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The Sea Garden Restoration Project helps protect coastlines with age-old traditions.

Jonathan Kauffman
April 02, 2021
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Two people standing on a beach together
Credit: Taylor Roades

Butter clams. Littlenecks. Cockles. When John Elliott was growing up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, his family would take springtime trips to the beach to gather clams at low tide. "We've always eaten that way," says Elliott (above right), elder advisor to the WSÁNEĆ Leadership Council, an Indigenous advocacy group. "We traveled around in our territory, digging clams where there were good clam beaches."

Good clam beaches stretch from Washington State north along the British Columbia coast to Alaska—there are thousands of them. A quarter-century ago, scientists wondered why many of these beaches were ringed with offshore rock walls that hid below the waterline most of the year. When they finally asked a Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) clan chief, he explained that they were clam gardens, a sophisticated strategy many Indigenous peoples used to manage shellfish habitats.

Clams grow and live in specific levels of the intertidal zone. For at least the past 3,500 years, First Nations people have rolled large rocks into the sea to change the tidal height of the beach above it. The rocks caused sediment to accumulate, shifting its slope and creating a larger, more optimal environment for clams and a broad variety of other species to thrive.

Knowledge holders like Elliott have helped scientists understand how tending these gardens—restoring rock walls, clearing away kelp and sea lettuce, and raking the gravely beach to remove debris and fine sediment—allows water to flow freely, bringing nutrients to the bivalves. And in the past decade, several innovative programs have begun working to improve the resilience of these ancient coastal habitats. One of the most active is the Sea Garden Restoration Project on Russell Island, 30 miles north of Victoria. There, Parks Canada staff, ecologists and members of the WSÁNEĆ and Hul'q'umi'num Nations are restoring clam gardens and teaching young First Nations students how to continue this legacy of environmental stewardship. "These are living practices that people have been engaging in continuously for thousands of years," explains Skye Augustine (pictured above, left), a marine ecologist and member of the Stz'uminus Nation who is studying this work as a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University. "One thing I think is really important is the two-way learning between scientists and First Nations elders. I see people with a large degree of humility who are working hard to listen carefully to each other and to what we see on the land."

Elliott says that he was taught that untended clam beaches could suffocate. Indeed, archaeologists studying clam gardens in Quadra Bay, 150 miles to the northwest, have determined that the shellfish there have shrunk in size and numbers in the postcolonial era, stressed by a combination of neglect, climate change and pollution.

Sea levels along the lower British Columbia coast have been rising steadily for 11,100 years, Augustine says, which makes the clam gardens particularly important because they act as buffers—helping to protect the coastline, as well as the diversity of shellfish populations, from environmental changes. Their existence could become even more critical as sea temperatures, and levels, continue to climb. Just as the U.S. Forest Service has partnered with the Karuk Tribe in fire-afflicted California to study their traditional controlled burns, Canada's government is learning about stewardship of its coasts from the people who have lived on, and cared for, them the longest. Over just the past five years, Augustine has already noticed growing numbers of the smallest clams. "We are facing unprecedented climate challenges," she says. "And we need all the wisdom and ways of knowing to be able to identify and support enduring solutions."