Observing and Understanding Shows Us How Everything is Connected

Written by Andre Goldsmith and Stefania Gorgopa.

Bald Eagle in flight. Photo by Dwayne Goldsmith.

Everything is connected. Whether the species is on land, or in the water. If it is living, and breathing…there are connections to be made within their ecosystem. You may be wondering how? But, like us! They need 4 key ingredients for a sustainable life; water, food, shelter resources, and air! With their needs now covered. We can acknowledge the diverse relationships between them, and other species. By themselves they could carry out predatory relationships. They can play either role; as prey, or predator, depending on what species is what. Even if the ecosystem is diverse with many species involved, many active relationships. All these points tell us, is that connections are the core to an ecosystem’s survival. Without these links, causes, actions, and natural ways. Our ecosystems around; would be incomplete puzzles, with empty trees, and empty waters. We look with wonder and pleasure. Let’s try to observe and understand.

Andre and Sam practice taking photos of birds. Photo by Stefania Gorgopa.

Marine birds are a good example of how things are connected. Dwayne, Samantha and Andre are the three Malahat Stewardship Technicians. They have been learning to identify many kinds of birds. Bald eagles, loons, surf scoters, Canada geese, sea gulls, and cormorants are some of the birds they see. These are marine birds that spend a part of their life around the ocean. Marine birds connect many places and many other lifeforms. Many marine birds migrate each year. When they migrate they connect distant and diverse places. Surf scoters for example, breed in Northern Canada and then fly south for the winter. We see them in Malahat’s marine territory through the winter. What happens in the North may have ripple effects here and vis versa. Marine birds also connect different habitats together. Marine birds fly in the air, feed and rest on the ocean and nest on land. Healthy marine birds need healthy air, water and land to thrive. Some marine birds like surf scoters feed on clams. Healthy surf scoters and healthy clams live in balance. Malahat needs healthy clams too and is part of that balance.

Common loon with vessel in the background. Photo by Stefania Gorgopa

In the Salish Sea the number and size of boats and ships using the waters is increasing. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is one project expected to increase shipping. There are many negative effects marine shipping can have on marine birds. Oil from ships can interfere with a bird’s natural waterproofing. Without waterproofing birds can’t keep warm and may get hypothermia. Ship traffic causes birds to spend extra energy flying away. Noise pollution can disrupt bird communication. Birds need to communicate about good feeding locations and finding mates. Light pollution from ships may disorient birds causing collisions with structures. We understand what negative effects can occur with increased shipping. But we still don’t know how much shipping affects each bird.

Western Grebes. Photo by Dwayne Goldsmith.

Will the number of birds decrease as shipping increases? Dwayne, Samantha and Andre are helping to answer that question. Marine birds were counted for environmental baseline monitoring back in 2016. Malahat still has that baseline data. Dwayne Samantha and Andre follow a scientific protocol to count marine birds along a regular route. They are adding new counts that can be compared with the counts from 2016. Comparing counts year to year will tell us how marine birds are doing in Malahat’s territory. Observing how marine birds are doing gives us a bigger picture of how other habitats and animals are doing, like clams and Malahat’s marine territory in general. Everything is connected.

Quiet Vessel Initiative

Loud noises in the ocean can affect underwater animals like whales. The Quiet Vessel Initiative is a Transport Canada program that will help to understand underwater sounds and make noise from boats quieter.

Savannah Goldsmith preparing a hydrophone for some underwater recordings.

Malahat Nation bought two underwater microphones (called hydrophones) last year. The hydrophones can listen to whales and boat noise in Malahat territory. These devices are important for studying the impacts of noise under the sea. The Malahat Environment team was trained how to use the hydrophones by sampling local boat noise. With help from marine science experts, Malahat is choosing 20 different places to record underwater noise in Malahat territory.

Samantha Daniels checking out some underwater noise data at the office.

A final report for the program will decide on the best location to build an underwater hydrophone station in the Malahat territory. Malahat Nation recently applied for funding to build this permanent underwater hydrophone station. It will help to understand the relationship between whales (such as orca) and boat traffic in the area.

Samantha and Savannah testing equipment and recording the ferry noise.

Malahat Ghost Gear Program

Malahat Nation is pleased to announce our part in the DFO Ghost Gear program. “Ghost” fishing gear refers to abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing debris – a leading cause of harmful impacts on fish stocks and marine mammals around the world. Over the next 3 years, Malahat will use an ROV to map ghost gear accumulation and remove ghost fishing debris from the Salish Sea, improving ocean health for all who rely on its valuable resources.

Example of an underwater ROV that can be used to hunt ghost gear and other pollutants.

