Hunting down aliens: An international team tracks the spread of tunicates in Haida Gwaii waters

Can you spot the difference? Invasive tunicate colonies on settlement plates collected by a team of aquatic invasive invertebrate specialists on Haida Gwaii. Clockwise, from the top left image: Chain tunicate; Star tunicate; Star tunicate and Chain tunicate; Chain tunicate. Photo credit: Haida Nation/Stuart Crawford, Marine Planning Program, Council of the Haida Nation.

Can you spot the difference? Invasive tunicate colonies on settlement plates collected by a team of aquatic invasive invertebrate specialists on Haida Gwaii. Clockwise, from the top left image: Chain tunicate; Star tunicate; Star tunicate and Chain tunicate; Chain tunicate. Photo credit: Haida Nation/Stuart Crawford, Marine Planning Program, Council of the Haida Nation.

Slimy and brightly coloured, these aliens – otherwise known as Chain tunicate (Botrylloides violaceus) and Star tunicate (Botryllus sclosseri) – spread across docks, boats, gear and the rocky seafloor, smothering seaweeds, barnacles, shellfish and any other species in their path. Because of their ability to overgrow and spread quickly, invasive tunicates are considered a big threat. They can reduce natural biodiversity, damage infrastructure, invade key recreational areas and result in major costs to aquaculture operations.

How the tunicates came to Haida Gwaii is a mystery but the fact remains that these aquatic aliens are here to stay. To identify where these tunicates and other aquatic invasive invertebrate species are, and to work to prevent their spread, a team of alien hunters was assembled which includes staff from the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) Marine Planning Program, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), Gwaii Haanas and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In October 2016 this team – Stuart Crawford and Lais Chaves (CHN Marine Planning), Lynn Lee (Gwaii Haanas), Vanessa Hodes and Erika Anderson (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and Linda McCann and Kristen Larson (SERC) – resumed the annual hunt in Haida Gwaii.*

Hunting for tunicates is a relatively simple affair: flat ceramic squares called “settlement plates” are weighted with chunks of brick and lowered to one meter in depth in the water column. The plates are then collected a few months later and analyzed using microscopes for signs of an alien invasion.

This is the third year that the hunt has taken place. In 2014, the team put out their first sampling plates, which they collected and analyzed in the fall of 2015. This process has been repeated twice with more plates being dropped into Haida Gwaii waters every year.

Meet the team (from left to right): Erika Anderson (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Stuart Crawford (CHN – Marine Planning), Lynn Lee (Gwaii Haanas), Vanessa Hodes (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and Linda McCann and Kristen Larson (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center). Missing from photo: Lais Chaves (CHN – Marine Planning). Photo credit: Jacquie Lanthier.

Meet the team (from left to right): Erika Anderson (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Stuart Crawford (CHN – Marine Planning), Lynn Lee (Gwaii Haanas), Vanessa Hodes (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and Linda McCann and Kristen Larson (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center). Missing from photo: Lais Chaves (CHN – Marine Planning). Photo credit: Jacquie Lanthier.

Supported in part by the Marine Plan Partnership (MaPP), in the spring of 2016, CHN staff put out fifty plates in five locations; Gwaii Haanas staff put out an additional forty plates in four locations (see map below). “We wanted to see how far the invaders had spread,” says CHN marine ecosystem-based management (EBM) coordinator Stuart Crawford, “so we looked at several new sites that have never been monitored for invasive species.” This included sites on the Daawuuxusda/Duuguusd west coast, Ḵ’iids Gwaay/Ḵ’iis Gwaayee Langara Island and Moresby Camp.

The results of this year’s hunt were a mixed bag. The new sites were all free of tunicates, which, in the words of Stuart Crawford, “is great news.” However, he also had some bad news to report: “We found the invasive Star tunicate in Port Clements. This invader has been in Masset since before 2007, but did not reach Port Clements until this year.”

Minimizing the introduction and impacts of invasive species is a priority objective in the MaPP CHN-B.C. Haida Gwaii Marine Plan (2015). The CHN and the Province of B.C. will continue to collaborate with Gwaii Haanas, DFO and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on monitoring aquatic invasive species in Haida Gwaii as part of the Haida Gwaii EBM monitoring program. The marine plan partners will be developing a marine invasive species management plan as well as educational and outreach materials to better prevent their introduction and spread in Haida Gwaii.

