Traditional Ecological Knowledge

In September, I started working on my thesis as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia program. While I will touch on this more in a later blog, I will mention here that the program is a series of marine and terrestrial assessments of the health of organisms in the Arctic, with the social aim of relating their abundances and distributions back to the substituent hunters of the northern communities there. Essentially, we are investigating management strategies that will benefit the fauna populations, while also prioritizing food security for the indigenous people of the Arctic. As such, a major component of our work is to collaborate with community members who possess traditional ecological knowledge. We later aim to relay our results directly to their hunting councils, as well as to policy makers and stakeholders.

Traditional ecological knowledge is the multigenerational transfer of expertise regarding human interactions with their environment. In the words of Noongwook et al. (2007), “it is based on lessons and stories passed from generation to generation, personal experience and interaction with peers, including people from other communities.” It adapts to reflect ecosystem changes, and is most commonly passed on via storytelling, rather than formally written. It is generally accompanied by folk systematics, or terminology for species that are important to the lifestyle of the peoples (for example, only edible fish would be given descriptive names, compared to the generic names of inedible fish). The greatest caveat of traditional knowledge is that no single individual or community possesses all of the relevant information. But, on the whole, traditional ecological knowledge can fill in research gaps, while acting as a bridge between community principles and government regulations to ensure policies are effective.

I recently read a fantastic account of the hunters’ knowledge of bowhead whales from the St. Lawrence Island, where our hydrophones are currently recording marine mammal vocalizations. In this way, the paper was extremely relevant to my project, as it provides a baseline for my research. Noongwook and colleagues (2007) documented the discrepancy between the wealth of indigenous knowledge regarding bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, compared to the relatively few scientific publications on their distribution and abundance. They sought to relate the harvest quota implemented by the International Whaling Commission to the Yupik peoples’ understanding of the whale stock, to ensure that hunting “occurred within a safe level for the population.”

Noongwook and collaborators found that bowhead whales tended to head westward around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, and that the whales arrived in stages based on their age and sex. The youngest whales arrived first, followed by midsize and then large whales, including mothers and calves. This is important knowledge, since temporal restrictions on hunting could positively influence population growth by omitting young whales or mothers from the harvest.

They also importantly noted that as the climate conditions of the area shift, so do the migratory patterns of the whales. Less ice earlier in the winter season retrocedes the whales’ migration past the island to March instead of April or May, according to local hunters. Whales have become more abundant around the island during the winter, so much so that almost 40% of the yearly harvest was during the winter in the last decade at the towns of Savoonga and Gambell. As weather conditions change more rapidly, migration patterns have been less predictable, and this could have major negative implications for the substituent hunters of St. Lawrence Island.

This is not my first encounter with the importance of traditional ecological


Drying caribou in Arviat, Nunavut

knowledge within an Arctic community. In 2011, I lived in Arviat, Nunavut (aptly translated to “the place of the bowhead whale”) for three months, working as a summer program coordinator with the hamlet’s municipal government. During my time in Nunavut, I witnessed the transfer of environmental knowledge between generations in a number of venues. On one occasion, I was invited to a caribou cookout at a large family’s tundra camp, where the meat had been drying in a hand-built underground cavern, or cellar if you will, for over a week. Four generations of family members gathered at the camp to prepare every inch of the caribou for consumption, from head to toe (literally… I won’t get too graphic here, but if there is a part of an animal that’s edible, I ate it while in Nunavut. Some were good, while others had the family laughing at me as I tried to respectfully keep it down… can’t say I didn’t try!). Without the skills taught to younger generations, the ability to harvest each portion of the caribou would be lost; that isn’t the sort of information regularly written.

Another time, I went ATV caribou hunting with a friend from work. While I personally can say that I’m glad we did not see any caribou that day, Curtis was able to show me sites of regular animal visitors, usually a sure place to hunt, which his grandparents had shown him. Finally, I was


Jump-starting our ATVs outside Arviat, Nunavut

asked to join a tour by a local guide who was starting his own tourism company, along with the CBC and Parks Canada representatives. We traveled to Century Island, where early transient Inuit had frequented for polar bear hunts, as well as their own fascinating summer games. Again, without our guide Billy’s understanding the history of his people in the area, the island would not have held the same significant traditional value; his knowledge was purely inherited from oral histories. With that, I hope a taste of my personal experience helps to elucidate the importance of shared community knowledge.

Going back to the topic of traditional ecological knowledge and its intersection with science, I want to conclude by seriously emphasizing that science is not in any way “better” than traditional ecological knowledge. Rather, scientific research is a method of formalizing the understanding that substituent hunters have of their resident fauna, making it accessible to policy makers and the public. The conversion of oral histories into documented accounts with statistically significant research and corroborated observations to accompany them generates incontrovertible evidence for management strategies. As such, I will continue to respect and prioritize traditional knowledge during my research, and will always find the connectivity of local communities fascinating.


Noongwook et al. 2007. Traditional Knowledge of the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Arctic, 60(1): 47-54.


And just for fun, here’s a polar bear photo I took from our time with Billy.


One thought on “Traditional Ecological Knowledge

  1. Nice article and I like the respect for traditional knowledge. One thing I learned was that it is important not to think of TK as just data to fill in the gaps ion scientific knowledge. TK is also based on observation and a style of experimentation. It reveals patters from which it can make predictive models. For these, the actual original data are lost in the sands of time, but the knowledge base is constantly tweaked based on current observations so the current predictive models are remarkably accurate as is the knowledge that has been brought forward from generations past. This PowerPoint slide presentation might interest you.


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