MaPP researchers narrow down ideal kelp aquaculture conditions

Tlowitsis Guardian Gina Thomas holds up one of the largest kelp fronds grown during MaPP’s kelp aquaculture pilot, in Port Neville, B.C., on May 27, 2019; it measured 2.5 metres long. Photo credit: Allison Byrne

Tlowitsis Guardian Gina Thomas holds up one of the largest kelp fronds grown during MaPP’s kelp aquaculture pilot, in Port Neville, B.C., on May 27, 2019; it measured 2.5 metres long. Photo credit: Allison Byrne

The brown, translucent fronds of sugar kelp that hover below the ocean’s surface throughout coastal B.C. and beyond are gaining interest as an aquaculture product.

MaPP partners in North Vancouver Island ran a pilot study to learn more about ideal growing conditions for the brown algae, which can be eaten and used in fertilizers, biofuels, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Their next step is to determine how big a sugar kelp aquaculture operation would need to be to make a profit, and to review these findings with Nanwakolas Council member First Nations whose traditional territories would be affected and who would need to be consulted on any future aquaculture operations.

“It’s easy to grow,” said Don Tillapaugh, the Marine Plant Pilot (TMPP) project manager. In December 2018, Tillapaugh and a team of researchers wrapped single lengths of rope with twine colonized with sugar kelp spores and suspended those ropes underwater in three coastal sites off northeast Vancouver Island: Port Neville, Clio Channel, and Havannah Channel. The spores looked like brown fuzz on the ropes, and by spring, small kelp fronds were visible, mainly between two and four metres below the sea’s surface at each site. By late May, the fronds had reached their peak weight. The kelp at Port Neville grew about twice as big as fronds grown in the two channel environments, and Tillapaugh said he suspects it’s because the Port Neville waters are more nutrient-dense, fed by nearby mud flats.

“It’s a potential economic driver for some of our coastal First Nations, and something sustainable,” said Gina Thomas, a senior member of the Tlowitsis Guardian program, and a researcher with TMPP. She said commercial farming of the kelp allows greater control over conditions, as opposed to harvesting wild kelp. And, she said she hopes the research will encourage bands in the area to pursue kelp aquaculture. “You don’t need a lot of money or equipment up front,” she said.

Challenges to commercial success, however, exist.

“Growing kelp is like growing cherries,” Tillapaugh said. “It all reaches its peak at the same time and has to be harvested within about one week.”

“It’s a huge risk,” he said, noting the kelp starts to degrade after being picked, and if it’s going to be available throughout the year, it needs to be dried or otherwise processed into a product with a shelf life. “Processing plants don’t exist right now,” he said. Other potential challenges include labour availability in remote locations, transportation, and variability in growth from year to year, he said.

Most concerning, there is no well-defined large market for kelp, Tillapaugh said. While niche markets exist, including high-end restaurants who order small amounts of fresh sugar kelp, Tillipaugh warned, “We need to make sure the market is there before people get into growing it.”

In that vein, the next step for this MaPP project is to research the feasibility of kelp aquaculture, including where it could be sold, in what form, at what price, and what the start-up costs of an operation might be.

In 2016, a MaPP-funded market analysis on shellfish and kelp aquaculture reported some favourable conditions for kelp aquaculture, including that global interest in aquaculture products was steadily growing; and that while several Asian countries are the largest producers and consumers of kelp and other seaweed products, B.C.’s reputation for pristine waters attracts interest in its aquaculture products. The report also suggested that niche marketing techniques, including First Nations branding of kelp products, could bump its selling price.

Although only one company, Canadian Kelp Resources, has been growing and selling kelp in coastal B.C. (since 1982), interest in kelp aquaculture and harvesting has recently surged.

“If you think about future food shortages, kelp may become a beneficial source of sustenance,” Thomas said.

The projected cost of the nine-month TMPP project was $33,000, however, Tillapaugh said the completed project cost less. The Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP) funded this research after identifying sugar kelp as a new potential sustainable aquaculture opportunity in the North Vancouver Island sub-region.

