Dana Lepofsky tells us about her IHOPE project Herring School and Clam Garden, the reality faced by local Pacific coastal communities, the past, the future, and much more in this IHOPE deep-dive interview showcasing one of our affiliated projects.
Hello Dana! You are from the Herring School and the Clam Garden projects, which are on both sides of the USA – Canadian border, how is that cross-border cooperation going?
It’s going well. Just so you know, both of these groups are very loosely defined collectives of people; there’s no membership per se. They’re groups of people studying the same topic united through an email list, spanning from Alaska to Washington at least. But clams and herrings do not recognise borders!
Can you introduce us to the role that the coastal social-ecological system have had in the past in this area on the Western coast of North America?
For Indigienous Peoples here on the coast, the ways of the ocean and their relationships to it have been part and parcel of who they are and how they function, how they interact with other beings, their belief systems – everything is integrated with the ocean, and the ocean is integrated with the land. We can not think of anything social, ecological or cultural without thinking about the ocean. It’s connected in large and small ways – spiritually for the Indigenous Peoples here in that the Salmon people are ancestors to many different groups, or that Indigenous People recognise, as do Western scientists, that salmon connect the ocean and terrestrial ecosystems; salmon are important for sharing among generations, feeding the Elders, feeding kids, teaching each other how to behave., and so on. All that happens just organically when you are harvesting or processing salmon. It also happens in the potlatch dances and the sharing of food, it is multidimensional. For the chiefs, the leaders whose responsibility it is to take care of the salmon and officiating the first Salmon rites it is intervowen into their connection to the people, the physical and metaphysical. The oceans social-ecological system are about people and all beings.
It appears as if salmon are not only a keystone species of the ecosystem but also in the culture?
Salmon is definitely a keystone species, but it is a keystone species that sometimes has been focused on more than others. One of the outcomes of the Herring School and the Clam Garden is showing that those likewise are keystone species. There are many attributes that make up a keystone species, but the bottom line for me is that peope’s identity are woven into that species. This is, what I tell my students: If you took that species away and you could no longer have access to it, what would it do to your sense of self? Both clams and herring are significant in that way. If you just look at the archaeological record, butter clams and littleneck clams make up the vast majority of what is in those records. People were eating a lot of clams, and also using clams to construct the basis of the platform of their homes. And, in some parts of the coast, herring bones make up 80-100% of the fish bones in the archaeological record. You can get into a numbers game and say that herrings are smaller than salmon (although they are smaller today than in the past) – that is, several herrings equal one salmon in weight — but regardless, they were undeniably a major, major food and a cultural keystone species. Both herring and clams, I would say, have been underrepresented in our thinking, but they are fundamental to who most Indigenous People on the coast are.
That is really interesting, are there also differences in seasonality between when these species are important?
There are a couple of ways to answer this. One is that one of the effects of declining numbers of all these species is a decline in the time that they are available. So it’s not just having less numbers, they are available for less time. The season is shorter. It’s like the apple trees in my garden: as my trees get bigger and more healthy, the season of harvest is much, much longer. I think that, although there were definitely times of major fish runs, salmon were so abundant in the past that they were essentially available for much of the year. It was for sure true for Herring in many parts of the coast. Now we have a herring spawning season when traditional and industrial harvest the roe. But in the past, even as recently as the 1980s’ when I used to go paddling, you would see herring year around. And the archaeological record suggests there was never a time where you do not get lots of herring. So I think herring were here in more numbers than we can imagine, –all the time.
Clams are of course available year around, but today people do not harvest them in the warmer months because of paralytic shellfish poisoning associated with harmful algal blooms (HABs). Many people are not harvesting in summer, warmer months because they are worried about HABs and paralytic shellfish poisoning that can kill you. But if you look at the archaeological record, people were harvesting clams year around. The thing is, there is a general understanding that there are more HABs, and therefore more poisoning, in warmer waters. So as our ocean temperatures get warmer, there is a greater risk of having harmful blooms in summer. Our hypothesis is that when the ocean temperature was a bit colder in the past, there were fewer blooms. The way we are going to evaluate that in one project we are working on where we ask, ”what is the seasonality of harvest?”. In other archaeological sites, you see people harvesting in the summer and the winter. If we measure seasonality in the clams over the long term we can determine whether people were harvesting year around which would suggest there were fewer HABs.
Is there any traceability in the archaeological record if people were poisoned by these harmful algal blooms?
My friend and colleague Camilla Speller is looking to Ancient DNA for ways to see if we can track the organism through time. It is way beyond what I understand, but if she can do that it will be amazing. It is also possible to track the temperature of the ocean through the isotopes of the clams. So we will be able to see if there is a connection between temperature and harvest and thus by inference, the prevelance of HABs.
My next question is what the role of this social-ecological system is today, which we have already covered a bit. Is there anything more you want to add on this?
