“As Indigenous peoples, we look to the natural world for guidance on what we should be doing to protect it and manage its resources well, so that they remain healthy and abundant. The problem is that for the most part government doesn’t manage for ecological health, but to maximize the numbers of trees that can be cut or fish that can be caught. How can we say we are doing the environment justice when we just keep managing it that way? That’s got to change before it’s too late.”—Gina Thomas, Tlowitsis biologist and Guardian
In her role as a Tlowitsis Guardian, Gina Thomas has been conducting seasonal plant, tree, salmon, kelp, and eel grass surveys in her Nation’s territory for the best part of a decade. It’s work that is important in understanding what is happening in the territory, and in developing strategies to manage the ecosystem effectively so these important species thrive.
It’s also work that is increasingly significant as the impacts of climate change are felt. Those impacts are rapidly escalating; over the last couple of years, Gina has been shocked by what she has experienced when she heads out to do the surveys. In late June 2021, the infamous “heat dome” that swept over much of North America also lingered over the west coast of British Columbia, causing overwhelming damage: “Over two days here, the temperature was close to fifty degrees Celsius,” says Gina. “That had a huge impact. Trees were dropping their needles and leaves. The sugar kelp withered. At low tide you could see masses of dead rock crabs, and on some beaches, all the clams died. It was awful.”
Two months later, she and her colleagues were forced to remove the pickets on a fish fence Tlowitsis had installed on the Fulmore River near Port Neville. “That’s because by August, there was simply no water left in the river. I had never seen water levels that low in the river, or the lake,” says Gina. By contrast, she adds: “In the winter, we were able to bring our boat up the river right over where the eel grass beds are – the water was more than a metre above its usual level. I’ve never seen that before.”
It’s all adding up
These events, says Gina, are not unfolding in isolation. “What we are seeing are climate change effects on ecosystems that are already weakened by the cumulative impacts of the way they have been managed for decades.”
Contemporary non-Indigenous management systems tend to focus on resource extraction rather than protection, prioritizing revenue over sustainability, she says. Governments also tend to operate in silos, managing different natural features (forests, rivers and the ocean) separately, without consideration, for example, of the impacts of logging on watersheds or of commercial fish harvesting on wildlife populations.
By comparison, Indigenous scientists and resource managers like Gina, who work in a variety of ecosystems – marine, forest, alpine, and wetlands – view them as parts of an interconnected whole rather than a set of individual, isolated components. “Everything is connected in nature,” she emphasizes.
Generations of her forebears have observed, managed, and used the resources in their territories from that holistic viewpoint since time immemorial. They have also been guided by nature, rather than trying to dominate it: “We look to the natural world to tell us what we need to know about ecosystem management. Through observation we manage accordingly to ensure these environments, and all the species in them, not only survive but thrive. We’ve been doing this successfully for millennia.”
But governments aren’t connecting the dots the same way, much to Gina’s intense frustration: “Take Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve as just one example,” she says. “It is part marine area, and part forest, and key orca habitat. Now the government wants to enlarge the reserve, but they aren’t paying any attention to all the logging going on right behind it. As I say, everything is connected. The beaches in the reserve are now covered in industrial woody debris from that logging activity. Every time there is a big storm or a king tide, more and more of that debris ends up littering the ocean floor. Why aren’t they looking at the big picture? It’s a waste of time to enlarge the reserve if the logging is not addressed at the same time.”
But there is no time to waste
Indigenous science, as Gina points out, is thousands of years old, and the body of knowledge keeps growing. “Take kelp, for example. We have learned so much from kelp over the millennia. We have used it as a navigational aide, judging the direction of tides and currents by the way the kelp is trailing in the water, and we can assess depth by the length of the kelp, which can grow up to thirty metres long. Now with the help of contemporary science we are starting to understand how vital kelp beds are as ‘blue carbon,’ or carbon sinks that may be every bit as important as forests to carbon storage.”
But kelp is at risk as well, she says: “Kelp beds are widespread around the world, and yet now – just like the world’s forests – they are dwindling too, thanks to industrial activity and, possibly, climate change. We have to pay attention to that – that’s telling us something we need to know, too, and we should be acting on that immediately to stop any further decline in kelp.”
“We can’t wait,” she emphasizes, “for any more twenty-year government studies to prove whether climate change is happening – we know it is happening. We can see the impacts with our own eyes. And,” she repeats sombrely, “we’re running out of time. We have to act now before it’s too late.”
Working towards change
Gina and her colleagues are walking their talk, doing whatever they can to help their territory survive and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
“We are starting to get involved in blue carbon science – obtaining core samples from the mud below kelp and eelgrass beds to assess how much carbon has been stored in the sediment, for example.” The Tlowitsis Guardians are also engaged in limnology studies on the Fulmore River and Fulmore Lake (limnology is the scientific study of inland waters, approaching them as ecological systems connected to and constantly interacting with their drainage systems and the atmosphere – an approach that is aligned with Indigenous ways of observing and assessing the natural world).
Amongst a large number of initiatives that the Tlowitsis Guardians have been involved with throughout the years, they have also been participating with several other Nanwakolas member First Nations in water quality studies in key estuaries like the Fulmore and Salmon River watershed, partnering with Nature Trust British Columbia (as featured in “A Testing Partnership” on March 14), continuing their prawn and crab surveys in the territory as well as ongoing archaeology work, mapping clam gardens among other activities, and participating in marine emergency response training (as featured in “Partnership and Protection”on March 28).
This work that Gina and her fellow Guardians are doing is invaluable. It’s also essential, she concludes: “It’s never been more important to look at the legacy we are leaving our kids, and we all have to play our part in contributing to a better world for them to inherit.”
Moving towards change at a faster pace
A number of initiatives and projects led by, and partnerships with First Nations are also under way, all of which are helping to pick up the pace on mitigating the impacts of climate change. Here are just a few examples:
- In late 2021, the Mamalilikulla First Nation formally declared the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala area of their traditional territory to be an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA). In doing so, the Mamalilikulla First Nation has taken a significant step towards realizing its vision of reclaiming and restoring not only the wellbeing of the territory, but of its people. You can read more about that in Ǥa̱lǥa̱poła: Standing Together.
- The Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network and their counterparts in the Coastal Stewardship Network support coastal Guardians and the work they do in all of their Nations’ territories to safeguard their lands and waters.
- Coast Funds is partnering with First Nations to build and invest their endowed conservation funds to sustainably finance stewardship authorities for generations to come.
- The Vancouver Island University Stewardship Technician Training Program (the STTP) offers First Nations students the skills and qualifications necessary to be land and water Guardians. You can read more about that in Guardians in Training: Connected, Cultural, Caring and Committed.