Herring School & Clam Garden Network

Bringing Together Culture, Ecology, and Governance to Support Sustainability of Coastal Communities of the Northwest Coast of North America”

By Dana Lepofsky and Anne Salomon

Anthropological archaeologists often have an unique and privileged view of the past and the present, and thus the future.  In the same day, we can dig in the ground to uncover the remains of past lives lived, and talk to local and Indigenous knowledge holders who have first-hand experience with those lives.  As intellectual dabblers, we have the language and knowledge to talk to experts from diverse communities.  As such, we are often among the coordinators of projects that bring together and blend these diverse views and skills to understand how societies worked and how they might work better today. 

The Herring School (www.Pacificherring.org) and the Clam Garden Network (www.clamgarden.com) are two such multi-community initiatives.  We are collectives of people from Indigenous and academic communities, and a variety of government and non-governmental organizations who are passionate about two of the cultural keystone species (CKS; Garibaldi and Turner 2004) of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest: Pacific herring and clams.  We recognize that such CKS have always played a central role in food security and food sovereignty, and that the ability to sustainably harvest and eat these foods is linked to a range of issues including cultural identity, governance, and emotional and physical health (Figure 1).

Our creation of networks focused on herring and clams arose organically through the information needs of local Indigenous communities on these key foods and convergence of a range of people working on issues related to these CKS.  Herring is a foundational food of coastal ecosystems (Menge et al. 2013) and has been the focus of Indigenous management and use for millennia (McKechnie et al. 2014).  However, like forage fish across the globe (Pikitch et al. 2012), herring are threatened throughout much of its range and have experienced declining populations trajectories in many areas across the northeastern Pacific (e.g., Siple and Francis 2016;).  For decades, First Nations and Native Americans, as well as local non-native fishers, have been calling for better management of herring on the part of the federal and state-level fishery offices.  For Indigenous people in Alaska and British Columbia, asserting their right to manage herring in their territories has been a central part of this discussion.  Indigenous peoples on both sides of the US-Canada border developed complex systems of marine governance that sustained the consistent use of herring throughout the generations (Thornton et al. 2010; Gauvreau et al. 2017a, 2017b; McKechnie et al. 2014; von derPorten et al. 2016).  The close and long-term relationship between Coastal First peoples and herring is reflected in the archaeological record, place names, oral traditions, and memories.  A fundamental principle of the Herring School is to bring this knowledge together with that of western scientists’ to better understand the mechanisms driving this social-ecological system and inform the conservation and local management of this culturally and ecologically important forage fish.

Our entry point into the social-ecological study of clams was through interest in one of the clam management features created by coastal Indigenous people from Alaska to Washington state.  These features, locally known as clam gardens, consist of rock-walled terraces built in the intertidal to increase clam production through habitat enhancement and expansion (Figure 2; Deur et al. 2015; Groesbeck et al 2014; Jackley et al 2016; Lepofsky et al. 2015).  Combined with other ways of managing clams, clam gardens, ensured that clams were a staple food for coastal communities for millennia.   

Indigenous communities throughout the Pacific Northwest are fighting today for access to and control of their clam beaches.  Pollution and ecosystem degradation, ocean acidification and warming, and privatization of the foreshore are some of the factors that threaten traditional clam harvesting (Pinkerton and Silver 2011).   Studies by members of the clam garden team focus on understanding the ecological and social relationships of traditional clam management, as a basis for modern management and assertions of Indigenous rights and title.  The importance of clam gardens as places not only to harvest a staple food, but also as fundamental parts of inter-generational knowledge sharing and identity, is reflected in the fact that four coastal First Nations are actively involved in community-run clam garden restoration projects today. 

The “School” and the “Network” encompass a range of projects, all of which are grounded in and motivated by the needs and interests of today’s coastal communities.  All blend perspectives from the past and present, Indigenous and western, and global and local to get at current social-ecological issues, including culturally and ecological appropriate resource management (Figure 3).  A fundamental component of the projects is on-going communication and discussions among researchers and community members; such communication takes place in casual conversations, community presentations, newsletters, and conferences (Figure 4).

Both the Herring School and the Clam Garden Network are examples of what can be achieved when knowledge holders from diverse communities come together to solve problems that have their roots in the complex interactions among social and ecological phenomena.  Such efforts require patience, trust, and above all, respect for diverse and sometimes divergent ways of seeing and being in the world. 

Figure 1. Slide often used by members of the Herring School and the Clam Garden Network to show how studying cultural keystone species is at the center of so many current social-ecological issues.

