At the mouth of the Skeena: A unique estuary

Tidal mudflats and shallow intertidal passages in the Skeena Estuary provide vital habitat for fish and birds. Photo credit: Brian Huntington.

Tidal mudflats and shallow intertidal passages in the Skeena Estuary provide vital habitat for fish and birds. Photo credit: Brian Huntington.

Originating high in the coastal mountains of northwestern British Columbia, the Skeena is the second largest river in the province and one of the world’s longest undammed waterways. It winds 610 kilometres from its headwaters to its rich estuary near Prince Rupert.

The mouth of the Skeena is a world onto itself. Unlike most estuaries, the Skeena does not have a single distinct intertidal delta. Instead, sediments from the river are deposited in shoals along the lower river and channels that connect the estuary to the open ocean. The result: a region of extensive mudflats and shallow intertidal passages. Here, eelgrass beds and kelp forests so vital to the health of other species flourish. The area supports some of the largest fish populations on the coast and it is a critical waterfowl habitat. All Skeena salmon spend part of their life in the estuary and depend on its health as juveniles and as returning adults. The Skeena Mouth is important to the region’s First Nations and includes ancient village sites, harvesting areas and sacred places. With its natural beauty and abundant wildlife, it is also a great spot for ecotourism.

First Nations harvesting eulachon on the Skeena River. Photo credit: Penny White.

First Nations harvesting eulachon on the Skeena River. Photo credit: Penny White.

To help protect this “super habitat,” the Province of British Columbia and First Nations in the North Coast plan area, represented by the North Coast-Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society (NCSFNSS), identified the mouth of the Skeena River as a protection management zone (PMZ). Land use decisions consistent with the recommendations in the North Coast Marine Plan will help ensure the sustainability of this unusually productive and complex ecosystem that is so important for a number of culturally, recreationally and economically important marine species.

One such species in particular has an important role in nature and culture: eulachon. These small ocean fish return to the estuary at the end of every winter and, while their lack of commercial value means little research has been undertaken, their value to the area’s First Nations people is immeasurable. To this day eulachon are an important part of indigenous communities’ diets.

The eulachon run attracts other species like sea lions and gulls to the Skeena River to feed. Photo credit: Allison Paul.

The eulachon run attracts other species like sea lions and gulls to the Skeena River to feed. Photo credit: Allison Paul.

“The eulachon run is one of the first signs of spring along the Skeena,” says Penny White, a fisheries biologist with NCSFNSS, which helps coordinate the monitoring efforts for the eulachon harvest. “After a long winter, eulachon were often the first fresh food available and were relied upon for their nutritional value.”

She adds, “The run this year was extremely late; we didn’t see any eulachon until March. We were worried they wouldn’t come at all but, when they arrived, life on the river exploded. It’s an amazing sight with thousands of gulls, seals and sea lions all following the fish.”

Penny talks with fishermen and elders along the river to get an estimate of the eulachon run, how much each person harvests, who they are fishing with and how long it takes fishermen to get enough fish for themselves and those they share with.

A bucket of eulachon on ice. Photo credit: Penny White.

A bucket of eulachon on ice. Photo credit: Penny White.

MaPP identifies the importance for First Nations to have access to traditional foods and recognizes the value of protecting the variety and quantity of marine resources for First Nations use. It considers data on food security needs and First Nations use when selecting areas for protection. “Food security is a big issue our Nations are facing and it’s a priority for NCSFNSS,” says Penny.

The best way to understand the cultural, biological and economic importance of the Skeena Estuary is to get to know it. After a short visit, you may become inspired to participate in efforts to enhance stewardship of this truly unique coastal habitat to ensure future generations can enjoy all that it has to offer.

NCSFNSS fisheries biologist Penny White. Photo credit: Penny White.

NCSFNSS fisheries biologist Penny White. Photo credit: Penny White.

Tracking cumulative effects

Maya Paul

Maya Paul, North Coast cumulative effects coordinator. Photo credit: Maya Paul.

Growing up in the rolling savannah of Botswana in southern Africa, Maya Paul could never have imagined that she would one day find herself living amid the rain forests of British Columbia’s north coast. Yet that’s exactly where her expertise in strategic planning and engagement has led her.

In January 2016, Maya was appointed cumulative effects coordinator for the North Coast MaPP sub-region, working on behalf of both the North Coast Skeena First Nations Stewardship Society and the Province of B.C. “My role is to coordinate the collaborative development and implementation of a MaPP cumulative effects framework in the North Coast,” she says.

container ship

Container traffic in Prince Rupert has increased at a faster pace than any other North American port. Photo credit: Maya Paul.

Cumulative effects are changes to environmental, social and economic values that are caused by the combined effects of past, present and reasonable foreseeable actions or events. Maya has the task of coordinating the development of a framework that accounts for changes to core marine values from human activities on a large stretch of coastline in northern B.C. that includes First Nations communities and the bustling hubs of Prince Rupert, Terrace and Kitimat. Development is being proposed at a rapid pace in the region and Paul hopes to pinpoint the major concerns of coastal communities around effects on core values from the rush of new projects, several of which are still in the midst of environmental assessments.

