Master of the Fisheries

Rather than earn a PhD, Megan Moody put her smarts to work for her First Nations community.


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Megan Moody: ‘It was just a given that I was going to post-secondary school.’ Photo by Katie Hyslop.

Fishing is in Megan Moody’s blood. A member of the Nuxalk nation of Bella Coola, Moody’s ancestors have relied on fish like eulachon and salmon for food and oil for thousands of years.

Her father, a commercial fisherman, began putting a young Moody to work on his gillnetter when she was just 11 years old. She spent her childhood in Bella Coola until she was 14 when her mother relocated to Salmon Arm. But she returned to Bella Coola every summer to spend time with her dad and eventually to work at the local salmon hatchery.

“When I was in high school (I worked) just for two months, but when I was in university, [for] four months of the year. It was great experience and great atmosphere and I learned a lot about salmon and the creeks,” says Moody, now 35 and living back in Bella Coola.

In addition to a passion for fish, Moody’s parents inspired a commitment to education: “It was just a given that I was going to post-secondary school,” she said.

Her mother, who is not First Nations, was Bella Coola’s community nurse for over 20 years; her father, who has since passed away, was the local high school’s first Nuxalk graduate. He spent a few years in a local college and entered politics as an elected and hereditary chief in addition to fishing.

Moody was good at school, but opted for a year at Okanagan College in Salmon Arm after she graduated, at 18, to acclimatize to the post-secondary environment before university. It was there she chose her path in the sciences.

“I was really trying to stay away from English and the essays and that kind of stuff, because I really didn’t feel I was good at it,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘sciences seem good, seems to fit me.’ I really enjoyed fisheries stuff, so I went in the biology direction.”

She started working on a biology degree at the University of Victoria the following year. But it was tough work and even a year in community college hadn’t fully prepared her. “I took all the hard courses my first two years,” she said. “I was taking four courses with four labs, which is like eight courses in one semester, with all the hard ones like bio chem and organic chem all in the same semester.”

It wasn’t until the second half of her four-year program that she figured out how to balance electives with the tougher courses, improving her marks as a result.

But like most students, when Moody graduated she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her degree. By then 23, she convinced the Bella Coola hatchery to keep her on for contract work in the fall. She also worked with programs run by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), applying for more permanent positions with the government body but never making it beyond the shortlist.

Rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise however. The following year her band hired her as fisheries manager. Moody was only 24.

The eulachon case

“At the time our fisheries program was not doing so well, so really it was rebuilding the fisheries program and learning to work with the chief and council, learning how First Nations work in conjunction with DFO,” she said.

It was there Moody first paid close attention to the eulachon. A common sight in B.C.’s coastal rivers, the eulachon is a small fish that, like the salmon, spends the majority of its life in the ocean but swims upstream to spawn and then die. Found along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California, eulachon are prized for their grease — a traditional condiment.

Moody could remember as a child of eight or nine wading into rivers and picking up the fish with her bare hands. But in 1999, the eulachon did not appear at Bella Coola. Nobody knew why.

“When I came back in 2001 and got that job [with the band], eulachon study was identified in our agreement with DFO, so it was one of the projects we worked on,” said Moody.

A year earlier, the previous fisheries manager, aware of Moody’s biology degree, had asked her advice on studying the eulachon’s disappearance. She hadn’t known then, but now the responsibility was hers and she had to figure it out.

“I hired a local consultant firm in Bella Coola to help me figure out the study, and then worked with the workers who’d done it the year before, and then I ran this project for about three more years after that,” she said.

Even with help, however, Moody struggled to conduct proper research and write the necessary technical reports.

“I thought if I could go back to school and do some graduate studies, I might be better prepared to do what my community was asking me to do,” she said.

Eulachon master

This time she chose the University of British Columbia to complete a master of science in resource management and environmental studies (RMES).

The program usually takes two years. It took Moody more than three.

She wasn’t lazy or a slow learner — Moody finished her course work in a year and a half. Rather, her desire to study the eulachon for her thesis revealed a scientific void: there was very little data available on the fish. She was starting from near scratch.

“The shrimp trawl industry has really affected the eulachon as they are taken as a by-catch in their fishery,” she told Tyee Solutions Society. “That was the story at the time when the drastic declines were first seen. A lot of First Nations people still feel that’s what happened.”

Moody believed there was already a slow coastwide decline of the eulachon that was likely a result of climate change. But unfortunately, for the smaller and still unrecovered central coast stocks, their drastic decline was compounded by the offshore bycatch of eulachon during the late ’90s.

