May 31, 2011

Nancy Turner and Kyle Clifton

The closing plenary talk at the International Marine Conservation Congress was devoted to Pacific Northwest Coastal Native traditions of marine management and concerns about preserving the marine environment. The talk “Traditional Ecological Knowledge Systems of Coastal First Peoples” was co-presented by Nancy Turner, of the University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies, and Kyle Clifton, the Marine Use Planning Coordinator for the Gitaga’at First Nation, whose lands are on the Canadian mainland due east of the Gwaii Haanas Reserve on Haida Gwaii Island north of Vancouver Island.

Nancy Turner cited a definition of traditional knowledge as “A cumulative body of knowledge, practices and beliefs, evolving by adaptive process and handed down through generations by cultural transmission” (Berkes, 2008). She noted the relationship between first nations peoples and the natural world was different than in western culture, being referred to as “kincentric”: for example, the various species of salmon have names which address them as relatives of humans, with meanings such as “adopted niece/nephew.” In the kincentric perspective, all species are relatives, deserving of reciprocity & respect. As a result of this respect, Dr. Turner noted “There were lots of rules for management of [marine] species,” and in traditional management practices there were constraints against waste, and an imperative to share. Traditional resource management generally devolved from the area chief for most tribes, but the Nuxalk people [also known as Bella Coola] went further and had a formally designated ‘River Guardian.’ In these and other areas the prohibition against throwing refuse into a salmon river was so strong that formerly the penalty for such defilement was death.

Map of a Clam Garden

One of the most interesting marine resource traditions described by Dr. Turner was ‘clam gardening.’ Coastal mapping in the early 1990s found many stone ‘walls’ in subtidal waters separated by some distance and running parallel to the shore. No one knew what to make of them until discussions with local elders confirmed their purpose as ‘clam gardens’ and provided songs about their construction and maintenance. These are made by building up rocks, usually taken from the beach, in an area below the lowest tide line in rows parallel to the shore. Clams naturally settle and grow there between these ‘terraces.’ However, to keep the clams growing, the larger individuals must be regularly harvested so the smaller ones have room to grow, and the sediment must be turned to keep it aerated to remain conducive to high clam densities. One clam farming area at Deep Harbor in the Broughton Archipelago is shown in a 2005 video “Ancient Sea Gardens. Mystery of the Pacific Northwest” (available at this link: ). Discussion of this and other maritime resource management traditions are detailed in a 2006 report co-authored by Nancy Turner, “12,000+ Years of Change: Linking traditional and modern ecosystem science in the Pacific Northwest,” for which the lead author was N. Haggan.

After learning about marine resource traditions from Dr. Turner, it was interesting to hear the contemporary perspective from area resident Kyle Clifton, the Gitaga’at First Nation Marine Use Planning Coordinator. He pointed out that fifty years ago commercial fisheries employed 100% of local native community members, but now in a community of around 600 people they employ only about 20 people. Commercial fishing is no longer an important source of employment in native communities. However in light of the former success of traditional clam gardening, Kyle is now coordinating shellfish aquaculture projects. One project grows scallops in trays in partnership with people from China with expertise in this method; another native group cultures oysters. These efforts do result in significant local job creation, employing about 50 people in each community while allowing them to remain in their traditional villages.

Threats to this enterprise remain, however. In March of 2006 the cruise ship “Queen of the North” missed a turn and sank in the middle of the night. The locals helped rescue passengers who disembarked in lifeboats, but there was a spill of a few hundred thousand gallons of diesel fuel, which ruined nearby clam beds for years. Diesel fuel dissipates in the environment relatively rapidly; had the spill been oil the damage would have persisted much longer. As Kyle notes, an important question is: “Can society emulate the Indigenous people’s practices and principles to restore BC coastal marine resources?” He pointed out that for the native peoples traditional marine resource management is an inter-generational issue, and carries with it responsibility for lifelong monitoring of those ocean resources: “Protecting food resources is the most important aspect of our marine spatial planning, it is more important than any economic value of the resources.”

For more information about British Columbia First Nations peoples sustainable ecosystem based management plans please click the following link: To see a power point by Kyle Clifton on First Nations Marine Spatial Planning in British Columbia click the following link:

Written by Dr. Phil McGillivary

Berkes, Fikret. 2008. Spiritual Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Routledge Pub., NY, NY.
Haggan, Nigel, N. Turner, J. Carpenter, J.T. Jones, Q. Mackie and C. Menzies. 2006. 12,000+ Years of Change: Linking traditional and modern ecosystem science in the Pacific Northwest. Fisheries Centre, UBC. Working Paper Series #2006-02. 30pp. (Online at: )

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