A partnership between Uu-a-thluk, West Coast Aquatic, and Nuu-chahnulth Nations is winding down at the end of March, but that doesn’t mean the organizations involved are slowing down.

Known as the Na-a-qu-us Project, the 18-month partnership saw 15 workers hired in and around Nuu-chah-nulth communities. Those from nations with traditional territory in Barkley and Clayoquot Sounds represented their communities in West Coast Aquatic’s coastal planning process. Those from nations with territories outside that area worked for their nation’s fisheries programs in partnership with Uu-a-thluk. All were directly administered through West Coast Aquatic.

“It’s been really beneficial,” said Jake Martens, the organization’s director of fundraising and communications. “We’ve gained a much greater sense of the region’s dynamics by having staff living and working in each of the communities. We’ve built a much greater knowledge of issues and opportunities within communities, but also what those common threads are among the entire west coast of Vancouver Island.”

Employed as marine planning coordinators, the Barkley and Clayoquot workers hosted community meetings, mapping sessions, and interviewed members one-on-one to gather ideas and visions for the future of the marine environment. Questions involved asking about past and current uses of the ocean, territorial resources, and more.

The workers recorded all information for inclusion in a guidance framework. The framework is the document that will guide the entire coastal planning process. West Coast Aquatic expects to release it March 31.

“The guidance framework lays out the vision within communities for the future of the marine environment,” Martens said. “It will also help ensure that any plans and strategies are done in alignment with the community’s vision.”

In order to gather community input in this way, West Coast Aquatic first signed protocol agreements with nations to clarify ownership and responsibilities. Kevin Head, director of the Barkley Sound plan, explains. “The agreements outlined our intentions, along with the goals and objectives we shared with each nation. They also talked about what we were going to work on and gave us permission to use a nation’s traditional use studies in a confidential and respectful manner.”

All information collected by the workers and West Coast Aquatic is owned by the nations and won’t be shared without permission.

Workers outside the Barkley-Clayoquot region were also busy, taking part in management of their nation’s fisheries resources. Some attended meetings on behalf of the nations or helped coordinate food and ceremonial fisheries. Others worked together to build fish weirs to improve their nations’ understanding of fish populations.

“There’s been a lot of skill development…a lot of people realizing their capacity in these positions,” said Jennifer Spencer, socioeconomic project coordinator for West Coast Aquatic. Ken Watts, who managed the Na-a-qu-us team directly, felt some of the workers had even gained a new relationship with their traditional territory because of the project. Their dedication was one of the reasons many of their nations want to keep them employed beyond the project’s lifetime.

“Some of the communities have expressed interest in keeping these people on in whatever capacity they can—because they’re hard working and they’ve been good employees,” Watts said. He added that relationship building was a key part of all the work done by the Na-aqu-us team.

“Our workers have helped build relationships with other organizations working in their nation’s Ha-houlthee…If it wasn’t for those workers being in those communities, I don’t think the relationships would be as strong as they are right now.”

To help keep things rolling, the West Coast Aquatic team are helping communities prioritize projects uncovered by Na-a-qu-us workers and find ways to complete them. This includes helping to raise funds for future employment.

Staff are also focussing on the next stage in coastal zone planning. “The spring and summer will be very important because we’re going to work with all our partners around the implementation of the plan. First Nations are a core part of that,” said Martens.

Martens and other staff expressed their gratitude for the workers’ help over the last 18 months and their communities’ continued participation.“All of our staff are very grateful for the support we’ve had…we look forward to building on those relationships.”

Originally funded in part by Western Economic Diversification through the Community Adjustment Fund, the Na-a-qu-us Project began in the fall of 2009.

Na-a-qu-us literally means “where one is listening in a place.”