Marine ecologist Anne Salomon is on a mission to save our oceans, one sea urchin at a time. But there’s much more to the Vancouver researcher’s work than straightforward science. Rather, Salomon is looking to protect fragile marine ecosystems well into the future by looking back—way back.
Salomon, who is an assistant professor in SFU’s school of resource and environmental management, is one of five international scientists named recipients of a 2013 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. The US$150,000 award will allow Salomon and her students to build upon work they’ve already started involving kelp forests, those aforementioned sea urchins, and the impact of the recovering B.C. sea otter population on its ecosystem. It’s a complex dynamic that has economic and environmental effects.
What makes Salomon’s work unique is that she’s including input from First Nations communities in Alaska and all along B.C.’s coast in her three-year study. Ancient knowledge of this underwater interplay is a crucial component in ensuring sustainability of marine resources, she says.
“What the Pew Fellowship allows us to do is bring together First Nations communities…with marine ecologists such as myself who study these impacts and archaeologists so that we can look through deep time to share all the data that we have—western science, quantitative data, and the local, traditional knowledge—and so we can piece together a story of how these changes have happened…so we can understand things better,” Salomon says in an interview at her small rented West Side home with a view of the ocean.
“People and scientists suffer from sliding base lines, where when we think about what is ‘natural’, we think it’s what we saw when we were kids or when we started our professions, when in fact one needs to go further back through time. Traditional knowledge, oral histories, ethnologies, and archaeological data can give us better understanding of base lines in the past.”
Salomon’s cultural guides will be Haida matriarch Barbara Wilson (Kii’iljuus) and Nicolas Tanape Sr., a Sugpiaq seal hunter, who will ensure that her group follows each First Nation community’s protocols throughout the project. The research will be based at a new facility called the Hakai Beach Institute. It’s situated on Calvert Island, on the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s central coast, which Salomon describes as “glorious”. Regular meetings there will involve 50 researchers, scientists, policymakers, and First Nations members from various tribes from Alaska and the B.C. coast. The Tula Foundation, a self-funded family organization that sponsors environmental and other research, has offered the use of that facility to Salomon’s group for free.
“It’s a huge contribution, and what’s essential to making this happen is having it on the central coast, not in Vancouver at a university but in the home turf of local people and communities, and that is awesome,” Salomon says. “More and more First Nations are working with scientists, and I really think many of our views are similar. A lot of our views are even more so than [with the] DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans, now called Fisheries and Oceans Canada], which is quite stuck in this single-species-management perspective and top-down regulation. This new movement of ecosystem-based management is much more in line with views of First Nations people who’ve lived on this coast and…managed it for millennia. For me, I see great possibilities.”
To get the gist of Salomon’s current research, you need to go down to the coastal ocean bottom, where kelp forests grow. Just as with trees, you can have old-growth and young-growth kelp forests, depending on the disturbance in the area. Sea urchins, Salomon explains, are a major agitator when it comes to those kelp forests. “They’re like lawn mowers,” she says. “Where you have a lot of urchins actively feeding, you get only a little bit of kelp, and the kelp you do get are annuals, fast-growing. Places where you have very few urchins, you start getting more old-growth forest.”
So what depletes the sea urchins? Humans, who love to eat their golden roe, known as uni, a popular sushi dish, are one threat. “Urchin harvest is a major commercial resource,” Salomon says. “Most of the largest-grossing fisheries right now in B.C. are invertebrate fisheries, shellfish fisheries.”
The other major predator of sea urchins is sea otters. In 2009, the federal government changed the listing of this species from “threatened” to of “special concern” because of relatively recent sea-otter population growth. They’re also known as a keystone species, meaning they have a dramatic effect on marine food webs and habitats. “Sea otters were basically eliminated from most of our coast by the fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries,” Salomon explains. “They were major architects of kelp forests because they eat urchins.”
The removal of so many sea otters because of the fur trade meant the proliferation of urchins, which resulted in fewer kelp beds. Kelp is important because it provides habitat for fish, it’s a source of food for fish and shellfish, and it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.
