Tending the meadows of the sea: Traditional Kwakwaka’wakw harvesting of Ts’áts’ayem (Zostera marina L.; Zosteraceae)




Cullis-Suzuki, Severn

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Eelgrass, Zostera marina L. (Zosteraceae), is a flowering marine plant in coastal regions in the Northern hemisphere. Apart from its significance as habitat for a diversity of marine organisms, it has been a direct resource in European and American economies, and once was a food source for people along the Pacific Coast of North America. This interdisciplinary study documented protocols and specifics of the Kwakwaka’wakw ts’áts’ayem (eelgrass) harvesting tradition in British Columbia, and how their methods of harvesting affected the remaining plants’ growth. Through interviewing 18 traditional eelgrass harvesters and participating in six harvesting sampling events, I documented the detailed protocols of the Kwakwaka’wakw eelgrass harvesting tradition. Based on the protocols of traditional ts’áts’ayem harvesting, I developed harvesting removal experiments in a dense Z. marina populations on Quadra Island (2005) and at Tsawwassen (2006) to examine the effects that traditional harvesting of eelgrass would have had on a shoot production and rhizome internode volume, within a growing season. At the Quadra site, a June treatment of between approximately 15 and 56% shoot removal corresponded with shoot regeneration above original numbers. An approximate 60% removal corresponded with the highest new shoot production after treatment, indicating the strong capacity of eelgrass meadows to promote new shoots after removal disturbance. Based on fieldwork with traditional knowledge holders, I estimate that traditionally harvesting would have been between 10-30% removal within areas the size of the experimental plots. Shoot regeneration, net shoot production and rhizome production results at the Quadra site supported the theory that a light amount of harvesting removal such that was conducted by Kwakwaka’wakw harvesters would have been within a level for full regeneration, and possibly even enhanced shoot population and rhizome production (measured by internode volume). Tsawwassen experiment treatment was applied too late in the season to show an effect of harvest, but the design provided efficient methodology for future experiments. Ecology literature substantiated many of the traditional eelgrass protocols documented in this study, strongly supporting the theory that eelgrass harvesting was a sustainable practice. Scientific literature about pollution also corroborated and explained the observations of elders on the state of today’s eelgrass: few locations yielded ts’áts’ayem fit to eat, as specimens were small, had heavy epiphytic growth and dark rhizomes that Kwakwaka’wakw consultants had not seen in their youth. The combination of traditional ecological knowledge and scientific inquiry holds much potential for providing a better understanding of eelgrass ecology and dynamics, and for defining concepts of sustainability and conservation of this important resource.



Ethnoecology, Zostera marina, traditional harvesting, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Kwakwaka'wakw, disturbance experiment