Sugar kelp grown at the Port Neville, B.C. test site grew twice as large as kelp grown in Clio and Havannah channels. This frond from Port Neville was weighed and photographed March 22, 2019. Photo credit: Don Tillapaugh

Sugar kelp grown at the Port Neville, B.C. test site grew twice as large as kelp grown in Clio and Havannah channels. This frond from Port Neville was weighed and photographed March 22, 2019. Photo credit: Don Tillapaugh

Cultural and Archaeological Work in the North Vancouver Island Marine Plan

To Gina Thomas and Sean Connaughton, public education is an important tool to protect archaeological sites. (Photo credit: Barb Dinning)

To Gina Thomas and Sean Connaughton, public education is an important tool to protect archaeological sites. (Photo credit: Barb Dinning)

For two decades, Tlowitsis band member Gina Thomas has been combing the coast and forests of her nation’s vast territory on North Vancouver Island in search of cultural sites that mark her people’s rich heritage. One of her more recent finds triggered feelings of both excitement and frustration.

A cliff dwelling was discovered in Tlowitsis ancestral lands. Heavily protected on all sides by a deep trench, a rushing creek and raised earthen beds or ‘berms’, her ancestors had lived out of harm’s way high on tiers in the rock face.

“For me, personally, I would love to put a timeframe to sites like this…to understand how our people lived, their movement and the time period,” explains Thomas, a Tlowitsis Guardian since 2015. “When we put up signs to protect cultural sites like this, we say we’ve been in the area for thousands of years. But we don’t have an exact date and that’s frustrating for me.”

Also frustrating for Thomas, and others who live and work in the North Vancouver Island Marine Plan Partnership (MaPP) sub-region, are the threats posed to these sites by human and environmental impacts.

“Back in 2001, during the land planning process, we found cultural sites were being disturbed, as the Elders had described,” says Scott Harris, resource planner for the Nanwakolas Council, which includes the Da’naxda’xw/Awaetlatla, K’ómoks, Kwiakah, Mamalilikulla, Tlowitsis, and Wei Wai Kum First Nations. “A decade later, when I began working on marine planning in the region, I was shocked to learn it was still happening.”

The protection of cultural, archaeological and heritage sites is a high priority for Nanwakolas member First Nations, as set out in their “Ha-ma-yas marine plan” for the MaPP region of North Vancouver Island. In 2016, the Nanwakolas Council began a significant two-year study through MaPP to define, identify, verify, and highlight potential protection measures for the rich, cultural and heritage resources within the members’ traditional territories.

As a first step, the existing literature was surveyed to find out what had been documented for more than 2,600 cultural sites in Nanwakolas member territories, many of which are formally registered in the Province of B.C.’s database. “This part of the Northwest coast is known ethnographically around the world – yet we know next to nothing about it archaeologically. Much of the initial research was done 50 to 60 years ago and no one’s really followed up since,” explains Dr. Sean P. Connaughton, an archaeologist with Inlailawatash, a Tsleil-Waututh-owned heritage firm that co-led the study. Inlailawatash submitted comprehensive reports for the study that would include a cultural and heritage assessment, a cultural heritage field program, as well as a vulnerability and sensitivity assessment.

Guardians inspect middens to verify and update data about sensitive cultural sites. (Photo credit: Scott Harris)

Guardians inspect middens to verify and update data about sensitive cultural sites. (Photo credit: Scott Harris)

In the summer of 2016, Connaughton, guardians, and other First Nation representatives took to the field to verify the accuracy of the literature. What they found did not match up. “Most of the registered sites were not recorded accurately, and the size and significance of the sites in the recorded documentation were also inaccurate,” Connaughton reports.

First Nations need accurate site measurements and other data to better protect cultural sites and to explore cultural tourism opportunities, explains Thomas, who took part in the field survey. “It allows us to advise where development can happen and to inform local kayak operators and tourists where they may or may not visit.”

In June 2017, the Nanwakolas Guardians Cultural Heritage Field Program helped train participants to assess the vulnerability of specific cultural sites in protection management zones (PMZs) and special management zones (SMZs) identified in the MaPP North Vancouver Island plan.

What they found was alarming. Cedar burial boxes were smashed open, burial blankets removed, and bones or skulls placed disrespectfully. In an ancestral village, kayakers had set up camp in ancient house depressions on white shell middens – important sites where First Nations lived and often interred their dead. A culturally significant pictograph was found at risk due to weathering. Fish weirs, clam gardens and canoe skids were exposed to impacts from climate change and marine-based activities.

Protection of these sites is important for many reasons; of particular significance, is the way in which they connect current generations more deeply to the past with their ancestors. I can’t stress enough how personally we take it when we find a burial cave ransacked,” says Thomas. I believe that most people would feel as we do, if they found their ancestors’ resting places disturbed or damaged.”

