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Lessons Learned from Reconstructing Interactions Between Local Ecological Knowledge, Fisheries Science, and Fisheries Management in the Commercial Fisheries of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

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Questions centered on the development of local and traditional ecological knowledge and the relationship of that knowledge to the development of conservation and management practices have recently attracted critical attention. We examine these questions with respect to the dynamic commercial fisheries of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The knowledge of fish harvesters coevolves with fishing practices and is embedded in a dynamic socioecological network that extends into and beyond the fisher, fishery households, and communities to include management, technologies, markets, and marine ecological conditions. Changes in these networks have moved knowledge and practices related to fishing in directions defined by policy, science, economic rationality, and new ecological realities. We characterize this movement as a shift along a continuum from local ecological knowledge (LEK) towards globalized harvesting knowledge (GHK) as harvesters become increasingly disconnected from socioecological relationships associated with traditional species and stocks. We conclude with a discussion of how LEK/GHK have interacted over time and space with other knowledge systems (particularly science) to influence management, and suggest that contingent, empirical evaluations of these interactions will provide a fruitful avenue for future interdisciplinary research.

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  1. While there is evidence of overfishing that extends back into at least the nineteenth century in Newfoundland (Cadigan, 1999), the rate and degree of ecological change induced by (over)fishing has been particularly high in the post WWII period, and it is important to consider how local knowledge responds to this context.

  2. The social environment includes political, administrative, and institutional elements.

  3. Indeed, research that attempts to document and assemble LEK in order to answer research questions is another source of dynamism and change (Murray et al., forthcoming).

  4. In fact, this individual variability in response to contextual change constitutes another major focus of our current research.

  5. See Murray et al., in review for a complete description of the methods used in these interviews.

  6. Given the geographic scale in Newfoundland, the wide spacing between communities, and the very small size of some communities (and the small number of fishers in each), we chose this method of referral over other methods (e.g., Davis and Wagner, 2003).

  7. Though it is difficult to obtain precise measures (due to a number of inactive license holders) we would estimate that this sample represents somewhere between 5% and 10% of active fishers in our study area. Of course, it would represent a higher proportion of the older age category we targeted.

  8. Intensification and expansion have spatial, temporal, and ecological dimensions. In the case of intensification, traditional grounds and species are harvested more intensively though such things as smaller or larger mesh sizes (harvesting smaller or larger fish), fishing a growing proportion of the bottom or water column in a particular area, and the extension of fishing seasons and days. Expansion refers to fishing in new areas, targeting new populations as others get depleted, and shifting effort across species, often from higher to lower trophic levels (Neis and Kean, 2003).

  9. This stands in contrast to other areas in Newfoundland that relied more heavily on the cod trap at this time.

  10. Several of the fishers we talked to, for example, talked about such an aggregation off of Port aux Basques (southwest Newfoundland) that could be fished in late winter before it spawned and began migrating north along the coast towards the Labrador Straits. See Fig. 2.

  11. The recall of landings by harvesters tends to be weighted towards very good and very bad years. Harvesters also generally emphasize that interannual variations in landings were essentially normal and to be expected. However, many can provide a general sense of long-term trends in catch rates associated with particular technologies. Compared to some other harvesters we interviewed, Jack spent relatively short periods of time fishing from particular boats, with a particular type of gear, and in particular areas. The comparability of the information he was able to recall regarding catches associated with different types of vessels and volumes of gear over time is therefore limited.

  12. In response to declines in abundance, by 1994 the DFO had declared a moratorium on cod fishing on the ‘northern Gulf’ cod stock of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This followed a similar moratorium on the stock of ‘northern cod’ (off the northeast coast of Newfoundland and Southeastern Labrador) in 1992.

  13. It is important to recognize that these systems of knowledge are not entirely separate: indeed, as we suggest above, the generation of local knowledge is increasingly influenced by the generation and assimilation of ‘scientific’ knowledge. Conversely, stock assessments rely on information from and assumptions about the dynamics of commercial fisheries (Neis et al., 1999).

  14. We recognize that direct observation is not always possible, nor is non-interpreted observation sufficient. We therefore have relied on interviews with the fishers themselves.

  15. The range and mobility of the larger vessels of the nominal inshore fleet (defined by the DFO as vessels under 65 feet) has blurred geographic distinctions between the fishing grounds of the ‘inshore’ and ‘offshore’ (>65 feet) sectors.


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This paper arose from a presentation originally developed for the International Association for the Study of Common Property in Oaxáca, Mexico. We have also drawn on material previously presented in a paper submitted to the XI World Congress in Rural Sociology, Trondheim, 25–29 July 2004 entitled How Knowledge Changes in the Fisheries (Johnsen et al., 2004). The authors wish to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) who have provided the major funds for the ‘Coasts Under Stress’ Project through the SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) program. Funding was also provided by the host universities Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Victoria, and by the Norwegian Research Council, the Market and Society Program.

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Correspondence to Grant Murray.

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Murray, G., Neis, B. & Johnsen, J.P. Lessons Learned from Reconstructing Interactions Between Local Ecological Knowledge, Fisheries Science, and Fisheries Management in the Commercial Fisheries of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Hum Ecol 34, 549–571 (2006).

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