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Restorative ocean farming: Possibilities and pitfalls for addressing food security with Metlakatla First Nation

Restorative ocean farming: Possibilities and pitfalls for addressing food security with Metlakatla First Nation

Prince Rupert from Mt. Hayes by Mary Williams, 2020

Food insecurity has been a pervasive issue with varied manifestations among different communities, people and regions. Prince Rupert is a remote coastal town in Northern BC, located on Coast Ts’msyen Territory with a population of approximately 12,000, 50% of whom identify as Indigenous (Ahmed 2018). The people of Metlakatla First Nation are descendants of the Nine Tribes of the Coast Ts’msyen, who thrived for at least 5,000 years on abundant ecosystems which supported a “system of food harvesting, trade, distribution and consumption that was in place that provided all Ts’msyen citizens with access to a healthy, diverse diet, intimately bound to culture, language and a spiritual connection to the world” (Etzerza 2017 pg 1; “Metlakatla CEM” 2019). Yet these food systems and the livelihoods and community wellbeing they supported continue to be disrupted by settler colonialism, industrial development and the climate crisis (Etzerza 2017; Whyte 2017).

Addressing food security in Indigenous contexts is a complex process given the inherent connections between land, food and culture in Indigenous worldviews, and requires removing barriers to traditional and cultural harvesting practices, in addition to increasing access to healthy and appropriate contemporary food sources and practices. (Skinner 2013). Approximately half of Metlakatla’s population lives in Prince Rupert and Metlakatla village, a reserve site without a grocery store located 5km northwest of Prince Rupert accessible by boat only (“Metlakatla CEM” 2019). In the wake of food harvesting and access challenges, Metlakatla First Nation has been advancing a Restorative Ocean Farming Project with support from Ecotrust Canada among other organizations, to understand how this farming model could support and advance ocean-based food security, territorial stewardship, economic development and marine livelihoods (Williams 2020). Restorative ocean farming (ROF) is a zero-input multi-trophic aquaculture model that grows a mix of native species focused on regeneration, like kelp and shellfish which sequester carbon and filter marine ecosystems (Williams 2020). The farms sit vertically below the surface and using long lines, the entire water column and methods rooted in polyculture, they produce abundant amounts of fast producing crops. The preliminary food candidates for Metlakatla’s restorative ocean farm are kelp, scallops and oysters, due to existing aquaculture infrastructure held by Metlakatla, but more species could be grown in the future based on community and market demand.

Mary Williams (Photo by Shannon Lough, Ecotrust Canada)

Through a Mitacs Accelerate-funded internship with Metlakatla Stewardship Society and Ecotrust Canada, Mary Williams is working to address the question: how can restorative ocean farming best advance the food security and sovereignty visions of Metlakatla? The definition of food security frequently used by Metlakatla’s organizational bodies is when “all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice” (Hamm and Bellows in “Marine Use Plan” 2016 pg. 14). This understanding of food security draws from commonly used definitions of both food security and food sovereignty, and indicates that both food access and production must align with Metlakatla’s values, framing food sovereignty as a precondition to food security.

Using a holistic food security lens, food encompasses mental, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual facets of being, and the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food must be at the heart of food systems (Martens et al. 2016; Cote 2016). In the context of ROF, this means that the species grown, farming methods used, employment and decision-making opportunities, and distribution and access implications of the project must align with community values and priorities. The project must also be financially and environmentally sustainable to ensure that the operation does not pose a burden on local ecosystems, or Metlakatla through ongoing reliance on external funding sources. Yet there are many uncertainties to navigate given the innovative nature of this farming model, evolving aquaculture regulations, the remote geography of Prince Rupert and the infancy of the seaweed market in Canada in which market challenges and knowledge gaps regarding potential farm externalities persist.

Bull kelp which is one of the kelp species that may be grown at the farm, by Shannon Lough, Ecotrust Canada)

As more experience is gained in ROF, changing operational, infrastructural and market conditions will continue to shape the feasibility of advancing Metlakatla’s food security priorities, and as such they must be situated within the conditions in which the farm will operate. To be able to understand and navigate these entanglements, Mary is using mixed qualitative methods to conduct the ROF research. Through semi-structured interviews with Metlakatla members, she is gathering preliminary understandings of short term and long-term visions for food security and sovereignty, and what a thriving ROF operation would look like in terms of the species grown, jobs available, opportunities for expansion, research and collaboration, and community involvement, access and education. Following this, she will conduct semi-structured interviews with industry professionals and experts in food security and Indigenous food sovereignty to understand the implications and considerations of prioritizing the values shared with her by Metlakatla members through ROF. The interview findings will be supported by literature reviews regarding best practices in sustainable aquaculture and food security projects, along with broader learnings Mary gathers through working on the larger development of Metlakatla’s Restorative Ocean Farming Project with the Metlakatla community. Metlakatla and other Coast Ts’msyen Nations have been caretakers of the areas surrounding Prince Rupert for thousands of years and initiatives like the ROF Project, led by Metlakatla and other Indigenous communities are vital to ensuring the development of sustainable and resilient food systems that can withstand economic and environmental challenges.

Mary Williams is a second year Master in Environmental student with a concentration in Perspectives in Aquaculture and Indigenous Resource Management. Her research interests encompass the intersections of food systems and sovereignty, and the political ecology of aquaculture and fisheries management. This research has been funded by Mitacs Canada, Metlakatla Stewardship Society and Ecotrust Canada and would not be possible without the guidance provided by Metlakatla First Nation.


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Martens, Tabitha et al.. “Understanding Indigenous Food Sovereignty Through an Indigenous Research Paradigm.” Journal of Indigenous Social Development, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pg 18-37.

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Skinner, Kelly et al.. “Giving Voice to Food Insecurity in a Remote Indigenous Community in Subartic Ontario, Canada: Traditional Ways, Ways to Cope, Ways Forward.” BMC Public   Health, vol. 13, 2013.

Whyte, Kyle. “Food Sovereignty: Justice and Indigenous Peoples: An Essay on Settler Colonialism and Collective Continuance.” Oxford Handbook on Food Ethics, Edited by        Barnhill, T. Doggett,     and A. Egan, Oxford University Press, 2017.

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