November 2015: Traditional Knowledge and Biodiversity

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

Thomas E. Bigford, AFS Policy Director

This month’s column is about the intersection of human and biological diversity with history. According to McGinley (2014), “[s]pecies diversity is a measure of the diversity within an ecological community that incorporates both species richness (the number of species in a community) and the evenness of species’ abundances.” Beyond biology, and bridging the social and natural sciences, traditional knowledge is gathered from people with diverse yet intimate perspectives—historical observations by those close to a situation, cultural and economic aspects, and other personal insights—that provide a solid basis for resource management decisions and policies.

These thoughts were inspired by the AFS 2015 Annual Meeting. Amid thousands of presentations on topics from the Mekong River to fatty acid signatures, my personal eureka moment was a talk by Dionne Hoskins of NOAA Fisheries (also professor at Savannah State University; speaking at the Equal Opportunities Section meeting). Hoskins described “Voices from the Fisheries,” a NOAA Fisheries (2015) repository for “consolidating, archiving, and disseminating oral history interviews related to commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing. . . .” Oral histories are a treasure trove of human dimension insights that can help to expand our horizons and improve success. During her talk, I recalled comparable efforts in Maine to gather local histories from the lobster industry, centuries of perspective available from Native Peoples on every continent, and other efforts.

Hoskins’ talk affirmed that a significant slice of our history is not recorded in journals and proceedings. This is frustrating but not very surprising. After we struggle to locate those with valuable insights, the lessons to learn are not always preserved in typical formats. We’re doing better with social media and audio-video recordings, which capture content sometimes lost in printed materials. This is crucial, as that traditional knowledge— those historical voices reflecting cultural history—offers us an opportunity to develop more successful management strategies and policies.

The real opportunity lies with collaboration, i.e., merging local knowledge with the social and natural sciences, resource management, policy, etc. I can imagine how traditional insights could help us to resolve resource management challenges that, in the absence of strong data sets, tend to be more qualitative than quantitative. For example, logic dictates that populations of nearshore marine species were probably healthier centuries ago when fewer river blockages hampered migrations of preferred prey. While we have difficulty modelling predator (tuna and Striped Bass Morone saxatilis) and prey (river herring and menhaden) populations back to colonial times, we might gain insights by investigating Tribal and early colonial histories. Perhaps Indian middens will reveal the historical range of anadromous fish and the health of marine predators that benefitted from stronger food webs. Even reviewing colonial newspapers would be enlightening, as done by John McPhee (2002) in The Founding Fish.

A stronger mix of natural and social sciences should yield benefits to fisheries professionals and to our efforts to manage fish. History informs the present and helps us to anticipate the future. I see an interesting parallel to efforts decades ago to design more inclusive environmental decision processes, but now with an emphasis on knowledge rather than political persuasion or ethnicities.

So how should we proceed? How do we add valuable perspectives to our work in the sciences, fishery management, and policy? First, you need to challenge my assumptions and our current efforts to add traditional knowledge. Are we doing better in some topical areas? Are there best practices in gathering or sharing knowledge? Second, after we focus on needs, we must enlist experts to increase our prospects for success. That reach should reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of those experts. Jeremy Pyatskowit (past president, AFS Native Peoples Fisheries Section, and member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin) recommended we seek this knowledge by inviting under-represented voices into AFS business across all Units and activities. Adding diversity to all discussions will lead to greater results than we would see from a separate discussion on traditional knowledge. He even suggested AFS forego efforts to reinvigorate its nascent Native Peoples Fisheries Section and instead add those issues to our expectations of every AFS Unit. Finally, we need to appreciate the body of knowledge awaiting inclusion. I strongly suspect there are efforts around our waterways to gather local knowledge. Let’s use Dionne Hoskins’ work to inspire us.

With an eye toward historical, cultural, and topical inclusiveness across all of our work, I suspect we will all be more successful.


McGinley, M. 2014. Species diversity. Encyclopedia of Earth. Available: (September 2015).

McPhee, J. 2002. The founding fish. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York. NOAA Fisheries. 2015. Voices from the fisheries. NOAA. Available: index. (September 2015).


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