Jenn Burt is a passionate marine ecologist, facilitator, and communicator with expertise in kelp forest ecology, resilience and adaptation in coastal human communities, integrated marine planning, and resource management in linked social-ecological systems. Prior to working at Nature United, she was working on a PhD focused on understanding the ecological and social transformations that are occurring as sea otters return to rocky reef ecosystems in British Columbia. This involved scuba-based surveys and experiments to study how subtidal invertebrate and kelp communities are affected by sea otters, and also working with coastal Indigenous communities to understand how they are adapting to the profound shifts in food security, socio-cultural interactions, and resource management that accompany sea otter recovery (see www.CoastalVoices.net).
She has been involved in multiple coastal planning initiatives (marine protected area network design, integrated marine planning on BC’s north coast, and an ongoing proposal for a UNESCO biosphere region), which contribute to her interest in how communities, governments, NGOs and industry can work together to achieve better ecosystem-based management. Prior to her PhD, she was the Marine Planning Coordinator at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society where she worked to strengthen protected area planning, encourage science-based management, and advance many regional marine planning processes. Before that, she obtained a Masters degree in Pacific salmon ecology from UBC, and coordinated marine biology and conservation education programs at the Vancouver Aquarium.
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.
Where did your love for the ocean 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.