COVID-19, Coastal First Nations and Interconnectedness

Frank Brown on his boat during the herring roe on kelp harvest.

This post originally appeared on the Land Needs Guardians website, and is republished here with permission.

By Frank Brown

Usually during the spring, many of us in the Heiltsuk Nation go out to sea in large numbers to meet the return of the herring. We harvest herring roe on kelp for commercial, food and ceremonial purposes. But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how our people relate to the herring. To prevent the spread of disease, we only harvested in small family units. We cancelled the commercial herring fishery for the season, striking a major economic and employment blow to our community. Our Coastal Guardian Watchmen are helping with emergency response and patrolling our territorial waters.

These are difficult times, yet I am hopeful we can learn from this crisis.

Coronavirus is like a timeout that Mother Nature has forced upon us—prodding us to stop and reflect. I believe western society can use this pause to consider living more sustainably. I am optimistic we can move forward in a way that supports both humans and the natural world.

As Indigenous place-based people, we have many lessons to share. We have a cultural responsibility to care for each other and the land, and we recognize the two are interconnected. The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing uncertainty and change, and unsustainable development must not continue to be normalized. Indigenous-led conservation and Indigenous Guardians can help guide us to a brighter future.

Learning from the Past, Sustaining into the Future

Indigenous Peoples have dealt with pandemics and epidemics before. On the Pacific Coast, three separate waves of pestilence—smallpox, Spanish flu and tuberculosis—diminished our people from thousands to mere hundreds. We have a collective memory of intergenerational trauma  that fuels our fears about the current crisis. We worry about our elders, the keepers of our knowledge and language. If we lose their teachings, we put our future generations at risk through loss of knowledge transfer.

Knowledge keepers teach us, for instance, how to prepare and set kelp gardens for harvesting herring roe with tree boughs from the forest and kelp from the ocean. If the roe deposited is not thick enough, we leave it in the water so the herring stocks continue to grow. They teach us to ensure our harvest never undermines the herring’s ability to regenerate.

Thanks to teachings like these, our traditional territory is one of the last places around with a relative abundance of herring. These fish are an important biological indicator of the health of the marine ecosystem. And while we are grappling with climate change and ocean acidification, the herring here are still vibrant enough to sustain countless other creatures. The wolves, bears and eagles come down to the shore to scoop up herring, and the whales, sea lions, seals and other sea creatures do too. Springtime in our territory is like the coastal equivalent of the Serengeti.

Mother Nature’s Timeout

This vitality is an important reminder right now. The COVID-19 pandemic is a shared experience of loss, and it can help cultivate a deeper appreciation for the sacredness of life. For too long, the dominant approach to natural resources has been one of over exploitation and exhaustion. But we are connected to the resources that give us life. If we burn through them, we undermine our own futures. Yet if we relate to the natural world in a more thoughtful way, the herring, kelp, salmon, caribou, and moose will remain—not just for us but for generations to come.

COVID-19 is helping us see that we are all connected, and we have a shared responsibility.

The Coastal Guardian Watchmen help honour this responsibility. They serve as the eyes and ears for our territory. They have the training to understand what is happening on the land, and they ensure the natural resources that sustains us now will continue to sustain us. They are the voice of the ecosystems we all depend on. That’s why the “Land Needs Guardians.”

In times of crisis, Guardians step in and support communities. Right now, Heiltsuk Guardian Watchmen are monitoring our territorial waters and preventing COVID-19 from entering the community via boaters traveling the Inside Passage.

When I’m on my boat, watching schools of herring flash under my boat, I am grateful for the Guardian Watchmen and the voice they provide for the land and sea. I know there is medicine in nature, and with love, respect and responsibility, we can transform society in a positive way.


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