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Stewards of the Sea: In Conversation with Tsawout Fisheries

SȾÁUTW̱ First Nation Fisheries hosted their first Tier 1 meeting. Tsou'ke, Malahat, Songhees, Cowichan, Tseycum, and Pauquachin marine teams all attended an All Nations collaboration meeting. Photo: Tsawout Nation/Facebook.
In January 2023, Tsawout, Tsou’ke, Malahat, Songhees, Cowichan, Tseycum, and Pauquachin marine teams attended an All Nations collaboration meeting convened by Tsawout Nation.
Photo: Tsawout Nation/Facebook.

“I love it. It’s my passion,” says SȾÁUTW̱ (Tsawout) First Nation Fisheries manager Chrissy Chen. “I tried to do something else before and I realized I need to be in that river or on that boat. So I’m grateful for where I sit right now and to be a part of it.”

Chrissy was the first guest on our new podcast series, and she talked with Christina Clarke about how Tsawout’s marine programs help protect local waters and support their community with employment and sustenance. 

Here are some key takeaways from their conversation:

“We are focusing on our guardianship program, monitoring our territory

What matters most, says Chrissy, is enforcement and protection. Nation members have been engaged with surveys and conversations to determine which resources are most valued and important, and insights and feedback helped guide the Fisheries team in their work. The Nation’s elders wanted them to focus on understanding the source of pollution in local waters, rather than simply reacting by closing beaches. For example, Chrissy’s team regularly samples shellfish catches and sends them for analysis to see if they’re safe to eat, and if not, what the contaminants are.

Fish are more than sustenance

“There are three main uses for fish caught in local waters: food, social and ceremonial. For example, salmon come in for food. We distribute, then we have some for social events, then we have some for the big house, for their ceremonies, whatever the Nation needs those salmon for.”

A new tourism venture on the horizon

Paperwork is currently underway for the Nation to purchase a Sidney-based whale watching company, in an arrangement that supports economic reconciliation. Its current owner stated a preference for having a First Nation community take over the business. 

Tsawout will retain current staff while mentoring and training members of the Nation to join the business. They will also build upon the experience, layering in the SȾÁUTW̱ language, culture and history to provide a fulsome Indigenous-inspired saltwater adventure for locals and tourists alike, including education on conservation efforts.

Collaborative partnerships matter

Chrissy convened an All Nations Meeting for local marine teams in January 2023, which she says is a response to the desire to work together for mutual gain. 

After marine leaders from other local Nations reached out to her with questions about her work, she says, she realized that “instead of reinventing the wheel, let’s utilize each other, let’s have a group conversation. And it led to great things; there were over 32 of us there. And now they’re so excited, a couple of Nations are saying we want to host the next one. So I want to keep that going.” 

Discussions included oil spill response, guardian programs, clam gardens watchmen projects, shipping containers, Goldstream hatchery and park restoration and enhancement program and ghost gear removal potential joint venture.

Opportunities in marine stewardship

“Guardian programs, monitoring, enforcement and protection. Those are huge,” says Chrissy. “They’re the most important to any Indigenous peoples. Hands down.” Indigenous peoples are the stewards of the land, sea and air. Their knowledge and understanding of the delicate balance between providing sustenance for their peoples and ensuring there is abundance for the future can be used for the benefit of all. 

“If you look back 10,000 years, there’s evidence that the First Nations were here. They didn’t have a grocery store to go to. They were farmers. Their food was their medicine. You know, like the shellfish. One of my elders that I hold dearly to me, her name was Sarah Hunt. She must have been 70 and she had piles and piles of cockles to smoke for the winter. She’s sitting there with a weed basket and she has hundreds and hundreds of cockles. So there was abundance then. And you could see the big houses in the background. So we were sustainable. And now we’re rebuilding stocks, rebuilding that abundance.”

There’s much more to learn in this fascinating and insightful podcast, including how Chrissy’s team works with other Nations, what they think of reconciliation work and its potential, and how treaty negotiations and rights will impact their community. The podcast is posted in its entirety below so you can watch the full conversation.

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