Marine life flourishes in the deep fjords and narrow inlets off the central coast of British Columbia. However, underwater research in this area has been extremely limited, until now. In March 2018, an exciting collaboration brought together a variety of perspectives to expand our understanding of the unique coastal ecosystem within the area known as the Great Bear Rainforest (Figure 1).
Figure 1. This interactive map on the expedition’s dedicated website tracked the progress of the CCGS Vector through Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Territory along the central coast of British Columbia.
Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) joined Oceana Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance and the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nations (Figure 2) on a weeklong expedition aboard CCGS Vector (Figure 3) to explore and study this area of cultural, biological, and ecological importance.
Figure 2. Central Coast of British Columbia Expedition partners, left to right. Rear: Captain Ben Axmann, Canadian Coast Guard; the honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard; Alexandra Cousteau, Oceana Canada; Terry Beech, Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard; Tristan Blaine, Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance. Front: Maia Hoeberechts, ONC Associate Director, User Services; Tammy Norgard, Chief Scientist for the expedition, DFO; Mel Innes, Hereditary Chief of the Heiltsuk Nation; and Robert Rangeley, Oceana Canada. Not pictured: Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation. Credit: Oceana Canada/Evermaven
Figure 3. Equipped with ONC’s satellite system to enable ship-to-shore communications, CCGS Vector explored the Kynoch Inlet fjord, the Seaforth and Finlayson Channels, and Fitz Hugh Sound on the central coast of British Columbia. Credit: Oceana/Evermaven
The Central Coast of British Columbia Expedition was a great success for scientific research, cross-sector collaboration, and community engagement.
“With the support of DFO’s ship and drop camera (Figure 4), a large collaborative team from many sectors worked together to understand this under-studied area (Figure 5) and engage with the local community (Figure 6),” says DFO marine biologist Tammy Norgard, chief scientist for the expedition. “We learned more as researchers by collaborating with our First Nations colleagues in the field and adapting our survey designs to accommodate that knowledge.” (Figure 7)
Figure 4. Diving below 200 metres, DFO’s bathyal ocean observation and televideo system (BOOTS) visually documented life on the seafloor at depths that had never before been scientifically surveyed at these coastal sites.
Figure 5. The central coast of British Columbia is home to complex rocky reefs with a high diversity of rockfish, corals, sponges, and basket stars.
Figure 6. Douglas Neasloss, Chief Councillor and Stewardship Director of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation (right) was one of several local leaders who came onboard CCGS Vector during the weeklong expedition. Pictured here with the expedition’s Chief Scientist Tammy Norgard (left) and Maia Hoeberechts, ONC (centre). Credit: Oceana Canada/Evermaven
Figure 7. Expedition Chief Scientist Tammy Norgard worked closely with local Indigenous knowledge holders to identify areas of interest to the local communities and significant research locations.
The Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nations are stewards of the central coast of British Columbia and have been for thousands of years. Their intimate knowledge and understanding of this unique ecosystem is a vital complement to scientific research. The expedition’s technology provided local First Nations and scientists with an unprecedented window into the sea, allowing many local community members to see the bottom of their coastal ocean for the first time (Figure 8).
Figure 8. No-one, including fisherman and Heiltsuk Hereditary Chief Mel Innes, had ever seen the bottom of these fjords and inlets before.
“Nobody has been able to view the underwater habitats of this area of the central coast,” says Norgard, who has been conducting research with Indigenous communities along the central coast for over a decade. “We were amazed by the density and abundance of corals and other marine life in the area. This is a great example of the way DFO will be conducting research in the future.”
Figure 9. Meanwhile onshore, ONC’s Indigenous Community Learning Liaison Mercedes McLean worked with Maia Hoeberechts, ONC Associate Director, User Services to connect with students in Klemtu and Bella Bella.
While the expedition was underway onboard CCGS Vector, ONC’s Maia Hoeberechts and Mercedes McLean were busy onshore with community engagement and youth activities (Figure 9). Public meetings and school visits offered many local community members an opportunity to provide input and participate in the research, either onshore (Figure 10) or onboard (Figures 11 & 12).
“In order to ensure the long-term health of our ocean and planet, we all need to participate in ocean stewardship, whether it’s through research, direct action, education, or sharing knowledge,” comments Maia Hoeberechts. “Youth involvement is particularly key as today’s young people are tomorrow’s leaders.”
Figure 10. Maia Hoeberechts (right) and Alexandra Cousteau (left) visit the community school in Bella Bella. Credit: Oceana Canada/Evermaven
Figure 11. Heiltsuk youth Anthony Campbell from Bella Bella is given a tour of the bridge by CCGS Vector Captain Ben Axmann, Canadian Coast Guard.
Figure 12. Mercedes Neasloss from Klemtu is given a tour of the CCGS Vector, asking questions of the crew and scientists and sharing her own stories about growing up along the central coast of British Columbia. Credit: Oceana Canada/Evermaven
Due to limited capacity, only a few expedition participants were able to stay overnight on board CCGS Vector. Every day the Coastal Guardian Watchmen from the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais and Heiltsuk Nations (Figure 13) safely ferried day-boarders back and forth from shore. “The Coastal Guardians were essential in this expedition,” comments Tammy. “Not only did they make it possible for so many people to take part in this survey, but as guardians of the territory, their knowledge makes them exceptional tour guides. They showcased the area’s unique cultural, biological, and ecological significance.”
Figure 13. Coastal Guardian Watchmen are experts in their territorial waters. Their activities include everything from scientific sampling, to monitoring fishing activities, and other activities.
“As the results and data analyses from this expedition continue, I'm excited to find out what we will learn about these unique fjord habitats through two rich and complementary sources of information: Indigenous knowledge⎯collected over thousands of years and continuing to the present⎯and science,” says Maia Hoeberechts (Figure 14).
Figure 14. Collaboration is the way of the future. Left to right: Kelly Brown, Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department Director; the honourable Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard; and Maia Hoeberechts (ONC).
Expedition website: http://protectoceans.ca/