Time to consider local and historical knowledge in management decisions - Elias del Valle

Elias del Valle is the winner of the 2023 Buck Suzuki Legacy Bursary Award. Elias grew up in Victoria where his appreciation for the marine world grew, spending time on the ocean shore and competing in sprint kayaking, and Va’a (outrigger canoe). He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, where he focused on marine ecology and fisheries resource management, graduating with a double major in Anthropology and Geography. His dual focus has enabled him to understand issues of coastal resource management through both a socio-cultural and scientific lens. Elias started pursuing a Master’s of Science at the University of Victoria, but quickly realized his research interests were far too expansive for a two year master’s program. He is now transferring to the PhD program, where his research explores the impacts of changing policy on commercial salmon fishers.

Elias on finding his way to this topic of research:

Just as I was beginning to get comfortable with my post-graduation life, I heard a whisper that a well-known researcher, Dr. Loren McClenachan, was moving to the University of Victoria and starting a lab group. Loren is renowned for establishing unconventional methods to measure change in marine ecosystems over time scales far longer than those typically considered by scientists and resource managers. She has also spent a significant amount of time working with east coast commercial fisheries to understand how fishers perceive the impacts of  climate and policy changes. When I say I fell into my thesis research topic, I mean it almost literally. The hole, or as academics like to say, the ‘gap in the literature’ was so glaring it was hard not to stumble in. Scholars across the world had spent the last 20+ years developing frameworks for measuring the ‘social resilience’ of resource dependent communities, yet the practical application of these frameworks had been limited. Concerned about the waning state of BC's commercial salmon fishing industry, I recognized the urgent need to assess the potential impacts of prospective policy change on fishing communities. Applying a social resilience analytical framework within this context seemed only natural. Thus, this is the primary research I have been working on for the last ten months. To date, I have engaged with nearly 120 commercial salmon harvesters across the entire province. Their invaluable insights have shed light on significant social and policy issues that demand immediate attention. I am looking forward to communicating these concerns when I publish my research in 2024.

So, what is the greatest challenge our oceans and fisheries face? Like many others in my lab at Uvic, I firmly believe it lies in society's reluctance to consider unconventional sources of information in resource management decisions.

Specifically, I would like to draw attention to two common scenarios. Firstly, the persistent discrediting of the validity of local knowledge and anecdotal environmental accounts. Indigenous and non-indigenous individuals who have lived and worked in coastal environments for generations possess invaluable long-term ecological knowledge. Regrettably, these resources are often overlooked due to their perceived imprecision when compared to scientific data. This oversight is particularly troubling given that coastal communities are at the forefront of the consequences arising from ill-informed resource management decisions. Secondly, the same disregard occurs when resource managers are confronted with historical data such as archival fishing logbooks, photographs, or trade documents. Their incorporation into resource management decisions is hindered, again, by their perceived lack of rigour. But, given that scientific data for marine ecosystems rarely exists for years prior to the 1950’s, historical data have the potential to broaden our understanding of long-term ecological changes and fisheries productivity. For example, prior to the collapse of Atlantic Cod in 1992, east-coast fisheries managers had assumed cod biomass to be at an all-time high. More recent research incorporating historical catch records demonstrated that biomass in the 1980’s was only a small fraction of what it was in the mid-1800’s. If these historical data had only been utilized sooner, we may have been able to mitigate the massive social consequences of collapse that our small east coast fishing communities faced. Research avenues like this are what Loren has been exploring for the last 20 years, and this is some of the work she is now teaching me how to replicate.

By embracing and integrating unconventional information sources into research, we can help to foster more comprehensive, effective, and place-based resource management practices that better address the myriad of social and ecological challenges faced by humanity.