Map of settlement plate sites. The red dots represent sites put out and collected by CHN staff, while the green dots represent sites where settlement plates were put out and collected by Gwaii Haanas staff. Map credit: Haida Nation/Stuart Crawford, Marine Planning Program.

Map of settlement plate sites. The red dots represent sites put out and collected by CHN staff, while the green dots represent sites where settlement plates were put out and collected by Gwaii Haanas staff. Map credit: Haida Nation/Stuart Crawford, Marine Planning Program.

Tunicates in Haida Gwaii are here to stay. However, we can slow or stop the spread of tunicates or other invaders by early detection and intervention through measures such as periodic inspections and hull maintenance of the vessels that may inadvertently transport them from place to place.


*Some opportunistic monitoring for aquatic invasive invertebrates by Fisheries and Oceans Canada also took place in Haida Gwaii in 2007, 2012 and 2013. In 2014 DFO secured funding for a three year monitoring program. This monitoring work was done by a contractor in 2014, but for the subsequent two years monitoring has been a collective effort by DFO, Gwaii Haanas, HOTT and the Smithsonian Institute.

How many, how much? Gearing up for a Haida Gwaii shellfish aquaculture carrying capacity study

Just imagine – It is a beautiful spring day, and you’re out on your skiff with the family. Crab and prawn traps, coolers, and blankets are loaded. You are looking forward to a meal of crabs later on, but as you cruise towards your favorite spot, you see a row of buoys ahead of you and as you draw closer, you realize that your passage is blocked – you will have to turn back!

HG Shellfish Survey Team

Brian Kingzett and the VIU team (from left to right: Brian Kingzett, Ramón Filgueira, Don Tillapaugh, and Dave Cake – and Captain Barney Edgars) survey Skidegate Inlet. Photo Credit: Stuart Crawford.

There is significant interest on Haida Gwaii to pursue shellfish aquaculture as part of a diversified marine economy. This interest is captured in the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN)-B.C. Haida Gwaii Marine Plan, which lists shellfish aquaculture as one of five areas available for marine economic development for the islands’ communities. Several inlets have been identified as having good potential for cultivating shellfish, including scallops and oysters, and the seasonal outdoor work associated with shellfish cultivation is well-suited to the islands’ existing labour force.

But like a “choose your own adventure” book, the boating scenario above points to some of the issues that can arise when economic development is pursued without careful consideration of the cultural, social, and ecological activities in an area. To address those concerns a study known as a ‘carrying capacity analysis’ is usually carried out. This type of study focuses on the ability of an area to sustain a particular activity without compromising the natural environment, as well as ensuring that the people who live, work, harvest food, and recreate in the area are not significantly impacted by a type of activity.

‘Capacity’ is measured in different ways, depending on the activity that is being looked at: For example, in 1996 Gwaii Haanas established an annual limit of 33,000 visitor days and nights based on visual impact surveys as well as stakeholder and public consultation. The limit was developed to protect the ecological and cultural heritage of the area and to maintain a “wilderness” experience for Gwaii Haanas visitors.

A ‘capacity’ study for shellfish aquaculture may focus on things like the location of traditional seafood harvesting areas, ocean views from the homes, and the routes of local tourism companies, to name only a few. In turn, a carrying capacity study may also inform management decisions related to the number, location, and size of permitted sites, as well as aesthetic requirements (e.g. the use of black or green floats to maintain views in an area) and direction on the types of species that may be cultivated.

The Marine Plan Partnership contracted shellfish aquaculture specialist Brian Kingzett and Vancouver Island University to develop and apply a methodology to calculate the carrying capacity for shellfish aquaculture development in several key sites in the Haida Gwaii area, including Skidegate Inlet. Mr. Kingzett assembled a cross-Canada team that traveled to Haida Gwaii in January, 2016 for a site visit and meeting with CHN and B.C. technical staff to go over the proposed methodology. The CHN Marine Planning Program and B.C. staff worked with the consultants during the project and the teams are currently finalizing revisions to the report.

