Hakai Institute

What is the Hakai Program?


Our dock and marine laboratories

The Tula Foundation finances and runs the Hakai Program, which is a set of interlocking initiatives in ecological research & education that focus on British Columbia’s coastal margin—that critically important and sensitive ocean region immediately adjacent to the coast, and the watersheds and estuaries that feed it. (For more detail, visit the Hakai website.)

The Hakai tag line: Science on the Coastal Margin

The Hakai Program includes the following elements:

  • The Hakai Institute.
  • A large network of partners at the BC universities, NGOs, and at government and First Nations agencies.
  • Community based initiatives for fostering leadership, technical capacity and local programs.
  • The Hakai Magazine.

What Is the Hakai Institute?

The Hakai Institute is a research and postgraduate teaching organization that promotes field research at remote locations on British Columbia’s coastal margin.

The Hakai Institute aspires to follow in the footsteps of such organizations as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, or Australia’s Davis Station in Antarctica.

The Hakai Institute includes the following elements:

  • The original field station on Calvert Island on the BC Central Coast.
  • A second field station on Quadra Island at the north end of the Strait of Georgia.
  • The Institute’s own faculty, staff and research equipment.
  • A large network of affiliated faculty and other collaborators at universities, government agencies and First Nations.

What is Our Research Philosophy?

Our research is inspired by the discipline known as Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) originally launched by the US National Science Foundation about 40 years ago. There are now hundreds of sites in representative ecosystems worldwide, all taking the same general approach:

  • We choose a tractable study area
  • We study it long term (on the order of decades)
  • We study it year round
  • We study many factors and their interactions
  • We take particular note of how these factors are changing over time

Because of the special features of our study areas, we extend our scope as follows:

  • We study the history of ecological change since the coastal margin became ice-free, about 15,000 years ago
  • We include the study of human activity, which was extensive during most of that post-glacial history

We pool our information with that from other research sites on the coastal margin, most notably those in Alaska, Washington and Oregon, and thereby seek to gain an understanding of the dynamics of the broader landscape.

Where? We Focused First on BC’s Central Coast

Our main region of interest has been the BC Central Coast–the gap between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the southern tip of Haida Gwaii. Our Calvert Island field station is at the centre of that region.

CentralCoastThe field station is the only settlement on Calvert, so we are completely off the grid, and responsible for all services such as power and water.

Why Study BC’s Coastal Margins?

BC coastal margins are among the most productive areas of the world’s oceans. Water flowing from the glaciers, snow packs, forests and bogs of the temperate rainforest pours massive quantities of inorganic and organic nutrients into the estuaries and inlets. Nutrient levels match or exceed those of any of the Earth’s great rivers; they mix with inorganic nutrients that well up from the deep ocean over the continental shelf, driven by massive tides and storms. This rich nutrient cocktail drives primary production (microbial communities, plankton, etc.), which in turn fuels complex marine food webs.


Yellow oval marks the Hakai Institute

Geological forces have enhanced this natural ecosystem. Tectonic forces have pushed up heaps of coastal mountains, and successive cycles of glaciation have carved them into a labyrinth of fjords, channels and archipelagos. This complex coastline offers such a variety of habitats that flora and fauna with widely divergent needs can all find their niches.

All these elements come together in the region around Calvert Island, yielding unprecedented biodiversity on the coastal margin.

It does truly feel like British Columbia’s Serengeti. Just a few highlights:

  • Top predators in abundance: orcas and humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises, seals and sea lions, sea otters and river otters, bald eagles, sand hill cranes, and others.
  • Kelp forests, sea grasses, and all classes of marine vegetation. For example, in one plot on our west beach, researchers from UBC have identified over 160 species of seaweed: all the species found in California; all the species found in Alaska; plus others that seem to be unique to the Central Coast.

Of course, all the elements of our coastal margin that engender this productivity and biodiversity have also served as a magnet for settlement since humans first came to the coast. For many millennia humans have depended on the coastal margin for travel, work, sustenance – all the elements of life – and that remains true today. That obviously makes these regions important, but it also makes them particularly sensitive and threatened by human activity.

How? We Build Facilities, Staff and Partnerships


Solar array, boatworks, sewage treatment

We saw that it was essential to have a research base to support the LTER work we wanted to do. In September 2009 we purchased a former sports fishing lodge. To transform it into an ecological research station that could accommodate up to 100 people, we:

  • Completely renovated all buildings and services such as docks, lodging, utilities including energy generation, power grid, water treatment, sewage and telecommunications – a mammoth task.
  • Added research infrastructure: labs, workshops, classrooms, systems and equipment, including a large fleet of research vessels.
  • Developed and deployed a growing network of sensors and other services for automated data recording across our study area.
  • Hired and trained staff, including research technicians and other core scientific personnel. We now have about 40 employees including many with MSc/PhD or other advanced qualifications.
  • Recruited research faculty members from B.C. universities who we felt would help us build a research program, typically by providing fellowships for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows whose research interests matched our own.
  • Provided more than 25 postgraduate fellowships and more than 50 postdocs, as well as several faculty appointments and chairs.

Which Disciplines and Projects in the Hakai Program?

Disciplines include:

  • Archaeology
  • Earth Sciences
  • Terrestrial Ecology
  • Marine Ecology
  • Oceanography
  • Limnology
  • Hydrology
  • Soil Sciences
  • Microbial Ecology
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Meteorology/Weather

Multidisciplinary projects include:

  • Human Habitation
  • Earth History
  • Marine Food Webs
  • Bog Forest Watersheds
  • Kelp Forest Ecosystems
  • Sea Grass Ecosystems
  • Forage Fish
  • Marine Mammals

We Are Galvanizing Ecological Research in BC

The scientific community in BC strongly endorses the Hakai Program.

  • Financial cutbacks have forced government agencies such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to scale back much of the research and environmental monitoring that would normally underpin LTER.
  • LTER is very difficult to pursue in an academic context because of the pressure of short-range, grant-driven research.
  • LTER is impossible to sustain in remote areas without facilities and resources.

While others are stepping back, we are stepping forward.

Quote from Eric:

“We can see that our work has struck a nerve; that it has unleashed a strong pent-up demand for multidisciplinary ecological research that has a long term focus. We are pleased to serve as a conduit for this energy, and thrilled to be able to help foster the next generation of researchers and technicians who will sustain this essential mission.”

Future Directions: Scaling Up the LTER Effort

The LTER concept is being extended to other sites on the BC coast:

  • We have recently initiated an LTER program based out of our Quadra field station. We will focus on the confluence of the Strait of Georgia and the Bute Inlet system, and the importance of that region for migrating juvenile salmon.
  • We will launch a new LTER program in 2015 in the Rivers Inlet watershed complex, which will build on previous work done under the Hakai Program by researchers at UBC and SFU.

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