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A Togetherness of Guardians

Ha-ma-yas Training Waters

The 2019 annual gathering of the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network involved watershed planning, “deep time” archaeological surveys, eDNA, the ICO, story-telling, karaoke and more.

A gathering on Quadra

The latest gathering of the Ha-ma-yas First Nations Guardians took place over four days in May this year, hosted for the first time by the Hakai Institute at its Ecological Observatory on Quadra Island. As usual, in anticipation of the coming season in the field, the Ha-ma-yas Guardians came together to undertake training in various aspects of their work, learn about new scientific techniques, and share experiences and knowledge with each other.

The Guardians often operate in remote and isolated places, so they seized the opportunity to renew old friendships, make new ones, hang out together, swap stories and enjoy themselves. Rumour has it they even added some new (if potentially embarrassing) stories into the mix. Yes, we heard about karaoke night at the Heriot Bay Inn!

As always, everyone involved came away after four days of classroom learning, hands-on fieldwork, fun and camaraderie feeling inspired, refreshed and ready to head back into the lands and waters of their territories to continue their vitally important stewardship work.

A helping hand from Hakai

The Hakai Institute offered Hakai’s Quadra Island facility as home base for the 2019 gathering after participating in an October 2018 Ha-ma-yas First Nations field trip based out of Tsatsisnukwomi (New Vancouver). Hakai’s focus is well-aligned with the work of the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network—“Supporting science on British Columbia’s coastal landscape to guide stewardship activities”—and the Institute has a long history of working with First Nations Guardians on the north and central coast, says Hakai Director Christina Munck.

“Hakai has also hosted annual conferences on Calvert Island, for example,” says Munck. Hakai has also hosted some of Vancouver Island University’s training modules run in partnership with Nanwakolas as part of their stewardship training program. It was a no-brainer, says Munck, to offer Hakai’s facilities for the 2019 Ha-Ma-Yas Gathering, and to run some training workshops for the Guardians as well.

Munck and Sue Velazquez, who organized the training week for Hakai, were delighted that the First Nations accepted the offer. Both Munck and Velazquez, eDNA Coordinator, consider that Hakai received huge value from the experience in return: “We were really pleased to be able to do this,” says Munck. “The Guardians are a wonderful, collaborative group of people to work with. We benefit greatly from the face to face contact and relationships with them, and what we learn from them.” Velazquez adds: “Their local and traditional ecological knowledge is invaluable in helping us to attain the big picture of how ecosystems, to include natural biodiversity, have changed or are changing.”

An exercise in organization

Organizing a conference and training for a couple of dozen Guardians in addition to visiting guests from the Caribou Guardianship Initiative in the Northwest Territories, various external instructors and Nanwakolas staff proved to be a significant exercise in logistics and coordination, despite the ease of ferry and private boat access to Quadra Island and the convenience of the location for practising new techniques in the field.

“We packed a lot into those four days, no question!” laughs Nanwakolas Training Coordinator Heidi Kalmakoff. “It was a huge amount of work, but we were very motivated. These are such rewarding events for everyone.” Velazquez agrees wholeheartedly. Despite the work involved, she says: “I hope they agree to let Hakai host it again next year!” Between them Kalmakoff and Velazquez efficiently organized not only the training modules, both in the classroom and in the field, but wrangled accommodation for everyone who needed it outside Hakai’s own facility, and van transportation to get everyone from the ferry to the Hakai facility and out to some of the training sites.

“One of the training sites was at the Octopus Islands,” says Kalmakoff. “Guardian crews brought their boats to Quadra Island for the Gathering so that we could get everyone to that site to do some of the training. Kalmakoff and Velzquez also organized maps and materials, and most importantly, food. Hakai provided breakfast and lunch, local café the Trout and Trivet prepared dinners on two nights, and the K’omoks Guardians cooked up a seafood feast for everyone on the third evening. “No-one starved, that’s for sure!” laughs Velazquez.

A full agenda

Plentiful nourishment was vital, because participants were there to work hard. Over the course of the program, participants learned about the latest developments in various areas of interest. Archaeology featured prominently on the agenda, and four members of First-Nations owned archaeology company Inlailawatash attended to participate in a tour by independent archaeologist Daryl Fedje.

Nanwakolas Forestry and Research Adviser Jordan Benner attended the tour: “It was very cool. Daryl has been focusing on what he calls ‘deep time’ archaeology. He has been doing analysis of sea level in relation to shorelines over time, for example, so as to get a better understanding of where to look for habitation sites.”

