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“Kelping up” With The Times

Ha-ma-yas News Training Waters

The Nanwakolas member Nations’ Guardians have been working together since 2018 on the first comprehensive, multi-year, scientific study of kelp in their territories that has been undertaken in decades. Wei Wai Kum Guardians Manager Karl Smith is leading the work  for his Nation.


Kelp, says Karl Smith Passionately, is vital to sea life in Wei Wai Kum territory: “It is such an important part of the marine ecosystem. Basically, without kelp, the sea life in our waters would not be able to thrive.”

A vital ecosystem now at risk

Kelp forests, those glorious trailing strands of gold and copper-coloured seaweed floating from giant bulbs that grace much of British Columbia’s near shore waters-and indeed, roughly one-quarter of the entire planet’s coastline-comprise one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.

As many as 350 marine species, and sometimes more, can exist on and utilize a single kelp bed, which acts as a nursery for spawning sea life, such as herring which lay their eggs on kelp, and a safe hiding place for other species escaping from predators. Some species, like sea urchins, feed on the kelp itself. Kelp forests also form a giant underwater carbon sink, helping mitigate the impacts of global warming. Marine environmental practitioner Markus Thompson says: “A kelp bed is as important an ecosystem as a tropical coral reef, in terms of the habitat it provides. The loss of a kelp bed in our northern waters would be as devastating as the loss of a coral reef in the tropics.”

Therein lies a worrying problem: in the last fifty years, our global kelp forests have declined by as much as a third in biomass. Guardians like Karl have been directly witnessing the decline of kelp forests in their territories in recent years. “It’s very concerning how fast kelp has been disappearing,” he observes. That, believes Karl and his fellow Guardians, and the other experts they work with, is a potential environmental disaster in the making. The loss of even more of their territories’ vital kelp forests simply cannot be contemplated.

What’s being done about it

Until 2018, no comprehensive contemporary inventory of kelp had been undertaken coastwide in British Columbia. Filling the information gap was vital to understanding what needs to be done to protect not only this important ecological and cultural resource, but of the marine environment in general. In Helping the Kelp, published here in January 2019, Markus, who is working with Guardians like Karl, pointed out that the giant and bull kelp that are most commonly found in local waters are excellent indicator species for marine habitat health generally- if kelp is not thriving, it is more than likely that whatever is affecting it is also affecting the rest of the ecosystem.

Accordingly, a multi-year study project-now in its fifth year- was created in partnership with the Nanwakolas Nations’ Guardians, the Ministry of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRO), the Hakai Institute and others to fill the information gap. The goals of the study, explained Markus in Helping the Kelp, are to bring up-to-date measurements of data like water temperature and salinity together with observations and analysis of both human activity-things like pollution and habitat loss from logging, fish farming and other industrial activities- and other influences such as climate change, to assess impacts on and changes in the ecosystem over time.

“For example,” explained Markus, “kelp productivity is generally highest in cooler water, so as water temperature increases with climate change we may see a drop in kelp abundance. Another example is that we are seeing sea otters returning to the east coast of Vancouver Island. Sea otters eat sea urchins, which eat kelp, so that will have an impact as well.”

Not least of all, the study project incorporates invaluable First Nations’ knowledge. “It’s a great fit,” said then-provincial government marine biologist Dr. Rebecca Martone, who worked on the study until late 2021. “It’s pretty challenging to monitor species that are mostly underwater, in remote locations with difficult access. Having people who know the territories inside out, who are competent in boats in these places and who understand how the tides work and the tough conditions is priceless.”

The approach to the work

Working with First Nations Guardians who have significant experience and knowledge of the environment and who are comfortable working in remote, challenging waterscapes, but who also don’t necessarily have a scientific qualification, demanded a partnership approach to the original design of the study that was scientifically rigorous but also straightforward. “An important part of this work is building the capacity within the First Nations to undertake the monitoring work directly over time,” says Markus. “So we designed the approach together for the best way to achieve that.”

