World Ocean Day: Indigenous communities are increasingly teaming up with scientists to conserve marine ecosystems

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(BELIZE) –Scientists are increasingly turning to Indigenous communities for marine conservation, leaning toward generational practices to reach environmental goals.

Indigenous and Native communities, historically pushed to the side by colonizers and explorers in centuries past, are coming to the forefront of ecosystem restoration efforts around the world, experts told ABC News.

While Indigenous peoples only make up about 6% of the global population, they are responsible for safeguarding 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, according to a report by The World Bank.

Indigenous communities are a central facet of the health of these ecosystems, said Rayne Sullivan, founder of Seastoria, an environmental solutions firms underpinned by regenerative Indigenous science.

“At its core, Indigenous science and knowledge is one of the most robust, localized and highly detailed bodies of knowledge related to natural environment that we have,” Sullivan told ABC News.

The rich body of Indigenous knowledge often includes inherent understandings of native species behavior as well as what the land and coastlines need to thrive, experts and advocates for conservation said.

The natural land is embedded into their way of life — their daily practices, their religion, their culture, their decision-making, said actress and singer Auli’i Cravalho, a Native Hawaiian who grew up on the Big Island.

“The ocean is really what connects us all,” said Cravalho.

In pockets all over the world, Indigenous communities are teaching scientists to care for the ocean using knowledge passed down over generations.

Fishers in Belize are helping researchers study sharks while also making recommendations to the government on laws to pass to ensure sustainability of shark species in the region, Hector Martinez, a shark fisher with the Shark Fishers Association in Belize, told ABC News.

There are about 50 shark fishers in Belize, but about 97% of the shark catches are exported to Guatemala, where there is a high demand for shark, said Martinez, who comes from a family of fishers.

Researchers are now paying those shark fishers to monitor shark activity in the Caribbean, a transaction which serves several purposes: it allows the fishers to maintain an income while minimizing overfishing, as well as provides scientists with valuable information they need to monitor species and their movement. The funds are provided by philanthropic donors, Jessica Quinlan, founder and researcher at conservation nonprofit Fishers4Science, told ABC News.

The partnership has allowed researchers to gain access to knowledge they previously did not have, Quinlan said. When the scientists sought to find tiger sharks to tag, it wasn’t until they paired up with local fishers that they were able to find them, she added.

“They have a better, lifetime, generational knowledge … of where these animals are,” Quinlan said.

In Australia, scientists and Traditional Owners, a name that refers to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander groups, are racing to conserve the Great Barrier Reef as pollution, over-tourism and extreme marine warming damages the coral ecosystems to the point of no return.

“Aboriginal people along the coast of eastern Australia used to live out where the reef was before the sea levels rose, and before the reef was even created,” Leah Talbot, Traditional Owner of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and research manager with the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea, told ABC News. “So we have a really strong connection to the reef.”

Talbot’s ancestors have been on the East Coast Australia for 60,000 years — long before melting ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica caused sea levels to rise and even before the formation of the Great Barrier Reef, which is estimated to have formed about 10,000 years ago, she said.

Modern management of the reef in the last 50 years has mostly relied on modern, Western science, Talbot said. But conservationists are increasingly incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into restoration plans.

Wholistic plans were created, for example, after listening to the community’s concerns and incorporating generational traditions, Talbot said. An integrated monitoring and reporting program as well as an Aboriginal-led framework, called “Strong Peoples-Strong Country,” are essential components to preserving the Great Barrier Reef’s health.

“Traditional Owners have obligations, very strong obligations to look after the country,” Talbot said.

Kuleana, a Hawaii-based coral restoration nonprofit, is comprised of many Native Hawaiians who are also aiming to protect the island’s shorelines with the primary objective to restore damaged coral reefs around the islands so they can persist naturally and without further human intervention, Kiana Poki, a restoration diver for Kuleana, told ABC News.

The environment is deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture, whose Native residents practiced sustainability long before the term was ever popularized, Poki said.

“Native Hawaiians respected, cared for and cultivated the lands and seas to ensure its viability for future generations,” Poki said.

Man-made factors like pollution, overfishing, coastal development, ship groundings and overpopulation are devastatingly Hawaii’s coral reefs, Poki said. At Kuleana, they turn to an old proverb that roughly translate to, “In order to move forward, we must look to the past,” she said.

“Ancient Hawaiians were, by all account, scientists,” Poki said. “They knew everything about the natural world through keen, generational observation.”

And so that’s what Kuleana’s scientists — as well as other researchers all over the archipelago — do. They use that inherent sense of observation to devise plans to bring the corals back to the life, and in turn, the rest of the marine ecosystem will follow, Poki said.

Indigenous groups often don’t get the credit they deserve for the work they do to promote biodiversity, according to experts and advocates. The World Bank report describes Indigenous communities as “The Natural but Often Forgotten Partners.”

“For generations we’ve traversed the seas. We’ve brought our culture from different places,” Cravalho said. “It’s really important for the rest of the world to acknowledge that that way.”

Combining traditional knowledge with Western science can lead to effective conservation results.

While scientific research is heavily data-reliant, reduction-based and requires ample analysis, incorporating traditional knowledge compliments and amplifies the conservation efforts, Talbot said.

Sullivan says part of her work includes making sure Indigenous communities are fairly compensated for their knowledge when being consulted as acknowledgment of their enduring stewardship — a concept he describes as “data sovereignty.”

“A lot of the agreements that are put into place don’t have provisions for the community to actually access, benefit or even commercialize that data,” Sullivan said. “A lot of the work that I do seeks to rectify that.”

Another thing these endeavors often have in common is that many are sponsored by larger institutions and corporations. Fisher 4 Science is funded by philanthropic, scientific and educational institutions; Traditional Owners are supported by the Australian government in their efforts to conserve the Great Barrier Reef; and Kuleana has partnered with cat food brand Sheba in its Hope Grows program, committed to coral reef restoration.

“The large corporations are necessary for scalability,” Poki said. “We all have a responsibility to help make a more sustainable future, and larger corporations have the resources to help maximize that impact our collaboration.”

Cravalho herself says she is a recipient of environmental knowledge passed down through generations, and urges all people to call their grandparents, their aunt and uncles, and ask them for stories of what the land and sea was like in the past.

The passing of generational knowledge will help Indigenous communities take back control over the environments they protected for thousands of years, she added.

“We can also regain agency in in our own islands or or beyond,” she said.

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