Please stay tuned for more updates regarding this exiting program!

Further resources:

https://www.canada.ca/en/fisheries-oceans/news/2021/12/canadas-ghost-gear-fund-delivering-results-for-cleaner-oceans.html

https://www.canada.ca/en/fisheries-oceans/news/2021/12/project-recipients-receive-additional-funding-under-the-ghost-gear-fund.html

Community Crab Distribution and Science Program

Some community members have had a visit from Dwayne Goldsmith and Stephanie Spencer. They have been delivering crab, fresh caught on the Pride of Malahat boat.

Dwayne and Stephanie work for the Malahat Environment Department. They are helping to track crab in Saanich Inlet. A perk of this work is that they get to deliver the caught crab to community members at the end of the day!

A Dungeness crab caught during the science crab survey.

Unfortunately, the crab catch is a bit unpredictable. Not every crab in the trap is suitable to keep. Females and undersize crabs get returned to the ocean to keep the population going. Some days the team catches 10 crab to keep, some days only 2. There are a few reasons for the unpredictability. Look out on the inlet on a summer weekend and you will see many floats on the water. Many floats mark the location of a crab traps set by recreational and commercial fishers.  Is overfishing impacting crab availability?  Malahat Environment Department gathers information to answer the question by fishing for crab.

Preparing bait for crab fishing.

Because they want to know about crab from all over the inlet they are not only fishing one ‘good’ spot. The department wants scientific data for many spots all around the inlet. Some spots catch more crab and some are not so good. Fishing ‘bad’ spots seems like a bad fishing strategy but in the long term there will be major benefits. Comparing spots helps the department understand why some spots offer fewer crab. That information can help Malahat make decisions to protect good fishing spots.

Crab inside a trap on the Pride of Malahat waiting to be measured.

Malahat Environment Department puts traps out and soaks them for 24hrs. When they return the next day, they pull up the trap hoping for a good catch. The best catches have 5-10 crab inside but not all those crabs are ‘keepers’. They then get to work gathering scientific data, checking and measuring each crab. The size and sex of crab is important to know. A ‘keeper’ is a male crab that is over the minimum size. Too many small crabs can be a sign of overfishing. A good mix of small and large, males and females indicates a healthy availability of crab. So far there have been both Red Rock Crabs and Dungeness Crabs in the traps.

Catching crab has other benefits for Malahat besides scientific data. Malahat men’s group, and other members, have helped with crab fishing and data collection on the boat. The experience has taught them new skills for catching crab. They gain knowledge about the ocean and Malahat Territory. They build relationships with each other. On the water they not only see crab but seabirds, seals, sea lions and sometimes whales! Time on the water helps everyone strengthen their relationships with the ocean.

Malahat Men’s group fishing for crab on the Pride of Malahat

So far this year the Malahat Environment Department has caught about 50 crab. Many were female or undersize. About 15 crab have been distributed to community members. The numbers are not enough to make scientific conclusions about the crab population yet. The department will be out fishing for more crab this summer and fall. Collecting more data and analyzing the data will provide some answers. Crab catch numbers over the years can show whether the crab availability is changing. The crab program is part of the Salish Sea Initiative (SSI). SSI is a Trans-mountain accommodation measure which continues until 2024.

Next time you see Dwayne and Stephanie or anyone from the Environment Department, give them a wave and ask them how the crab fishing is going! If you want to come aboard the Pride of Malahat for some crab fishing, let them know!

Posted in Environment

A Fish Known for Its Voice

What fish sings and grunts, is nocturnal, and has the face of a frog?

It is the plainfin midshipman. They are a kind of toadfish. Sometimes called the ‘roaring bullhead’ for their loud vocalizations. They are usually the size of your hand, but grow up to 50 cm or 20 inches.

Recently, at the boat launch construction site, the machines were moving rocks at the waters edge to build the ramp.  The environmental monitor was moving sea stars, and crabs out of the way. Their job is to protect sensitive animals and their homes from the construction work. Under one of the rocks was, a male plainfin midshipman guarding his eggs. The bubbly orange eggs were stuck to the rocky den. Plainfin midshipman lay their eggs in late spring and summer. Not a surprising thing to find, but still exciting!

The Boat Launch Construction site. Plainfin Midshipman eggs were found under rocks on the end of the ramp (left hand side of the image).

Plainfin midshipman live in the pacific from Baja Mexico to central British Columbia. In the southern part of their range they have bioluminescence. That’s right! They glow fluorescent green. The fish use light to attract mates. Light can also help avoid predators. But, in the northern part of their range the glowing effect is not observed. The light organs dotting their body resemble the buttons on a navy officer’s uniform. That is where the midshipman name comes from.

