Combining indigenous and scientific knowledge in Arctic assessments

Our first feature of the year looks at the inclusion of indigenous peoples' knowledge in integrated ecosystem assessments in the changing Arctic region.
Published: 8 March 2018

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Mette Skern-Mauritzen and Hein Rune Skjoldal​, Institute of Marine Research​, Bergen, Norway​ and Libby Logerwell,​ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), US.​​​​

The Ecosystem Approach to Management (EA) takes a holistic approach, including management objectives across multiple sectors and resources, and encompassing social, economic, scientific, cultural, and governance dimensions. The need for implementing this approach in the Arctic is experienced on a daily basis by indigenous people whose livelihoods and cultures are built on the use of resources on land and in the sea. In a warming Arctic there are a number of effects for these people. One is that with less sea ice there is increased shipping and cruise traffic closer to land, potentially creating dangerous situations for hunters on the ice.​​

Teaming up

Indigenous people joined representatives from natural and social sciences, management, and NGOs for a recent ICES and PAME (Arctic Council's Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group) workshop entitled 'Ecosystem Approach guidelines and Integrated Ecosystem Assessment in the Arctic', held at NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, US. During the workshop discussions it was clearly demonstrated how including indigenous perspectives was crucial in the ecosystem approach, not only to avoid risks to human life and to secure resources important for indigenous peoples and their cultures, but also to support the scientific basis for management in rapidly changing Arctic ecosystems. Indigenous people have intimate knowledge on life in the seas, including on productive areas, vulnerable areas such as calving areas and spawning habitats, trophic interactions as observed from harvested animals, and migration timing and routes.

Similar systems

One important component of the ecosystem approach is the Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA). A framework with six elements for implementing the ecosystem approach in the Arctic has been agreed by the Arctic Council: 1) identify the ecosystem, 2) describe the ecosystem, 3) set ecological objectives, 4) asse​ss the ecosystem (IEA), 5) value the ecosystem, and 6) manage human activities. The Arctic marine area has been delineated into 18 Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs)​, identified as primary geographical entities for applying the ecosystem approach in the Arctic. Thus, ​Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) is viewed as a crucial element in implementing EA in the Arctic.​

There a​re many parallels between indigenous Inuit knowledge systems and the ecosystem approach framework. An integrated approach is inherent in indigenous knowledge, management, and world view, where multiple knowledge systems such as the ecological, physical, cultural, and social, are connected in one framework. An integrated approach stresses that the components making up the framework are interconnected and equally important. In this respect the indigenous and scientific knowledge systems have different approaches and methodologies for addressing the same challenge: explaining the environment around us.

An important task when conducting integrated assessments for Arctic ecosystems is to bridge those two knowledge systems, in effect to provide a platform for knowledge co-production. Equity is a cornerstone of a co-production of knowledge approach, and the importance of respecting and valuing indigenous knowledge in its own right was flagged during the Seattle workshop. Experts from both knowledge systems should be included in determining what information is gathered, what questions are asked, which methodologies are used, and how analyses are conducted.

Enabling participation

Another important component of a co-production of knowledge framework is the development of resources (capacity-building) for both the scientific community and indigenous communities. For indigenous knowledge holders this includes funding, time, and materials in order to actively participate in research throughout all phases of the project as co-investigators. For scientists this includes training and education about indigenous philosophies and methodologies. One of the most important factors for building long-term success is fostering relationships and working towards true partnerships. During the workshop it was suggested that a good first step for scientists is to gain an understanding of the “lay of the land" – existing governance systems and indigenous networks, institutions and organizations. 

A question of scale

It was recognized during the workshop that the ecosystem approach should be implemented at the scale of Large Marine Ecosystems (LME), involving national governments in a partly top-down approach. However, the co-production of indigenous and scientific knowledge occurs at a local level, building on local knowledge and involving local knowledge holders. A bottom-up, community-driven approach is therefore also needed to contribute to IEA activities in the Arctic. New working groups for IEA of the North Bering-Chukchi and Beaufort LMEs could be mechanisms for such participatory processes.

By creating formal collaborations that span scales and perspectives, IEAs can provide a platform for ecosystem knowledge to be discussed and shared, both across indigenous and scientific knowledge systems and more broadly throughout ICES. The ecosystem approach is a flexible framework, and ICES is in a process of learning by doing through the work of the regional IEA working groups. The IEA viewpoint should be broad and the set of priorities general and flexible, because knowledge and understanding are always evolving. The IEAs need to accommodate that evolution, particularly in the Arctic where biological, cultural, and societal systems are undergoing unprecedented change.  

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​Photo: Yongyut Kumsri​,

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Combining indigenous and scientific knowledge in Arctic assessments

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