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YOUNG BIOLOGIST’S FISH RESEARCH STRENGTHENS INDIGENOUS HERITAGE BOND
By Suzanne Forcese
Carleton University PhD Candidate, NSERC indigenous Student Ambassador Award winner, National Geographic Explorer, and incoming Chair of UBC’s Indigenous Fisheries Research Unit, Andrea Jane Reid, has researched fish in Africa, Asia and Oceania. A Nisga’a Nation citizen, she travelled to the Nass River valley, home of the Nisga’a Nation, on British Columbia’s north coast while working on her thesis.
It was a pivotal journey that changed the course she would now follow to bridge the gap between Indigenous knowledge and western systems while inspiring the next generation of water protectors to care for our fresh waters and oceans.
WaterToday had the distinct privilege of speaking with Reid. Although having grown up in Prince Edward Island and far from the Nisga’a Nation, she was aware of her Indigenous heritage (a history that involves the 60s Scoop and inter-generational legacy effects). |
“I grew up on Prince Edward Island, raised by my Irish mother who was instrumental in teaching me of my Indigenous heritage since our family had been affected by circumstances beyond our control.” Surrounded by the ocean, fish, and being keen on science at a young age, it was a logical step for Reid to study ecology at McGill.
It was a move initiating a series of events that would determine Reid’s path. “I met a professor who changed my life.” Following in the footsteps of one of her idols, Jane Goodall, Reid’s first study was primates which took her to East Africa.
The path however was to take a turn when her professor suggested Reid accompany his wife, Dr. Lauren Chapman, on a research expedition to Lake Victoria. “I felt an amazing connection to water and fish.” With her newly awakened passion Reid knew she had to change her studies to fish research.
Her first National Geographic grant took her to the wetlands of the Lake Victoria Basin to study haplochromine cichlids and the invasive, predatory Nile perch. Next it was the Solomon Islands to study the strange and disappearing bumphead parrot fish.
In 2015, the National Geographic Society invited Reid and other Young Explorer Grant recipients to apply for a new Collaboration Grant. It was here that Reid, as a fish biologist, diver and conservationist, formed an inter-disciplinary team with Shannon Swanson (photojournalist and marine social ecologist); Mikayla Wujec (science communicator, environmental scientist and photographer); and Caleb Kruse (marine biologist and technologist). Their project – Reef to Aquarium –looks at ways of making the aquarium trade more sustainable.
According to their website, Reef to Aquarium states “The blue tang is one of the most popular fish in the marine aquarium trade. As the star species in the film Finding Dory, these fish are in high demand. Unlike Nemo, a common clownfish, Dory cannot be easily bred in captivity. This creates a global supply chain that connects fishermen in small islands with hobby aquarists on the other side of the world.” The team photographed, interviewed and filmed the people that drive this global trade.
Reid’s team was intent in using this research as part of their outreach in educating the consumer in the steps to a sustainable hobby from buying responsibly by circumventing cyanide use which harms the fish, the reef and the ecosystem to supporting not-for-profit organizations that are at the forefront of developing sustainable solutions.
While Reid’s travels and research around the globe have always been underpinned by her desire to help the people in the fishing industry as well as to promote sustainability and healthy fresh waters and oceans she soon came to realize “I could take my fish research home and work on the same issues that I am on the other side of the world.”
“I chose to work with Pacific salmon because this is the lifeblood of First Nations in British Columbia.” She was warmly welcomed by her community, as well as First Nations communities across BC where she led her research. The decision to blend culture with her research of ecology, physiology, and anthropology, became her means of reconnecting with her heritage. Exploring how Pacific salmon fisheries can become more sustainable is one way she gives back.
“I use radio telemetry technology to track Pacific salmon as they migrate from the ocean upriver to spawning grounds.” Since the salmon are not feeding at this time it is easy to insert the trackers in them without hurting them in any way. The fish are always in water so as not to stress them. The trackers enable Reid to determine which fish are successful in migration, which are injured or die. “Numbers are in decline. My job is to disentangle why the numbers are dwindling.”
The trip from freshwater to sea and back again is sometimes thousands of kilometres long with the treacherous navigation of steep river rapids and predators. But the trek is only made more difficult by human intervention. The damming and pollution of rivers, overfishing, and the introduction of invasive species continues to reshape our freshwater pathways. Add to this a rapidly changing climate, plastic and microplastic pollution, toxic algal blooms, and emerging contaminants such as hormones, plus light and noise interference, our freshwaters are in crisis. Reid published a high-impact paper reviewing each of these emerging threats to freshwater biodiversity.
Reid adds that if something is not done now they will be compelled to do something later. “Sometimes tough choices have to be made to insure the future.”
The deep interconnection of fish, people and place has had a strong impact on Reid both as a researcher and as a Nisga’a Nation member. “Once I was put in a boat-- the talking to the fishers, the water – it was magnetic. The knowledge is so rich and it has spanned generations.”
Reid has taken this insight and emotion to the next level. As part of her outreach campaign and together with her team, Reid has launched a not-for-profit (soon to be charity), called Riparia. Connecting youth and science on the water, it is free science-focused wilderness expeditions for the next generation of Canadians to improve science literacy for a more sustainable future. “We wanted to include Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to spend a week of canoeing, camping and learning about all the systems of water, fish, plants and more – including fire safety and how to paddle a canoe.”
Riparia hosted its first canoe-camping expedition in Poisson Blanc Regional Park, in Quebec in August 2019. Ten young women aged 13-18 recruited through Native Montreal and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board documented the ecological state of the region. Riparia’s mission is to inspire the next generation of female science ambassadors.
What dream does the young Andrea Jane Reid have yet to realize?
“I feel like I am living my dream. I love what I do. I have always been driven by passion and purpose and I am able to take the Indigenous idea of interconnectedness between the natural and human worlds both in my career and my passion for the water. Water is so inter-connected. Fresh water is
connected to everything. Everything that happens upstream flows downstream. It’s a great metaphor of our day to day actions. Elders have shared with me that they used to be able to drink from the river. Now when they touch the river, many have to wash their hands. We need to be able to drink from the river again.”
Words of wisdom from one of Canada’s young science communicators.
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