Bringing Indigenous-led ocean science into Canada’s “blue” economy

Leah Geller
June 22, 2022

Ken Paul is a member of the Wolastoqey Nation and a resident of Tobique in New Brunswick. He has spent a lifetime working in fisheries and ocean science, including as a hydrographer-in-charge mapping oceans and coasts. He’s also a staunch advocate for Indigenous autonomy and rights-based governance.

“Over the years, I’ve worked with many First Nations communities in the fisheries sector,” he explains. “What I’ve learned is that there just isn’t sufficient funding for Indigenous people to realistically conduct their own ocean research. Since this is the UN Ocean Decade, it’s time to break that mold — and create a new model for Indigenous-led ocean science.”

The Ocean Decade (2021–2030) is an international initiative led by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). It encourages ocean science partners from around the world to work together to support sustainable development of the world’s oceans. Pre-COVID-19, Canada’s ocean-based “blue” economy contributed approximately $31.7 billion annually and created nearly 300,000 jobs in the sector.

On June 8, World Ocean Day, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced $2.1 million to fund eight ocean science projects that have been endorsed by the IOC as UN Ocean Decade projects, along with a ninth project announced last year through the DFO Ghost Gear Fund.

Three of these nine projects include an Indigenous component, including one with the Malahat Nation to address derelict fishing gear in the Salish Sea, and another using crowd-sourcing to collect hydrographic data in remote areas of the B.C. coast.

Ken Paul, in collaboration with Ocean Networks Canada, is spearheading the third. Titled Advancing Indigenous Partnerships in Ocean Science for Sustainability, the project will work to identify Indigenous ocean science priorities and help them build direct funding partnerships.

In its first phase, the team will develop a tool to evaluate the needs of individual Indigenous communities, and create plans to build their capacity for autonomy in ocean monitoring. In its second phase, they will connect Indigenous communities with sources of funding, in a kind of match-making exercise. They will focus on alternatives to government funding, such as partnerships with industry, foundations, academia and non-governmental organizations.

According to Paul, “A lot of the government research funding programs from NRC, NSERC and SSHRC have to go through a university. One of the things I continue to advocate for is to make research funding directly available to First Nations communities, so they can focus on their own research priorities. This kind of direct Indigenous funding is a major missing ingredient – both in Canada and around the world.

“If we could develop science partnerships with industry, for example, we wouldn’t have to rely solely on federal funding,” adds Paul. “Let’s find industry partners who are willing to support the ocean science capacity of First Nations. Maybe that’s a joint workshop with a tech company to develop offshore windmills, which is an emerging sector. Or, industry could train technicians in a First Nation community and everyone would gain from the resulting research.”

Kim Juniper is Chief Scientist with Oceans Network Canada, and Professor and BC Leadership Chair in Ocean Ecosystems and Global Change at the University of Victoria. He is working closely with Paul on the project.

“We want to use the UN Ocean Decade to provide opportunities for coastal Indigenous communities to participate in the Canada’s blue economy,” says Juniper. “In order for that to happen, we’re working with them to identify their needs in terms of ocean-observing capacity in an investment-ready way. For example, there might be a coastal community that needs to monitor the ocean to detect marine heatwaves. It would be nice if they had the capacity to build partnerships to produce their own data, instead of having to ask the government for it.”

The project team will facilitate a series of forums with Indigenous regional associations and communities, beginning with those that are most keen on participating. These forums will include workshops with industry partners, with the hope they can begin negotiating partnerships with them, followed by a national in-person forum planned for 2023.

“We want to bring people together to share their challenges and opportunities,” explains Paul. “Some groups might have problems related to their physical locations, where others might have issues related to capacity.”

Paul emphasizes that, in order to make the project a success, they’ll need to bring together two distinct knowledge systems — Western science and Indigenous knowledge.

“There’s a lot of focus on integrating Indigenous knowledge these days, but there’s little understanding that Indigenous knowledge is inherently place-based,” says Paul. “There’s also an underappreciation of our underlying core value systems. Too often, the research that’s being funded is about maximizing the economic benefits of resources. Our priority is the long-term sustainability of our natural resources. That’s a big paradigm difference.”

Juniper acknowledges that very few in the academic community know how to connect effectively with Indigenous communities. He hopes that, along with amplifying the voices of Indigenous communities, the project will help create a new model for partnership.

“This project is innovative because it is a co-design and co-development exercise. If you want to build a true partnership, you need to go to the community as you are creating the project, as we did,” explains Juniper. “I like to think we’re just in a supportive role, with the final direction of this project led by the Indigenous partners. We want this to be Indigenous-led.”


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