Planning for the long-term health of this place

The Victoria Rose, an ex-West Coast troller. Photo Lynn Lee.

The Victoria Rose, an ex-West Coast troller

“We’re definitely not bored.” That’s an understatement from Lynn Lee and her partner in life and work, Leandre Vigneault.

The two marine biologists, scuba divers and parents of a 12-year old boy, own and operate Marine Toad Enterprises Inc., a biological consulting company in business on Haida Gwaii for the past 18 years.  One or both of them spend up to 100 days a year on the Victoria Rose, an ex-West Coast troller. Often working on separate contracts, they provide a wide variety of services from looking for herring spawn and counting salmon to assessing the impact of log dumps. Their clients include the Haida Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and forestry companies. They also run Salt Spray Explorers, a small sport-fishing company that offers ocean-fishing and wilderness-exploration adventures.

Lee (left) and Vigneault working in Haida Gwaii weather

Lee (left) and Vigneault working in Haida Gwaii weather

Vigneault, 43, has lived on Haida Gwaii all his life. He was born to a Montreal father and Toronto mother who came to Haida Gwaii to pursue a love of fishing, not knowing he was on the way. He spent the first 10 years of his life on a tiny island in the Masset Inlet, 14 nautical miles from the nearest road. “So, I’ve had a lot of time around water,” he said.

Lee, who is also 43, came to Haida Gwaii in 1993 after completing her undergraduate biology degree. She is now working on a PhD focused on kelp forest ecology and the interactions between people, sea otters and abalone.

Over the past decade, Lee and Vigneault also have found time to participate in four land or marine planning processes.  They both sit on the Haida Gwaii Marine Advisory Committee (MAC). Lee brings academic research and marine conservation expertise to the Haida Gwaii marine planning process and Vigneault brings the perspective of a local, independent sports-fishing operator with a conservation ethic.

Lee explained that Haida Gwaii MAC membership includes people with diverse interests and concerns. “But we were also able to work together really well,” said Lee. “Even though our opinions may be completely at odds, people were still really respectful with each other at the table. And so it made for interesting discussions and a way to look at things in a different way.”

Lee and son take a break from an abalone survey

Lee and son take a break from an abalone survey

Vigneault acknowledged that there were tough discussions, especially around provincial marine protected areas, but people worked to find solutions. “There were times at the table where suggestions were made by various interests that small modifications in the locations of things could potentially result in similar success with a little less hardship,” he said. “And I think the table as a whole was pretty respectful of trying to accommodate those.”

Why would two people invest 10 years of their lives in long, difficult planning processes? “The reason we do all this is because we really care about Haida Gwaii,” said Lee. “We also live off the land and the sea. We go hunting and fishing and most of our food is gathered locally. So that’s a really important part of the lifestyle of being here. And that’s part of what drives us to be so concerned about the long-term health of the place.”

Haida Wild – Building a premium brand on care of customer and catch


When Debbie Beemer and Ray Stephens sold their small, successful seafood processing and smoking business to the Haida Enterprise Corporation (HaiCo) in July 2012, they found a buyer that would protect and build on the fine reputation they had established over ten years of operation in Masset on Haida Gwaii.

HaiCo chief executive officer Kevin Ainsworth described Beemer’s and Stephen’s company as a well-run business that operated seasonally from June through mid-October. It was known for its customer care, attention to detail and high-quality products. The company processed sport fish from fishing lodges and added commercially caught product when possible. “We realized that the company at the time was highly scalable, hence the expansion that we’re undergoing now,” Ainsworth said.

Now branded as Haida Wild, the seafood processing company is one of three business streams managed by HaiCo. The Haida Nation incorporated HaiCo in 2009 with the mandate to improve the economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being of the Haida and to create future opportunities on Haida Gwaii. The other businesses include a forestry operation and fishing lodges.


Haida Wild candied, hot smoked and cold smoked salmon

While caring for loyal customers and maintaining quality, Haida Wild plans to increase its production to include catch from HaiCo’s recreational lodges as well as fish caught by Haida Nation commercial fishery licenses. As Ainsworth said, this will result in “a nice vertical integration strategy.” In addition, as production capacity, allows the company will buy more from local commercial and recreational fishermen.

