Salmon, sea otters and surveys: the many sides of Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ witwaak stewardship

Boots on the ground and drones in the air.

Since 2021, there are a couple of the ways the Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ Witwaak Stewardship Program has been taking care of the nation’s Ha-houlthee (chiefly territory).

“Our perspective on the management of the territories is that we can’t separate into marine and land because everything is connected. Our stewardship witwaak staff do work on the water … but they also do a lot of work on the land,” said Jeff Nielson, Director of Lands and Resources for Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ First Nations.

In Nuu-chah-nulth language, witwaak refers to the warriors responsible for security and enforcement of laws set by the Tyee Ha’wilth. According to Nielson, Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ Ha’wiih (hereditary chiefs) gifted the use of the word witwaak for the program, to provide it the cultural weight that it deserves.

With seven staff members, three boats and two trucks, the witwaak are busy all year round.

“We manage to find something to do every day,” said Anthony Oscar, Witwaak Stewardship Program Manager, with a gentle laugh. The team’s activities vary depending on the time of year.

“We just finished the sea otter survey about a month ago,” said Oscar.

The k̓ʷaak̓ał (sea otter) surveys occur annually, and are now being conducted with the use of thermal imaging technology on drones. The technology has allowed Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ to improve count accuracy.

Past enumeration methods involved counting individual otters from a boat. According to Nielson, an experiment the witwaak conducted using both methods revealed that the “guesses” (boat counts) were between 25 – 50 per cent below what the actual (drone count) number was.

In the spring, the witwaak are working in local rivers to monitor juvenile salmon out-migrating from the systems. Come summer, they can be found snorkelling.

“The witwaak play a key role in our salmon escapement surveys in the territory,” said Nielson.

The swim surveys are done in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and an external contractor that provides some support.

Summer is also the time the witwaak assert their presence with visitors to the territory, reminding them of the protocols Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ has put in place to protect culturally and ecologically sensitive areas.

Most recently, the witwaak wrapped up their annual ƛusmit (herring) surveys. The surveys (which are also performed by other Nuu-chah-nulth Nations) are important as West Coast Vancouver Island ƛusmit stocks are being closely monitored while the nations focus on stock rebuilding.

Witwaak staff have also completed a community shoreline cleanup that included the removal of old boats and rusty engines left under the community’s docks.

Last year, eelgrass surveys were carried out to determine where eelgrass is growing. This will be followed up by restoration work with a partnership Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ has developed and made possible by grant funding the nation has received.

On land, staff conduct deer and elk surveys year round and ensure forestry activities are carried out in the right way in an effort to minimize impacts on salmon spawning rivers.

Oscar and Neilson agree that the Witwaak Stewardship Program has accomplished a lot in the two short years it has been operational, however, both stressed the importance of continuing to build on the program’s capacity.

“One of our biggest challenges is our shortage of staff,” said Oscar.

The witwaak are seeing work “fall off the table” due to their inability to add more activities to their roster. Work that Neilson describes as important, and in need of their attention.

“In the next couple of years, we’re probably going to need a couple more staff,” added Nielson.

One of the ways the team is addressing this gap is by turning inward into their community to encourage youth to consider a career in stewardship.

“We’ve been to the school a few times now, doing presentations … we always have interest, and when we do the hiring for summer workers, a lot of the students will apply for positions with us,” said Oscar.

Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’s Student Summer Work Program sees youth divide their time between public works (housing and infrastructure) and the witwaak program. Nielson believes the experience is succeeding in inspiring youth as all six graduates from the nations this year have applied for post-secondary education.

The nation has also received funding for one interim worker who provides support to the program year-round.

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