Recommendations for site protection were made at a joint meeting of Guardian and Stewardship program representatives and the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) on Harbledown Island in October 2017.

Education in the form of site signage and community outreach, as well as on-the-water monitoring by guardians are included in a three-tiered strategy developed by the MaPP plan partners – Nanwakolas and the Province of B.C. – to protect and manage these cultural sites. Connaughton points to the daily conversations guardians have with people on the water about their ancestral places. “As knowledge holders, education is one of the biggest tools the Nations have.”

“Education is working,” Thomas agrees. “People want a story. That’s why they come and visit.”

Due to the number and density of First Nations cultural and archaeological sites, the strategy also calls an area-based management approach – to offer long-term efficiency over individual site-by-site protection. Discussion is underway with the Province and Nanwakolas on development of a pilot project to test the strategy in a high traffic area of the Broughton Archipelago. This would include strong participation by First Nations guardians on the water.

“As a First Nations people, we want to protect our archaeological sites. The status quo used to be that we were left out – I’m really excited that times are changing,” says Thomas.

Harris says it’s encouraging to see First Nations and the Province work together on cultural issues important to the communities. MaPP has been a great step in helping get this work done.”

Pictographs are vulnerable to weathering. (Photo credit: Barb Dinning)

Pictographs are vulnerable to weathering. (Photo credit: Barb Dinning)

MaPP-supported research tests the waters for shellfish: Scallops, mussels and oysters are on-track to reach market size by 2019

The project manager for the Tlowitsis Shellfish Aquaculture Pilot, Don Tillapaugh (top), and Tlowitsis Guardian Gina Thomas prepare to submerge a lantern net with Pacific scallop seeds near Johnstone Strait on May 26, 2017. Photo credit: Brandon Wilson

The project manager for the Tlowitsis Shellfish Aquaculture Pilot, Don Tillapaugh (top), and Tlowitsis Guardian Gina Thomas prepare to submerge a lantern net with Pacific scallop seeds near Johnstone Strait on May 26, 2017. Photo credit: Brandon Wilson

A research project of the Tlowitsis First Nation is helping determine whether the cold, pristine waters around North Vancouver Island will support commercial shellfish aquaculture.

“We started out with scallops the size of a quarter and now they’re the size of a baseball,” says Gina Thomas, a researcher for the Tlowitsis Shellfish Aquaculture Pilot (TSAP) project. Three shellfish species seeded in the spring and summer of 2017 are on track to reach market size in what’s considered a commercially-viable timeframe of two years. “I’m very excited at what we’re seeing,” said Thomas, a member of the Tlowitsis Nation whose traditional territories include the waterway where the shellfish are now suspended, which is off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Positive research results may spur local commercial shellfish aquaculture in or near that site, and Thomas said she’d love if some of the area’s First Nations could seize that opportunity, and help increase local food production.

“This project is cutting edge for anyone who wants to know if a local shellfish industry could take off,” Thomas said. “A lot of people are watching to see what happens.”

Clam gardens kept by First Nations were once abundant in beaches around the region, but in more recent decades, attempts to farm commercial shellfish around North Vancouver Island have generally failed.

“Cooler temperatures in these waters mean some shellfish species grow more slowly, but there’s very little data available,” said TSAP project manager, Don Tillapaugh, who brings 43 years of aquaculture experience to the project. “You really can’t do any economic planning without knowing the growth curve of the species you want to grow.”

Thomas and another member of the Tlowitsis Guardian program, Brandon Wilson, worked with Tillapaugh to arrange hundreds of Pacific scallop, blue mussel, and Pacific oyster seeds in trays and nets and suspend them from a longline they secured between two buoys.

Tlowitsis Guardian Brandon Wilson sews up a lantern net on June 28, 2017. A sock of blue mussel seeds hangs down the centre of the cylindrical net; the space between the mussels and the lantern net provides a protective barrier against potential predators. Photo credit: Don Tillapaugh

Tlowitsis Guardian Brandon Wilson sews up a lantern net on June 28, 2017. A sock of blue mussel seeds hangs down the centre of the cylindrical net; the space between the mussels and the lantern net provides a protective barrier against potential predators. Photo credit: Don Tillapaugh

Now, every two months, the three embark from Sayward, B.C. by boat to pull the shellfish up from the longline, count and measure them, and plot their growth on graphs.

