Ecosystem approach being used to bring bioregional change | The Quoddy Tides

By Edward French | The Quoddy Tides

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An organization advocating for an ecosystem approach to help bring about the changes needed for a sustainable future on Earth has been working for over a decade with groups around the world, including in the Passamaquoddy Bay region. SustainaMetrix LLC, which is committed to developing and applying transformative practices for responding to a rapidly changing world, was started by Glenn Page in Portland 13 years ago. SustainaMetrix defines its mission as being like “well placed lighthouses along a rugged coast” to help its partners “create a new navigation system for adapting to ecosystem change.” Among the groups the organization has been working with are the Schoodic Riverkeepers, which is restoring alewife runs in the St. Croix watershed, and the Cobscook Institute in Trescott.

Passamaquoddy homeland showing St.Croix watershedPhoto from Schoodic Riverkeepers. Map by Ed Bassett, 2013.

Accelerating the changes needed

Page had formerly worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its Chesapeake Bay program, which included habitat restoration through the turning of dredge material into functioning islands, and was a founding director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore that is focused on marine biodiversity. He then went in search of communities around the world to better understand the systems people are living in, and his company, SustainaMetrix, began working with coastal communities, including ones in places like Ghana.

“We tend to be focused on a specific issue instead of cross-scale interrelated issues,” Page notes of how many groups tend to approach problems. However, by looking at interrelated systems, people living in a place can figure out how to define the response needed in the future, he suggests. “We need to build a sense of seeing so we can accelerate the change needed,” he says. “We want healthy local food systems, broadband, healthcare, transportation and family and community structures,” and he advocates for the building of bioregional macroscopes, looking at specific issues, in order to direct action and bring about the changes needed.

For instance, the Gulf of Maine has been studied a great deal, but it’s poorly understood how people are responding to the changes happening. The waters are a rapidly warming system that will cause the lobster industry to change, but he asks, “What’s the response?”

The COBALT — Collaborative for Bioregional Action Learning and Transformation — network is an arm of SustainaMetrix focused on the work in the bioregions. Page notes that in the bioregions there is indigenous wisdom that has a deep understanding of a region and place. The case studies examined during recent workshops conducted by SustainaMetrix looked at governance responses to changes in the bioregions. The analysis of the bioregions used an ecosystem approach with an understanding of governance and adaptive learning for “a just, equitable and regenerative future.”

Restoring alewife runs

SustainaMetrix’s first workshop, which was called “The Story of Place: Co-Creating a Bioregional Macroscope,” was held from September 2021 to February 2022, and five bioregions participated, including three in the Gulf of Maine region — from Boston to Cape Ann, the Casco Bay watershed and the ancestral Passamaquoddy homeland. The two other bioregions were the Tayside and Clyde estuaries in Scotland. Two new bioregions — Westfjords to Skjalfandi Bay in northwest Iceland and County Mayo in Ireland — will take their place in the upcoming workshop beginning in late July. Among the topics to be considered are the melting of the Arctic and the effects on fisheries, port development, deep-sea mining and Indigenous rights. Also, a tropical cohort will include areas of focus in Costa Rica, the headwaters of the Amazon, Peru and a bioregion in Belize where there are “enormous pressures,” including deforestation.

The Passamaquoddy who participated in the first workshop came up with a team name of “Living Tides.” They looked at how the St. Croix or Schoodic watershed system got to where it is today and what the watershed will face in the future, along with how to restore sea-run fish. Implementing watershed restoration required a broad-scale approach that was tribally led, with the U.S. and Canadian governments engaged.

SustainaMetrix had worked with the Schoodic Riverkeepers in 2014, helping the group see the challenges regarding a pathway for the tribally led process to restore alewives and other sea-run fish in the St. Croix watershed. “The challenge of implementation was extraordinary,” says Page, noting that it involved a binational context with a tribal presence. “The issues of sovereignty and science diplomacy across a border” were addressed through the lens of the Schoodic Riverkeepers, made up of Passamaquoddy, or Peskotomuhkati, tribal members.

Brian Altvater of Sipayik, a Passamaquoddy who is founder and chairman of the Schoodic Riverkeepers, observes, “To restore the environment, you need to work collaboratively, share thoughts and get things done.” As a member of the Living Tides team, he notes that those participating in the workshop have the same goals and got to know each other on a personal level. “The team is more of a family than a committee.”

While alewife runs have been rebounding since the fishways around the dams in the St. Croix River have been reopened, the next hot topic for the riverkeepers will be to figure out how to allow more alewives to get past the current fishways at the Woodland and Grand Falls dams. The fishways will either need to be repaired, or a natural bypass, like a canal, will need to be constructed. “We’ll try to put a plan together and then find funding,” says Altvater.

While he’ll invest time working with SustainaMetrix, Altvater notes his priority is to restore the St. Croix River, although he’ll help other organizations with the restoration of rivers in different places, too.

St. Croix river in Maine and Canada. Photo by Enzo Francis Cameli.

Photo by Enzo Francis Cameli. St. Croix river in Maine and Canada.

Returning a voice to a people

Hugh Akagi, chief of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik, which has offices in St. Andrews, calls the SustainaMetrix effort “a wonderful approach to work with” and says the group of people participating in the workshop “are a breath of fresh air.” With the Peskotomuhkati, it “was learning more about the territory and our values and how we could use these when we talk about restoration.”

He notes that, when the Peskotomuhkati gave a presentation about the alewife restoration to others participating in the workshop, “they appreciated what we were doing.” With the group, “when someone speaks, it toggles something in one,” which he says is a rich experience. “Instead of talking about land and water in the U.S. and Canada, we were talking about our home.”

The coming together of science and Native values “gives us so much strength to bring to the table,” he says. He notes that SustainaMetrix’s approach was a good fit with the tribe’s efforts for alewife restoration in area rivers. The fish had been “treated poorly” and denied access to their home spawning areas by dams in the rivers. “People don’t understand this is a keystone species,” he observes. The efforts by the tribe and others helped create the support needed for restoring the fish, and bringing back the alewives in the rivers helps other species come back. “This is a story where there is success at the end,” he says. “The alewife story has brought so much attention to us as a people and to the river. It helped return our voice. We’re trying to bring the voice of the fish to the table.”

Noting that “Canada says we don’t exist,” the Peskotomuhkati chief says that attitude “is destructive to the restoration of a people.” The Passamaquoddy live on both sides of the international border that is defined by the St. Croix or Skutik river, but the tribe is still negotiating with the Canadian government for federal recognition. The lack of access to territory and to food “was dismantling us,” says Chief Akagi. “The river is what defines us. If it’s a border, we were facing the same extinguishment as this fish. That little fish was so important to us.” When the Milltown dam on the river is removed, as has been proposed, he asks, “What other successes and stories will happen?” The restoration of the alewife “is a great story, and we’re intertwined with it.”

As for future efforts, Chief Akagi says, “Our lands are being sacrificed” through clear-cutting, mining, rock extraction and other practices. “I’m not a fan of putting economics at the top of the priority list. Everything has value.” He adds, “This group shares an ecosystem concept. Often people still put industry at the top of the list, which is very destructive to an ecosystem. We need to reassess our values and get these stories out so we can stand up to governments and big corporations when we see that destruction.” He says that companies have gained their wealth “by robbing everyone else. The trees are not theirs. We need to look at the future. Look at the waters — the fish are gone. What have we done? We have to come home. We’ve got to stop this.”

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