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Indigenous Knowledge Is Essential for the Future of the Ocean

Communities around the globe have generations of experience in caring for the seas around them

In this Issue:

  • Winter 2022
  • A New Generation's Ocean Literacy
  • Coastal Blue Carbon
  • How to Reverse the Ocean-Climate Crisis
  • How We Can Avoid the 'Danger Zone' of Climate Change
  • How We Can Help Marine Protected Areas Save Our Ocean
  • Indigenous Knowledge Is Essential for the Future of the Ocean
  • The Ocean Is in Trouble
  • Our Ocean Is Choking on Plastic
  • The Global Ocean
  • When Too Many Boats Chase Too Few Fish
  • View All Other Issues
Indigenous Knowledge Is Essential for the Future of the Ocean

“Something had to be done.”

By Celestino Ancamil

My grandfather was one of the first settlers on the shore of the Puyuhuapi fjord in Chilean Patagonia. He arrived here in 1935, when he was only 24 years old, from the Araucanía region in central Chile. At the time, there was nothing: The town of Puerto Cisnes, where I now live, didn’t exist, and there were only a couple of little houses—which could only be accessed by sailing or rowing.

Care and respect for the Earth—loving the place where I live, protecting it—is in my DNA. I was born and raised with the sea: Our house was on the coast, a few meters from the water, and I have memories of being in the house with my mom and looking out the window to see the dolphins go by. I learned to fish as a child, and my mom and I collected shellfish in baskets to cook for lunch. They were plentiful, and I liked to play with the little fish that hid under the stones. There were algae on the shore, which my father and grandfather gathered to fertilize the potato crops.

But today what little shellfish remains is contaminated. If you’re lucky, you find a couple of mussels, but they can’t be eaten. And where algae abounded, there are nothing but rocks.

I lived through this process of resource degradation. It started about 1985, when we started hearing about the red tide. In the 1990s, the red tide was everywhere in the channel that separates the mainland from Magdalena Island—coinciding with the advent of the salmon industry. Since then, nothing has been the same.

This change was very fast, over just a couple of decades, and seeing it made me realize that something had to be done to stop the decline in our environment. I was a woodworker, a carpenter, but I knew that this place’s greatest attraction is the surrounding nature, and that water pollution was ruining it. My wife and I were looking for a way to bring in some extra income, and we were also worried about the environment. At the turn of the century, talking about tourism here was crazy—there was no tourism, and no tourist services, and the idea of building a tourism industry seemed like a quick road to starvation.

I never studied tourism or biology, but some colleagues and I got together and began to teach ourselves about biodiversity, responsible tourism, and marine fauna. We started taking people to tour the fjord to see dolphins and visit Magdalena Island, a national park that is home to penguins, cormorants, sea lions, and huillín—southern river otters that are endangered; scientists estimate that there are only 500 or so left in all of Chile and Argentina.

But then we understood that if we wanted this place to be cared for, we had to pass on the knowledge to our people, our own community. In addition to taking tourists to see one of the best whale-watching places in Chile, we had to take our neighbors, too. We have a beautiful national park, right here in front of us, and people don’t know about it. So, we got financing from the Ministry of the Environment for a project, which we called “Educating our community to conserve the biodiversity of the Puyuhuapi fjord.” It was a small project, with a shoestring budget, but we were able to offer free workshops so that children, youth, and adults could learn about our community’s biodiversity. We took them out on the water to tour the fjord and identify species with a field guide that they themselves had created.

We were quite surprised that there were some adults who, despite living their entire lives here, had never gone sailing, and had never seen a dolphin. We found it strange, but also sad, that they were the wives or children or grandchildren of artisanal fishermen and they didn’t know the fjord. I think there was an entire generation that never valued what was around them; they didn’t realize that not everyone has a fjord, and not everyone has the variety of fauna and native trees on their doorstep that we have here.

Three years ago, we dedicated ourselves completely to tourism, and today we combine ecotourism with environmental education for those who live here and those who come to visit. We’ve done a variety of things to keep the desire to learn alive in the community—such as the “Marine Ecotourism Meeting” series to which important scientists and authorities have come to speak here—and the community is grateful. Imagine this in an isolated town of 6,500 inhabitants. Before, if you wanted to immerse yourself in knowledge, you had to leave our town and participate in a symposium at a university. But not today. After these meetings, some children said they wanted to be marine biologists. Thanks to these experiences, science and environmental awareness have been gaining ground in our community.