Figure 2. Upper: Diagram showing the transformation of a clam beach (a) into a clam garden (b) by building a wall in the lowest intertidal zone.  Note how the infilling of the clam garden terrace increases the intertidal zone of optimal clam habitat. In particular, the building of the rock wall increases the tidal height of the terrace just landward of the rock wall and also deceases the tidal height of the terrace just seaward of land (Groesbeck et al. 2014; Jackley et al. 2016). Lower: Drone photograph of clam garden in British Columbia (photo credit: Keith Holmes).  Drone photography, GIS, and on the ground surveys allowed us to record over 15 km of clam garden walls in one study area – that is, 36% of the existing shore line (https://www.hakai.org/blog/life-at-hakai/great-walls-quadra).  We were also able to estimate that building the walls increased the area of clam habitat up to 50% in that study area. (Toniello et al. 2017).
Figure 3.  Images from some of the many projects of the Herring School and the Clam Garden Network.  Upper: a) Clam Garden Network members Julia Jackley and Anne Solomon and b) Amy Groesbeck, whose studies showed that clam gardens today are 100s of times more productive than non-walled beaches (Groesbeck et al. 2014; Jackley et al. 2016); c) Dana Lepofsky excavating in the terrace of clam garden; such excavations demonstrated that clam mariculture in the form of building rock walled terraces, began at least several 2200 year ago, and possibly as much as 1000 years before that (Smith et al., submitted); d) Wai Wai Kai Nation and Clam Garden Network member, Louie Wilson, excavating a shell midden associated with a clam garden.  Excavations in middens and paleo-assemblages in beaches (e) allowed us to track the ecological and cultural affects of clam gardening through time (Toniello et al. submitted); f) Ginevra Toniello measuring the height of a clam garden wall.  such measurements help us situate garden use in relation to changing sea levels during the late Holocene
Figure 4. a) Dana Lepofsky and Nicole Smith extracting a sediment core from a clam garden terrace.  Sediments from the interface of the pre-garden and post-garden beach sediments were dated with Optical Stimulated Luminesce to 1500 years ago (Neudorf et al. 2017); b) Kirsten Rowell excavating clam garden sediments as part of an experiment that showed clam gardens have coarser and more alkali sediments than non-walled beaches; c) herring bones recovered from archaeological sites that were part of demonstrating the long-term and widespread abundance of herring in the past, compared to today (McKechnie et al. 2014); d) Louie Wilson and Clam Garden Network and Wei Wai Kum First Nation member, Christine Roberts, excavating in a clam garden whose multiple walls likely represent rebuilding at different ancient sea level stands; e) Clark Housty of Heiltsuk First Nation and Britt Keeling of the Herring School, deploying her experiment on herring egg loss.  This experiment was motivated by Heiltsuk local observations and traditional knowledge about collecting herring roe on kelp (Keeling et al. 2017).

Figure 5.  Examples of outreach and communication efforts by The Herring School and the Clam Garden network. A) Program from the first Herring School conference, which brought together Indigenous knowledge holders, western scientists, and fisheries managers from Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington State; b) Herring School outreach with Heiltsuk First Nation on the dock of Bella Bella, BC.  Anna Gerard’s (left back) interviews with Heiltsuk community members documented spatial and temporal shifts in herring on the Central Coast of BC in decadal increments (Gerard 2014; photo, Anne Salomon); c) Skye Augustine (Hwsyun’yun), is a member of the Clam Garden Network and Stz’uminus Nation, and the coordinator of the Clam Garden Restoration Project led by the Hul’q’umi’num and WSÁNEĆ Nations and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.  Skye’s PhD research documents the social and ecological contexts and affects of revitalizing clam gardens (Augstine and Dearden 2014; photo, UVictoria); d) Anne Salomon (Simon Fraser University) talking to Elder Les Adams of Tla’amin First Nation about clam management in his territory.  Anne is one of the coordinators of both the Herring School and the Clam Garden Network (photo, Georgia Combes). e) Science and Culture camps, Clam Garden Restoration Project (photo, Hugo Wong)


Dana Lepofsky, Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University: dlepofsk@sfu.ca

Anne Salomon, Resource & Environmental Management,
Simon Fraser University: anne_salomon@sfu.ca

References Cited

Deur, D., A. Dick (Kwaxsistalla), K. Recalma- Clutesi (Ogwi’low’qwa), and N.J. Turner. 2015. Kwakwaka’ wakw “Clam Gardens”:Motive and Agency in Traditional Northwest Coast Mariculture. Human Ecology 43:201. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-015-9743-3

Garibaldi A. and N.J. Turner. 2004. Cultural keystone species: Implications for ecological conservation and restoration. Ecology and Society 9(3):1–18.

Menge BA, T.L. Freidenburg, and A.C. Iles. 2013. Keystone species. In Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, ed by SA Levin, 2nd Ed, Vol 4: 442–457. Academic Press, Waltham, MA.

Pikitch EK, et al. 2012. Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a Crucial Link in Ocean Food Webs (Lenfest Ocean Program, Pew Environment Group, Washington, DC).

Pinkerton, E. and J.J. Silver  2011. Cadastralizing or coordinating the clam commons? Can competing community and government visions of wild and farmed fisheries be reconciled? Marine Policy 35: 63-72.

Siple, M.C. and T.B. Francis. Population diversity in Pacific herring of the Puget Sound, USA 2016. Oecologia 180:111–125

Thornton TF, ed. 2010. Herring Synthesis: Documenting and Modeling Herring Spawning Areas within Socio-Ecological Systems over Time in the SE Gulf of Alaska (North Pacific Research Board, Project #728, Portland State Univ, Portland, OR).

