Hakai Magazine

Two women passing a bucket of seaweed to eachother.
Hannah Kobluk and Sachi Ouchi experimentally harvest y̓ák̓a, or feather boa kelp, in Heiltsuk territory on the central coast of British Columbia. Photo by Markus Thompson

Farming Kelp the Heiltsuk Way

New research braids Indigenous knowledge with Western science to demonstrate the sustainability of a small-scale kelp fishery.

Authored by

by Emilee Gilpin

Article body copy

A few years ago, Kelly Brown, a Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) community member from a village on the central coast of British Columbia, was out exploring his homelands with an elder when they came across the remnants of a manufactured pond on the sandy north shore of Goose Island. When Brown asked about the pond, the elder told him it was an old herring trap.

“Our people are so sophisticated around the way they harvested herring,” says Brown, director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD). “They would always take a little, leave a lot.”

Heiltsuk people have occupied their traditional territory for more than 14,000 years and are “mechanically inclined to think differently” about conservation and resource management, Brown says, utilizing to this day practices that have been safeguarded and passed down over generations.

The nation’s emphasis on preservation and reciprocity is not a mere cultural habit, it’s a part of Heiltsuk Ǧviḷ̓ás—the ancestral laws and protocols that have governed the community’s approach to resource management for millennia. The Heiltsuk have maintained their cosmology, cultural values, and governing systems despite a colonial agenda to eradicate Indigenous ways of life and have worked to protect their right to fish, sustain their community, engage with the economy, and govern the natural resources throughout their coastal lands and waters.

It is from this footing that Heiltsuk knowledge keepers set out with scientists from Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia to investigate the ecological resilience of y̓ák̓a, or feather boa kelp, a perennial kelp found in wave-swept rocky intertidal and shallow subtidal habitats. Their goals were to learn more about the sustainability of traditional y̓ák̓a harvesting and explore the potential of opening a small commercial kelp fishery.

Kelp is a healthy food with a low carbon footprint and a ready market in Japan. But Brown and his colleagues with HIRMD wanted to ensure that they could engage in a sustainable harvest without damaging the health of the coast and the many species that call it home.

Brown reached out to Anne Salomon, a conservation ecologist at SFU who has been working closely with the nation for the past decade. Salomon, who was on sabbatical, empowered Hannah Kobluk, her graduate student, to take on the community’s research interests.

“I went up first to get to know people, host a few meetings, figure out what the questions were that people were interested in answering,” says Kobluk, who is now a doctoral candidate at SFU. Her goal was not to repeat the “legacy of extractive processes of science,” she says, but to “disrupt science and do it in a different way,” by tailoring the research to the community’s needs.

In March 2017, Kobluk was taken out to well-known kelp harvesting sites, where she tagged individual fronds. Mirroring the traditional Heiltsuk practice of partial harvest, Kobluk and a few research assistants measured and clipped 25 percent of the fronds, then left them to grow. The group experimentally harvested the kelp at five intertidal sites along the BC central coast.

Five months later, Kobluk and her team remeasured the tagged plants to see if they had grown. “Spoiler alert, the kelp grew a whole bunch,” Kobluk says. “You trim some of the fronds and they sprout a whole bunch of new ones.”

With her experimental results in hand, Kobluk presented her findings to the community and conducted interviews with kelp experts and harvesters.

“We basically documented how Indigenous knowledge and practices of harvesting kelp reflect all of the ecological relationships that would allow for it to thrive or be resilient to harvest,” Kobluk says.

Taken together, the work shows that kelp not only recovers from a partial, targeted harvest, it actually grows back more robustly, says Kobluk. The wisdom of the traditional Heiltsuk practices of only harvesting part of the kelp in targeted areas, and only harvesting large plants, was reflected in the finding that larger plants recover more biomass and, if only partially harvested, can withstand harvesting.

As commercial interest in seaweed harvesting and aquaculture grows during a time of unprecedented climate change, this research shows the importance of braiding together Indigenous knowledge with Western science and how a small-scale kelp fishery can be made more sustainable.

The nation is still discussing best practices and seeking further research before they’ll decide whether to open the kelp fishery, Brown says, while his people continue to adapt to the new realities they face.

“If the herring, salmon, kelp go—that’s our way of life,” Brown says. “We’re working hard, but we all have to do our part—everybody has to do their part. The Indigenous people can be the ones to lead the way to do that.”