“A key component of the framework we are developing involves defining the core values of people in these communities,” notes Maya. “Once we identify the core values we have to establish indicators for those values, prioritize them, create a monitoring system, and then try to anticipate how those core values might change over time.”

NC bear salmon

Understanding core values is a key component of cumulative effects assessment. Photo credit: Birgitte Bartlett.

Although core values can be basic things like clean water, clean air and healthy food, her work also addresses the effect of development on socio-cultural and economic values, which can be harder to define. “For example, First Nations worry that their access to traditional resources will change from impacts to the health and quality of their seafood, socioeconomic impediments, or access to the harvest areas,” explains Maya. The framework is intended to guide management and regulatory processes in order to improve the stewardship of coastal and marine ecosystems and resources, and the human well-being of coastal communities. “Ultimately, the goal is to sustain the core coastal and marine values over the long run.”

The theme of sustainability has been a major driver in Maya’s life since she left Africa and attended the University of Guelph in Ontario where she earned a Master of Science in Environmental and Resource Economics. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science.

dock net

Calculating cumulative effects in marine ecosystems is challenging because values and impacts often cross jurisdictional boundaries. Photo credit: Allison Paul.

The MaPP governance structure established to implement the North Coast Marine Plan is unique in that it involves a collaborative working arrangement between two governments: provincial and First Nations. Creating clean lines of communications between the two camps is at the crux of Maya’s work. “I love bringing people together to ensure sustainability. It’s all about working collaboratively. You can’t accomplish anything enduring unless you bring the different decision-making groups together to sit in the same room and collaborate.”

“The cumulative effects framework that is developed by the MaPP partners here will inform the partners’ approach to stewardship on the North Coast moving into the future,” explains Maya. “We expect it to be a living document.”

halibut dry

Natural resources of the North Coast have high cultural significance to the residents. Photo credit: Maya Paul.

Grandfather Handshake and Big Fish – Two Generations Protect a Way of Life


James Russell (left) and Clarence Nelson

Chief Sm’ooygit Niist’oyx, or “Grandfather Handshake”, is a hereditary chief of the Gitwilgyoots tribe, one of the nine allied tribes of the Coast Tsimshian who live near the lower Skeena River on B.C.’s north coast. His given name is Clarence Nelson. He is a traditional and commercial fisherman, a member of many community committees and a well-read lover of local, First Nations and maritime history. He is also proud to be a mentor of young people who are interested in learning to fish for a living.

Since before contact, Nelson’s people have lived in the region close to what is now known as Prince Rupert. Every summer they travelled to prime fishing and hunting grounds and returned to the village of Metlakatla for the winter. “Metlakatla had its own First Nations name –Tbuunom Galtsap. It means ‘place of plenty’. When you lived there you never ran out of food,” Nelson says.

Today the resources provided by the land and the sea are still very important to the First Nations people of Metlakatla. Nelson says marine planning helps to identify the type and location of the different sea resources and habitats and which ones might require protection. He refers to abalone, which hasn’t been harvested for many years. “My grandchildren haven’t had a taste of abalone. They can only see it in a picture. And if we don’t manage the rest of the resources, that’s what’s going to happen to everything,” he says.

For Nelson marine planning is “… for future generations, my grandchildren, so at least they’ll get an opportunity to eat what I’m eating today.”

Nelson’s grandson, James Russell, recently graduated from Vancouver Island University with a degree in Natural Resource Protection. Now he works with Lax Kw’alaams natural resource department in Port Simpson. His grandfather proudly explains the history of Russell’s First Nations name, Wiihoon, which means ‘plentiful or big fish, abundance’: “He’s from the Nagunaks tribe, the undersea world. He was given the hereditary name because he loves being on the water and fishing all the time.”

It is a challenging and changing time for young people on the North Coast. As new developments bring different opportunities, it’s even more important to remember and protect the traditional way of life.

“We’re trying to find a happy medium where we can take advantage of future opportunities and keep on going with what we’ve been doing for generations,” Russell says.

Hatching a new industry on the North Coast


Shellfish farm production manager, Leo Vargas, with bags of scallop spats, also known as settled larvae.

Canadian waters, Chilean technology, and First Nations and Chinese investment are all contributing to the success of the Coastal Shellfish Corporation in Prince Rupert.

With a modern shellfish hatchery built in Prince Rupert and a shellfish farm in Metlakatla traditional territory, Coastal Shellfish hatches, grows and harvests scallops with minimal environmental impact.

Originally planned as an economic development opportunity in 2003, the hatchery launched as a pilot project in 2011 and had a few growing pains before its current success. Coastal Shellfish is now on track to becoming one of the biggest shellfish aquaculture operations in B.C.