I imagine my community moving toward a nonextractive economy—something sustainable. That’s my main task. I want us to understand that we must think about the future. I see my sons following in my footsteps in ecotourism and environmental education. But if they don’t, I hope they have a sustainable vision, of a different town, clean and beautiful, with people with a conscience: a community that takes care of its environment. We’re part of this land. We didn’t come to possess it; we’re part of it, like a tree, and we have no right to abuse it. We’re the ones who have to make change, our generation. The next generation won’t have time. We have to do it now.

Celestino Ancamil lives, works, and raises his family in the seaport town of Puerto Cisnes, Chile.

“We live and breathe the ocean.”

By Aindil Minkom

My home might be one of Australia’s best-kept secrets. It’s a cluster of 27 coral islands on top of an ancient seamount that forms two stunning coral atolls. Sparkling blue waters and white sands mean that our islands would be at home on the front of any tourism brochure, but our remote location has made it easy to keep them off the radar—and unspoiled.

The islands, known as the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, are an Australian External Territory in the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Perth, on Australia’s west coast, and Sri Lanka.

We see an incredible array of marine life around us. Manta rays glide through the waters, and we can spot dolphins and turtles between the islands. A much-loved dugong known as Kat feeds off the seagrass in the outer lagoon.

The Islands are the only land mass within a nearly 600-mile radius, making them a crucial refuge for migratory birds and a paradise for any nature lover. They’re also a wonderland for crabs—the striking purple land crab, the timid red hermit crab, and the horn-eyed ghost crab are just a few found wandering the pristine white beaches and untouched forest floors.

Only two of our islands are inhabited, with a total population of roughly 650, made up of about 600 Cocos Malays on Home Island and a smaller population—mostly of European descent—on West Island.

The Cocos Malays are the first people of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, coming here nearly two centuries ago. In 1984, we held a referendum and voted to become a democratically run, self-governing territory of Australia.

As part of this referendum process, the Australian Government made a commitment to preserve our culture, our traditions, and our religious beliefs.

This commitment was essential to us because our rich culture and history are at the forefront of how we live every day. Because we’re an island community, the ocean is central to our lives. We live and breathe the ocean here.

The ocean provides so much to our community—our food, our way of life, our culture—and we look after it by fishing in a sustainable manner, as we always have done.

The Cocos Malay community is like one big family. Everyone looks after each other. When we go out fishing, everyone gets some of the catch. We provide for our families, extended families, and the elderly and other people in the community who have difficulties providing for themselves.

This is a remote part of the world, and it can sometimes take months for supplies to arrive from the mainland. Without a healthy fish population, we couldn’t survive.

For years we have been growing increasingly worried about industrial fishing. There are few places left on Earth like our waters, where the ocean is still teeming with life, where you still see populations of big pelagic fish like tuna and billfish. As fisheries around the world decline, the pressure to exploit our culturally and economically significant resources is growing.

Giant industrial fishing fleets regularly hug the exclusive economic zone surrounding Cocos, trawling the ocean for weeks or even months on end.

In March 2022, the Australian Government declared two new marine parks for the waters of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island. They will cover about 287,000 square miles—an area larger than Texas.

The new marine parks will help protect our local fish populations from the threat of these industrial fleets. They are meaningful not just for us, but for the health of the global ocean. They are for everyone.

Our community and the neighboring communities on Christmas Island have been working with the Australian Government to co-design these marine parks to support our way of life and help sustain our fishing and unique environment.

These marine parks support our aspirations and empower us to sustainably manage our oceans, as we have done for so many generations. They allow us to protect our waters, our culture, and our island.

They also will deliver opportunities for our people while ensuring that our culture remains strong.

That gives us a lot of hope that we can protect our way of life for the future generations of our community and for those lucky enough to visit our beautiful, remote islands.

Aindil Minkom is the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Shire President.

“Inuit destiny has always been defined by their relation to the sea.”

By Kuupik Vandersee Kleist

I was born in Qullissat, a town on the east coast of the Disco Island off the west coast of mid-western Greenland, in 1958 and lived there until I and my fellow 1,500 inhabitants were relocated over a period during the 1960s when the mining industry collapsed.  

During my childhood we hunted belugas and narwhales, both in the spring when the sea ice broke up and in the cold winters, where the whales occasionally would be trapped in small breathing holes in the sea ice called “sassat” in Iñupiaq: “Imayguaraat.”

The hunts meant a feast, with plenty of mattak (whale skin) and meats, and secured food for a long time. When the sassat were found, be it late at night, on Sundays during church service, at any time, the storekeeper would open the doors so that the hunters could buy ammunition, rope, or whatever they needed for the big catch. It was a true community event and all the families would get their shares, whether they were hunters or not. 

My whole childhood and my upbringing were closely connected to and affected by the sea ice and what seemed to be the eternal, continuous shifts of the seasons. Winter, spring, summer, and fall determined our activities. The migrating patterns of the mammals, fish, and birds were so accurate that our dad would plan his fishing and hunting during the year according to the seasons of the different species.

Growing up, I realized that nature and wildlife can change dramatically. My first real recognition was when I saw with my own eyes how much the Ilulissat glacier had shrunken. It felt like my whole idea of nature being unchangeable and eternal was shaken and my whole thinking had to be evaluated and renewed. This led me to want to help protect my homeland.

I am a member of the Pikialasorsuaq Commission. Situated between the northernmost West Greenland and Northern Nunavut, Pikialasorsuaq is the biggest Polynya in the Northern Hemisphere and the most biologically productive region north of the Arctic Circle. It has been home to the northernmost human settlements in the world for millennia. The year-round ice-free area is adjacent to Lancaster Sound, which recently was named a national marine protected area, partly because of an Inuit protest against future oil and gas development in Tallurutiup Tarijunga.

The first scientific report on Pikialasorsuaq was published in 1867, but Inuit have lived on the coasts near this region for at least 4,000 years. Ships from the Southern Hhemisphere first came to the area during the 1300s, and European whalers have hunted there since 1500. Today, approximately 7,000 people live in the areas adjacent to Pikialasorsuaq, with an even larger number dependent on harvesting living resources and wildlife foraging and breeding. And the region has become an essential place for scientific research on climate, ice, and arctic wildlife.

Still, even among Inuit who live near Pikialasorsuaq, there is little awareness of the potential exploitation we face. 

In 2016, the Inuit Circumpolar Council established the Pikialasorsuaq Commission to advance Inuit rights, interests, and shared aspirations for all the Arctic.

The commission has recommended protections for Pikialasorsuaq and the co-management of the protected area. These recommendations would ensure free travel of Inuit between Canada and Greenland and that the people in the area and Indigenous knowledge would be included in managing the area, with membership of a new management body consisting of representatives from Canada and Greenland and government people.

Once known as the “last ice area,” “no man’s land,” and the “last frontier,” the Arctic is now a hot spot whose interests are contested by the so-called “Arctic states”—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—that lay claims here.

There is a modern rush for the North Pole to divide the northernmost marine areas between the Arctic states, under the auspices of the United Nations Law of the Sea, to develop the area for marine transportation, extraction, tourism, and high seas fisheries. It does not take much fantasy to picture the Arctic seas as new battlegrounds between Inuit, industry, and environmental organizations. 

Inuit history and Inuit destiny has always been defined by their relation to the sea. Cultural development, livelihood, as well as economic development in the Arctic was and is dependent on harvesting from the seas. So there is an absolute need for Inuit to act now, to take the lead in shaping a new regulatory regime to manage the seas in a sustainable manner. Otherwise, the world around us is more than ready to take over and once again set the agenda for our lands, seas, and lives.

I remember as a kid when we played at the shore in the spring, the hunters were all out on the sea, and there was still frozen ice at the beach where high tide met the land (“qaanngoq”), we would throw stones and sticks at the sleeping narwhales slowly drifting alongside the coast.

The whales did not notice us; they did not even wake up. At that time the narwhales and belugas were plenty, hunters took only what they needed, and regulation of catches—and fuller protections of the sea—were not necessary. But they are today.

Kuupik Vandersee Kleist served as the fourth prime minister of Greenland and is the Greenlandic commissioner on the Pikialasorsuaq Commission.

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