Life on the Wave of Knowledge: Integrating Fisher’s Lore and Scientific Study

Can you be an expert in fisheries without a degree in marine biology? The famous scientist Dr Robert Johannes, a marine biologist, spent much of his working life answering this question with a “Hell, yes!”

In the 1970s, Johannes spent 16 months living with local people in the islands of Palau in the Western Pacific Ocean, learning about fish from them. They taught him about the different types of fish, which reefs the fish lived on, what they ate, how they hid from predators. They also knew when different fish would arrive in their fishing grounds and when they would disappear, when they bred, and how many of the different types there were. This information he got from the fishers had been built up over generations. Later, Johannes said that those fishers taught him more in just over a year than he had learnt in 15 years using research methods he practiced at university.

What did Johannes do with this knowledge? He wrote it down and became one of the first researchers of fishers’ knowledge. Other people had lived with, and written about similar communities 50 years earlier, but their work had been lost. Johannes and others uncovered their journals and notes. He found admiration for people in traditional fishing communities and felt that their knowledge should be shared with the world.

There was a challenge. The scientific way of studying fish was very different to Johannes’ approach of spending months with the local fishers, and recording their ocean lore. Scientists believed in their academic methods, where everything could be counted and measured. The types of knowledge possessed by the fishers did not fit easily with this.

Johannes’ challenge was to bring the two approaches together. He believed we could get a complete understanding of fisheries by studying the knowledge that local fishers had built over years. This could be combined with modern science to see patterns within the broader picture.

Since those early years, experts in both approaches have been busy. Over time, the sea of information they have produced has become murky, and hard to read. In 2014, Dr. Edward Hind, a researcher in marine sustainability, embarked on a voyage of discovery, to dredge all this information and summarise its flowing tides. In his review, he describes the ebbs and flows of both research approaches and asks if they have started to come together. Much like the oceans themselves, Dr. Hind finds that the research into fishers’ knowledge has come in waves.

Wave Chart

Wave 1:

1900 to 1970
Amateur naturalists and tradesmen traveled the seas in search of adventure and riches. They were some of the first outsiders to recognize and deliberately record the knowledge of local fishers. Their notes were lost until Johannes and his colleagues re-discovered them.

Wave 2:

1970 to 2000
Scientists were inspired by the first wave. They focused on collecting fishers’ knowledge. Some even felt this knowledge was enough on its own to manage the fisheries.

Wave 3:

2000 to present day
Largely relies on semistructured interviews, e.g. local fishers are asked to rate fish numbers as ‘good’, ‘average’ or ‘bad’, or to draw information on nautical maps. They don’t think that fishers’ knowledge is enough on its own to manage fisheries. Instead, they emphasize that it should be used in combination with conventional scientific methods.

Wave 4:

Marine biologists, practicing ‘traditional science’. They do collect data from fishers, and only things they can count or measure like how many fish were caught, and exactly where and when the fishers caught them.

Wave 5:

This is very new, just a ripple really. It seems to be trying to bring together waves 3 and 4, for example, interviewing local fishermen, and recording a variety of information from them, including things which the scientists can use like fish numbers.


How can wave 5 link-local fishers, fishers’ knowledge researchers, and fisheries scientists?

So where does this leave us? Is there a calmer ocean ahead for those studying fishers’ knowledge and those studying fisheries science to sail forwards together peacefully? Perhaps they could even be in the same boat? Hind thinks that there is still a way to go before the two types of researchers truly work well together. Yes, scientists must drop any negative prejudices against fishers, but fishers’ knowledge researchers must collect information useful to the scientists. What happens next is down to the next generation of scientists.

This article is from issue


2016 Jun