To achieve its growth goals, Haida Wild recently has expanded its facility to add a second processing line and a separate new 2,000-square-foot smoking facility. The expansion more than doubles Haida Wild’s capacity and allows the company to increase production of commercially caught fish, extend its season by three to four months and hire an additional 10 people.

Haida Wild processes Ocean Wise-certified wild fish caught in Haida Gwaii waters. The operation processes salmon, sablefish, halibut and ground fish, and is considering adding prawns, scallops and crab. Smoked products include smoked salmon, lox, candied salmon and possibly tuna in the future.

“The key this year is to see the efficiencies of the expansion and to maintain the high quality,” Shawn Baybutt, general manager of Haida Wild said. In addition, the company is building its website, designing new product labels and developing a marketing plan.

The location of the plant is an advantage as well: right across from the dock in Masset harbour. Baybutt said that because of their Masset-based facility, Haida Wild is able to “purchase direct from the fish boats. So essentially we’re on the fishing grounds. The fish comes to us and within hours it’s cut and vac-pack frozen which creates a fresher product.”

Early marketing efforts, even before the launch of a website, show promise. For the last two years, an independent grocery company with stores in Trail and Rossland has sold Haida Wild product. “They started out with a limited amount (of mostly filleted vac-packed salmon),” Baybutt said. “And last year they came up, did a fishing trip and toured the plant, then increased their order fivefold. And they’re looking to do even more this year.”

Market expansion possibilities include grocery chains in Metro Vancouver and elsewhere in B.C. The company also is exploring connections in Germany and France and hopes to introduce online direct sales in the future.

Learn more about Haida Wild.



A wealth of traditional knowledge on Haida Gwaii

Henry Hageman

Henry Hageman

Diane Brown

Diane Brown

Marine planning in the MaPP initiative draws from different sources of information, including Western science, local knowledge and traditional knowledge.

A robust source of information on the North Pacific coast – where First Nations communities have lived for thousands of years – is traditional knowledge. This has involved documenting First Nations understanding about marine habitats, life and patterns that date back generations.

Traditional knowledge is a critical resource for marine planning. It includes history, traditions, practical information and ecological knowledge. It also captures how, when and why activities are done in and around the ocean and offers observations and information about trends over time.

For Henry Hageman, who was born in Massett on Haida Gwaii (and delivered by his own grandmother), traditional knowledge came in the form of fishing. When he bought his first boat, he recalls, he had one of his uncles – an experienced halibut fisherman – run the boat. Hageman was both smart and humble enough to serve as deckhand. “I did that for three years, with three different uncles,” he remembers, “and I learned a lot.”

Hageman didn’t just learn how to fish. He also learned when and where. As a result, the first year he ran the vessel on his own, he was the “high boat” taking in more fish than anyone else. “I had an understanding that you don’t get from books,” he says. “It’s the only way you can get local knowledge.”

Passing on knowledge from generation to generation continues today. In addition to traditional activities, Haida are involved in modern forms of resource stewardship such as an enhancement program focusing on Yakoun chinook. The older workers are teaching the teenagers how to catch fish, how to keep them until they’re ready to spawn and how to look after the fry until they become mature. Over time, it is also hoped that traditional Haida fisheries on the river can be reopened.

For provincial marine planner Berry Wijdeven, the longevity of Haida knowledge about Haida Gwaii provides a type of information that is different from, but as important as, scientific knowledge. “The two complement each other,” he says.

Haida Oceans Technical Team planner Cathy Rigg agrees that Haida traditional knowledge has been invaluable to the marine planning process. “Haida traditional knowledge is quite rich and detailed for the planning we’re doing through the MaPP process,” she says. “Our best understanding of what happens in the water comes from the people who have lived here for generations.”

For Skidegate resident Diane Brown, who also goes by the Haida name Gwaaganad, traditional knowledge is her way of life. “It defines me,” she says. “It tells me what to do with each season.” Along with Hageman, Gwaaganad was part of the Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study, which has informed the MaPP initiative – in a sense, telling today’s community “what to do” about marine planning.

