In 2003, as part of my Conservation Biology class at Columbia (taught by Eleanore Sterling and Rodrigo Medellin) I wrote a paper on using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in marine conservation. At their suggestion, in part because marine papers are underrepresented in conservation literature, I submitted my term paper to Conservation Biology and it was published in 2005. Thus started my inadvertent career in TEK…

This September I was asked to speak about how TEK could help better inform fisheries management by the Ecosystem Science and Management Working Group for the NOAA Scientific Advisory Board.  I was incredibly honored to have an opportunity to present some of the work I’ve done to people who are in a position to inform fisheries policy. I’ve had the honor of working with the Fijian government in this context for over a decade, and I was really excited to get a chance to do this for my own government.

I flew out to Seattle (thanks US tax payers) and presented a hour lecture and participated in a two hour discussion afterwards, along with my fellow panelists Ron Brower and Andrey Petrov. For this piece I’d like to summarize my presentation and talk about how we can use TEK to specifically inform conservation policy.

TEK overview

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is the knowledge accumulated across multiple generations that concerns the species, communities and ecosystems of a particular place. It is different from other forms of knowledge because it is 1) Place based 2) multi-generational and 3) adaptable. TEK can manifest itself in multiple ways and understanding how it is generated and expressed can provide useful information to help us better understand targets of fisheries importance.

For brevity’s sake I’m not going to go into all of the ways TEK can help inform fisheries. Instead I’m going to present two, folk systematics and identifying shifting baselines. Folk Systematics is the science of understanding how people use names to categorize species and how they interrelate those categories. For example, in the early 70s my Ph.D. committee member, Phil Lobel, traveled to the Gilbert Islands. As part of that trip Phil recorded 254 names for fishes.* One of the key tenants of Folk Systematics is that people will more finely name species that matter to them, and coarsely name species that are less importance. By paying special attention to which species have multiple names (and what those names mean) fisheries researchers can, to a first approximation, identify species of special concern, which may translate into those of fisheries interest.

For example, Caranx melampugus, the Blue Trevally is an important food species and has three names one each for the juvniel (te kuia), intermediate (te rereba) and large (te rereba) sizes. In contrast, Flagtails (fishes in the family Kuhliidae) are small fishes that are not particularly targeted and all the species are lumped into a single name (te tintin)


Caranx melampygus


Another advantage of paying attention to TEK is that often these knowledges can trace back far before formal data have been collected. In fact, in many cases, TEK may be the only information available in an area. Thus, by paying close attention we can learn about what areas looked like in the past. In a classic example Andrea Sáenz-Arroyo and her colleagues collected data on fisheries in the Gulf of California. There, they showed that older fishers could recall a more vibrant ecosystem, one which has large numbers of big groupers, one that had sharks and rays and one which presented a more productive fishery. Their grandchildren, on the other hand, were born after this biodiversity had been reduced, and their baseline of what the reefs should look like had shifted to a duller experience.


A large grouper – very few are seen today, but they remain in the memories of older fishers (photo from Sánez-Arroyo et al. 2005)

Now one of the major critiques I encounter with shifting baseline studies is “how do we know they’re not making stuff up?” To some extent one has to interpret any datum with caution, but overall the true story starts to emerge. However, for those that want something more qualitative Anne Beaudreau and Phil Levin came up with a smart way to assess TEK**. They interviewed fishers around the Seattle area about their experience fishing rockfish (Sebastes sp.). They then compared the TEK and the fisheries data that the government had collected to show that there was a great deal of overlap in these data sets. Thus, by paying attention to the knowledge of the people from that area, we are able to better understand the population dynamics of the species they targeted.


Graph showing correlation between LEK and Fisheries Surveys. (Figure from Beaudreau and Levin 2014)


There are several points, which need to be emphasized about using TEK. First, the TEK is not going to be heterogeneously distributed across the population. The knowledge may be restricted to certain genders, classes, ages, or social classes. Second, just because the knowledge exists does not mean researchers may have access to it. Some knowledge is sacred, some words shouldn’t be said by everyone, and holding that knowledge imparts a responsibility on the researcher to use it carefully and respectfully. Lastly, many traditional knowledge holders view comparisons between TEK and Western Knowledge to be (neo)colonial in view and that attempts to “validate” or “calibrate” the knowledge places an implicit bias or preference towards the Western knowledge at the expense of the knowledge of people who have lived in the area for centuries. Access to TEK should be undertaken in a respectful and collaborative fashion where both parties benefit from information sharking. When this takes place fisheries managers not only gain access to critical information about the fisheries targets, but perhaps more importantly, they form an avenue by which local people can be more formally engaged in resource management conversations.


* Lobel, Phil S. “Gilbertese and Ellice islander names for fishes and other organisms.” Micronesica 14.2 (1978): 177-197.


** Beaudreau and Levin call this LEK, local ecological knowledge, as it is not as multi-generational as TEK.