Something else to add is that I think it is hard for people who do not live off the land or the sea, and for non-Indigenous People in general, to understand the role that the ocean and its resources plays for coastal First Nations. I remember asking my students if they have a cultural keystone species in their lives and one student said “Well, I guess pizza is pretty important to me. If I could not have pizza I would feel pretty bad.” And it struck me that the concept of cultural keystone species, and cultural keystone places ,is really hard for someone who does not have a connection to place and species in their lives. When my friend Michelle Washington, who is Tla’amin First Nation, talks about that she is grieving that her children will never be able to taste herring the way she did growing up, that they will not experience the excitement of the harvest and all that, I think it is really hard for us to understand what that means at a core level. That is, the real role herring plays today in cultural reconnection, cultural survival, food sovereignity and food security. These issues are very much current today. If we are talking about reconciliation in our relationships with our Indigenous People, supporting healthy ecosystems, is part of that reconciliation.
Can you summarise some of the main findings of your IHOPE project so far?
There is actually lots to summarise. I am an archaeologist and ethnoecologist so I can speak to and give the views that people share with us about the importance of these foods and these places. What the archaeological record shows is that some of these patterns we are talking about go back thousands and thousands of years. The first formal clam garden-building happened at least 3500-4000 years ago, maybe older. We are talking about a long history of sustainability of feeding lots and lots of people. If there is one thing people do not realise is that there were so many people here on the coast; it was very densely occupied, and it could be because there was a system of resource management that enabled people to have enough food for their children, by paying attention to how they tended and cared for those resources. This is very different from today, when I think of the market economy where we take as much as we can and we think in terms of one political cycle. It is not very politic for someone to say “I am thinking about your kids”, because people want do know what they are thinking about them, today. It is very different I think when you have a long term connection to your ancestors and your descendants going forward, in a particular place.
What has been really neat with the Clam Garden Network and the Herring School is that it is not just archaeologists; it is people working in policy, ecologists, resource managers — a whole range of people and knowledge and expertise, all guided by traditional knowledge and Indigenous leaders. My friend Ann Solomon who is also mentioned on the website ,is one of the main organisers around the ecology piece and I am on more of the past piece, but they dove-tail and overlap. Ann and her students have done really interesting experiments looking at the abundance of herring and clams today and what makes them abundant – and how our current practices and environmental conditions alter that. We take that knowledge and we bring it into the past, so we are constantly having discussions about the long term view on this, by using methods that we have access to in today’s ecological context and in the past — ancient peoples and current peoples. There has been a lot that has come out of it that relationship and it is really neat to see, with people from all over, it’s really cool!
What are some of the most important questions facing this coastal social-ecological system?
This coastal system is threatened in many ways. For instance, we talked about warming oceans which affect not only the blooms. My friend Brian Hunt who studies microorganisms talks about how the time when the various zooplankton hatch makes a difference to whether they are predator or prey to the herring, and the warming ocean changes when the different plankton are available. All that is changing the ecology of the ocean. Our ocean is also suffering from microplastics, clearly.
Knowing all this means we need to be extra careful and extra smart in our management of these resources, but we are not. People have been calling for a moratorium on herring fishing for decades. Now there are many Indigenous fishers who make their living harvesting herring but nearly everyone who is paying attention recognises that we need to do something different, or there is not going to be any herring left. We are going with herring the same way we went with cod on the East coast – we waited too long and they are not coming back. We have played this scenario out many times, we know better. But the problem is that it is driven by big industry. 90%+ of the herring licenses are owned by one person. It is a far cry from family-based local fishery where you are accountable to a chief, and the chief is accountable to you, which is critical. That was in play for many thousands of years – you knew who your leader was and your leader knew who it was they were taking care of, and you could protest by walking. It is really different today when the fishery is being controlled from Ottawa in Eastern Canada and they are making decisions about fisheries openings when they may have never even seen a herring spawn.
How is it possible for this knowledge of the past to help us in the very new and unfamiliar conditions in the Anthropocene?
I think there are a lot of specific answers to that. We have realised through experiments in the Clam Garden, through Ann and her students’ amazing work, that the specific conditions in the clam garden of having all these broken-down shells basically increases the pH, makes it less acid. A more basic environment is better for clams in more acidic oceans where it is harder for them to put on their shells. We have information on how people harvested herring eggs traditionally with very strict rules about not taking too much, about leaving some behind, about not making noise when you are in the herring spawn with the boats, and so on. Applying all these restrictions and knowledge today would be beneficial to those resources.
But I think a more general lesson is that, for me, the smartest and most socially just control over management of resources is local control. A top-down, one-size-fits-all system can not work in resource management because people’s relationship with critters and the critters relationship with ecosystems is very place-specific. Unless you know those specifics and are accountable to the critters in those places. I think the system is just bound to be too broad-brush, too gross of a scale, and too impersonal. It has got to be personal. You have to feel the effects of it, you have to be one of those fishermen who are grieving the loss of herring to make really responsible decisions.
How do you believe that our research network IHOPE can help with all of this?
I think just having these networks where we share ideas is super important. Creating a forum where people can discuss. Again, I think the solutions are often local, but there are many principles that are shared across the world. Many of the wrongdoings and the right ways to respond can be shared, with specifics changing for local conditions. Also, there is a great programme called “Skype A Scientist”. it would be wonderful if IHOPE could do something equivalent to that! Going into classrooms is definitely important. We can talk among ourselves all we want but it is not going to do any good unless we talk to kids and the general public.
Dana Lepofsky, interviewed by John Lind on 2020.10.06