Operations vice president, Vittorio Venturini, checks scallop spats on setting nets.

Operations vice president, Vittorio Venturini, checks scallop spats on setting nets.

Operations vice president Vittorio Venturini says that the water quality of the North Coast provides a huge advantage. “Up north, conditions are very good for shellfish farming. We have oceanic water coming in so that’s a good reason to have our farm here.” The challenge, he admits, is that logistics are harder to manage far from a large population base. But the company has a state-of-the-art hatchery in Prince Rupert, farm sites in Metlakatla territory, and plans to be processing scallops in Prince Rupert late this year. The scallop production cycle target is 24 months or less.

There’s big demand in the U.S. and Canada for scallops and there’s a shortage of product, according to Venturini. While most of the shellfish industry in the province generally uses rafts for farming, Venturini has perfected the less expensive, more efficient long lines typically used in Chile for large-scale shellfish farms. “A large farm requires an efficient system,” he says. “Lines sit under the water rather than on the surface, being more cost-effective, more environmentally friendly and safer than rafts.”

With its partners – the Metlakatla First Nation, the Coastal First Nations through its Great Bear Initiative and (Chinese) Canada Blossom – Coastal Shellfish expects to create 50 to 60 new jobs within the next few years. Coastal Shellfish plans to farm other species as well – perhaps geoduck and sea cucumber. “We’re already making some trials with other species,” Venturini says.

NC-ShellfishCorpscallopsTHUMBCraig Outhet, who is co-lead of the North Coast MaPP sub-region planning process, says that the goal is to increase economic benefit while, at the same time, managing ecological impacts. “While MaPP supports the idea of shellfish aquaculture, it doesn’t mean the gates are wide open,” he notes. “We need to make sure these farms are managed right.”

But he’s confident the Prince Rupert operation is on the right track so far. “We’re working to find the holistic balance of the ecological, the human well-being and the governance,” he says. “You might think these things are at odds, but they’re not really.”

He particularly likes the way the MaPP process is looking ahead 20 years. “It’s a long-term planning process,” he says. “Regardless of what’s currently happening, we’re planning for the long term.”

The value of listening to the whales


If biologist Janie Wray could persuade whale-watchers of any one principle, it would be this:

“Understand that while you’re having a whale experience, the whale is also having a human experience.”

The co-director of the Cetacealab, a whale research facility on Gil Island, on the North Coast of B.C., is all too familiar with the mistakes that insensitive whale-watchers make.

“The greatest one is getting in too close with their boat,” she says. “The distance between the boat and the whale should be at least 100 metres. And once you get within 400 meters, you should be going very, very slowly.”

She suggests that tourists observe how whales interact with other whales, to get the right idea. “Whales always make their approaches very slowly,” she says, emphasizing that departures require the same protocol. “Quiet and slow. Whales perceive their environment through sound in the same way humans use sight.”

cetacealab-hyrophone-networkWray and her partner Hermann Meuter have earned their knowledge of whales through years of observation. In the 1990s they worked at Orcalab, a land-based whale research station near Vancouver Island. In 2001, they established their current research station, Cetacea Lab, within Gitga’at territory on the North Coast.

“Chief Johnny Clifton loved the idea of there being a whale research station in their territory,” Wray recalls when describing the early days in which she and Meuter had to camp, in the rain.

Now that the two have built their own facility, along with a place to live, they have eight listening stations set up throughout the area. Each station has a hydrophone – an underwater microphone – allowing them to record the sounds of whales, and just about anything else.

“We also hear fish grunts,” says Wray. “Or shrimps making clicking sounds. Or waves crashing on the shore. If it rains really hard we can hear the sound of rain, and we hear the disturbance of boat noise.”

The hydrophones, which can cost as much as $10,000, are set up to run on solar- and wind-power batteries.

A veritable encyclopedia of whale information, Wray says there are roughly 250 northern resident killer whales, 300 transient killer whales and about 2,000 humpbacks along the B.C. coast, with more than 300 whale observations recorded by Cetacea Lab. But the most exciting development for her has been the relatively recent appearance of fin whales.

“We didn’t see our first fin whale until 2006,” she recalls, “with only a few sightings per year until 2010.” Now, she’s lucky enough to see a fin whale almost daily and she remains awed by their impressive size – up to 70 feet long. This makes them the second largest animal on the planet, next to the blue whale.

A strong believer in marine spatial planning, and a member of the MaPP North Coast Marine Plan Advisory Committee, Wray says her involvement in this group has taught her the importance of listening to others, even those with conflicting views. Her role remains clear: by sharing her knowledge of whale distribution and behaviour, she wants to ensure that whales have good human experiences.

“This coast needs a voice,” she says, “and I think that all of these people coming together right now provide that voice.”

Listen to live whale recordings from Cetacealab on Gill Island on B.C.’s North Coast


Humpback Whale Song

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