Gitga’at Guardians: Using Science to Safeguard their Territory

Gitga'at territory is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including a high population of humpback whales. Photo by Brodie Guy.
Gitga'at territory is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including a high population of humpback whales. Photo by Brodie Guy.

By protecting the wildlife, resources, and ecosystems of their territory, the Gitga'at Nation is also ensuring their way of life is sustained for future generations.

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Douglas Channel

Gitga’at territory spans the Douglas channel and is home to whales, spirit bears, and many other species.

At a Glance

The Gitga’at First Nation depends on the resources of their territory for their community well-being. They have made it a priority to research and monitor their lands and waters in order to protect their traditional way of life.

Through their Guardian Program, the Nation is tracking the effects of vessel traffic and industrial development activities in order to protect the resources they depend on. The program combines traditional Gitga’at stewardship practices with scientific monitoring. By combining these approaches, the the Gitga’at Guardian Watchman Program supports the Nation’s sustainable management of their ecologically-diverse territory and the rich resources they rely on.

 

Watching the Water, Protecting Whales

Gitga'at Guardian Mary Reece identifying humpback whales by their tail fins. The shape and markings on their tail fins is unique to each individual whale. Photo by Meaghan Hume.
Gitga’at Guardian Mary Reece identifying humpback whales by their tail fins. The shape and markings on their tail fins is unique to each individual whale. Photo by Meaghan Hume.

The Gitga’at Guardian program is part of the Gitga’at Nation’s stewardship programs to strengthen knowledge of their territory and enable sound conservation and resource management decisions. This includes understanding of how to protect the rare wildlife found in their territory.

The remote, island-dotted coastal waters of the Gitga’at Nation are ideal whale habitat, including endangered species such as Orca and Fin Whales, and at-risk species such as Humpback whales. The Gitga’at have partnered with a number of organizations to support research initiatives that track the movement of whales in their territory and examine the conditions that support whale abundance.

Breaching Humpback Whale
A humpback whale breaches along the Gitga’at Guardians’ cetacean monitoring route in Squally Channel. Photo credit Brodie Guy.

In partnership with the North Coast Cetacean Society, the Guardians helped install a hydrophone network — a series of underwater microphones that detect the song calls of whales. It’s the first of its kind in Canada, and it helps to determine the whales’ favourite feeding areas, routes of travel, and duration of stay in certain areas. It’s an exciting initiative to help understand key factors for whale conservation.

Chris Picard, Science Director of the Gitga’at First Nation, explains how the traditional ecological knowledge of the Nation works in tandem with the hydrophone project. “The Gitga’at Nation and Guardians’ extensive knowledge of whale sightings and frequency helped to design the hydrophone project. It determined what should monitored and where, and the guardians also assisted with the installation of the network.”

Gitga'at Guardian Mary Reece looking for humpback whales while on patrol. Photo by Meaghan Hume.
Gitga’at Guardian Mary Reece looking for humpback whales while on patrol. Photo by Meaghan Hume.

The Guardians also support the North Coast Cetacean Society by observing and recording whale sightings while out on patrol to add to the Society’s database. They identify individual Humpback whales from the unique markings on the underside of their tail fins and record the sighting. This information helps to track population dynamics and the movements of each whale spotted in Gitga’at territory.

The partnership also extends to analysis of the data. “The Society is currently collecting all the data, but when it comes time to analyze it, report on it, and ask research questions, we will work closely with them” says Picard.

From Observation to Understanding

The Gitga’at wanted to take this research one step further. For them, it was not enough to simply know the number of whales and their location in the territory. The Nation also wanted to understand the underlying factors that attract and sustain the whale populations in the first place. “We wanted to get a better sense of what was actually bringing whales to the territory. We know where the whales are, their activities, their numbers, and when they come and go. What we didn’t know is why,” explains Picard.

We wanted to get a better sense of what was actually bringing whales to the territory. We know where the whales are, their activities, their numbers, and when they come and go. What we didn’t know is why.

A whale spotted from the Giga'at Guardian Boat.
A humpback whale is spotted from the Gitga’at Guardian boat.

To find the answer, the Nation partnered with Scripps Institute of Oceanography to determine the conditions that support whale populations in Gitga’at territory. “This partnership is focused on examining water conditions such as temperature and salinity,  and the abundance, biodiversity, and biomass of zooplankton,” explains Picard. When finalized, the data will present a bigger picture of why the Gitga’at territory is such desirable habitat for whales.

The Gitga’at Guardians assisted in the design of the study and have also provided equipment and logistical support. In turn, the partnership has spurred a future training initiative for the Gitga’at Guardians. “We’ve realized we would like to have some of the Guardians take this oceanographic training further so we can continue this high-level monitoring into the future,” says Picard.

