Gitga’at First Nation and a team of researchers from UBC and Michigan State University have completed a groundbreaking acoustic study of Douglas Channel and its adjacent waters in Gitga’at marine territory on the B.C. Central Coast.
The channel has been proposed as a tanker route to ship diluted bitumen flowing from Alberta through the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.
The goal was to create a comprehensive picture of the existing marine soundscape prior to future industrial development, according to Gitga’at Science Director Chris Picard.
“The results have been published in a scientific journal (Global Ecology and Conservation), and it is titled Collaborative Research Praxis to Establish Baseline Eco-Acoustical Conditions in Gitga’at Territory,” Picard said.
All told, Picard and his team, which included members of the Gitga’at Guardians, high school students from Hartley Bay, and UBC PhD candidate Max Ritts, collected 357,000 sound recordings at eight locations in Gitga’at Territory.
“We used land-based sound meters that are programmed to collect data for a short interval every hour – one minute every 15 minutes,” Picard said. “They recorded all the sounds that are taking place – the full spectrum of sound within the human hearing range.”
“The biggest thing we noticed was how quiet it was in the territory for human-generated sound. But the naturally occurring sounds – wildlife, weather, ocean noises – were often intense. We wanted to capture that baseline information in advance before any future industrial development.”
Picard said the recorders picked up the normal marine traffic, such as ferries and fishboats, as well as the occasional freighter out of Kitimat.
According to proponents, the Enbridge Terminal would see an estimated 500 tanker transits per year through Douglas Channel. Each tanker would be escorted through the hazardous waters by sea-going tugs.
On an acoustical basis, the result would be a massive increase in the noise level both above and below the surface in an ecologically-sensitive marine landscape.
In a May 12 statement, Gitga’at Chief Councillor and Hereditary Chief Arnold Clifton said the Gitga’at people have “a long history of protecting our territory and the cultural and social values.”
“Effective noise control policies are just one of the administrative tools we are considering to protect the Great Bear Rainforest and B.C.’s coastal waters for all British Columbians,” he said.
For Ritts, who is currently preparing his doctoral dissertation on an unrelated scientific study, the opportunity to work on the Gitga’at acoustic project was irresistible.
“My field is actually Geography, and there are not a lot of geographical studies that include sound and acoustic research,” he told Windspeaker.
But after meeting Picard while visiting the Cetacean Lab in Gitga’at territory, he joined the growing team of researchers.
Originally, much of the fieldwork was done by members of the Gitga’at Guardians, who regularly monitor the land and marine habitat at the ground level.
“We had a bit of a manpower shortage with the Guardians. That’s when we brought in high school students. They came out on the boats with us,” Ritts said.
Eventually, these young scientists learned to handle the acoustic technology, download data and interpret the sounds they recorded. They also shared their knowledge of the terrain to determine the best locations for listening posts.
“There was one big advantage,” Ritts said. “Young people have much more sensitive hearing. It definitely helped to have that extra layer of listening capacity.”
Two of those students are credited as co-authors of the scientific study, which is open-access.
Ritts said for a non-Aboriginal scientist, being welcomed into the Gitga’at community has been a life-altering experience.
“I’ve been able to take part in the feasts and participate in the cultural events, all thanks to the generosity of the Gitga’at people,” he said. “It’s been the best experience in moving up north for a year-and-a-half.”
Ritts said learning to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into a scientific study has also broadened his capabilities. It is part of a growing trend within academia to recognize and respect Indigenous tradition and practice.
“They have come to realize that traditional management systems for herring roe and shellfish have worked for centuries, just as an example,” he said.
That growing respect has also changed the dynamics of how informed scientists work with Indigenous peoples, Ritts said.
“I would never purport to know the environment as a Gitga’at,” he said. “We try to make sure we are useful to the Gitga’at, rather than speak for Gitga’at.”
Ritts added that the monitoring program would not have been physically possible without the skills and local knowledge of the Gitga’at people, who know how to navigate difficult terrain under notoriously dangerous weather conditions.
Picard said his team recently re-started the sound monitoring program, and there are plans to re-engage students in the summer.
Picard noted that Gitga’at received no outside funding for the study. Manpower and logistical support came from existing resources, while outside scientists were self-funded.
“This is something that came out of our annual Gitga’at budget that we cobble together each year,” he said.