Digging the intertidal zone: Eco-cultural learning by the sea

July 31, 2014
Associate Prof. Audrey Dallimore, research team and students investigate an ancient First Nation clam garden at Fulford Harbor, Salt Spring Island

Stepping ashore at Fulford Harbour, Royal Roads students survey the expanse of beach exposed by one of the lowest tides of the year.

“Smells like summer,” says one.

They are up early to participate in Parks Canada’s clam garden restoration study taking place in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (GINPR) and Salt Spring Island as part of their final term in the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science degree program.

The falling tide reveals the edge of an 800-metre long boulder and cobble wall awash in emerald seaweed. Constructed by First Nations people all along the Salish Sea, walled beaches likely boosted the productivity of clam beds, and point to sustainable marine management and food security practices established long before European settlers arrived.

A day on the beach agrees with the students.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Liz Hoyeck says. “I’d rather do this than be in a classroom. In a classroom, you kind of forget what you’re doing.”

“And why you’re doing it,” Kara Foreman says. “This kind of thing reminds you that you love what you’re studying. You can read something from a book, but when you’re actually doing it and applying it, it all comes together. This is what we live for.”

On this July morning, Associate Prof. Audrey Dallimore and Prof. Leslie King bring environmental theory out of the classroom and onto the beach.


Place-based learning in environmental education

“Place-based learning is a new type of environmental education, and at Royal Roads, Indigenous knowledge is included in our curriculum,” Dallimore says. “The clam gardens are a really good example, because they have been productive, sustainably harvested places for thousands of years.”

On the landward side of the boulder wall, students race the tide to dig, measure and record the clams found in carefully placed plots before the returning sea covers the site. The clam-growing potential of the walled beach will be measured against changes to the sediment, slope and elevation of the sites informed by First Nations mariculture techniques in the Parks Canada study.

A marine geologist, Dallimore studies the coastal marine sediment record of past offshore and coastal events and is collaborating with Parks Canada for the clam garden research.

She will study the coastal ocean dynamics around the clam garden sites and map the underwater features with support from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI).Dallimore also leads project outreach in partnership with Parks Canada, with support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) PromoScience program. The Learning by the Sea outreach initiative brings together First Nations youth, communities and the public with hands-on learning opportunities and events.

Aligning science and traditional knowledge

As clams amass in varying sizes and shapes, a fun fact emerges: clams are like trees. You can measure their age by counting their rings, says Nathan Cardinal, GINPR cultural resource management advisor, holding a butter clam estimated to be 18 years old.

“From a scientific standpoint, we are just learning about these places, although they have existed for thousands of years,” Cardinal says. “This speaks to a bias in science – researchers thought about hunter-gatherers, about salmon fishing and berry gathering but didn’t focus on First Nations management or activity in intertidal regions, and never thought about First Nations people undertaking large-scale management activities like this. As scientists, we look at people in the frame of reference that we want to look at them in. This colours what we are looking for.”

Fusing current environmental science with traditional ecological knowledge is central to the clam garden project. The physical record of the pre-historic B.C. coastal environment– including changes in sea level and ocean conditions since the last ice age– complements the record of human interaction with the coastal environment over that time period, Dallimore says.

Finding creative solutions to environmental issues

“Eco-cultural research is not even multidisciplinary. We call it transdisciplinary,” she says. “It’s tough to find and fund a project where all these disciplines come together, and the clam garden project is an example of that.”

With goals set for careers in environmental science, Dallimore’s undergraduate students don’t have to look far for inspiration. Researchers from B.C. and Washington State are joining forces to magnify the impact of their research through a newly-formed clam garden network research group. And three Royal Roads Masters of Environment and Management graduate students are on board as members of Dallimore’s research team.

“I see place-based transdisciplinary research as the key to training our students to be creative with solutions to our environmental challenges. Because of that, working with First Nations youth is a central part of the Learning by the Sea project,” Dallimore says.

“Global climate change, sustainable community planning, resource management, abrupt environmental change, sustainable infrastructures – there are so many issues about which our students will be working toward creative solutions throughout their careers,” she says.

“As a society, our historical understanding and slowly changing perspectives of the functioning of the earth systems brought us to this point. That’s not going to help us in the future. It’s a completely new game.”

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