Over the first year of the study, the team applied a three-tier approach to the work. Tier One involved simply finding out roughly how much kelp they were dealing with, and where. “The Guardians knew where to find the kelp, so we went out in small boats with them and used a GPS system to map the locations and extent of various kelp beds in their territories, and gathered some basic observational data about anything else we could see happening,” says Markus. In Tier Two, more detailed information was gathered by Guardians in small boats counting kelp bulbs and strands in small metre-square quadrants in the kelp beds, and using aerial drone imagery. In Tier Three, scuba divers went below the surface to observe what was happening from that perspective.

2019-2021: On the water work

Since 2019, the team has focused on Tier Two work. “Wei Wai Kum have about ten kelp beds around Quadra Island and the Discovery Islands that we monitor each summer,” explains Karl. It’s practical and exacting work that demands close attention to detail. “We have to be aware of the tides-we look for the lowest tides because that’s the best time to see the kelp on the surface. We have a window of about an hour on each side of low tide to do our work effectively.”

A team of four Guardians in two small inflatable boats head into the kelp beds, two people doing the measuring, and the other two recording the results. One team traverses the bed, and using one-inch plastic piping meticulously laid out in one-metre quadrants on the surface, the Guardians count the bulbs in each quadrant, and measure the size of the stipes, or stems of the kelp, at the widest part immediately below the bulbs.

“We’ve learned that latter measurement gives us a fairly good estimate of the total biomass, or weight, of each plant,” explains Markus. “If the Guardians can complete thirty to sixty quadrants in a kelp bed, that gives us a reasonable estimate of the total volume of kelp in that bed by biomass.” Weight is a more accurate measurement than simply counting bulbs, he explains: “You do get small beds with large kelp, and vice versa, so this method gives us a better picture of how much kelp we are really seeing.”

While one team is doing the quadrant work, the other team travels around the perimeter of the bed, using GPS to map its circumference, and measure the depth of the water at various points. They also lower a camera into the water, to get a sense of what is on the sea floor beneath the bed: “At this stage, it is mostly sea urchins we are seeing at the moment in our waters,” says Karl. “The sea otters have not returned this far south yet, so the predation on the kelp is still significant here.”

Lastly, Karl flies a drone on a pre-set route to obtain aerial footage of the whole bed, information which is transmitted directly to his tablet and added to the data the team has already gathered.

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A continuing journey: the old and the new

Both old and new technology are coming into play in this important work, says Markus. The University of Victoria’s Remote Sensing “Spectral” Laboratory, for example, is currently working on an initiative in which it is focusing on the use of the latest in remote sensing technologies to map kelp forests on the coast of British Columbia. At the same time, laboratory technicians have been analyzing century-old topographical maps in which mariners had identified kelp beds, and comparing them to the results of current aerial surveys to note the changes that have occurred.

In the meantime, the data gathered from the Guardians Tier Two surveys is, among other things, being used to ground-truth satellite and Airborne Coastal Observatory surveys, says Markus. The Airborne Coastal Observatory is a partnership initiative between Hakai Institute, the University of Northern British Columbia, Vancouver Island University, and Kisik Aerial Survey, in which a fixed-wing plane has been dedicated to mapping on the coast for the next five years, examining and monitoring indicators of Climate change.

From here, the Guardians’ work will focus on fine-scale measurements in the kelp beds, and assessing where greater protection of particular beds might be warranted. That is work that Karl and his team of Guardians, as well as the other Nations’ Guardian teams, are looking forward to in 2022. “I think of it as a journey,” says Karl. “Our ancestors have been doing this work for thousands of years, observing the environment, learning as they went, fine-tuning their conclusions and forecasts as their observations became more and more accurate. We are just continuing that work, using modern technology but also that ancestral knowledge that we have accumulated for such a long time. It’s a great honour,” he says quietly, “to be part of that journey.”

Karl Smith and his Guardian team worked with a CBC “Nature of Things” film crew and Guardians from other Nanwakolas Nations over two days during the 2021 season, to show CBC the work that WWK Guardians are doing to protect kelp in their territory. Watch from approximately 30 minutes on: The Nature of Things: Fire and Ice