We All Take Care of the Harvest (WATCH): Safe and Secure Harvesting of Marine Foods in the Context of Climate Change

The project, “We All Take Care of the Harvest (WATCH): Safe and Secure Harvesting of Marine Foods in the Context of Climate Change,” was funded by Health Canada’s HealthADAPT program until March 2022.

In 2020, the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) launched WATCH, a collaborative pilot project with four coastal First Nations communities and the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), to address existing and anticipated seafood safety, security, and sovereignty challenges in a changing climate. As the first and only provincial health authority in Canada, the FNHA has an innovative and transformational structure, vision, mission, values, operating principles, and directives. These guide all aspects of the WATCH Project and help ensure that cultural safety and humility are embedded in this work. WATCH also adheres to OCAP® (ownership, control, access, and possession) principles. The project has received federal funding from Health Canada’s HealthADAPT program, Public Health Agency of Canada’s Infectious Disease and Climate Change Fund, and Indigenous Services Canada’s Climate Change and Health Action Program.

The WATCH Project is designed to deliver community-based monitoring programs and early warning systems for Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) to inform harvest decisions, seafood-oriented climate change risk management plans and adaptation tools, and curriculum and course materials to strengthen monitoring and planning capacities within and among communities. A foundational goal of the project is to create systems-level changes that enable First Nations communities’ self-determination in understanding and managing marine resources and their impacts to individual and community health.

To focus participant interests, accommodate busy schedules, and connect individuals that are typically siloed from one another, WATCH is structured as a network. It includes a Project Team, First Nations and External Advisory Teams, a Monitoring Community of Practice (CoP) with phytoplankton experts and learners, and a broader WATCH CoP where all WATCH groups and occasional participants come together. The Project Team co-designs the project with advice and support from the other teams and CoPs. It includes representatives from the four pilot communities: Gitga’at Nation, Klahoose First Nation, Malahat Nation and Tseshaht First Nation, as well as staff with FNHA Environmental Public Health Services (EPHS) and the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and invited consultants. As the education component of the project develops, a Knowledge Exchange Working Group will take shape that will include knowledge-keepers for the Indigenous languages of pilot communities.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The WATCH Project was imagined during a 2016 marine biotoxin workshop, held in the aftermath of a multi-year marine heat wave (“The Blob”), where domoic acid-producing phytoplankton blooms led to widespread shellfish harvest area closures and many other seafood safety and security challenges. When filter-feeding shellfish, plankton-eating fishes, and other species ingest and accumulate the domoic acid toxin, this can lead to Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning; similarly, HABs that produce saxitoxins may cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, and HABs that produce Diarrhetic Shellfish Toxins lead to Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning. Due to climate change, these harmful blooms are expected to increase in frequency, duration, and intensity in a warming world.

Since the Blob, the BC coast has experienced a series of catastrophic climate-related events affecting marine food species. These include, but are not limited to, a major heat dome in June 2021, wildfires and flooding in the same year, HABs which caused widespread shellfish harvest area closures in late October 2022, and drought, which left salmon waiting in pools and estuaries until rains arrived in November 2022. Ocean acidification is also a significant and present threat in this region. Beyond biotoxins, seafood safety concerns with climate elements include Vibrio spp. and norovirus outbreaks.

To understand these various issues, the BCCDC and the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH) developed two evidence briefs as part of a literature review. These organizations continue to be essential partners in creating science-based communications and disseminating information arising from the project. In addition, to further inform the project’s outputs, WATCH compiles information on regional climate-related ocean conditions, hazards, and their impacts; and develops species backgrounders examining exposures, sensitivities and adaptive capacities of marine species that are important to First Nations.

Identifying Actions

WATCH takes a holistic approach that focuses on interactions among hazards. U.S. plans that have incorporated marine species vulnerabilities, tools such as the University of Washington’s Tribal Climate Tool, and approaches such as those undertaken by Swinomish Tribes that include values-based health indicators and methods to prioritize sites for protection or rehabilitation, have inspired the project’s areas of focus, approaches, and methods.

In meetings and workshops, WATCH network members have come to understand the gaps, barriers, and limitations of its shellfish safety program and how these might be addressed. For example, First Nations communities are more reliant on seafoods for nutritional health, and economic, cultural, social, spiritual health and well-being, than other populations in Canada. They are therefore more likely to be exposed to biotoxins in seafoods yet have less access to monitoring and testing to keep people safe, when compared to other populations.

Climate and species information that’s collected as part of WATCH will be enriched with knowledge gathered in pilot communities in “Issues” workshops (e.g., whether and how some teachings are becoming less reliable for harvesting or food preservation) and assessed with findings from dietary and harvest studies exploring the exposures, sensitivities and adaptive capacities of pilot communities and their members. For example, WATCH expects to determine whether communities rely on a small number of seafoods that are already diminished from other threats and are highly sensitive to climate changes, or whether they enjoy a diversity of marine food species representing a wider range of vulnerabilities. Whenever possible, engagement is combined with events that add value to the communities and their members, such as salmon jarring/canning workshops. Data to inform risk management and adaptation planning is also compiled from WATCH meetings and events with broader audiences. Once the community-based monitoring programs produce sufficient data, these will inform planning as well.