Fedje pointed out to the group that 9,000 years ago, the shoreline on Quadra Island would have been as much as fifty metres higher up in the hills than the 2019 level. “It was really amazing to know that if you go up that high in the hills, you might find signs of habitation from that era, like stone tools,” says Benner. By contrast, in other parts of coastal BC, original habitation sites may now be under water: “What that demonstrates is how important it is to think about these things in different ways, and the interaction between human habitation and sea level rise over time.”

The Inlailawatash team also reviewed locations that the Guardians plan to visit in the 2019 field season, and worked with them to practise their archaeological surveying techniques. In addition, the Guardians undertook updated drone survey training with Hakai instructor and geospatial research scientist Luba Reshitnyk, safety technology training with Rob White, also from Hakai, and watershed monitoring with Hakai ecosystem scientist Ian Giesbrecht.

Provincial government scientists with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development joined in the fun as well. Bill Floyd described in-stream techniques for measuring stream discharge and worked with the Guardians to practice those techniques. Markus Thompson, EBM
Coordinator for the Marine Planning Partnership for North Vancouver Island, worked with biologist Rebecca Martone on refined survey techniques for collecting and monitoring of marine ecological data like kelp, eel grass, sea surface temperature and salinity.

Watching watersheds

One whole day of the program was devoted to watershed monitoring and related issues. “All of the member First Nations are concerned about the state of the salmon in their territories, and have identified key ‘focal’ watersheds to monitor and study for planning purposes,” says Jordan Benner.

Benner says that the Guardians have independently witnessed stream levels hitting historic lows in recent years, a matter of serious concern with respect to salmon health. “So over the last eighteen months, with support from Hakai, they have been working to install and monitor sensors across the focal watersheds that measure things like water levels, temperature and chemistry. The data obtained from the sensors will help all of us to understand how and why stream systems are changing, and the risks to salmon.”

Ian Giesbrecht, who is involved with the work in collaboration with Benner and the First Nations and leads the Hakai team’s contribution to the project, presented results of the work to date to the Guardians. “I talked about what climate change might do to the streams and the salmon that use them, and I related these climate change predictions to the data we’ve helped the Guardians start collecting, such as water levels and temperatures,” says Giesbrecht.

In addition, he pointed out some interesting initial trends the Guardians might want to keep an eye on: “In particular, we saw a warm low flow period in late summer and these conditions are likely to become more common and severe with climate change. We saw that storms cause a rapid rise and fall of the streams during the fall and winter months. We also saw that the rivers with significant lakes have a more stable water level yet warmer water temperatures. So it’s a good start to a longer term study where they can relate salmon populations to changing climate and river conditions.”

Benner says that the data collected to date agrees with the Guardians’ independent observations of water levels, but cautions that while it’s good information to have, it’s also only the start: “The goal is to map out multiyear watershed plans to meet the First Nations’ respective priorities and key objectives. For that we need as much information as possible.” Nanwakolas and the Ha-ma-yas member First Nations are working with partners like Hakai and the provincial government towards that goal. “We’re looking at getting aerial data and photogrammetry, and other types of more sophisticated data that will help everyone better understand trends in these focal watersheds so that we can plan most effectively.”

On Quadra Island, everyone had an opportunity to review the data that had been collected over the previous year. “Hakai has developed an online portal where the Guardians upload data as they go, and see the results of all their work. Through the portal they can monitor how data is fluctuating, sometimes even minute by minute, in response to changing conditions like weather events, and trends in the data,” says Benner. “It’s pretty cool for them to be able to see that. It gives them a real sense of ownership of the work, of the data and what it means, which is exciting.”

eDNA: a new way of doing things

Another exciting part of the program involved learning about eDNA, or environmental DNA
sampling, a project that Sue Velazquez and Jordan Benner have both been involved with. eDNA
methods involve collecting small samples of water and testing the DNA of organic matter in the
samples, like fish scales, dead skin, and mucous—anything that might contain genetic information.
“It’s a new way to understand the biodiversity in key habitats,” says Benner. “It will fill in gaps in our knowledge about the presence and relative abundance of different species in the focal watersheds.”

Hakai has been focusing on eDNA sampling through its Integrated Coastal Observatory, or ICO, project. The ICO, says Sue Velazquez, is engaging partners up and down British Columbia’s coast in the coordinated collection of ocean-related data. “The approach we are aiming for is to set up distributed observation sites where the procedures are easy to teach, execute and manage, and where Hakai will coordinate the data processing and analysis,” explains Velazquez. “As fish respond rather quickly to environmental changes, analysis of fish eDNA to look at fish biodiversity will be a useful tool to help us monitor the health of the environment and impacts of climate change.”