Despite barnacle growth on one cohort of one species, growth of all three species is consistent and they are healthy, having eaten ocean plankton. Shellfish predators like starfish and flatworms have not harmed them, Thomas noted, and fouling – a slimy coating that could impede growth and require manual removal – has been minimal.

Whether the shellfish grow to market size is only one of many considerations. Further down the B.C. coast, where commercial shellfish aquaculture already flourishes, large-scale die offs have occurred, without explanation. Questions around transportation and labour availability in the relatively remote North Vancouver Island sites where shellfish might thrive are also of concern. Tillapaugh said the profit margin for most shellfish operations is slim.

“It’s essential to future success of the shellfish industry to support research projects,” Tillapaugh said.

The TSAP project also includes ongoing temperature and salinity measurements from underwater loggers that Tillapaugh, Thomas, and Wilson installed at three sites considered potentially viable for shellfish aquaculture. These measurements, which will be taken up until the end of the TSAP project in summer 2019, will provide additional insight into the suitability of Northern Vancouver Island’s waterways for shellfish aquaculture.

Tillapaugh was part of a research team from Vancouver Island University that produced a report for The Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP) in 2016 evaluating the potential of shellfish aquaculture in North Vancouver Island. That report recommended a monitoring program in select areas. After consultations with MaPP partners, as well as a commitment to the project from the Tlowitsis First Nation, the TSAP project was devised.

The cost of the two-year project is $68,000, which MaPP is funding.

Many voices make for better policymaking and results

The North Vancouver Island Marine Plan Advisory Committee met with the MaPP Implementation Team in Campbell River on May 29, 2017. Photo credit: Bruce Storry.

The North Vancouver Island Marine Plan Advisory Committee met with the MaPP Implementation Team in Campbell River on May 29, 2017. Photo credit: Bruce Storry.

Integral to the MaPP planning process and the current implementation phase, has been the participation of many different individuals, groups and organizations connected in one way or another to the region’s rich marine environment. Otherwise known as stakeholders, this diverse mix of voices added much-valued input and authenticity to the creation of the North Vancouver Island (NVI) Marine Plan. Stakeholder advice and feedback was collected through the NVI Marine Plan Advisory Committee, (MPAC), whose members represented a broad range of marine sectors and interests. Stakeholders continue to make an impact, as seen in three recent MPAC meetings about implementation plans for the NVI sub-region.

There are many interpretations of the term stakeholder, how to meaningfully engage stakeholders and what makes their input so valuable.

Jim Abram, electoral area director for Discovery Islands-Mainland Inlets and local government representative for the Strathcona Regional District, typically views the term stakeholder as “very limiting” as it “usually applies to a specific interest”. However, he believes the input from the NVI marine advisory committee members has played an integral role in shaping the plan by continually bringing forward ideas and views that wouldn’t be known or considered otherwise. “Our local knowledge is invaluable. It is usually accepted, but sometimes not. If it isn’t, a reason is always given. The exchange is respectful and well-discussed.”

Jim McIsaac, coordinator for the B.C. Commercial Fishing Caucus, believes stakeholders diversify the knowledge base that leads to better decision-making and approaches to moving forward. “By having them engaged and bringing their knowledge to decisions, it strengthens all decisions made.” In terms of MaPP, “It creates more durable solutions for communities — creating that space where ecosystems and communities can co-exist, where well-being, economy and culture can co-exist with the environment, productivity and other species.”

Marine coordinator for the Nanwakolas Council and co-chair of the NVI planning team John Bones says stakeholder support has been critical to MaPP’s success. “We’re very pleased at being able to collaboratively develop a plan between the provincial government and our First Nations members. The value of having stakeholders at the table is that it gives everyone the opportunity to understand the plan and issues, and the First Nations perspective. Each First Nations community has different sectors of expertise and knowledge that’s extremely beneficial in making implementation activities relevant and rigorous.”

From a B.C. government perspective, Andy Witt, manager, Coastal and Aquatic Habitat and provincial co-lead for the NVI Marine Plan, agrees. “When you look at the development of a plan and its ultimate purpose, you cannot set a vision or determine objectives without engaging the people who are going to be part of that vision and are integral to implementing your objectives.”

“Having such a diverse group in the same room broadens everyone’s horizons, scopes and thoughts on other issues that are beyond their sectors’ primary focus,” says Barb Dinning, technical planner with MaPP for the NVI sub-region.

