First Nation, tech company collaborate to prepare for climate change's effects on harvesting waters

First Nation, tech company collaborate to prepare for climate change's effects on harvesting waters

The T'Sou-ke First Nation is working alongside a B.C. tech company to learn more about how climate change is affecting the waters it harvests food from.

MarineLabs' smart buoys will gather range of data to help inform T'Sou-ke First Nation

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A First Nation is working alongside a B.C. tech company to learn more about how climate change is affecting the waters it harvests food from.

In an effort to preserve and even build up capacity for seafood harvesting, the T'Sou-ke First Nation on southern Vancouver Island turned to Victoria-based MarineLabs, which collects real-time data about the ocean, about 18 months ago to better understand what's going on in the Sooke Basin and other areas it uses. 

A number of issues have come up in the Sooke Basin — a sheltered cove around 20 kilometres west of Victoria — that could impact how the T'Sou-ke Nation uses the waters.

Climate change has wreaked havoc on the area: increased temperatures both in the air and the sea have killed off marine life, including important traditional food sources for the nation; while extreme storms are becoming more common, something the nation's leaders want the community to be better prepared for. 

Additionally, abandoned ships, mining waste and vessel traffic has polluted the water and affected shellfish harvesting in recent decades, while a 2019 report from B.C.'s Ministry of Environment recommended regular monitoring of the basin's water due to rapid development in the area. 

MarineLabs now hopes to gain data on the area by using smart buoys that have sensors to detect wind speed, wave size, the number of boats or ships passing through, water temperature and water salinity.

"Science is key," T'Sou-ke Nation Chief Gordon Planes said. "Knowing a history of what's been happening in the last few years will be able to really tell us where we are. It will set a foundation for the future."

Planes, who also goes by Hyakwacha, said he hopes the buoys will help detect an increase in shipping, reveal what environmental concerns exist and help determine what his First Nation can do to address and adapt to climate change. 

An increase in extreme heat events, for example, can change the chemistry of the water, which in turn affects the marine ecosystem and the creatures that have historically been harvested by the T'Sou-ke for food. 

"It could have an adverse effect on who we are and the way we live our lives on this coastline," Planes said.

MarineLabs CEO Scott Beatty said there are currently 41 sensors along Canada's coastlines that are similar to his company's but generally older — but he thinks there should be thousands so that communities, private enterprise and government can use that information to understand the impact of climate change.

"The statistics of the ocean are changing and climate change is making that worse," Beatty said. 

"This is about being proactive, about having more data in the event of spill response," he said.

Ryan Chamberland, T'Sou-ke Nation marine manager, said he'd like to see other communities and branches of government invest in similar projects. 

"This is really helping protect that long-term investment of having these fisheries and access to food and ceremonial fisheries," he said.

"This is another tool that coastal communities, First Nations can use to do the preventative maintenance that needs to happen on our coast."

MarineLabs uses smart buoys to provide real-time ocean data to those who need it. Its clients range from the Port of Vancouver to BC Ferries and the Canadian Coast Guard. Over the last year and a half, they’ve been working with the T’Souke Nation. Rohit Joseph headed out to a dock in the nation’s traditional territory to find out more.Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. In B.C. we've witnessed its impacts with deadly heat waves, destructive floods and rampant wildfires. But there are people who are committed to taking meaningful strides, both big and small, toward building a better future for our planet. Those people are featured in CBC's series 

Courtney Dickson is a journalist working in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.