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Ha-ma-yas Training Waters

Some of the Nanwakolas member First Nations have been partnering with Nature Trust British Columbia since 2020 to test and analyse water quality in the Salmon River Watershed, as part of a five-year project to improve estuary habitat and enhance the long-term sustainability and health of wild BC fish stocks in the face of climate change threats.

“The K’ómoks Guardians are really pumped about this work,” says Cory Frank emphatically. Cory, who leads the K’ómoks Guardian Watchmen department for his Nation, is talking about the role of his team in the work that the K’ómoks Guardians have been doing as part of the Salmon River estuary project: “Being out there is so enjoyable, walking the river and collecting the data,” enthuses Cory. “But what’s really great is getting to see the results, and learning how to read and interpret them. That’s the most exciting part for everyone.”

Nature Trust’s West Coast Conservation Land Manager, Tom Reid, says: “It’s just as exciting for us to work with Cory’s team and the other First Nations on a project like this. We share so many common values in looking at water quality, in terms of ecological and community wellbeing, and resilience in the face of the increasingly noticeable impacts of climate change. The deep ecological history the Guardians carry,” adds Tom, “and their vast traditional knowledge and superior knowledge of the landscape we are working in, also give much greater meaning to the numbers in the data we are collecting.”

The what of water testing

In 2019, Nature Trust began to partner with three of the Nanwakolas member First Nations, working in three estuaries in their respective territories, to seek answers to what Tom describes as “some fundamental questions” about water quality in those estuarine ecosystems. “How vulnerable are our waterways to climate change and sea-level rise? What are they telling us about how we need to manage for resilience, in terms of things like restoration and conservation?”

The objective of the partnership is to gather data in some key watersheds, using what is called the Marsh Resilience to Sea-Level Rise, or MARS tool, developed by the U.S. National Estuarine Research Reserve System to evaluate and compare the resilience of tidal marshes as sea levels rise. The data the Guardians gather will be used to assess various sites within a number of coastal estuaries on Vancouver Island and central and northern British Columbia, including the Salmon River estuary, and will also help be used to develop appropriate management tools to build resilience.

And the why

It’s work that could sound like – well, pretty dry stuff (even if it does involve water). Why does the state of our local marshes and estuaries matter, when (according to a 2007 report by Environment Canada) they only amount to less than three percent of the entire coastline of British Columbia?

For a start, says that report, estuaries are “among the most biologically productive and threatened ecosystems in the world.” A huge number of our estuaries are seriously threatened by coastal development, modification and pollution. Dozens of our native wild bird species, including loons, grebes, geese and nearly thirty species of duck, depend on these estuaries, and are similarly threatened as a result. The same is true of herring, which sometimes spawn in estuarine waters, and not least of all, salmon returning to spawn in the river systems feeding these estuaries.

Add the potential impacts of climate change into the mix, and it’s pretty clear that a sustainable future for these vital parts of the coastal ecosystem in British Columbia depends on the kind of vital work that the Nanwakolas member First Nations and Nature Trust are doing.

The rewards for getting their feet wet

The Salmon River empties out into the shallow waters of its estuary at X’wesam (Sayward), roughly halfway between Port McNeill and Campbell River on Vancouver Island. This is where Cory and his Guardian team head monthly to collect data at ten different stations in the estuary, alternating between gathering measurements on falling and rising tides (and, once every season, spending two days in situ to collect samples on both tides).

The Guardians use a highly sophisticated instrument called an RBRmaestro, purchased by Nature Trust with provincial and federal government funding for the use of all of the First Nations undertaking the water sampling. With the Maestro, says Steve Henstra, Nature Trust’s Restoration Biologist, the Guardians are able to measure everything from water temperature and depth to conductivity, oxygen content, turbidity and much more. That information is instantly transmitted via Wi-Fi to mobile devices, using a custom-designed app to record additional metadata – information such as the date, start and finish times for collection, and the person doing the collection (the logo for the app, commissioned by Nature Trust, was designed by K’ómoks artist and Guardian Randy Frank).

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“Our crews just love seeing the data come through, and the results,” repeats Cory. “Literally within minutes of putting the Maestro in the water there is a flood of all kinds of data coming in. It’s almost unbelievable how much information we are able to get. We can see not just how the quality of the water is faring, but measure turbidity after a heavy rain event, and even get a sense of what is happening further up the river system,” he says. “We can see the damage from logging up in the headwaters, for example. The impacts are right there in the data.”

Not least of all, says Cory, getting their feet wet in the river is a lot of fun – most of the time, anyway. “We have had a few scares with bears and elk coming down the estuary at us, and being caught out by really high water or bad weather. But it’s all part of the job and the excitement.” They are being rewarded for their efforts by Sayward locals, he adds: “We stirred up a bit of local excitement. Everyone was curious about what we are doing, and asking lots of questions. Now every time we go up we get given free coffee and doughnuts as a thank you for the work!”

Two way benefits

In partnering with First Nations like K’ómoks, says Tom Reid, Nature Trust wanted to ensure that they supplied technology and training that equipped the Guardians to do the work efficiently and easily. “The Maestro is a tool that the Guardians can use for a number of different purposes in addition to the water quality sampling, for example,” says Tom. “We also worked together to design a training app for the Guardians to use. They send their data through to Steve, and he works with that data to produce results to share with them.”

Through the partnership, Nature Trust gets the information it needs to do its assessment of estuary resilience. Nature Trust benefits in other ways, adds Tom: “Working with the Guardians has been so valuable. It’s not just their incredible traditional knowledge of the area and the history of the landscape that enriches the data.” Even in designing the project and choosing sampling sites, says Steve, the Guardians’ superior local knowledge of landscape, seasonal water flow and weather all came into play to make for a much better initiative.

“For example, we put suggested sampling locations in front of them and they immediately pointed out to us where we would have difficult access issues, or problems with tides, and where better locations existed for fish sampling. That was just invaluable. We were able to optimize the sequence of sampling sites based on their knowledge, which saves so much time and resources. It’s priceless information,” he says. “They are the experts,” agrees Tom. “It’s that simple. Boat handling skills, weather, access, you name it. They know what they are doing out on the water and land in a way we just don’t.”

A long term view

“Nature Trust see this as a long term relationship with the First Nations,” says Tom. “They are the ones out there all the time, with responsibility to protect their territories. Working together is such a good experience, I hope for everyone, and we want to sustain that experience into a long term partnership that is of benefit to everyone in taking care of the water and the fish, as the work to manage climate change impacts continues.”

“It’s great working with the Nature Trust crew,” agrees Cory. “Being able to do this work is invaluable to us, as well. We’ve been protecting our territory since time immemorial, and we’re growing our capacity every day through work like this to keep protecting the territory. As Guardians, that represents everything that is important in what we do, both now and in the future.”