Dan Edwards, representative of the Commercial Fishing Caucus, believes that meaningfully engaging a range of viewpoints is essential. “That spectrum ranges from simply asking advice or consultation, to actually sitting down and building a plan together and sharing your experiences and interests and having a consensus framework for decision-making that would ultimately respect those interests.” For Edwards, meaningful engagement offers a critical way to protect his interests and the interests of those he represents.

Rick Snowdon, a local tourism business operator and board member of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (a whale-watching industry group), sums everything up. “A stakeholder in a process like this is anyone with a unique point of view on the future needs of the region. ‘Engaging with stakeholders’ really means attempting to capture the diversity of needs and activities and incorporate those needs into a plan that’s inclusive and respectful of everyone.”


NVI Sub-region probes shellfish aquaculture, guardian programs, and economic development


At the Tlowitsis Nation village site on Turnour Island, Guardians in training explore how drones can be used for conservation monitoring. The opportunities and challenges associated with these programs were the focus of a recently completed study—one of three that were commissioned as part of MaPP implementation in North Vancouver Island. Photo credit: Scott Harris.

MaPP co-leads in the North Vancouver Island (NVI) Marine Plan area are carefully reviewing a trio of newly completed reports that suggest critical roles for First Nations in economic development and conservation activities.

“These studies show that we’re serious about implementing this plan, and that there are economic opportunities for everyone here—even in stewardship,” says John Bones. As marine coordinator for the Nanwakolas Council, he helped design the scopes of work for the reports, which were completed as part of MaPP implementation in this sub-region.

One report explores opportunities for development of key sectors: coastal forestry, seafood processing and marketing, research and monitoring, marine-based renewable energy, aquaculture and tourism. It suggests actions to advance them and ranks these by potential impact, approximate cost and time frame.

It offers no “silver bullet” solutions but suggests many opportunities could be unlocked by greater collaboration, both among First Nations communities and between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. It identifies ways to strengthen individual communities’ access to economic development expertise and to bolster connections among economic development experts (and investors) in communities around the sub-region. It also recommends development of an NVI economic development plan to identify synergies between multiple local planning processes.

Tourism is seen as especially promising. Low-cost actions with potentially high impact include greater cooperation between MaPP partners and Vancouver Island North Tourism, development of aboriginal and cultural tourism, and better promotion to international markets of the sub-region as a whole.

Shellfish aquaculture is the focus of a second report. It analyzes biophysical capabilities of 22 areas that the NVI Marine Plan zones for Special Management–Cultural/Economic Emphasis, using extensive datasets from government and salmon farms in the region. It also considers factors like nearness to services and labour, and likelihood of local acceptance.

The result? “Shellfish aquaculture could supply some local markets, but large-scale commercial aquaculture of Pacific oysters or Manila clams probably won’t fly in North Vancouver Island,” says Bones, citing the key obstacle: frigid waters. “But it does suggest potential for aquaculture of blue mussels, and kelp for huge Asian markets.”

Four areas are flagged for deeper investigation: Booker Lagoon, Kalogwis, Minstrel Island/Call Inlet/Havanna Channel, and Port Neville. Pilot-scale projects, adapted from models used by other First Nations to identify viable growing sites and train people, are recommended.

A third report investigates opportunities to power up the five guardian programs that make up the sub-region’s Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network. They and their counterparts in other MaPP sub-regions engage First Nations in activities that support conservation and resource management.

The report lauds the “significant progress” of Ha-ma-yas and recommends partnerships with relevant B.C. government agencies. For example, guardian watchmen could conduct joint patrols with conservation officers and park rangers. Opportunities for collaboration could be explored by B.C. Parks, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations’ archaeological branch, and Nanwakolas member nations that have conservancy agreements and marine protected areas.

Provincial government staff interviewed by the researchers identified several potential barriers to collaboration with guardian watchmen programs, including complexities associated with overlapping territories.

Andy Witt, the B.C. government MaPP co-lead for NVI, sees scope for the Guardian Program to support implementation of the NVI Marine Plan. “To capitalize on the opportunities identified in the report, the key challenges for the MaPP partners to address are issues associated with liability, personal safety, and provincial jurisdictional limitations in the marine environment,” says Witt.

