How An Ancient Food Technology Is Being Restored On BC’s West Coast

Indigenous sea gardens once harvested seafood catches comparable to modern commercial fisheries.

The Guardian. Photograph: Dustin Patar

On Saltspring Island, people have long wondered about the origin of a long line of rocks in the tidal zone. 

But to local First Nations the rocks aren’t a mystery at all: they’re the remains of ancient sea gardens that for thousands of years provided huge amounts of fresh and healthy seafood for people living on the island.

Washington Sea Grant via Facebook.

In an era when many marine animals in B.C. are threatened by overfishing, pollution, climate change and other human activities, some Indigenous experts believe that deceivingly simple technologies like sea gardens can help protect crucial food sources for many years to come.

“These gardens have been here for generations and generations,” said Ken Thomas, the fisheries, wildlife and natural resources director for the Penelakut Tribe on southern Vancouver Island, in a recent interview with CBC.

The Guardian. Photograph: Allison Stocks

His community is trying to ensure the gardens are here for many generations more.

Thomas explains that the rocks on Salt Spring were a traditional harvesting site. The tide would come in, bringing with it fish, clams, mussels, and kelp, and when it went out, Indigenous people would harvest the delicious riches left behind. 

Meaghan Efford, MA via Facebook.

These sea gardens are examples of highly-effective and sustainable food technologies practised all over the coasts of North America – and in some cases harvested catches similar to present-day commercial fisheries. 

The Penelakut Tribe is now seeking government approval to restore sea gardens for clam harvesting at different locations on Salt Spring Island, as well as nearby Russell Island in Gulf Islands National Park. Approval is contingent on testing which will be done by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

The Guardian. Photograph: Iain Robert Reid

The future looks bright for the Penelakut and their sea gardens. Thomas thinks approval could come within the year.  

“It’s foundational how government and First Nations can be working together in a positive way on the land that’s taking care of it for future generations,” said Erich Kelch, the sea garden project’s restoration manager for Parks Canada. 

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