Crab Traps and Dreams: The Journey of a Guardian

Last Updated: June 16, 2024By

Crab Traps and Dreams: The Journey of a Guardian

First Day Jitters

Delaney Mack was super nervous. It was her first time pulling up crab traps, and she had no idea what to do. Mack, the newest member of the Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen, had gone through months of training. Her job could be anything from rescuing a stranded kayaker to taking ocean samples or even checking up on logging operations. But pulling crabs up from the deep ocean? That was new.

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The Crab Survey Begins

Pretty soon, though, the four-person team got the hang of it. The crab survey they were working on is really important for protecting their Indigenous territory in British Columbia. They started this survey over 15 years ago because there was a lot of commercial crab fishing, and the government wasn’t really checking if it was sustainable.

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Guardians of Their Land

The Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen are like the superheroes of their community. They keep an eye on everything—land and sea. Their territory covers a massive area, about 18,000 square kilometers, around Bella Coola in British Columbia, which is a long way from Vancouver.

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For Mack, joining the guardians was a lifesaver. “I had no idea what I was going to do with my life,” she admits. Now, she’s found her place.

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A New Kind of Ranger

Guardianship is an old tradition for Indigenous communities, but it’s only in the last few decades that it’s become more official. Today, there are about 1,000 guardians in 200 Indigenous communities across Canada. Recently, some guardians, including five from Nuxalk, got park ranger badges. This means they can now issue tickets for things like poaching and illegal logging.

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Proud Moments

Mack wears her uniform with pride. She’s the only full-time female member of her team, although it’s a seasonal job. Her dad, who often took her out on the land, was thrilled when she joined. “He congratulated me and seemed very stoked,” Mack recalls. “He felt that it was very important work.”

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Catch of the Day

After pulling up six crab traps, they finally catch two prized Dungeness crabs. One is a huge male that had recently shed its shell. Mack’s colleague, Charles Saunders, identifies this by gently squeezing its carapace. While another team member takes notes, Saunders measures and checks the crab’s age, and then Mack tosses it back into the ocean.

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When it’s time for a break, they’re still out on the water, and Saunders grabs a fishing pole. He and Mack went to school together. Saunders joined the guardians quickly, although he jokes that his late mother, a skilled medicine woman, tricked him into the job for job security. He’s been a guardian for eight years now.

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Sharing the Bounty

Soon, Saunders catches a big rockfish, but it’s not for him. On the way home, he stops by an Elder’s house and drops off the fish. “She hadn’t had rockfish in like, 20 years,” he says. “She doesn’t have anybody to go out and get those things for her.”

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Memories of the Past

Saunders remembers when most Nuxalk people had boats and lived scattered along the fjords, connected by water. But after colonization and epidemics, they all ended up in Bella Coola. The town is hard to get to, with only one road in and out. The Nuxalk reserve sits by the river, where signs warn fishers not to throw fish guts back into the water to avoid attracting grizzly bears.

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Fighting for Their Land

The remoteness of their land made it a target for illegal activities. Douglas Neasloss, the chief of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation, started their Guardian Watchmen program in 2010. They now have five boats for everything from resource stewardship to coastguard operations. The program has significantly reduced illegal activities.

Even with their new authority, the guardians haven’t had to issue a single ticket. Neasloss hopes it stays that way, focusing on education rather than fines.

Looking to the Future

For Saunders, it’s about preserving what they have for future generations. “I just want my daughter to enjoy all of this that I get to enjoy,” he says. “I want her to swim in the river and be able to harvest everything off the land.”

Proud to Serve

Roger Harris is another guardian who’s found pride in his role. Raised outside the Nuxalk community by non-Indigenous parents, he struggled with his identity. He worked as a paramedic and a police officer, but he says the Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen uniform is “the best one I’ve ever worn.”

Challenges on the Job

However, the job isn’t always easy. Sometimes, they get called names like “native fish cops” by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. But the role is crucial. Harris often patrols late into the night, looking for grizzly bears that wander into the community.

Expanding Their Role

Negotiations are ongoing to give the guardians more authority, potentially making them federal fisheries officers. This would expand their responsibilities and might require carrying firearms. For Neasloss, this is part of a bigger plan to have First Nations enforce their own laws. “We’ve always had a stewardship responsibility—we’ve never surrendered that,” he says.

Crab Traps and Dreams: The Journey of a Guardian

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