In fact, all provincial interviewees viewed collaboration with guardian watchmen positively in the areas of ecological monitoring; compliance promotion through presence on the water to “observe, record and report”; and provision of data to support enforcement activities. They stressed the importance of building trust and relationships through joint actions as a starting point.

Bones is hopeful about possibilities. “We really appreciated that B.C. government tenuring agencies were so supportive of this study and so forthcoming with the researchers, and that B.C. Parks seems quite open to exploring a bigger role for guardian watchmen,” he says.

The three reports were shared at a MaPP implementation advisory committee meeting in October 2016.

Cross-border info exchange – lessons learned about collaborative marine planning

Briannon Fraley, self-governance director for the Smith River Rancheria, Tolowa Dee-ni’

Briannon Fraley, self-governance director for the Smith River Rancheria, Tolowa Dee-ni’

People create borders but oceans flow right through them. So when it comes to marine planning, it seems natural to cross borders to share ideas, knowledge and goals.

In June 2014, five members of the Smith River Rancheria Tribe of Tolowa Dee-ni’ from California/Oregon visited the Nanwakolas Council of North Vancouver Island to learn about the Nanwakolas approach to marine planning with its MaPP partners. The Tribe is spearheading collaborative tribal marine planning on the U.S. Pacific coast.

Since 2010, the Nanwakolas Council has travelled south to make two presentations: one at the indigenous ocean science forum, hosted by the Tribe, and one at an event hosted by Point 97, an Ecotrust company. Then last month, the Tribe’s delegation traveled north to gather information to share with coastal tribes in Washington, Oregon and California. Ultimately, the Tribe hopes to facilitate the establishment of a West Coast Tribal Regional Ocean Partnership that would explore ways to approach marine planning, develop policy and participate in the implementation of the planning work.

“We’re at the very beginning stages of trying to figure out how do we communicate across state lines,” said Briannon Fraley, self-governance director for the Smith River Rancheria, Tolowa Dee-ni’.

The Tribe’s territory straddles the California/Oregon state line, one-third/two thirds respectively. Nearly 100 miles of coastline connect the two. This means the Tribe communicates with two state governments as well as the federal government.

Nanwakolas means “a place we go to find agreement.” And with many years of land and marine planning experience, Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council, has much to share about working to find agreement – both among collective First Nations and in government-to-government relationships.

We shared some of the hurdles that we’ve gone through, through collaboration,” said Smith, “But we also hope that they saw some of the successes that we’ve been able to build as a result of being able to collaborate.”

“I keep hearing, that the provincial government and the First Nations have a really good working relationship,” said Fraley. “And so that is going to be one difference for us and we need to figure out a way to communicate and collaborate better.”

What advice did Nanwakolas have to offer? “We advised them to build a strong government-to-government relationship that exists at three levels: technical, bureaucratic and political,” said Smith. “And the other piece is patience. You know, someone picks an arbitrary timeframe, like planning should take two years. Planning takes what it takes because you need the community buy-in, so you have to have that patience for your community to engage so you can build those robust grassroots community plans.”

Smith explained that a plan is only as good as its implementation. “Your implementation is only as good as the capacity that you have at hand. So, through the info sharing we’re going to help each other build on each other’s capacity as we go forward.”

Putting diving on the MaPP map


A Red Irish Lord at Browning Pass

A rock wall in the waters off the Northern tip of Vancouver Island is world famous – at least to a select group of people in dry suits. Scuba divers come from all over the world to dive the wall at Browning Pass and other remarkable sites near Port Hardy.

Browning wall is a sheer rock face, about a block long that starts some 30 metres above the water line and plunges steeply to a boulder-strewn sea floor at about 40 metres deep. It is densely populated and teeming with marine life. “You could spend 50 minutes underwater just looking at one metre square,” diving enthusiast Gary Marcuse says. “The more you look, the more you realize there are layers of plants and animals and tiny little fish.”

Scuba Diving Magazine Divers’ Choice Awards has consistently ranked British Columbia as a top diving destination in North America. “The more I was diving elsewhere in the world, the more I realized that right in our back yard, in the Queen Charlotte Sound area, we have this extraordinary collection of mini ecosystems,“ Marcuse says.

Back in October 2012, Marcuse was overnighting in a hotel in Port Hardy before catching a boat to a dive location. He was lured into a meeting room by a plate of cookies and walls covered by maps. He had happened upon the first open house for the MaPP North Vancouver Island sub-region.

