New Nova Scotia fish study sees Indigenous partners leading the way
By YVETTE D’ENTREMONT
Sun., Nov. 25, 2018
HALIFAX—A new aquatic ecosystem study in Nova Scotia dubbed the largest of its kind in the Maritimes will see First Nations partners taking the reins as they work alongside academics.
The $1-million, three-year research program to study culturally and commercially important fish species in Nova Scotia is being led by a collaborative team that includes the Mi’kmaq Conservation Group, the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR), Acadia University and Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network.
Shelley Denny, director of aquatic research and stewardship with Cape Breton-based UINR, said the project is important for her and Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaq community because it’s a true collaboration.
“Collaboration starts at the table, not in the field. We’re able to design the research that we need that fits into our processes…We’re not coming in on the back end of ‘Oh, this might be of interest to you as First Nations.’ This is ‘Hey First Nations, what do you think you would like to learn about or the information that you need to help you make better decisions’ and so that’s the key thing for me,” Denny said in an interview.
“We’re able to help design the research question and once we design the research question, help design the methods—because sometimes there’s different ways of approaching a problem. So, we’ll have that partnership approach where we consider and work toward doing something that both groups agree on.”
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada research award grant was announced last month. Nikki Beauchamp, spokesperson for Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network (OTN), said it’s the largest strategic network grant project in the Maritimes that co-operates with Indigenous rights holders in this capacity.
“In this case, it’s addressing Mi’kmaw priorities; establishing how to use aquatic resources in a way that meets the vision of surrounding communities (i.e. the people that use these resources). That starts with partnerships that respect the strengths and differences of various methodologies and knowledge systems,” Beauchamp said in an email.
The project’s official name is currently a work in progress. Beauchamp said they’re collaborating with Mi’kmaw partners on an official name. They also intend to commission a First Nations artist to help establish an identity.
The research project will build on existing infrastructure in the Minas Passage and Minas Basin on the mainland of the province and span Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes, typically watersheds and gateways.
Acoustic telemetry (remote monitoring) logistically supported by OTN and operated by Mi’kmaw partners will be used to document the movements and habitat use of culturally and ecologically important species to rights holders and local stakeholders.
Those species include eel, salmon, striped bass, and tomcod.
“The Bras D’or Lakes are very important to the Mi’kmaq people here in Cape Breton. It’s where we not only get our food, but it’s also where we pass on our knowledge,” Denny said.
“It’s about being able to integrate our values and our needs and our way of doing things with natural science and having ultimately a two-eyed seeing approach, so that we’re both benefitting and we’re both doing things together and we’re both learning as we’re going.”
That two-eyed seeing approach blends a Western science worldview with the traditional and ecological knowledge from Indigenous community members and elders.
Denny said for her organization, the end goal is to have evidence-based decision making and to contribute through a natural science research project. But it’s also about how Indigenous people, Mi’kmaq people in particular, can contribute using their local knowledge.
“For the most part scientists don’t really think about where the information goes, they have different values. They want to get that publication, it’s science for science. We don’t see science for science,” Denny explained.
“It has to have something that helps our people, that helps the ecosystem, that has some sort of purpose to it. That’s our goal, that it needs to be relevant and the more relevance it has to us as First Nations the better that we’re able to take ownership of it. If we see value in having it done, then definitely it will be done.”
The Mi’kmaq Conservation Group (MCG) is also excited to be part of the new collaborative project. Administered by the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, the conservation group serves as the confederacy’s aquatics branch.
MCG’s fisheries biologist Joseph Beland said the project will enable them to get a good assessment of how the varied species are doing, particularly those used culturally by First Nations people.
“I think it’s really a pioneer project in the respect that we practice a two-eyed seeing approach … and it’s on a really grand scale,” Beland said.
“Successful execution of this project hopefully will lead to many more like it in the future.”
Alanna Syliboy, the MCG’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources community liaison officer, said using a two-eyed seeing approach has many benefits.
“(For) Mi’kmaq people, this is our ancestral territorial land so our elders know a lot more, they look at the world (using) a holistic approach. Combining that with science and the modern technology is important because you get those two views,” Syliboy explained.
“Then, it strengthens the information, and so if these guys are doing their scientist stuff and then we get an elder that backs it up with ecological knowledge, it just strengthens that knowledge.”
Syliboy described the project as a stepping stone that can help bridge the gap between academia and her community’s traditional knowledge, while also giving them a voice.
She said one of the highlights for her personally was that the OTN reached out to her group and invited them to participate in the study because they recognized the community’s knowledge as a valuable collaborative component.
“I’m a First Nations person myself, and I have the duty and responsibility to make sure that what I’m doing today doesn’t impact the next seven generations because I have children, too,” Syliboy said.
“I make sure I’m doing what’s best for this environment and for the species because I don’t want these species to be something that my children learn in a book. I want them to be able to exercise their treaty rights. That’s why it’s important to prepare what you’re doing today for the future.”