Gulf Islands seeing return of traditional First Nations clam gardens

First Nations and Parks Canada are reviving clam gardens, a traditional First Nations form of aquaculture. A PhD student working on the project says the work explores marine ecology, traditional knowledge and food security.

Project coordinator says clam gardens 'just one of many types of food mariculture'

Part of the impetus for the Clam Garden Project was to spread the traditional knowledge of clam gardens to First Nations youth. However, non-First Nations youths also participate in the activity through school outings. (Iain Robert Reid/Parks Canada)

A Parks Canada project is reviving the traditional practice of clam gardening in the Gulf Islands.

Clam Garden Project coordinator Skye Augustine explained how First Nations along the B.C. coast altered beaches over centuries for aquaculture.

"You create a rock wall at the low-tide line and it flattens the beach and moves the beach into the ideal tidal height for clams to grow," she told All Points West guest host Kelly Nakatsuka.

"You end up with beaches that are able to produce way more clams and it also creates a rocky reef habitat that supports a huge variety of different intertidal creatures that are really important. Many of them are also traditional foods."

Parks Canada is working on a five-year project with the Hul'q'umi'num and W̱SÁNEĆ (formerly Saanich) First Nations to revive clam gardens in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

Augustine says those First Nations wanted to preserve the traditional skill for their youth and the results could provide insights as to how the gardens influenced marine environments in addition to providing better access to food.

Traditional knowledge informs

Augustine, 27, has been working on these clam gardens since she was 19.

She first joined the project as a summer student from the University of Victoria and was told to simply learn as much as she could about clam gardens.

"They're places where all the parts of what I love to do [come together] — marine ecology, who I am, my mum's family is from the Stz'uminus First Nation," Augustine, now a PhD candidate, said. "So I get to work with my elders, practice my Hul'q'umi'num and do marine science."

A modern reconstruction of a clam garden. The rock wall is visible in the water on the right. (Iain Robert Reid/Parks Canada)

Augustine's work has revealed differences in the roles of the rock walls and the words used to describe them between different First Nations.

She describes the gardens as part of a huge complex of intertidal resource management. Some also had stone fish traps and root gardens.

"Clam gardens are just one of many types of food mariculture," she said.

"We need to be able to learn from the way places have been managed sustainably for thousands of years if we're going to be able to conserve and protect and sustain our region going forward.

"I think traditional knowledge has been ignored for far too long."

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West


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