As part of a global effort to establish new protected areas in the world’s oceans, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas expedition leveraged extensive Cree involvement as it recently passed through James Bay. The two-month journey gathered valuable data to support the development of Indigenous-led marine conservation areas along the route.
Learning of the Cree Nation’s intention to create a national marine protected area, National Geographic invited the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board (EMRWB) in January to participate in its larger expedition to explore the coastal and underwater ecosystems of Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador Sea), Hudson Bay and James Bay.
As Cree entities on both sides of James Bay had already spent years planning for a separate expedition by the research vessel William Kennedy, it was determined that Pristine Seas could fill critical knowledge gaps necessary for conservation efforts. From the Indigenous-owned Polar Prince icebreaker, the team is mapping the little-known seafloor, conducting microplastic sampling and analyzing environmental DNA.
“James Bay is one of the least studied and understood water bodies in Canada,” said EMRWB director Angela Coxon. “We were absolutely floored by the luck – two expeditions over three years gathering an incredible amount of data for us for free. All this data goes towards the establishment of two massive marine protected areas.”
Over the past 12 years, Pristine Seas has undertaken over 35 expeditions in areas around the world, 26 of which have since been protected. This expedition is in partnership with Oceans North, an Ottawa-based organization dedicated to supporting marine conservation in partnership with Indigenous and coastal communities.
During the journey, which wrapped up August 19, an international team of scientists, divers and filmmakers made recorded discoveries with their underwater cameras and remotely operated vehicles, which will be further analyzed and eventually showcased in two feature-length documentaries.
National Geographic plans to send a team back to certain Cree communities next summer to film community activities and local research. Coxon noted the two documentaries will show not only the importance of protecting these waters but also showcase the Cree to the world.
With an ongoing geese habitat initiative and other research projects, EMRWB hoped Pristine Seas could help answer a question often asked by Cree people – what’s beneath the water? During the organization’s consultations, coastal communities were curious about what lifeforms are supported by the James Bay’s waters and whether they present harvesting opportunities.
“We kept hearing from our Indigenous partners they wanted to know what was happening in the underwater world,” said Jennie Knopp, Oceans North’s science director, who helped lead the expedition alongside Paul Rose. “We’re finding fish species that haven’t been recorded in these areas before. Just seeing the abundance and diversity of life is incredible.”
Knopp said the team was honoured to support the Indigenous vision of marine stewardship, with local Indigenous experts on board to guide each leg of the expedition. Their work in these mysterious waters will lead to better understanding local ecosystems and food chains.
“Even in those conditions, there was life,” Knopp told the Nation. “Even though some sites looked like the surface of the moon, about every five metres there would be a bright red starfish or anemone, then a single rock with 10 urchins or a small fish. We found sea slugs, which people haven’t seen before, millions of tunicates … there was kelp, sculpin, urchins.”
During a stopover in Chisasibi August 2, the team made a presentation co-organized by Edward Bearskin and was treated to a community tour. Coxon was shown the ship’s wet lab, underwater equipment and audio-visual lab while a dozen Cree observers and polar bear guards boarded the vessel for its next leg of the journey.
Marine biologist Dante Torio from the Chisasibi Eeyou Resource and Research Institute joined the team during this stop, along with young co-researchers Nicholas Chakapash and Preston Bobbish. Working with the team’s scientists, they surveyed for organisms off the beaches of the North and South Twins Islands and Charlton Island.
“We found two species of sticklebacks, important because those are food for bigger fish,” said Torio. “We found young geese on one of the islands, telling us they are nesting there to rear their young. We found five or six species of seaweed walking along the shore that we later discovered are independent species. One we found is sold in farmers’ markets in New Brunswick.”
Fascinating findings from the seafloor were regularly presented to the entire team, demonstrating potential food sources like crabs and massive quantities of urchins. Torio was inspired by the crew’s mastery of scientific communication, conveying information through colourful images.
“The data widens our planning perspective to think about other habitats we could consider in future strategies,” Torio told the Nation. “It’s so inspiring to see young Indigenous people engaging in science. There should be more opportunities like this for young Cree, not only for science but a place to discover what they want in life.”
Five Indigenous youth from local northern communities accompanied the expedition, as part of the Students on Ice (SOI) Foundation. Students learned about diverse careers in the sustainable blue economy by job shadowing the team’s experts while learning about themselves and their place in the world.
“All of them were blown away by seeing what’s possible,” shared SOI coordinator Jennifer Williams. “They were all sparked by something different – they got to try everything and then got lots of hands-on knowledge. We had students dropping the anchor, operating the crane, flying the drone and filtering the water for DNA.”
Waswanipi’s Tyra Moses earned the opportunity to represent the Cree Nation with SOI by successfully applying for the initiative. Besides moving experiences witnessing belugas and polar bears, Moses was inspired by her encounters with other Indigenous students and their community members.
“Something that warmed my heart in Inukjuak were Elders who were fighting for the protection of polar bears,” Moses told the Nation. “Tony from SOI who was from that town said this is the first time she ever heard the Elders speak English. She said, ‘With our cultural knowledge and your science we can figure something out.’ It made me cry – it was so beautiful.”
The close connections Moses developed with her Indigenous “family” during the trip spurred a new respect for her community members and valuable traditional knowledge. As she transfers to Environmental Studies at Carleton University, she’s hopeful this resurgence in cultural pride has the power to change the world.
“They were so passionate about hearing our voices,” Moses reflected. “I was thinking about the people in my community and thinking about how valuable they are. This is what the world wants, just them being them.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter