Fishery Council to Include Traditional Knowledge in Bering Sea Management

Landmark ecosystem plan will give indigenous communities a voice

Fishery Council to Include Traditional Knowledge in Bering Sea Management
Vera Spein
Vera Spein hangs salmon at a fish camp near Kwethluk, Alaska, in the Yup’ik region, a part of the state with extensive coastline on the Bering Sea. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has recognized that the Traditional Knowledge that Indigenous communities like Spein’s have gathered over generations of living in the Bering Sea region is important to effective fishery management.
Clark Mischler

The indigenous communities of the Bering Strait region have a vast knowledge of salmon runs, ocean currents, marine mammal behavior, and other ecosystem dynamics—information gathered over millennia and passed down from generation to generation. Now federal fishery managers will use that Traditional Knowledge to help guide management for the Bering Sea. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted at its December meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, to adopt a new Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan that lays the groundwork for meaningful incorporation of Traditional Knowledge into decision-making. Social scientists Julie and Brenden Raymond-Yakoubian, a married couple who have worked on the issue for years, say this is a groundbreaking action by the council.

“Indigenous communities have been living on—and with—the Bering Sea for generations,” says Julie Raymond-Yakoubian, who is social science program director for Kawerak Inc., the Alaska Native nonprofit tribal consortium for the Bering Strait region. “They can see components of the ecosystem, including interconnections and relationships, that fishery managers might miss.”

“Incorporating indigenous perspectives is crucial for overcoming management challenges,” adds Brenden Raymond-Yakoubian, who runs Sandhill.Culture.Craft, a social science consulting firm based in Girdwood, Alaska. “It broadens the toolkit and helps to ensure the sustainability of communities in the process.”

At Kawerak, Julie Raymond-Yakoubian documents Traditional Knowledge held by the 20 tribes of the Bering Strait region and works to increase indigenous residents’ participation in fisheries management. Brenden Raymond-Yakoubian has consulted with Kawerak regarding subsistence hunting and fishing, natural resource management, and other issues.

The Pew Charitable Trusts sat down with the Raymond-Yakoubians to discuss how Traditional Knowledge can improve fisheries management.

Q: How has the lack of Traditional Knowledge hurt federal fishery management in the Bering Sea region?

Julie: We’ve been missing out on all the information about ecosystems, fisheries, animals, and oceans that has been developed and maintained by Indigenous Peoples for generations. It’s a huge gap.

Q: How will the council’s plan to use Traditional Knowledge in decision-making improve management?

Julie: Fishery management will be more robust and more complete, because decision-makers will take steps to include information about the ecosystem they may have missed before. The more information they have, the better the outcome will be.

Brenden: It’s a natural progression toward using the best available science and information. We are hoping there will be a better understanding of the impacts of decision-making on indigenous communities and the ecosystem, and the outcomes will be more equitable. There also will be more opportunities for the exchange of information between scientists, fishery managers, and indigenous communities.

Q: How can managers ensure that Traditional Knowledge is utilized in day-to-day resource management?

Brenden: A critical first step is for managers to understand and appreciate the value of Traditional Knowledge. This can create an atmosphere where this knowledge is sought out from various sources to inform decision-making. Working with Traditional Knowledge holders and social scientists who work with tribes will play a key role in bringing and incorporating that knowledge into the management process.

Julie: The fact that the council is willing to dedicate staff time and resources to utilizing Traditional Knowledge in decision-making is new and illustrates its commitment. But the council and the bodies and organizations that work with it need to create more opportunities for indigenous communities to participate—and that requires time and money.

Q: Can you provide an example of how Traditional Knowledge might affect management of a specific fishery?

Julie: Traditional Knowledge could help managers better understand and address how salmon bycatch in the pollock fishery affects indigenous communities. These two species are found in same areas of the Bering Sea at certain life stages, and pollock trawlers can have a high rate of salmon bycatch. Many people think that’s a factor in the fluctuations in salmon populations, including crashes and declines, which have occurred for decades. The council could use Traditional Knowledge to both recognize the ecosystem implications of salmon bycatch and to understand and address the impacts of the pollock fleet’s salmon bycatch.

Brenden: The pollock fleet can’t keep or sell the salmon, so the bycatch is thrown overboard, and most of it dies. Salmon have significant cultural importance for indigenous communities, and it’s important to those communities not to waste food. Using Traditional Knowledge could lead to greater consideration for indigenous communities’ values in fishery management.

Q: What are the greatest challenges to ensuring that Traditional Knowledge informs decision-making?

Brenden: One is getting recognition for Traditional Knowledge and ensuring there is a desire for it to inform policy and science. Another is getting natural scientists—those working in fisheries or oceanography, for example—to work with social scientists and Traditional Knowledge holders.

Julie: There are five council meetings a year that each last about 10 days and are held in different places. Gaining a good understanding of how to work within the council’s process can be a full-time job. Most tribes don’t have the resources to do this. But if we want to include Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Knowledge holders in fisheries management, then these issues must be addressed.

Q: How can Traditional Knowledge help address conflicts between federal fishery management and the subsistence way of life that Bering Sea communities have lived for millennia?

Brenden: There are many ways. For example, management could include a broader understanding of the impact of commercial fishing on subsistence communities and of millennia-old practices and principles that have connected those communities to fish and the sea and sustained that relationship with the environment.

Julie: Incorporating Traditional Knowledge will also help federal fishery managers better meet their existing obligations, such as the requirements to use the best scientific information available and consider social and ecological factors in management. It will also help them better implement ecosystem-based fishery management, which calls for managing fisheries at the ecosystem level rather than single-species level. Traditional Knowledge can also help federal fishery management become more adaptive, for example, by providing managers access to information about ecosystem changes they may not otherwise be aware of. This should help fishery managers adjust their policies to adapt to climate change, which would hopefully occur in a manner which ensured the sustainability of fishery resources for subsistence communities into a climate-uncertain future.