. Though we admit that often our fisheries models are too simple and ecosystems hopelessly complex, we still gesture at our grand knowledge of intricacies with various ecological theories to explain succession, community dynamics, multiple stressors, and the like.

Field work is never simply

Field work is never simply “field work” – it is the impossibly small complexities and laughter-filled moments with friends. (Wuikinuxv, BC)

But systemic complexities extend far beyond ecological dynamics. You cannot talk about rockfish without talking about residential schools. You cannot discuss lingcod without discussing encroaching pipelines, a commodification economy, or the world our grandchildren will inherent. You cannot converse about red-snapper without covering bubble-net feeding humpbacks, salmon health and resilience, the disappearance oolichan runs, grizzly behavioral changes, climate change, or the simple and unmatched joy of resource richness and self-sufficiency.

You cannot visit this Coast without feeling as if you’ve become part of an upwelling; a respiring animal that inspires through shared salmon and seaweed and whispers of spirit bears; that breathes life into resource management through ancient stories and modern art.

Who's watching who? A parting glance from the Kermode Bear - the charismatic white-phase bear that to many represents the Great Bear Rainforest. Klemtu, BC.

Who’s watching who? A parting glance from the Kermode Bear – the charismatic white-phase bear that to many represents the Great Bear Rainforest. Klemtu, BC.

In Four Nations linked by history and by fish, but separated by individualism, culture, and geography, a common theme emerges: I am profoundly lucky to know places and cultures so worth protecting, preserving, and uplifting.

I am going to take a moment to celebrate.

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