First Nations communities are working collaboratively with a number of partners to create a robust system of monitoring, testing and early warning communications. Through partnerships with BCCDC and Vancouver Island University, and relationships within FNHA EPHS, WATCH is also examining how to address contaminants arising from sanitary systems and stormwater runoff through community-based monitoring and other structures.

WATCH uses developmental evaluation (DE), an approach where shared learning is fed back to project participants in learning cycles, to build upon existing knowledge, allowing the project to be flexible. DE tools such as event summaries and SOAR Reflections (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) support knowledge sharing in key meetings with attendees and, when appropriate, to the entire network and beyond. When lab capacity was found to be a bottleneck affecting seafood safety for First Nations, a sub-group of WATCH came together to lead a laboratory feasibility study with advisors from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Washington State and Alaska. Another sub-group is addressing a significant knowledge gap by supporting UBC students undertaking a trend analysis of biotoxin levels, shellfish harvest area closures, and climate data.

The project has developed community-based monitoring programs in its pilot communities and will onboard new monitoring communities in regional hubs. These actions will increasingly support risk management and adaptation planning. WATCH communities are provided with equipment such as plankton nets and microscopes and receive training to look for toxigenic phytoplankton. The community tracks algal blooms and collects environmental data to better understand how blooms form and dissipate in local waters. Data is entered into the Enhanced Maritime Situational Awareness (EMSA) platform developed by Transport Canada. This allows communities to share as little or as much data as they wish, with whomever they wish. EMSA also has many public data sets that can be layered over WATCH monitoring data to better understand the marine environment.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

WATCH supports communities with data management, interpretation, and visualization by providing the assistance of a consulting environmental scientist. Early warning systems now include a Decision Support Tool, Toxic Shellfish bulletins for community members and health care providers, and community-based communication structures that are unique to each community.

The most valuable outcome of the WATCH Project is its integrated, diverse network that continues to grow and develop through shared learning. The respectful sharing of values, perspectives, teachings, observations and other knowledge, ceremonies and songs, and traditional foods has enriched the project in untold ways. The WATCH Project routinely bridges siloes (e.g., health/fisheries/culinary; marine/freshwater/terrestrial) and this attracts people who are eager to move beyond the confines of their sectors and backgrounds.

The BCCDC incorporated recommendations from pilot communities to enhance its shellfish harvest area map with sea surface temperatures and other data, and to develop tutorial videos. At regular intervals, the BCCDC summarizes and interprets marine biotoxin data for their territories.  This map is a valued resource for many harvesters.

Network members have learned that how we engage is as important as what we discover through engagement. Communities prefer engagement that includes meaningful reciprocity – if members are asked for their time and contributions in the form of data, they should receive something of value in return (e.g., jarring workshops, settings for elder-youth teachings, opportunities to meet people from other Nations). For events that include difficult conversations, cultural support workers are essential.

Next Steps

One lesson learned from the project is that it is critically important that the project continues to respect the changing needs, priorities, and capacities of participating communities. For example, harvests and food distributions, important community events, and pandemic restrictions to protect members will no doubt delay research and monitoring. As a result, expanding the project over longer timelines will be necessary, but will have tangible benefits (e.g., new information will become available, and there will be closer relationships and a deeper understanding among participants who have longer-term involvement with the project).

Another lesson learned is that climate information is often outdated by the time it is published, and agencies, organizations and the private sector routinely restrict access to key information. As well, climate-related conditions and hazards often occur in tandem and there is a need to adjust planning tools and resources, which often deal with climate hazards singularly (e.g., Sea Level Rise, ocean acidification). These also layer onto past and present threats and challenges, which must be included in assessments and other aspects of planning.

WATCH is ongoing with next steps to fully on-board new WATCH monitoring communities and to transform the pilot project into a fully-fledged, longer-term program. Early warning systems will continue to be enhanced as capacity grows in each community and the envisioned monitoring and testing system begins to take shape. Educational programs in development for adults and for youth will be tested and refined. Once the adaptation plan is completed with the four pilot communities, a template will be created for communities wishing to do similar work. Finally, the WATCH Project will continue to work with its U.S. partners to create a Beaufort to Baha-WATCH planning and monitoring network from Alaska to Mexico.


Digital Case Story

FNHA WATCH  – includes newsletters, digital stories, Toxic Shellfish bulletins (examples), and public-facing development evaluation documents such as Gathering and event summaries

FNHA Indigenous Climate Health Action Program

WATCH 2021 Gathering Summary