Supporting Indigenous stewardship of the oceans

On this Oceans Day, we reflect upon the role that we as non-Indigenous academics can play to uphold and uplift coastal Indigenous peoples as the original managers and stewards of our oceans.
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Supporting Indigenous stewardship of the oceans

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On Oceans Day we celebrate the life support system that the oceans provide for Earth and humanity. As we seek solutions to the problems that the oceans are facing, we, as researchers, too commonly have a collective amnesia that Indigenous peoples are the original and ongoing stewards of our oceans. 

Salmonberries in Kitasoo/Xai'xais Territory

This reflection is especially pertinent in light of recent events, including recurring police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, that have made it impossible to ignore prevalent systemic racial injustice. As academics, we must consider our responsibilities to conduct research that does not further entrench these injustices and actively works to dismantle them. To us, this means supporting Indigenous resurgence and the assertion of Indigenous rights, and enacting anti-colonial approaches (1) to ocean stewardship and conservation. It also means honouring our many Indigenous colleagues (as researchers and collaborators) and their ancestors, who have been active practicing ocean stewardship for millennia and advocating for their rights since the beginning of colonization.

Here we want to share two examples of how our skills and privileges as academics can be leveraged to support the objectives and leadership of our Indigenous partners. Our examples draw on our experiences as non-Indigenous researchers and highlight recently published papers from the coast of what is now known as British Columbia, Canada. Our efforts are inspired by other examples of partnerships in similar fields (e.g.,2-5). We hope that by reflecting on our own experiences we can encourage other non-Indigenous researchers to consider their roles in collaborative ocean stewardship.

Our first example is a partnership with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation. The Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation has made huge investments in fostering their contemporary stewardship capacity. It was key for us that our efforts centered the Nation’s processes and provided resources and meaningful outputs to support their stewardship agenda. Our work included synthesizing information about marine governance by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais people as collated in their Heritage Database, a compilation of interviews and recordings with knowledge holders, traditional stories, and historical documents. We found that Kitasoo/Xai’xais marine governance underpinned sustainable resource use and has remained strong despite colonial efforts to undermine it (6), and that there is strong evidence of historical and contemporary conservation strategies and ethics (7).

Kitasoo/Xai'xais Territory

Our next step was to support the Kitasoo/Xai’xais people’s ocean governance by working towards Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. To ensure that we were building upon global lessons and good practices, we started by reviewing all peer-reviewed papers (n=58) on Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas so that we could inform a model that would fit the Kitasoo/Xai’xais planning process (8). The review highlighted the key role partnerships with academics and others can play in supporting these initiatives to achieve social and ecological goals. This review was helpful for supporting the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation because we could learn about the various models that exist, including the challenges that impact them. Our collaboration has evolved to directly contributing to Kitasoo/Xai’xais management planning process for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in their Territory.

The other example is a partnership with the Gitga’at Nation to support the creation of a monitoring program based in the knowledge and observations of their fishers and harvesters, which has come to be known as the “We Monitor by Living Here” program. As a first step in designing the this program, we reviewed 79 papers on the participation of Indigenous people in environmental monitoring programs (9).  Indigenous people’s participation was most often described as data collectors while their roles in designing the objectives and methods of monitoring projects, and their involvement in ensuing management outcomes, were less apparent. These results highlight the need for academics to pay closer attention on the ways in which we are engaging Indigenous peoples in “participatory” monitoring and management projects, and how these can uplift or undermine Indigenous governance. It also reminded us that our approach to designing a monitoring program needed to center Gitga’at objectives and methods, and be able to support Gitga’at-led management strategies.

Halibut drying in Gitga'at Territory

Several rounds of community workshops and informal interviews set the stage for designing relevant monitoring objectives and methods (10). Over the course of two traditional food harvest seasons, we reflexively and iteratively tested and modified pilot methods based on the feedback of harvesters and end-users within the Gitga’at Nation10. We found that relational methods such as semi-structured interviews were most well-suited to Gitga’at monitoring objectives, which included stewardship, promoting health and wellness, intergenerational learning, and establishing territorial Rights and Title. Analyses of the conversations that occurred in the design process and pilot seasons demonstrated the inextricable nature of the social and ecological changes monitored by Gitga’at people through their harvesting and other resource-related activities. This spring marks the 3rd year of operation of the “We Monitor by Living here program”, which is now operated by the Gitga’at Oceans and Lands Department.

Seaweed picking in Gitga'at Territory

These and other collaborations have shaped our views on our responsibilities, and the capacities we as researchers can contribute to meaningful societal change to benefit biodiversity and advance Indigenous resurgence in the face of ongoing societal injustices. We strongly believe that we cannot move forward together while working with blinders on to the broader systemic issues that our research plays into, including colonialism and systemic racism. We need to be reflective, particularly in honouring the leadership of our Indigenous colleagues and collaborators. We can mobilize resources and tools in support of Indigenous stewardship of land and sea. We also need to be humble, accountable to our mistakes, and to continue learning from our partners. We see our role as including challenging our individual and institutional patterns that may be hindering the societal accumulation of trust and respect that is necessary to normalize anti-colonial research practice.

We – all academics working on ocean issues – have a responsibility and agency to support vital Indigenous-led conservation initiatives that can benefit the oceans we collectively depend on. 

  1. Carlson, E. Settler Colonial Studies 7, 496-517, doi:10.1080/2201473X.2016.1241213 (2017).
  2. Groesbeck, A. S., Rowell, K., Lepofsky, D. & Salomon, A. K. PloS one 9, e91235 (2014).
  3. Adams, M. et al. Ecology and Society 19 (2014).
  4. Burt, J. M. et al. People and Nature, doi:10.1002/pan3.10090 (In press).
  5. Housty, W. et al. Ecology and Society 19 (2014).
  6. Ban, N. C., Wilson, E. & Neasloss, D. Ecology and Society 24, 10 (online) (2019).
  7. Ban, N. C., Wilson, E. & Neasloss, D. Conservation Biology 34, 5-14, doi:10.1111/cobi.13432 (2020).
  8. Tran, T. C., Ban, N. C. & Bhattacharyya, J. Biological Conservation 241, 108271 (2020).
  9. Thompson, K.-L., Lantz, T. C. & Ban, N. C. Ecology and Society 25, doi:10.5751/ES-11503-250210 (2020).
  10. Thompson, K.-L. et al. FACETS 4, 293-314 (2019).

Note: This blog was co-written with equal contribution by all three authors.

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