“So how do you test that if you don’t have any background information?” she was left to wonder. “If you’re not quite sure what’s happening coast-wide?”

Moody gathered research on 15 rivers known to carry eulachon, searching through fisheries offices for documents all down the coast of B.C. and interviewing locals including fishers and elders in her hometown of Bella Coola for observations they’d never bothered to write down.

Then she used what she calls “fuzzy logic,” combining traditional knowledge of eulachon catches with the scant scientific data in search of a pattern. By the time she finished, her thesis was 300 pages long, and her advisors were deeply impressed.

Breaking scientific ground

“When I finished my [masters] presentation,” she recalled, “[my external advisor’s] opening comments were, ‘You know, if you would have submitted this as a PhD thesis, you would have passed’.”

Moody’s research had done more than simply describe eulachon populations. According to Daniel Pauly, her external advisor and a globally renowned fisheries expert, it was one of the first research papers to implicitly look at the effects of global warming on B.C.’s coast.

“I say implicitly, because she wasn’t looking after that signal, but she clearly got one,” Pauly, a professor at UBC’s Fisheries Centre and Department of Zoology, told Tyee Solutions Society.

“Rivers in the south appeared to have less and less eulachons. In B.C. it’s in between, and in Alaska eulachons are doing fine,” Pauly explained. “That’s exactly the same thing that happened with salmon: the California salmon are wiped out, the B.C. [salmon] are hanging on, and those from Alaska are doing fine. This is a global warming signal.”

Both Pauly and Moody’s supervisor, Tony Pitcher, tried to persuade their student to publish her paper and complete her PhD.

“We all tried to persuade her,” said Pitcher. “But she didn’t really want to do that. It was a bit of a shame, really.”

With Moody’s permission, Pauly did eventually turn her thesis into a Fisheries Centre report that has since been cited by both DFO and the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But in the academic world it lacks the esteem it would have earned in a peer reviewed scientific journal.

Moody says that she does plan to publish her research eventually. But she has no interest in pursuing a doctorate. Instead, she sees returning home to assist her community as a higher responsibility.

“I would like to work and make a change from the ground level,” she told Tyee Solutions Society. “Academics is great for finding out reasons why things have happened, and hopefully find solutions. But I feel like with our First Nations communities, we that have had the privilege to go to school should give back. It just feels like it’s home, and it’s what you should be doing.”

Eurocentric science problem

It’s a choice her professors accept — but also lament. Very few Aboriginal people, especially Aboriginal women, pursue the academic sciences, they say.

Little has changed since Michelle Hogue, a Métis professor of chemistry and now coordinator of the First Nations Transition Program at the University of Lethbridge, took her undergraduate chemistry degree 30 years ago.

“I was the only woman in science when I came to University of Lethbridge, I was the only female that they had had in the chemistry department,” Hogue told Tyee Solutions Society. “I went through at the time that women in science were odd. To be an Aboriginal woman in science was even more odd.

“So I more often than not did not talk about my heritage. I kept that to myself for a very long time. But as a woman in science it was a challenge, so you’ve got that double barrier that’s even harder.”

For her doctoral thesis, finished in 2011, Hogue examined the stories of 13 indigenous people successful in the sciences, technology, engineering and math.

She concluded that academic reform is desperately needed to excite Aboriginal youth about the sciences.

Those topics, she said, are “taught from a very western perspective and using western methodologies, teaching by standing and lecturing at the front of the classroom, using textbooks that are really complicated. For First Nations students, that’s not their paradigm.”

Such students, Hogue said, come from “a hands-on paradigm, and an oral culture. Learning is by doing first, and explanation follows.”

Racism is also a problem. First Nations students are often “streamed” away from the sciences, encouraged instead to take basic Knowledge and Employability courses designed for students whose abilities are two to three grade levels behind. This leaves them unequipped to pursue post-secondary science.

Glen Aikenhead, a professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal Education Research Centre, has extensively studied how to get more Aboriginal Canadians into the sciences.

He believes part of the answer is to balance the belief system of Eurocentric science with “indigenous ways of living in nature” (in which, Aikenhead observes, there is no abstract word for “knowledge”), and encourage students to show respect for both.

Aikenhead, who is non-Aboriginal, and a Cree colleague, Herman Michell, executive director of the University Of Regina’s Northern Teacher Education Program, have written a resource on this theme for grade school science teachers, Bridging Cultures: Indigenous and Scientific Ways of Knowing Nature.

