Monday, March 12, 2018 - 12:00

“Shellfish are a food source that could feed the world,” says Gina Thomas enthusiastically. Along with Brandon Wilson, Thomas is one of Tlowitsis’ two fulltime Guardian Watchmen. “We have such pristine waters here in our territory,” Thomas continues.” It’s an ideal place to put people to work growing good food like shellfish. “ 

First Nations people have been doing just that for thousands of years, she points out. “We have always had clam gardens here. We know how to take care of the animals and the environment. This is an ideal business for First Nations to be in.” 

Piloting what works 

Investigating shellfish aquaculture potential is a priority outlined in the North Vancouver Island Marine Plan, prepared under the auspices of the Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP) in partnership with the First Nations members of the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network, among others. “There has been a lot of interest in shellfish farming over the last few decades, but there still is not a lot of information available,” explains Thomas.

Tlowitsis therefore decided to engage marine biologist Don Tillapaugh to work with the First Nation on a two-year shellfish research project near Port Neville, on Johnstone Strait. “The idea is to study what kind of environmental characteristics are required to be successful, what causes die-off, the frequency of fouling and predation issues,” says Thomas. The information gleaned from the study will help Tlowitsis determine the feasibility of farming different types of shellfish and the infrastructure required.

Port Neville was chosen as a suitable location, and in April 2017 a long line system with data loggers attached was deployed to measure and monitor physical and biological information, such as water salinity and temperature, and incidence of predation and fouling of the line. “We need to measure growth rates of the seed as well, and meat weight, to ensure the shelffish can grow to the minimum required size for viability.”

The pilot includes blue mussels and giant Pacific/Japanese hybrid scallops as well as Pacific oysters. “The results so far have been very positive,” says Thomas happily. The scallops in particular have shown good growth, and there have been minimal morts, or deaths, and very little fouling or predation. That’s excellent!”

Once the data is in for the full two years, it will be analyzed in order to determine the next steps. “We need to do a cost/benefit analysis, and see what makes most sense. If it looks like this could be successful, we’ll be sharing that information with other First Nations as well who might be interested at looking at shellfish aquaculture in their territory. As I say, there’s not a lot of information out there, but so much opportunity to create sustainable jobs and food for the future. It’s really exciting.”

Kudos, and a call to action

Both Gina Thomas and Brandon Wilson are now fully-fledge certified Stewardship Technicians. After two years of hard work and extra-curricular training through Vancouver Island University’s Stewardship Technician Training Program—all on top of their day-to-day Guardian duties—Thomas and Wilson graduated in March 2017. After reporting last year that they planned to “dive into” the next season, they also both literally did just that—obtaining their open water and dry suit dive certification with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) last May. 

These are great achievements. They are also ones the two Guardians hope other First Nations people will consider working towards. “We need more young people especially getting excited about the huge opportunities this training can give them,” says Thomas. “Brandon and I can’t do this forever. We need young people to start working with us who want to take care of our homelands and the environment for the long haul.”

In 2017 one summer student, Sequoia Clellamin, was lucky enough to intern with the Tlowitsis Guardians. “That was very exciting. He had a great experience, and we hope now he will become a future Guardian one day.”

“It’s so important,” concludes Thomas. “We work in these remote, scattered locations, conditions can be challenging, yes, it’s hard sometimes. But it is also so incredibly rewarding. Is there anywhere more beautiful than this? How many people get to work somewhere so beautiful, taking care of our future, learning all these skills and getting certified, and be paid for doing it? It’s amazing.”