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‘Explosion of Discovery’ at Remote B.C. Research Station Bucks Trend of Cuts to Science

A former luxury fishing lodge on a remote island off B.C.’s Central Coast has been transformed into a cutting-edge research centre, producing some of the province’s most innovative science.

From early April until mid-October each year the off-the-grid Hakai Institute field station on Calvert Island houses renowned scientists, university professors, graduate students and post-doctoral students researching all aspects of the B.C. coast, from grizzly bears and sea otters to sand formations, archaeology and microbes.

The breadth of the research was show-cased Friday when more than 200 scientists and First Nations researchers gathered in Sidney for the Hakai Research Exchange.

And, sitting at the back of the room, listening intently to the presentations, were the two people who have made the field research station a reality.

The Hakai Institute and, now, a new field station on Quadra Island, are funded and run by Eric Peterson and Christina Munck, co-founders of the Tula Foundation.

The concept was born out of a love for the B.C. coast, combined with a realization that — despite a lot of talk about areas such as the Great Bear Rainforest — almost no coastal science was being conducted at the community level, Peterson said.

That science gap convinced the couple to put their money into the project after they sold their successful information technology company.

“I talked to university scientists and they would say it was so difficult to do work up there because there were no facilities,” Peterson said in an interview.

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Ministry of Environment and all the government services were stepping backwards. The paradox was that, with all the talk about how wonderful our coast is, at the community level and First Nations level, there was no work on the ground.”

Peterson decided to combine his entrepreneurial skills with Munck’s background in conservation and botany to create a venue where up-and-coming scientific talent could be mentored.

The Tula Foundation purchased the fishing lodge in 2009 and then the work of turning it into a field station started in earnest.

“We had to rebuild the power grid and the water system and the sewage system and the docks and then in 2012 we started doing science in a significant way and since then the enthusiasm has been almost frightening,” Peterson said.

“The growth has been greater than I would have expected. I think it indicates there’s such a pent-up demand for long-term ecological research.”

Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast geography professor at the University of Victoria, has seen the benefits first hand as he conducts bear research.

“At a time when support for science has generally eroded across Canada, an absolute explosion of discovery is occurring in one of the least studied, but most beautiful parts of the planet,” he said.

The foundation funds graduate students and post-doctoral students, most of whom are itching to have the opportunity to get out of their laboratories and into the field, Peterson said.

In addition to becoming a place where “brilliant students can come and do their work” it is also a place where various parties and agencies can come together and talk about controversial issues, Peterson said.

“It’s a special place where politics gets left at the door.”

Research Includes How Sockeye Salmon Are Coping With Climate Change

Research themes are based on answering important questions, excellent science and great opportunities for teaching, Peterson said.

But, even with those criteria, there have been surprises, such as the archaeology program, he said.

“I had no interest in archaeology, but people pointed out to me that, where we were on the Central Coast, was a particularly appropriate place to do world-class archaeology. That was our first hit record,” he said.

At the Research Exchange, researchers described nine sites around the Discovery Islands where evidence of human activity from about 7,500 years ago is being studied.

“And there is at least 6,000 years of human history before that time,” said Quentin Mackie, a University of Victoria anthropology professor, describing discoveries of stone tool technology.

PhD student Will Atlas is studying how sockeye salmon are coping with warmer water temperatures and hoping a tagging program will help explain how climate change will affect salmon populations around the Central Coast.

Sam Harrison, of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, is venturing into controversial territory as he looks at how diseases at fish farms are reported.

Information released by the federal government is useless as it is not specific — meaning it does not reveal which farms have diseased fish — and it is not accessible, he said.

“Disease publication matters because it enables independent research and informs decisions about farm siting,” he said.

Disease reporting falls far short of the information provided in Scotland and Norway, Harrison said.

For Peterson, the variety of research demonstrates that his vision has become a reality.

“There’s tremendous chemistry,” he said.

“It’s magic when (people) work on accomplishing something together.”

Image: Hakai Institute

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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