Candice Powers
Environmental Justice
Spring 2023

Stewardship of Oceans Should Belong to the First Nations People

This is part of a three-part series on mariculture in the United States.

By Candice Powers, COL’22 & Maine Aquaculture Pioneers Program Intern

The recent attention on advancements in mariculture is exciting for environmentalists and ocean activists. But for Jen Rose Smith and her fellow dAXunhyuu (Eyak people), seaweed has always been a treasured tool as well as a tasty treat. The Eyak peoples have developed an array of uses for kelp, from using specially prepared kelp as an anti-crack finish for canoes to pressing it into blocks for later consumption. It is an important reminder that mariculture is not a new development but rather part of a long history. While this knowledge has persisted in the community, centuries of imperialism and colonialism have intentionally disrupted traditional Indigenous activities. 

As a result of extractive and polluting capitalist ventures, humanity is now engaged in a fight for our ocean’s survival– and along with it, the livelihoods of those who depend on it for sustenance, income, and cultural meaning. With industrial overfishing and marine environmental destruction threatening fish and crustacean health, we desperately need to overhaul our maritime relationships and seafood systems. 

A wealth of environmentally preservative marine traditions stewarded by Indigenous communities provide sustainable models. Indigenous scholar Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson of the Cumshewa Eagle Clan notes, “It’s time to…learn about all the things my ancestors did to ensure that there was enough fish and octopus — to look after and respect the environment.” Our planet is in dire need of sustainable food sources that both support our deteriorating natural ecosystems and nourish increasing human populations; luckily, these requirements are met by multiple Indigenous seafood systems. 

There is an extensive history of First Nations people across the world practicing mariculture, or the cultivation of marine life for food in enclosed areas of open waters. For example, Indigenous communities along the northwest coast of North America have long harvested herring eggs from kelp, cedar, and spruce fronds  strategically placed in shallow ocean waters. These organic materials enhance spawning grounds, therefore improving the likelihood that herring will return.

In New Zealand, the Māori people have engaged in mara mataitai– various approaches to mariculture– to ensure collective food security since 925. In one approach, Māori communities use bull kelp to fertilize beds of toheroa, a large bivalve mollusk, to enhance its productivity. Māori mariculture is informed by Utu, a concept dictating reciprocity with the species and ecosystems from which humans derive our resources. If this principle is replicated worldwide, people can bolster and protect critical ocean habitats. 

A wealth of environmentally preservative marine traditions stewarded by Indigenous communities provide sustainable models.

One of the most productive Indigenous mariculture innovations, the clam garden, has the potential to radically transform our seafood systems if adopted at a large scale. For 4,000 years, various populations have been constructing clam gardens by building a rock wall at the low tide line that traps sediment, thereby reducing the slope of the beach and increasing clam habitat area. Clam gardens support enhanced production by creating a larger area of optimal intertidal height qualified with prime growth conditions. In British Columbia, butter clams within gardens had 1.96 times the biomass and 2.44 times the density as their counterparts in unmodified beaches. 

These are just a few examples of Indigenous mariculture innovations that bolster seafood supplies while fostering a restorative relationship with our seas– all without utilizing industrial resources or exploiting the environment. The seafood industry is currently missing an invaluable opportunity to learn from the skills willing to be shared by Indigenous cultivators to create a more productive food system. Western science continues to confirm what First Nations people have known about the success of their seafood systems for centuries, but the seafood industry has to be willing to listen.  

In bitter irony, “Indigenous people are now the ‘outliers’ on their own ancestral lands,” despite their superior, sustainable stewardship. Thus, the first and most obvious step forward towards justice and a more sustainable world is ensuring access of First Nations people to their land and oceans. This requires support from industrial actors and government programming alike. Governments can start by reversing restrictive policies such as Canada’s Fisheries Act that asserts federal authority over all fisheries in Canada, undermining the rights of Indigenous communities to exercise their expertise over the waters they’ve long depended on. 

In a present-day model program, researchers, tribal nations, students, and various Indigenous stewards are coming together through The Cross-Pacific Regional Collaborative Hub, funded by NOAA’s Sea Grant program in Washington state. This project is initiating research, outreach, and education in collaboration with Indigenous communities across Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington to advance Indigenous aquaculture practices in the Pacific region. The group hosts summits, advances existing restoration sites, and plans for future investments in Indigenous aquaculture. 

Returns to Indigenous ocean stewardship, accompanied by reparatory and collaborative action, can create sustainable, robust seafood systems and also help rebuild the industry’s broken connection to the sea. 

environmental justice
Indigenous Rights
water access