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UBC OCEANOGRAPHY MASTERS GRAD WORKING TO SAVE K’OMOKS FN LAND OF PLENTY
By Suzanne Forcese
The health and sustainability of ecosystems in a community cannot always wait for governments to engage the wheels of change. Traditional, locally informed knowledge combined with innovative science can launch meaningful action to a thriving and sustainable economy. Members of the K’omoks First Nation (KFN) Guardian Watchmen and the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards (ADIMS) jointly reached out to UBC scientists to research the impact of marine microplastic pollution in Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel.
Every year Denman Islanders collect 4-5 tons of plastic debris on the beaches facing Baynes Sound where the multi-million dollar shellfish aquaculture industry operations are most intense.
WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking with Natalie Mahara. Mahara who has recently received her Master of Science in Oceanography at UBC told us, “This project has such great inspiration behind it because it really had everything to do with the community that asked me to be involved.” Mahara, who grew up in Vancouver with a strong connection to the ocean, fell in love with oceanography and the study of zooplankton on her first field expedition in 2014. “It’s like a puzzle.” Now she is working to put the pieces of a puzzle together for one of the most important ecosystems on the coast of B.C.; the people who want to support the health of this ecosystem; and to encourage governmental bodies to more urgently address the complex needs of the region.
In January 2019, Mahara and the research team including Dr. Brian Hunt and Dr.
Juan José Alava, met with ADIMS and KFN Guardian Watchmen on Denman Island to reclaim cultural expression and relationship with the “land of plenty”.
“Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel have been recognized as an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area (EBSA) by the department of Fisheries and Oceans,” Mahara told WT. “The area is home to the largest herring spawn on the Canadian west coast. Herring is an important part in the B.C. food web. Many of the stocks are taking a real hit. Baynes Sound has the largest remaining stock.”
Fifteen salmonid bearing streams also flow into Baynes Sound. Broad stretches of sand, mud, and gravel allow shellfish to thrive, especially clams and oysters. Thousands of diving ducks overwinter here and rely on clams for food. Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel have been designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International.
“But 90% of Baynes Sound shoreline is tenured to shellfish aquaculture to grow clams and oysters,” Mahara said. “Microplastic pollution is the real issue.” Plastic netting and deep layers of commercial oysters prevent ducks from accessing 56% of their natural feeding grounds. Other bird species have lost key feeding grounds, and now salmon fry have lost precious protective transitional habitat.
The netting breaks down into microplastics which are ingested by clams and oysters, in turn becoming food for humans and thousands of diving ducks. Herring hatchlings and salmon fry also eat microplastics during their first months of life in Baynes Sound. Removing plastic netting would reduce microplastics, feed and sustain a healthy bird population, repair the estuaries and support the herring spawn. Humans will also benefit from eating healthier clams and oysters.
Mahara’s research involves studying the health of the zooplankton and the early growth stages of herring larvae in Baynes Sound. Samplings were taken in March and April, approximately one every week. “We are establishing a base line. How many microplastics are in the water? How many are in the zooplankton? And how many are in the larvae and juvenile herring?”
“We have been taking physical measures of the water column, the temperature, the salinity, and the microplastic density. It involves separate samplings at 5 metres, 10 metres, 30 metres and sealing each sampling in a jar. We brought 130 litres of water back to the lab at UBC to determine what is in the water column samplings.”
“We also use a large net to bring up and conserve species that fill different niches in the zooplankton world. It’s been fun watching them grow up in the lab.” In the last six months the crew has been able to determine the diet of the herring.
Mahara admits that studying microplastics pollution has been a “methodological nightmare”. A lot of research has been published but methods have changed. Older studies did not take into account the use of acids in the testing that may have dissolved the plastics and might have skewed the results.
“In the oceanography lab we use a lot of plastic. The real challenge in this project has been to bring the ocean to the lab without the added nuance of plastics in our equipment that would contaminate our samplings.” Normally water samples would be brought back to the lab in plastic carboys. “I managed to source glass carboys that were large enough for our purposes with metal lids. Considering this is all done on a boat there is the potential for a dangerous event. Luckily we managed without incident. Also, we would normally use rubber tubing to make the draw but I managed to find stainless steel tubing so that our measurements would be accurate.” Mahara’s conscious efforts to keep the sampling reports accurate also extended to her own clothing. “I had to try really hard to locate clothing that did not have some form of micro-fibres that would have contaminated our results.” She managed to find a sweater made of cotton and hemp “that was warm enough and not too expensive.”
“I have really begun to look at plastics through a different lens. It is shocking to realize the amount of plastic we use.” Combined with climate change, plastics are contributing to the growing acidity of the oceans. “Microplastic pollution is such a new field. Recent studies have shown the negative impacts on marine organisms of ocean acidity. If you add the microplastics into the acidic mix we see the decreased feeding rates and how this is impacting growth of the organisms. Chemical toxins are also being adsorbed by the microplastics and the zooplankton are eating them.”
Mahara and the team will be presenting their findings to the community in November. “I am hoping to continue with how the microplastics are impacting the food web and determining the sources.”
She also underlines how rewarding this project is. “The science is so pure and honest because it comes from a place of community concern. It has been so lovely spending so much time with community members. I have learned so much from the K’omox First Nation people.”
That relationship has also strengthened her connection to the ocean. “Oceans are important. They produce 50% of the oxygen we breathe. They are culturally, economically, and ecologically important. They bring us joy, livelihood and sustenance. Most of what goes on in the ocean is underwater and most of us don’t see the damage we are doing – we can’t see the consequences of what we are doing on the land.”
Mahara suggests that cleaning up the oceans is do-able. “Start with the little things. My New Year’s resolution was to stop drinking from single use coffee cups (they are lined with a thin layer of plastic). If I don’t have my mug with me, I don’t have coffee. Just take inventory and notice how you can stop using single-use plastics. It doesn’t take a few people doing it perfectly. It just takes a few million people doing it imperfectly.”
As a science ambassador Natalie Mahara believes “we have to cut out the jargon that science uses and speak the language that everyone understands. A big way to make change is to inspire children.” She has worked with Sea-Smart, a non-profit organization, in leading school programs connecting children with the environment. “It really inspired me because it’s such a nuanced way to get the adults talking.”
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