Gwaaganad grew up speaking Haida because her mother had never learned English. At the age of three she was taught to dig cockle shells and soon after, sea urchin and red chitons. Her mother also took her to the forest and taught her to identify medicinal plants. About a year later her dad had a bleeding ulcer and she was asked to go get one of the curative plants. “My mother said, ‘Don’t you be killing anything by taking the wrong one.’ She didn’t describe this is a lesson in medicine; she just made me do it. It caused me to have a relationship with the plants at a very early age.”

Over the years, Gwaaganad had reason to learn many other types of traditional knowledge. She spent nine years learning from her mother-in-law how to prepare fish. The long apprenticeship was crucial because the species of fish – sockeye salmon, also known as blueback – is so precious. “It’s such a valuable fish that novices aren’t allowed to wreck them,” she says.

The bottom line for Gwaaganad, and other Haida, is respect. “I think it’s critical for whoever does marine planning to have a relationship with the oceans and the rivers,” she says. “You have to have a relationship with and a respect for everything. That was my first lesson from my elders.”

To learn more about Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge, please download a copy of the Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study (three volumes).



Collaborative Compliance & Enforcement

Buster Bell

Buster Bell

Working together to better manage Haida Gwaii’s natural resources

A young Haida man is currently a training recruit at the Western Conservation Law Enforcement Academy in Hinton, Alberta. He will be the first ever Haida to act as a natural resource compliance and enforcement officer on Haida Gwaii.

Buster Bell, 35, was the best candidate, says May Russ, a Hereditary Chief and senior administrator for Council of the Haida Nation (CHN). “There were quite a few applicants but we were impressed that he’d done some RCMP training,” she says. “Hiring him was the next step in the Haida evolution as we work at managing the resources we have.”

Bell will be fully trained to Ministry of the Environment conservation officer service standards with all the associated responsibilities, including responding to complaints and investigating suspected legislative contraventions.

Enforcing rules about resources – in the most efficient and effective ways possible – is the key goal of a new integrated compliance and enforcement program taking shape on Haida Gwaii. The integrated team involves the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), Ministry of Environment, and the Council of the Haida Nation. They’re also working closely with Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site staff.

Starting with land, and then moving to marine areas, the team hopes its efforts will result in a more integrated approach to compliance and enforcement for the islands. If things go well, this will also translate into saving money, says Leonard Munt, who is the district manager for FLNRO on Haida Gwaii.

“We’re trying to move from the tops of the mountains to the abyssal sea, even though we’re just learning to walk right now,” he says.

Noting that compliance and enforcement are complicated, Munt explains that one of the challenges the team faces is figuring out the cross-designation of the different jurisdictions. “Our ministry and the Ministry of the Environment have different authorities,” he says.

“One officer might not have the authority to address a particular issue. But if you’ve just spent thousands of dollars to put an officer in the field, you want him or her to be able to address every important issue.”

The same sort of rationale – figuring out how to share – also applies when it comes to equipment and supplies, such as trucks, boats and gas. Combine forces and you get more power. “To buy a boat costs $350,000,” Munt says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got all the teams to work together so that we could share all the assets? Then we’d have the right tools to do the right job with the right team.”

Munt notes that this kind of collaborative approach doesn’t work everywhere. It’s effective in this region because the land base is relatively small and because he’s working with just one First Nation with very clear boundaries. “But this is a solution that works well here,” he says.

The importance of this work is reinforced in Haida law. Under the Haida Constitution, the CHN is responsible for ensuring that Haida lands and waters are sustainably managed, continuing the traditional role of Haida watchmen who for thousands of years protected Haida Gwaii.  Bell’s new position will strengthen the Haida capacity to achieve this, alongside ongoing marine monitoring and management activities fulfilled through the Haida Fisheries Program and Haida fisheries guardians.

For May Russ, it’s another step in the Council of the Haida Nation’s mandate to protect the Haida resource-based economy and lifestyle. Living on a small island, she particularly values the bounty of the sea. “It’s the basis of our food,” she says, “Not just the salmon, but also the halibut, the clams and the cockles are so important to our diet and to who we are.”