A series of textbooks, co-produced with elders and local experts in the field, is also now available in Saskatchewan for Grades 3 to 9; it will be available in Manitoba next year. “It’s probably about five per cent indigenous knowledge and 95 per cent Eurocentric science,” said Aikenhead. “But that five (to) 10 per cent that’s in there, it’s integrated throughout the text book.”

As an example, he said, “questions that are normally posed in science like ‘What causes northern lights?’ you would replace that language with, ‘How do scientists explain northern lights?’ [In] the first [way of phrasing the question], there’s an absolute correct answer; [in] the second one there’s a way of looking at it. Then, of course, we have a story of northern lights from an elder.”

Indigenous enrollment in optional science courses in Grades 11 and 12 has increased by 80 per cent over the last decade in Saskatchewan, a rate that can only partly be explained by a growing number of self-identifying Aboriginal students.

Yet federal support for on-reserve schools that’s 30 per cent lower than that which provincial schools receive leaves many without the funding or lab space to offer non-essential science courses like chemistry or physics.

Though Megan Moody went to public school, she agrees that gaps in her secondary science education nonetheless handicapped her in university. “If you haven’t done the Grade 11 and 12 science courses it’s not easy,” she said. “I didn’t take Physics 12, and I found physics in university in the first year extremely hard.”

Educating resource managers

With treaties being settled between government and First Nations in British Columbia, land and resources are slowly being returned to band management. However the jobs for resource managers within bands can be hard to come by for First Nations eager to help their communities take control of their resources.

Now a biologist for the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance in Bella Coola, Moody found a job outside of her band that still has her assisting four different First Nations, including her own Nuxalk nation, in managing their resources and liaising with DFO. Aware of the huge role these functions play in the health and prosperity of communities, “it would be great to see strong capacity and understanding in that area,” she said.

“I would like to see more students going towards the resource sector. (It could be) education on the land, to really make that connection so that they really want to be there, and then that might spur them to want to do some higher education.”

It’s an idea already in action on the central B.C. coast through the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) Community Initiative operated by The Nature Conservancy and Pacific Wild.

Run mainly through local schools, SEAS teaches Aboriginal students from K-to-12 in Bella Coola, Bella Bella, Hartley Bay and Klemtu about nature through hands-on outdoor activities like hiking, mushroom picking, watching fish spawn and learning about traditional plant medicine and bear safety.

In Bella Bella, older students interested in resource management jobs shadow people already working in the field. Students in most of the communities can apply to take part in an eight-week summer internship helping researchers and land managers in fisheries and ecology work.

Part of the aim, says SEAS’s Bella Bella Community Initiative coordinator Johanna Gordon-Walker, is to encourage kids to pursue jobs in the sciences.

“It would be great to have some of our local people working in the more senior science positions instead of just the assistants or the boat driver,” Gordon-Walker said.

“But it’s also just to get kids out and comfortable with their environment. A lot of kids don’t get out with their families anymore because gas costs are pretty prohibitive and not all families go out on traditional harvest.”

To get more than an entry-level job in resources, however, you need a higher education. Many First Nations resource managers currently working in B.C. could benefit from more formal training. But because they’re already working, have family responsibilities and often little to no post-secondary education to build on, a degree like Moody’s is out of the question for most.

Ken Lertzman, a forest ecology professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU) hopes he has the answer to this. In partnership with the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of First Nations on the province’s central and north coasts and Haida Gwaii, Lertzman is proposing that his university offer a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Resource and Environmental Management.

Unlike a masters program, coursework for the graduate certificate would take one year; and instead of a thesis, students would complete a much smaller research project. Although details likely won’t be hammered out until the fall of 2013, Lertzman foresees a program that could be delivered by professors and First Nations elders through a combination of in-class and distance education.

He hopes to “meet the needs of those people in essentially developing their professional skills,” he told Tyee Solutions Society, with a program “accessible to people who can’t just take two years off work and come to live in the city, tailored to practical skills in several different disciplines in resource management.”

And unlike a masters program, applicants wouldn’t necessarily have to have an undergraduate degree if they had significant experience in resource management already. On the other hand, Lertzman says, students could later use the certificate to meet the prerequisite requirements for a master of resource management at SFU.

Moody hopes today’s youth will share her drive to return home and help her community. With the fastest growing population in Canada, and expanding responsibility to manage critical environmental resources, the urgency to train young Aboriginal people in the sciences is just beginning to be felt.

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS) in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives, with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. Tides Canada Initiatives and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.