What exactly is eDNA sampling, though, and why is it being considered as a viable alternative to more conventional methods of monitoring fish populations, such as trapping, netting, diving and electrofishing?

Firstly, while DNA analysis itself may be complex, collecting the samples involves a reasonably simple scientific approach that requires relatively little training and minimal logistics by comparison to more conventional methods. While Velazquez has developed a detailed protocol to follow when collecting samples—for example, ensuring clean, sterile equipment is used is critically important—essentially, the method more or less simply calls for wading into the ocean or leaning over the side of a boat and collecting a litre or so of water in a bottle from thirty centimetres below the surface. Even filtering the DNA material in the sample water can be done in the field; everything else is done in a laboratory.

It’s quick, relatively cheap, and removes any risk of stress or mortality to fish, unlike conventional methods. By comparison, electrofishing—a standard monitoring method for freshwater fish—can result in mortality rates as high as 36 percent in sampled fish. Salmon are particularly susceptible to injury and death from this method. Conventional methods also require technical field expertise in taxonomy and identification and expensive equipment. Animal handling permits may be required.

Data from conventional methods isn’t necessarily complete, either. “There’s a lot of missing data in the watersheds,” says Benner. “With eDNA, we can start to get a better understanding of which organisms are in in what area. We can find out more about the biodiversity of key habitats like kelp and eelgrass beds, as well as watershed-wide. That can be useful across various species,” he adds. “For example, the presence of salmon in different areas can be indicative of bear movement across the watersheds as well, as bears travel to where the salmon are.” All of this adds up to a simple conclusion: eDNA sampling, which is already producing valuable results, seems like a good way to go for the Guardians.

On Quadra Island, the Guardians were run through the collection protocol by Sue Velazquez. “The samples are very sensitive to contamination,” says Velazquez. “So it’s important, for example, to wear gloves throughout the process and change gloves every time they come into contact with any potential contaminant.” In other words, don’t touch anything you don’t have to, including your face, or you’ll go through a lot of gloves. The equipment used also has to be kept sterile, so strict procedures must be followed in carrying, using and storing the sample bottles, hoses, filters and bags. “The tubing that goes inside the sample bottle mustn’t be touched at all, and in following the instructions on how to filter the sample water, that strict level of non-contamination has to be maintained the whole time.”

After studying the protocol requirements, the Guardians and the instructors walked to a nearby beach to practice taking samples. “It was easy to learn, it was straightforward to do, and it was fun,” says Benner. “It’s a very efficient process.” Now, he adds, the Guardians can use the methodology in a number of different monitoring projects under way. “They all have plans to go out and start collecting samples in real life as soon as they can.”

From Hakai’s perspective, that’s a wonderful outcome. “That has huge value for us as well as the Guardians,” says Christina Munck. “They are in places that may be outside our geographic reach, and their data will help fill in the blanks for us in our work. In turn, because our data is open the First Nations can access it and use it as well. It’s a real partnership in that way.” Velazquez agrees: “It’s a real win-win for Hakai to provide the training and the protocols and the sampling equipment, and then share the results of the data when the Guardians send in the samples. We are doing this together all the way.”

Confidence and Collaboration

“I think it is fantastic to see the Guardians at these gatherings, building relationships and working together not just with each other, but with partners like Hakai and the provincial government,” says Heidi Kalmakoff. “On Quadra I saw a lot of collaborative problem-solving happening, especially with the hands-on training. They learn from each other, and those with more knowledge and experience in some areas mentor those who don’t have that background. You see such strong friendships made across the different First Nations, and I think they take those friendships back out with them into the territories. They know their friends are out there with them, and that’s a good feeling.”

“You can see what a difference it makes for the Guardians to get together and do this valuable work,” observes Sue Velazquez. “They inspire and encourage one another. The training together is a safe and collaborative environment that leaves them eager to do much more, together and on their own.” Christina Munck adds: “When you think about it, some of these people who have become Guardians would have hated science at school! Maybe they thought they just couldn’t do it. Now here they are not only doing the science, but enjoying it, and keen to learn more. Some of them are continuing into the next stage of education and going to university to become biologists, and others are bringing back what they already have learned into the communities and teaching people there about how they can engage in citizen science, too.”

That’s a good outcome for everyone interested in the ecological health of British Columbia’s coast, says Jordan Benner. “The Guardians are applying the science they are learning about in these programs through the lens of their existing vast cultural and traditional knowledge of these
landscapes and waters. That’s a much richer view of the coast, and can only result in stronger and better resource management and stewardship over the long term.”

As well as the sponsors mentioned in this article, Nature United also supported the 2019 Guardian Gathering.