Coastal Fisheries Programme
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Number 27 - December 2010



Group Co-ordinator and Bulletin Editor:
Kenneth Ruddle, Asahigaoka-cho 7-22-511, Ashiya-shi, Hyogo-ken, Japan 659-0012.

Information Section, Fisheries Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems Division, SPC, BP D5, 98848 Noumea Cedex, New Caledonia

Produced with financial assistance from Australia, France and New Zealand.

Note from the editor

With COP 10(1) just wrapped up here in Nagoya, Japan, the lead article, “‘What does this tell about us?’ Social research and indigenous peoples – the case of the Paq’tnkek Mi’kmaq”, by McMillan and Davis, is particularly timely. Although long and highly detailed, and based on a case from Nova Scotia, Canada, this article provides a sorely needed practical, generic model that is just as useful in the Pacific Islands region as elsewhere.

As was amply demonstrated at COP 10, indigenous peoples’ conditions and issues have attracted worldwide attention, especially as they still must work strenuously to benefit from their rights. McMillan and Davis demonstrate that social research collaboration potentially has much to contribute to these efforts, especially in documenting resource use practices and understandings in order to generate the quality of evidence required to win court battles, and thereby empower indigenous peoples.

In part of their article, McMillan and Davis describe the approach through which university-based and local resource-harvesting collaborators participated in “workshop processes” that distilled four attributes to guide thinking about research design and operations. These were 1) that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; 2) garbage in … garbage out; 3) useful research is rarely, if ever, an act of confirmation; and 4) strong partnerships foster independent capacity and mutual responsibility, not dependency. It is truly a pity that more social researchers fail to adopt such a commonsensical approach to their field research design and practice.

Research design and the quality of social science research with respect to “local ecological knowledge” (or LEK)(2) has been the focus of several articles and presentations that I have been involved in co-authoring recently with Anthony Davis. Because they are closely related to the McMillan and Davis article, and support the thesis that this is a generic model worthy of emulation, I mention them here.

In a 2009 paper that appeared in the journal Ecological Applications(3) and in a paper presented at a recent conference at the Asian Institute of Technology(4), Bangkok, we (Davis and Ruddle) demonstrated that for LEK to become a reliable source of data, the limitations of research for it must be recognized. The basic problems characterizing social research on LEK are the use of unsophisticated theories or concepts with often undocumented and non-systematic research designs and methodologies, which, in turn, give rise to unwarranted or indefensible outcomes. Social science research on LEK has much to contribute to framing and understanding an alternative approach to resource management. However, given the trends evident in the most cited literature, it is far from obvious that current social research is following a path to fulfil that important mandate.

Supporting documentation is based too commonly on unsystematic study; thus, much is unrepresentative and unreliable, producing data and outcomes that do not permit comparisons and generalisations. Consequently, it is ill suited for sustainable resource management policy recommendations. Standards of accountability and transparency need to be raised, beginning with the elementary requirement that researchers provide descriptions of research designs and methodologies sufficient to enable assessment of the reliability and representativeness of findings, and to facilitate comparison, generalization and evidence-based conclusions. Only then will LEK be assayed as essential for inclusion in resource management. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Society and Natural Resources(5), Ruddle and Davis show both the importance and content limitations of LEK acquired during collaborative research between local fishers and scientists in Canada and Vietnam. The cases demonstrate that although important, harvesters’ local experiences and observations may not characterize accurately such ecosystem processes as predator-prey dynamics, for example. And it is unrealistic to expect fishers’ LEK and understanding of ecology to embody such attributes, since stomach contents of commercially important target species are rarely examined, and fishers interact with ecosystems primarily to earn a living.

Now isn’t this really what you would expect when you free yourself from all the pseudo-academic rigmarole that some vociferous and discombobulated advocates of LEK would ram down our gullets? Rather, it is common sense that will win court battles for indigenous peoples!(6)

Related to this general issue of good research design and practice is the second article, “Why is the shark not an animal? On the division of life-form categories in Oceania”, by our now regular contributor, Thomas Malm. The precision of rigorous classification in the ideas expressed here is important conceptually, as well as in research design and the conduct of research because “…there is a strong linguistic link between terms for marine resource exploitation and the division of life forms”. So let’s try to get it straight, and then keep it that way. Amen!

Kenneth Ruddle


  1. COP10 refers to the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties, which is the governing body of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
  2. Also known as “traditional environmental knowledge” (TEK) or “indigenous ecological knowledge” (IEK).
  3. “Constructing confidence: On the importance of rational skepticism and systematic enquiry in local ecological knowledge research”. Ecological Applications 20(3):880–894.
  4. “Incorporating local knowledge into education for the management of nearshore capture fisheries”.
  5. “What is ‘ecological’ in local ecological knowledge? Lessons from Canada and Vietnam”. 2011.
  6. See, for example: Ruddle, K. 1995. The role of validated local knowledge in the restoration of fisheries property rights: The example of the New Zealand Maori. p. 111–120. In: Property rights in a social and ecological context: vol. 2. Case studies and design applications. Hanna, S. and Munasinghe, M. (eds). The Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics and The World Bank. Stockholm and Washington D.C.
    See also: Ruddle, K. 2007. Wronging rights and righting wrongs. p. 215–228. In: Globalization: Effects on Fisheries Resources. Taylor W., Schechter M. and Wolfson L. (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


“What does this tell about us?” Social research and indigenous peoples: The case of the Paq’tnkek Mi’kmaq
McMillan L.J., Davis A. (pdf: 831 KB)
Why is the shark not an animal? On the division of life-form categories in Oceania
Malm T. (pdf: 86 KB)

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