“There are lots of benefits of having kelp around,” says Salomon, 39, who was also recently granted the International Recognition of Professional Excellence Prize by the German-based International Ecology Institute. “When sea otters start coming back, two things happen: they start reducing the amount of urchins because they eat them, allowing kelp to grow and those old-growth forests to come back. But they don’t just eat sea urchins. They eat other shellfish too, shellfish that we find commercially and culturally important, such as crab, abalone, which is an endangered species, clams, and cockles.…All of these shellfish are important economically and in terms of food security for coastal First Nations communities. So there are some real conflicts and tradeoffs when these predators come back, and because we have such short-term memories as humans, it’s easy to forget how we lived before with these predators around.
“Humans have existed on this coast for at least 12,000 years, according to archaeological evidence,” she adds. “So people had to learn how to manage these systems. Here we scientists come in and think [that] in a couple of years we can gather data and form management… Well, we can, but it’s also very valuable to listen to some of these really innovative ideas that took millennia to develop and adapt and evolve. People in the past would have had some methods of dealing with predation, and there’s a lot we can learn from talking to [the] right people in coastal communities who have that knowledge. The goal of the Pew-funded project is to complete quantitative science and bring in that knowledge and to make sure that knowledge is shared not only amongst communities but also amongst scientists who need to learn about and appreciate the vast amount of knowledge held in these traditional cultures. This research is a bit of a risk, because it’s leading into some tension. But in order to manage people and a system, we need to have a better idea of how that system works. And sharing information…is one of the best ways to defuse some of the conflict.”
Haida elder Wilson, who used to work as a researcher and writer for Parks Canada, says she’s always been interested in the environment. When Salomon, a long-time friend, asked her to help on the project, Wilson didn’t hesitate. “I told her I knew a few things from our old stories about sea otter,” says Wilson, a Haida Gwaii resident, in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of things that aren’t written.”
For Wilson, who is 70 and plans on returning to university to complete her master’s and PhD in education, having the opportunity to share traditional knowledge has given her renewed drive. “She’s helped me become so intrigued by my past and my ancestors and in what makes us who we are,” Wilson says. “It’s stretched my brain.”
Salomon, who says her physicist father and occupational-therapist mother always encouraged her to be curious and skeptical, grew up near UBC and spent a lot of time on the water through the Jericho Sailing Centre. “I feel at home by the ocean,” she says. “I’m very inspired by coastal places.”
She’s always been a scientist who works outside the box. She and three other SFU ecologists collaborated over a three-year period with dancer-choreographer Gail Lotenberg for a 2010 piece called Experiments: Where Logic and Emotion Collide, which explored parallels between these disciplines. She’s also helped other scientists with how to talk to the media, a role she sees as vital in getting the public to better understand science and policy.
She’s seen some incredible places both above and below sea level: learning to scuba-dive in Indonesia, studying rocky reefs in New Zealand, and working on her master’s degree on the Deer Group Islands near Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island. She got the idea for her current research after spending the summer of 2000 in Alaska. There, she worked with the Sugpiaq (or Alutiiq) community, which began observing the return of sea otters back in the 1950s.
“They’ve learned to adapt to this predator coming back to their system,” she says. “They certainly have felt direct effects of reduced shellfish. When the otters came back, there was the serial depletion in shellfish. Urchins were the first to go, then crabs, then clams and cockles.…And that will happen again and is happening here in British Columbia.”
The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation on Vancouver Island has been making similar observations since the 1980s, Salomon says. Meanwhile, she notes that some members of the Haida leadership are interested in getting sea otters to return to Haida Gwaii so they can revive some of their ancestral and traditional practices while managing the animals’ ecological impact.
Any threat to shellfish populations, however, leads to issues of food security and social justice.
“Local First Nations should, according to our Canadian constitution, have an active role in comanagement, in deciding how and the extent to which they can access shellfish, and that’s been a big political obstacle for First Nations for a very long time,” she says. “That’s slowly starting to change. There’s this really ripe window of opportunity in B.C. with the signing of reconciliation in 2009 and a greater legal framework for making sure that there’s active comanagement or joint management of resources, so I think getting information now and making decisions based on information is essential.
“That’s the drift of the Pew Fellowship: bringing people to share ideas across disciplines,” she adds. “This is not typical funding. It’s given me funding to be a bit of a renegade and go beyond, typically, what I’m supposed to do as a scientist and actually bring people together to share and work outside of the field of ecology. That ancient knowledge is often disregarded and, more importantly, First Nations rights are so often not upheld. Because they occupy this coastal area that I’m so inspired by, I feel like I need to do my part to do whatever I can to support their rights.
“I never even knew the words social justice until recently. I’m a scientist with something that really motivates me now.”