The presence of the Guardians also ensures that they are able to protect wildlife by quickly responding to distress calls. In July 2015, the Guardians were able to save a stranded orca whale in their territory.

Listening to the Forest: Measuring Industrial Noise

Coast Line
The remote forests of Gitga’at territory provide quiet habitat for terrestrial species. Photo by Brodie Guy.

Back on dry land, the Nation also has monitoring projects to maintain the health of its lands, forests, and terrestrial animal populations by measuring noise levels and “noise pollution” in its territory. In 2013, the Gitga’at Guardians developed an acoustic baseline data-collection project with University of British Columbia student Max Ritts and ecologist Stuart Gage.

For this data-collection effort, the Guardians helped to install eight automated sound recording meters throughout Douglas Channel, Wright Sound, and Otter Channel. The meters record the sounds of animal, human, and industrial noises to create an acoustic measure of each ecosystem. By establishing an acoustic baseline for the area, the meters can measure how noise levels change with industrial activity and determine the health of an ecosystem and how it is affected by development.

The Gitga’at Guardian program supported the design, installation, and maintenance of this project. Now that this effort has been underway for two years, they are turning to the reporting phase with a long-term view. “We are at the stage now where we will be doing analysis of the data and reports and thinking about how to design a follow up, longer term project,” says Picard. The results from the data provide the Gitga’at with evidence for how industry affects the ecology of their territory and use this information when planning future projects.

Looking to the Past for the Future

Ancient petroglyphs and other important cultural features are located throughout Gitga'at territory and are monitored and protected by the Guardians.
Ancient petroglyphs and other important cultural features are located throughout Gitga’at territory and are monitored and protected by the Guardians.

For centuries, members of the Gitga’at First Nation have stewarded their lands and resources for the benefit of future generations. The Nation has turned to the traditional use of their resources to help determine sustainable practices and resource management priorities.

To capture this knowledge, the Gitga’at are studying archaeological features in their territory and conducting interviews with Elders. This research paints a broader picture of how the territory has been managed for centuries.

“We are trying to document all the knowledge that the Elders have, and the evidence of past occupancy patterns that are etched in the land,” explains Spencer Greening, a Gitga’at First Nation member and University of Northern British Columbia Masters student. “This area has a lot of fishing history. We are looking at evidence of fish traps in the area to get an idea of how our ancestors managed fish there, estimate what time of year people were fishing, and determine their route,” says Greening.

We aren’t just talking about traditional stewardship. We are living it, strengthening our ability to govern and watch over the territory, and ensuring that our vision for it is alive and well.

By examining past stewardship practices, the Nation hopes to maintain the cultural traditions and resources of the land to ensure harvests do not deplete resources and that their ecosystems remain healthy. “The in-depth knowledge that the Elders have, about which streams will be salmon bearing and exactly what time of year – it’s an unbelievable amount of knowledge that exists,” says Greening.

These research findings will ultimately be incorporated into the Nation’s traditional laws and guiding management practices. “We are doing this research to affirm that these are our territories, and these are the laws for them” says Greening. “We aren’t just talking about traditional stewardship. We are living it, strengthening our ability to govern and watch over the territory, and ensuring that our vision for it is alive and well.”

Monitoring Bears

Gitga’at territory is home to the revered “Spirit Bear”—black bears with a rare recessive gene that produces a white coat. The territory has a higher frequency of these bears than anywhere else in the world and they are culturally significant to the Gitga’at people.

In order to improve the Nation’s ability to protect Spirit Bears, the Gitga’at Guardian program is piloting a data-collection project to research them. “Through this project, we want to understand bear foraging requirements, seasonal use patterns, and habitat range to make sure the bear population remains healthy and stable,” says Picard.

To measure these activities, the Guardians have installed hair snag stations throughout the territory to collect bear hair for DNA testing. This DNA research shows the number of bears that are in the area and whether they are carriers of the white-coat gene. Through stable isotope analysis, the hair samples also tell researchers about the bears’ diet and whether they are getting enough to eat.

For information on the relationship between the Gitga’at and the bears in their territory, watch below:

Guardians of the Great Bear Rainforest: Spirit Bears and the Gitga’at Nation

Guardians of the Great Bear Rainforest: Spirit Bears and the Gitga'at Nation

The Gitga’at have a special relationship with the bears in their territory. Marven Robinson, Operations Manager of the Gitga’at Guardians shows gives us a closer look at the rare spirit bear.

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Key Challenges and Successes

Steady Growth

Marven Robinson
Marven Robinson, Operations Manager of the Gitga’at Guardians.

