Traditional Knowledge

Before written language was introduced, knowledge among Coastal First Nations was shared, maintained, and passed down among the generations through oral stories, rituals, public events, place names, and rules about the right way to behave.  Encompassed within this knowledge is a vast store of ecological wisdom and observations, which was accumulated and fine-tuned over the millennia.  Today, this knowledge is called “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (TEK).

More and more, western scientists recognize and value the depth and breadth of TEK. Combining both scientific methods and results with this ecological knowledge creates a powerful way of understanding past, present, and future ecosystems. Often, TEK can answer questions that science cannot address.

Herring Schoolers from Simon Fraser University, Dana Lepofsky, Alisha Gauvreau, Anna Gerrard, and Anne Salomon have been working with indigenous knowledge holders throughout the coast to document their understanding of the natural and cultural importance of herring.  Beginning with the Herring School workshop in 2011  <Link>, traditional knowledge holders from Alaska to Washington have shared this knowledge with the Herring School. Excerpts of these interviews can be explored in the STORIES tool on this website <link to STORIES>.  Some of this knowledge has provided the foundation for scientific studies conducted by the Herring Schoolers, like the study of egg loss before hatching of the herring larvae <link to Britt’s work>.

Interviews with knowledge holders is on-going along the Canadian and American west coast. Through these interviews we have learned that:

  • Many indigenous place names throughout the coast reflect the prior abundance and importance of herring
  • Herring plays a role in many indigenous origin stories
  • Some groups had traditional methods for ensuring that herring and its roe were not over-harvested in the past.
  • The previously abundant herring and its roe played a central role in traditional society and economy; its depleted numbers today not only affect food security but is also a significant cultural and economic loss
  • On the Central Coast, herring spawn has decreased both in number and extent each decade since the 1940’s.  



Using Heiltsuk TEK to track changes in herring spawning events on the Central Coast through time.

Simon Fraser University Masters student Anna Gerrard, under the direction of Anne Salomon and Murray Rutherford, and in collaboration with research partners in Bella Bella (Heiltsuk Integrated Research Management Department and the Gladstone Reconciliation Society), conducted interviews in Bella Bella, BC with 29 Heiltsuk First Nations community members. This included elders and hereditary chiefs (age 29 to 89 years old) who had participated culturally or commercially in the harvest of herring or herring roe.

Anna asked participants to identify, by drawing on a marine chart, coastline segments where they had observed herring spawn on a decade-by-decade basis.

The interviews provided results that lend local specificity to regional management initiatives and can be used with survey data in stock assessments. In specific, the interviews revealed that:

1)   Although most sites experienced declining trends in observed herring spawns, others experienced increases. Over the past seven decades, declining herring spawns appear to have also shifted from the exposed outer shores in the west of our study region, to the sheltered inner inlets in the east.

2)   There is a marked contraction in the spatial distribution of observed herring spawns along the Central Coast from the 1940’s to the present. Specifically, the total length of coastline with observed herring spawn activity has declined by an average rate of 7.9% per decade. Over this same time period, herring spawns appear to have become more clustered, with fewer reported spawns covering less total coastline.

3)   Local spawn areas with the most notable declines tended to be in the outer west coast which was once highly productive for both the traditional harvest of spawn-on-kelp (SOK) and the commercial harvest of herring. 

4)   Respondents also shared observations on declines in herring size, spawning duration, and roe quality, as well as changes in adult herring behaviour. 


Decadal maps of herring spawning activity by number of participant observations in the study area on the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada (Gerrard, In Prep)

Thursday, January 23, 2014