Plainfin Midshipman (photo source: wikimedia commons)

Plainfin midshipman are very noisy fish. People living on the water report the vocalizations of many plainfin midshipman keeping them awake at night. Males make a long humming sound (100hz) to attract females to their den. Females and males will also grunt when fighting or otherwise disturbed.

The females will lay eggs in the male’s den under rocks, in shallow water. The male will stay close to guard the eggs. Laying eggs in the intertidal zone does not seem to be very smart for a fish. During the last few weeks we have had some of our highest temperatures and lowest tides. But the fish and their eggs adapt to the dry conditions. The fish are able to extract oxygen from the air. The males will take care to hydrate the eggs during prolonged time out of water. The eggs take 20-40 days to hatch. Once hatched the larvae remain stuck to the rock where they rest and build up strength. Once mature enough they swim off as juveniles.

On Vancouver Island, bald eagles will feed plainfin midshipman to their eaglets. Many other gulls and herons will also prey on these fish, as do seals and sea lions.

The boat ramp construction at the waters edge has paused. The construction will resume once the eggs are all hatched and the fish finish spawning. The Malahat Environment Department is checking under rocks to see the spawning progress. We have seen many eggs go from orange sacs to empty casings as the fish hatch. It looks like popped bubble wrap on the underside of rocks when they have hatched. Still, there are more males with fresh eggs. By checking on the eggs every few days, we are getting familiar with the many other species that live in the rocks. Sea stars, kelp crabs, red rock crabs, oysters and burrowing cucumbers are a few of the species we have seen. We are learning more and more about the animals that live on the shore in Malahat territory. The more we know the better we can protect them.

Savannah points at Plainfin Midshipman eggs at the boat launch construction site.

If you are at the beach, find a rock, no bigger than your head. Turn it over and see what is underneath. You might find a bunch of crabs but sometimes you will find a fish den and eggs. Have a look and remember to carefully return the rock!

Posted in Environment

About the Department

Malahat Nation’s Environment Department focuses on promoting stewardship and sustainable practices throughout the marine and terrestrial environment in the Nation’s traditional territory. The Environment Department works on a variety of projects and initiatives related to Fisheries, Sustainable Development, and Marine Stewardship.

Fisheries

The Environment Department manages commercial crab, salmon and red urchin fishing licenses, as well as Food, Social and Ceremonial (FSC) permits.

Setting up crab traps aboard the Pride of Malahat

One of the Environment Department goals is to increase community access to the Marine territory and harvest. Food Fish distributions to the Malahat community are one way of increasing connection to marine harvest. Previous distributions include: Herring, Sockeye, Chinook, Crab.

Sustainable Development

The Environment Department staff consult on major projects that may affect Malahat Nation aboriginal rights and title, including Roberts Bank Terminal 2 and Trans Mountain Expansion Project.

Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales in Saanich inlet (photo taken from a distance with a zoom lens and cropped).

Staff provide technical and scientific expertise for environmental assessments, local developments and Nation governance.

Recent projects include:

  • Proposed marine and foreshore developments
  • Soil import bylaws
  • Environmental Site Assessments
  • Providing meaningful feedback on proposed changes to Canadian legislation in order to safeguard Malahat interests.

Recent reviews include:

  • Canadian Environmental Assessment Act: Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
  • Fisheries Act: Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Navigable Waters Act: Transport Canada
  • National Energy Board Act: Canadian National Energy Board

Marine Environmental Monitoring and Stewardship

The Environment Department oversees the monitoring and stewardship program for Malahat’s Marine territory. The Monitoring and Stewardship program includes deploying advanced technologies like drones, and supporting community members in long-term high value careers as stewards of the Salish Sea.

Savannah and Desiree place a reference target for mapping the shoreline by drone.

Monitoring and Stewardship activities include:

  • Monitoring Birds, crab, eelgrass, kelp, intertidal invertebrates (SSI program)
  • Mapping coastal erosion and marine vegetation using drone technology
  • Develops sustainability and stewardship initiatives such as smart homes, Saanich Inlet prawn and crab buoy surveys, and commercial boat charter services
  • Collaborates with Island Marine Aquatic Group to advance First Nation fisheries interests
  • Provides digital mapping and Geographic Information Systems support for Malahat Nation
  • Engages in developing Marine Response Plans in partnership with Western Canada Marine Response Corporation and the Canadian Coastguard; oversees preparations for any potential oil spills.
  • Engages with local/municipal governments to coordinate response plan to air, soil and water pollution for the region.
Posted in Environment