The Gitga’at Guardians have developed their programs over many years to achieve what they have today. It took time to develop, and management was careful to ensure the growth of the organization was supported by human resources. This included a complete restructuring of the organization in 2009.

“When we knew how much work there was to do, we started brainstorming how we were going to do it, and a lot of thought went into the re-structuring of the Guardians and how to build from there,” says Robinson. “We were always careful to not take on too much, because that could be overwhelming and we did not want to do an incomplete job of anything. We would rather start small and do a great job of a few things, and then take on more.”

Since the re-structuring, the program is more robust than ever. The Gitga’at Guardians continue to plan ahead for how to sustainably expand their programs and hone their scientific knowledge of the territory.

Fostering Diverse Partnerships

Developing strong partnerships has been fundamental to the success of the Nation’s research programs. Often, partnerships have begun informally, with the Guardians lending logistical support to researchers, and have grown to incorporate the Gitga’at on the research aims and analysis of projects, as with Scripps Institute and North Coast Cetacean Society.

Maintaining relationships with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Coast Guard has also enabled the Gitga’at to clearly communicate concerns they have within their territory. “It’s a two-way relationship” says Robinson. “If they ever need us to check out anything in the water, we drop our stuff and come help them out.”

Likewise, the Guardians have taken representatives of DFO out with them to show them the sensitive and important areas of their territory and what the Guardians are working to protect. “It helps them understand what’s at stake for us. Then when we communicate what we want to accomplish in our territory, they know what is important to us.”

Economic Outcomes

As one of the main employers in Hartley Bay, the Gitga’at Guardian Program supports the economy of the remote community. Five full-time positions have been created through the program as well as ten seasonal positions to help during the busy summer months.

The research provided through the program also helps Gitga’at First Nation to make sound decisions around resource management and development in their territory. Stewardship of natural and cultural resources throughout the territory gives the Nation’s leadership certainty in making economic decisions. This enables the Nation to effectively partner with industry, knowing that economic development projects including forestry and fishing are aligned with long-term conservation efforts.

Learn more about economic partnerships.

Cultural Outcomes

Through the Guardians, the Gitga’at are able to monitor their territory and protect important archaeological features. They are also able to monitor the conditions that allow for maintaining sustainable harvests of their traditional foods and other resources to sustain their culture.

“Through our dock patrols, monitoring, and research we get a really good overall look at what is leaving this territory,” says Robinson. “It’s really important to get that information and have the data to identify how much of what is where, so that we can manage our resources effectively.”

This information directly supports the traditional food harvests of the Gitga’at. “The Guardians will let the community know what the resource levels are,” confirms Greening. “For example, they’ll go out and check the seaweed conditions, and let the community know where and when it will be ready to harvest.”

Learn more about traditional foods.

Environmental Outcomes

The extensive research produced by the Gitga’at Guardians and their partners provides the Nation with information to manage their territory and its resources, including assessments of salmon, crab, marine mammals, inter-tidal bivalves, and eulachon as well as wildlife monitoring of whales, bears, and deer. By identifying baseline activity through the hydrophone network and acoustic baseline project, the Gitga’at are able to understand how development will affect their territory and identify conservation priorities.

The guardians also measure the baseline contaminants present in their waters to determine if seafood is safe to consume. The Queen of the North (a former ferry boat) and Zelinski (a navy ship) are sunken vessels located in Gitga’at territory. The leaking fuel is a threat to local marine life and contains carcinogens which can end up in traditional food sources.

“We’ve been studying data on bivalves because they are particularly vulnerable to contaminants,” says Picard. “We are putting together a synthesis of the data and baseline contaminants so that when more industry come, we will know if things have changed from those baseline surveys.”

Learn more about research.

Social Outcomes

The Gitga’at Guardian program provides significant employment and training opportunities to members in Hartley Bay. Additionally, management of the program seek opportunities to engage youth and other members of the community in their activities to increase knowledge and awareness of the territory and conservation issues.

The Gitga’at Guardians have partnered with the local school to assist with interactive learning opportunities for local elementary students. The school applies their science education curriculum locally by introducing the students to the unique ecosystems that surround Hartley Bay in partnership with the Guardians.

Learn more about skills training.

Contacts

Marven Robinson

Operations Manager

Gitga'at Lands and Resource Stewardship Society

Kyle Clifton

Stewardship Director

Gitga'at First Nation

Chris Picard

Science Director

Gitga'at First Nation
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Between 2009-2015, Coast Conservation Endowment Foundation Fund approved funding for eight separate projects totalling $1,963,648 towards the Gitga’at Guardian Program.