In addition to being an avid recreational diver, Marcuse is a documentary film and television producer. However, it was his master’s degree in regional environmental planning that drew him to the marine planning maps and he quickly said, “Where are the dive sites?”

That question eventually led him and Paul Sim of the Underwater Council of BC (UCBC) to Alan Thomson and Nick Heath, the public recreation representatives on the North Vancouver Island (NVI) Marine Plan Advisory Committee.


Glove sponges and soft red corals at Browning Pass

Thomson saw that Marcuse offered both a planning background and connections to the diving community through UCBC, a non-profit society that provides a voice for B.C. recreational divers and promotes safe scuba diving and environmental protection. Using advisory committee support funds, Thomson arranged a modest consulting fee for Marcuse to develop a report that identified more than 120 dive sites in the NVI sub-region and more in the Haida Gwaii sub-region. In addition, other divers contributed stunning video and photographs.

Marcuse recorded his dive site information in the BC Marine Conservation Analysis (BCMCA) database, which more than doubled the dive sites included in the database at that time. The BCMCA is one of many data sources for the MaPP marine planning portal, a sophisticated planning tool that allows users to look at many different data layers together to learn more about the MaPP study area.

Thomson says that without the report from Marcuse and the UCBC, there would be less information about diving in the NVI Draft Marine Plan. “So I think their report added depth and scope to the draft marine plan and also added information to databases such as the BCMCA.” He adds, “Mustering the facts and providing them in their report can only help to put recreational diving on the map and inform decision-makers about the possible consequences of choosing one course over another.”

“I like to think of divers as explorers in the marine ecosystems,” Marcuse says. “Divers are putting red flags on the map wherever they discover vital and abundant life.”

Paddling adventures – a Northern B.C. export product


Back when Rick Snowdon was a full-time adventure guide he led an unforgettable trip with, among others, an Italian student who was soon to embark on his Ph.D. in nuclear physics.

“It was our last night,” Snowdon recalls. “We were waiting for the darkness so we could see the bioluminescence, and the student turned to me and said, ‘You know Rick, this has been the best week of my life.’”

There’s a word for the kind of high-end outdoors experience that Snowdon provides. It’s called glamping – a seductive blend of both “glamour” and “camping.” Customers of Spirit of the West Adventures – the company Snowdon co-owns – not only get to take adventure kayak tours in B.C.’s Johnstone Strait, they also enjoy the benefits of large tents with canopies, comfortable beds, high-end locally sourced food, and even hot tubs.

spring-passage-paddling-benSome 55 per cent of Snowdon’s business is international, with the bulk of his customers coming from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The U.S. represents another 20 per cent and Canada captures the remaining 25 per cent.

“Essentially, we’re producing an export product,” he says. “That’s an important point to consider when making comparisons to other industries.”

A believer in marine planning, Snowdon hopes the “zoning approach” – where different areas are dedicated to particular sectors, such as community/culture, general management and tourism – will allow individual groups to have sway in certain areas. “I hope tourism areas will be recognized for their usefulness,” he says.

When Snowdon talks about usefulness, he’s referring to an area’s ability to support growth, sustainably. One of the main tours his company runs is a base-camp style trip from Johnstone Strait. “That goes on as long as market conditions are favourable,” he says. Referring to viewscapes (or the vistas paddlers see while they’re kayaking,) he adds, “Our guests have high expectations. When they come to B.C. they want to see a natural product.”

Snowdon also makes the point that adventure tourism is an inherently sustainable business. Tourists will come back year after year, generating reliable income that, instead of disappearing as a resource is consumed, actually increases as a result of word-of-mouth.

He also concedes that tourism is harder for the government to manage. “Other industries have a few very large players with lots of revenues,” he says. “But tourism is much more diffuse. It’s a group of many, many small businesses that all work together to be part of a bigger whole. It’s harder for us to organize ourselves into a coherent voice.”

Still, thanks to his involvement as a North Vancouver Island Marine Plan Advisory Committee member for the commercial tourism sector, Snowdon has learned to listen to other voices. “I’ve come to appreciate that marine planning is a very long and involved process. I hope it guides future planning decisions.”

He has appreciated seeing First Nations and government relationships unfold. And he has learned to anticipate the needs of other sectors and work with them. “As much as we [tourism operators] sometimes feel we’re the underdog, we can’t take the position that [other industries] can’t do what they need to do,” he says.

“But I’ve also learned to be a stronger advocate for our needs.”