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Salish Sea of riches inspires 'bridge' of knowledge

Oct 14 2012
Pacific Grace, a Sail and Life Training Society schooner carrying college students from the U.S. and Canada, glides through the Gulf Islands, watched by passengers on a water taxi. 

Pacific Grace, a Sail and Life Training Society schooner carrying college students from the U.S. and Canada, glides through the Gulf Islands, watched by passengers on a water taxi.

Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

Silver flashes in the water make Paula Romagosa's eyes light up as she peers into the ocean off South Pender Island.

"Those are herring and those are sticklebacks and there are some perch," said Romagosa, head aquarist at Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, pointing to the tiny fish.

The darting shoals look identical to the uneducated eye, but to Romagosa, they tell a story of available plankton, nutrients and changing marine populations. She hopes she will soon be able to share her passion for the creatures of the Salish Sea with a wider audience.

Angus Matthews, executive director of the Sidney aquarium, is embarking on an ambitious project that would see a new, not-for-profit society establish three field stations in the Gulf Islands to provide outdoor education.

The Salish Sea Institute would work with First Nations, businesses and Parks Canada to improve knowledge of the unique ecosystem in the area that stretches from the Mount Baker watershed through the Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait, Saanich Inlet, Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound, Matthews said.

"This will cost about $1.5 million and will take about three years to roll out," said Matthews, who envisages programs that will promote pride and a sense of ownership of the waters around southern Vancouver Island. "It will be a meeting place - a meeting of the minds for all the special interests in the Salish Sea."

Individual actions will help protect the area as government funding and oversight shrinks, he said.

"We are going to make it possible to learn about nature while surrounded by nature," said Matthews, who is planning year-round programs at the field stations, concentrating on citizen science and education.

Programs should emphasize the importance of habitat and gather information that will help the government decide on levels of protection, Romagosa said.

"In the aquarium, I can show people how pretty the animals are, but I can't show where they live," she said. "If you don't protect where that animal lives, how can you protect the animals?"

The proposed field stations are Roesland on North Pender Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve; Powder Wharf on James Island, in co-operation with the private landowner and Nature Conservancy of Canada; and a cove on South Pender Island, close to Poets Cove Resort, which is part of a First Nations reserve.

Education at the South Pender field station will focus on scientific and cultural practices of Coast Salish people.

"It will be a bridge between the past and the future," Matthews said. "I would very much like to reflect their traditional and medicinal uses."

At Poets Cove Resort, general manager Walter Kohli agrees there is a thirst for knowledge and he sees protection of the marine environment going hand-in-hand with commercial benefits.

"Conventional tourism is on the decline. People's taste has shifted and we have not adjusted to it," he said.

There are tremendous opportunities to bring in tourists interested in education, nature and First Nations culture, said Kohli, who sees the Salish Sea Institute and the three field stations as a potential draw.

"I would like to build a retreat with educational content and recreational opportunities exploring the Salish Sea," he said.

The growing interest in First Nations tourism remains underappreciated by operators, Kohli said. "That's what attracts many visitors, and we are not utilizing that opportunity." jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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