On the Great Bear Sea
Nature United's marine program lead for British Columbia understands that social and ecological resilience go hand in hand.
Jenn Burt joined Nature United as BC Marine Program Lead in January 2019. One of her key goals is to build partnerships to strengthen sustainable fisheries and support healthy ocean-based coastal economies. Part of her role is to support the implementation of MaPP (Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast), an initiative to enhance ecosystem-based management across the Great Bear Sea through a partnership among 17 First Nations and the Province of British Columbia. She’s also supporting the creation of a network of marine protected areas in the Great Bear Sea, with the same partners in addition to the Government of Canada. Jenn supports these partners directly, helping to ensure the best science and best practices for community engagement are applied.
Jenn brings years of in-depth experience to Nature United, having recently completed an interdisciplinary PhD in marine ecology and resource management at Simon Fraser University. Her research on kelp forests and sea otter recovery hinged on partnerships with First Nations across BC and Tribes in Alaska.
You’ve spent a lot of time doing research underwater — a part of the world most of us never see. What’s it like under there?
It’s my version of space, like there’s another planet on Earth with the same zero-gravity feeling. You can read about marine species in textbooks, but doing experiments underwater or surveying the seafloor, you get a different sense of how everything connects and interacts. You can see kelp or fish on the water’s surface, but swimming next to the fish in these liquid forests is different. People understand why ecosystem stewardship is important when they see it, eat from it, swim in it.
When did your love for the oceans begin?
The pivotal moment for me was when I started volunteering at the Vancouver Aquarium. I fell in love with everything they were doing and got a job in the education department. I’d pull sea cucumbers, urchins, and crabs out from a bucket and got people to touch them and learn about them. People left connected and inspired.
I made friends with Donna, a taxonomist and aquarist there. I followed her around on feeding shifts and asked, “What’s that?” I had a notebook and wrote everything down. Eventually she said, “Go get your scuba diving certificate and come back to me. Then I’ll show you what’s really out there.” One dive and I was hooked. I’m still diving with Donna. She helped inspire me to do what I do.
How did you go on to develop your passion for marine life?
After the Aquarium, I did a master’s degree. I joined a salmon science lab because salmon are emblematic of the connections between food, people, culture, economics, and ecosystems. Most of my work on salmon’s response to climate change took place where they spawn — in rivers — dynamic and important ecosystems. But for my PhD, I said, “This time I want to be in the marine environment.”
I went on to study kelp forests on the British Columbia Coast. Along with doing cool underwater science in many remote kelp forests that only a handful of people have dove before, I am really proud of my work with the Coastal Voices project. The project was designed to elevate Indigenous voices and perspectives on the recovery of sea otters post-fur trade. Sea otters have huge impacts on the shellfish they eat, the kelp that shellfish eat, and the human communities that rely on both shellfish and kelp. It’s a complex social-ecological system. Through my work I discovered that I will always love measuring kelp and counting fish, but my strengths are in convening people and finding innovative ways to tackle complex resource management issues.
Who are your role models?
My supervisor Dr. Anne Salomon is an inspiration. She mentored me in becoming an applied community ecologist. I’m also really thankful to her for inviting me to help her build the Coastal Voices project and partnership. She shares my view that we don’t just study ecological systems, we study social-ecological systems. It’s almost impossible to decouple them.
Kii’iljuus Barb Wilson, a Haida matriarch, is an amazing inspiration too. When I first met her she was 72 and starting her master’s degree at Simon Fraser, focusing on the interface between climate change, infrastructure, and Indigenous laws. She’s done everything. She’s been a cultural ambassador, filmmaker, guide, and educator. She’s worked all over the world. She’s sat on national boards and advisory groups. She’s part of the research team for Coastal Voices. And now she’s been elected to council in her Haida community. She is a change-maker and bridge-builder, staying true to her roots and core values. I’ve learned a lot through our conversations and enjoyed all the time we’ve spent together on so many levels.
What drew you to Nature United?
All of my PhD research was a collaboration with First Nations and coastal communities. I learned the value in asking, “What do you want to know? What’s the relevance to you and your seascape? How should we approach this project? How can we work together?”
That’s how Nature United works as well — starting with an invitation to work in partnership and achieve shared outcomes. The two pillars that aligned for me were that Nature United values science-based conservation and they partner with Indigenous and local communities, including fishers, farmers, and businesses. That was the real value match.