Thornton TF, M.L. Moss ML, V.L. Butler, J. Herbert, and F. Funk F. 2010. Local and traditional knowledge and the historical ecology of Pacific herring in Alaska. Journal of Ecological Anthropology 14(1):81–88.


Clam network

Augustine, Skye and Philip Deardon 2014 Changing Paradigms in Marine and Coastal Conservation: A Case Study of Clam Gardens in the Southern Gulf Islands, Canada. The Canadian Geographer. DOI: 10.1111/cag.12084.

Groesbeck, A.S., K. Rowell, D. Lepofsky, A.K. Salomon. 2014. Ancient clam gardens increased shellfish production: Adaptive strategies from the past can inform food security today. PlosOne 9(3). http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0091235

Groesbeck, A.S., K. Rowell, D. Lepofsky, A.K. Salomon. Clam Gardens of the Pacific Northwest.  2015. In. Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia, edited by K.B. Metheny and M.C. Beaudry, Rowman & Littlefield. 

Jackley, J., L. Gardner, A. F. Djunaedi, and A. K. Salomon. 2016  Ancient clam gardens, traditional management portfolios, and the resilience of coupled human-ocean systems. Ecology and Society 21(4):20. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-08747-210420

Lepofsky, D. N.F. Smith, N. Cardinal, J. Harper, M. Morris, E. White, R. Bouchard, D. Kennedy, A.K. Salomon, M. Puckett, K. Rowell, and E. McLay 2015. Ancient Mariculture on the Northwest Coast of North America. American Antiquity 80:236-259.

Neudorf, C., N. Smith, D. Lepofsky, G. Toniello, O. Lian. 2017. Between a Rock and a Soft Place: Using Optical Ages to Date Ancient Clam Gardens on the Pacific Northwest. PLOS ONE. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171775

Smith, N., D. Lepofsky, G. Toniello, C.M. Neudorf, L. Wilson, and C. Roberts. 2017. Dating Clam Gardens on the Northwest Coast of North America. Submitted to PlosOne.

Toniello, G. D. Lepofsky, K. Rowell, and G. Lertzman-Lepofsky. 2017. 10,000 Years of Human-Clam Relationships in Southern British Columbia. Submitted to PNAS.   

The Herring School

Gauvreau, A. M., D. Lepofsky, M. Rutherford and M. Reid. 2017. Response to: Everything revolves around the herring: the Heiltsuk-herring relationship through time. 2017. Ecology and Society 22 (3):29.
URL: https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol22/iss3/art29/

Gerrard, A.L. 2014.  Understanding the past to inform future conservation policy: Mapping traditional ecological knowledge of Pacific herring spawn areas through time.  Unpublished MRM thesis, Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby. 

Gauvreau, A.M., D. Lepofsky, M. Rutherford, M. Reid.  2017. “Everything revolves around the herring”: The Heiltsuk-herring relationship through time.  Ecology and Society 22(2):10 https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol22/iss2/art10/.

Keeling, B., M. Hessing-Lewis, C. Housty, D.K. Okamoto, E.J. Gregr, and A.K. Salomon 2017. Factors driving spatial variation in egg survival of an ecologically and culturally important forage fish. Aquatic Conservation of Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 1–14.

McKechnie, I., D. Lepofsky, M.L. Moss, V.L. Butler, T.J. Orchard, G. Coupland, F.Foster, M. Caldwell, and K. Lertzman. 2014. Archaeological Data Provide Alternative Hypotheses on Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) Distribution, Abundance, and Variability. PNAS 111(9) http://www.pnas.org/content/111/9/E807.full

Ou, Wanli 2014. Considerations for Implementing an Adaptive Management Herring Rebuilding Strategy Using Local Interventions in BC. Unpublished MRM thesis, Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby.

Roth, Melissa 2015. Using Ancient mtDNA to Track Temporal Genetic Changes of Pacific Herring Populations in the Central Coast of British Columbia. Unpublished MA Thesis, Dept. of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University. 

Shallard, M. 2015. Herring (Wanai) and Well-being: Accounting for Heiltsuk values to inform future resource management and economic development opportunities.  Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Guelph, Ontario.

Speller, Camilla, Lorenz Hauser, Dana Lepofsky, Daniel Peterson, Jason Moore, Antonia Rodriguez, Madonna Moss, Iain McKechnie, Dongya Y. Yang.  2012. High Potential for Using DNA from Ancient Herring Bones to Inform Modern Fisheries Management and Conservation. PLOS One 7:1-13.

Thornton, Thomas F. & Moss, Madonna L. (2021). Herring and People of the North Pacific: Sustaining a Keystone Species. University of Washington Press

Toniello, Ginevra 2017. 11,000 Years of Human-Clam Relationships on Quadra Island, Salish Sea, British Columbia.  Unpublished MA Thesis, Dept. of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University.

von der Porten, S., D. Lepofsky, D. McGregor, J. Silver.  2016.  Recommendations for marine herring policy change in Canada: Aligning with Indigenous legal and inherent rights
Journal: Marine Policy 74:68 – 76.