Indigenous peoples harvested vast amounts of seafood without damaging ecosystems

(ORDO NEWS) — Prior to the arrival of European colonizers in the Americas and other parts of the world, indigenous peoples had been farming tons of seafood, particularly oysters, the right way for thousands of years.

A new report published in the journal Nature Communications finds that indigenous communities on the coasts of North America and Australia have successfully harvested native oysters for thousands of years without depleting shellfish populations or seriously damaging surrounding ecosystems.

Researchers believe that studying indigenous harvesting practices could help develop future oyster management systems.

Proof of this are the huge mounds of oyster shells located on both coasts and in Australia. According to the study, the size of the mounds suggests that oyster-picking communities may have been doing so for a long time.

One such mound is located on Fig Island, South Carolina, and contains about 75 million oyster shells; about 50 million oyster shells have been discovered on Saint Helena in Australia, probably collected over a period of 1,000 years.

Some of the oldest oyster beds explored in Massachusetts and California date back over 6,000 years, and some of the oldest used sites date back as much as 5,000 years – evidence of communities that lived in these areas.

Thorben Rick, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian University’s National Museum of Natural History, said the authors of the study were inspired in part by a 2004 paper that described the collapse of more than two dozen fish farms along the coast of North America and the east coast of Australia.

Rick noted that the study looked at commercial oyster fisheries that were established after Europeans forcibly removed indigenous communities. The post-settlement capitalist system did not take into account the sustainability and viability of future spawning oysters when harvested for profit.

“[Commercial fishing] depletes one area – they start working in a new area, so they go from the Boston Harbor area down to New York, then down to the Chesapeake Bay, and finally to Louisiana,” Rick told Earther. .

Rick said the results of this study show how communities can consume animal products in a sustainable way if it is done locally and if the ecosystems that provide food are conserved.

This is a far cry from today’s commercial fisheries, which are often based on bottom trawling, a destructive technology that uses huge nets to scavenge everything from the seabed, ripping out the corals, oysters and sea plants that various animals need to thrive.

Environmental groups have linked bottom trawling to overfishing, especially because the method is not selective and the damage done prevents the marine environment from recovering.

In contrast, the huge oyster mounds that exist in North America and Australia have proven that communities can be partially self-sufficient in oysters and other seafood without depleting the environment on which they depend.

The researchers gathered information about indigenous communities and their oyster harvesting through carbon dating of shell mounds, mapping of oyster beds, and collaboration with indigenous partners to fill in some gaps in information about shell mound communities.

“In order to provide context for this commercial fishery, we needed to study the archaeological record and work with indigenous partners to understand what the fishery was like and how it can help us make decisions in the future,” Rick said.

Bonnie Newsom, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maine and a citizen of the Penobscot Native American Nation, is a co-author of the study. She provided information on the oral histories of the indigenous communities and their association with oysters.

Asked why indigenous peoples were able to maintain shellfish populations, she said: “I suspect it has to do with different views of species, with different worldviews in terms of the relationship between man and species.

There is such a thing as “giving back to the species.” and respect for them. I don’t know if this applies to shellfish and oysters, but I do know that this applies to species such as salmon and other species here in Maine.”

Newsom emphasized that tribal peoples must be part of future plans for sustainable development and the maintenance of local food systems. “It’s not just ‘ok, indigenous people… we messed up the environment… now help us,'” she said.

Recently, some efforts have been made to incorporate tribal knowledge into conservation efforts. In Northern California, the Yurok tribe helped revive the wild condor population by releasing two birds to their ancestral lands. Tribal members are also trying to revive the wild salmon population in the state.


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