Partnership Aims for Comprehensive Restoration of Yelloweye Rockfish

Did you know that the average human will be outlived by the yelloweye rockfish?

Native to the Pacific Northwest Coast, the large yelloweye rockfish can live to be up to 118 years old! However, since it doesn’t reach reproductive age until around 20 years, the species is especially vulnerable to overfishing. With catch data that begins only in 2003, fisheries managers face a serious information handicap when it comes to accurately gauging the health of this important fish stock on British Columbia’s Central Coast.

But not if they were to look at another source for knowledge.

Archaeological evidence shows that the First Nations of coastal British Columbia have depended on yelloweye rockfish for sustenance for at least 1,800 years (maybe even 14,000!). Due to this long reliance on a vital natural resource, First Nation fishers from the Wuikinuxv, Nuxalk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Heiltsuk nations began to notice that there was a startling decline of yelloweye rockfish through the years. The trend is particularly worrisome because yelloweye rockfish are both an important cultural and economic resource. As a result, the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA) initiated an ecological study based on traditional and local ecological knowledge to formulate a more comprehensive management and restoration plan for yelloweye rockfish.

In a recently published study, “Diving back in time: Extending historical baselines from yelloweye rockfish with Indigenous knowledge”, Professor Natalie Ban from the University of Victoria, and the CCIRA conducted forty-two semi-directed interviews with indigenous central coast fishermen. The insight gleaned from these conversations augmented the data-poor fisheries research and management process.

What were the tangible outcomes?

  1. The data are being considered by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in their decision-making process regarding management practices.
  2. The data are being integrated into the next status report update of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) for yelloweye rockfish.

The challenge of the “other”

“I think challenges arise when academia treats First Nations as though they are the ‘other,’” Professor Ban shared with me. That’s why this research partnership is so important. It marks a changing perspective. It is no longer enough to just realize that indigenous communities are important and must be studied. We must respect their ability to represent themselves without having to filter their knowledge through the colonizer’s lens.

“Traditional and local ecological knowledge are increasingly recognized for their capacity to complement ecological data and improve fisheries management. Indigenous peoples’ cultures, practices and beliefs represent a lifetime of observations and generations of learning that complement a scientific framework,” Professor Ban emphasized in an interview with her home institution, the University of Victoria.


What can we take away from this partnership?

It’s important to note that most First Nations in British Columbia never signed treaties. The Canadian constitution recognizes the right of Nations to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes. But ownership and management rights over their resources remain contested, currently excluding First Nations from managerial roles and direct control over their fisheries. This research project sought to empower First Nations to continue to advocate for fisheries management inclusion.

Laughing, Professor Ban told me that, ironically, “the best thing is actually if I work myself out of the equation.”

One of the most important aspects of this research approach is the potential to build and support the capacity of First Nations to advocate on behalf of their traditional and ecological knowledge. Methodologies that engage with Indigenous communities and their knowledge as true partners hold a great deal of promise not just for generating the best information but also for finding successful, long-term management approaches. First Nations deserve to play a more active role in managing and preserving the cultural and economic resources that have sustained them throughout the generations.


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