The inhabitants of Erub, a small island teetering on the northernmost
edge of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, have an intimate and profoundly
rich knowledge of the sea and its abundant natural resources.
That has Geography Professor Monica Mulrennan thinking that experts in
Western scientific disciplines ought to spend more time listening to what
these people have to say.
Mulrennan returned in late December of last year from a four-month
stay on Erub, a small community comprised of Melanesian Islanders
in the eastern Torres Strait (a narrow channel separating Papua New Guinea
from the Australian mainland). Her research, which spans almost a decade
in the region, focuses on the dynamics of local ecological knowledge among
these indigenous hunters and fishers and how this knowledge shapes their
sea territories and their management of marine resources.
In addition to documenting Islander knowledge of this complex marine
eco-system, Dr. Mulrennan is interested in local approaches to marine
resource harvesting and management including customs and practices that
relate to resource conservation and environmental stewardship.
Hunting of sea turtle and dugong (a type of sea cow closely related
to the manatee) provides the major source of Islander protein, in addition
to having important cultural significance. The sea turtle is particularly
important on Erub. No celebration or feast is complete without a
sea turtle, Mulrennan said. In recent years, however, environmentalists
and some scientists have grabbed front-page headlines with claims that Islander
harvesting poses a threat to the survival of these species.
Closer examination of the situation revealed that these claims were derived
from poorly designed population surveys based on limited understanding
of the behaviour and biology of the species. In addition, the
reports failed to take into account important conservation measures such
as closed seasons or a ban on taking small individual animalss, employed
Dr. Mulrennan said, This is a nice example of a situation where
local people, with the benefit of generations of acquired knowledge as
well as their own direct experience of hunting, have a much
better feel for whats happening on the land or at sea.
To be a successful hunter or fisher in an area like the Torres Strait
depends on a high level of competence and knowledge. This is reflected
in the fact that Islanders use more than 80 terms to distinguish different
tidal and associated sea conditions. According to Professor Mulrennan,
Such information, together with a detailed understanding of the
local fauna and flora, makes this marine environment predictable,
useable and understandable to Islanders and is therefore essential
to their survival.
The sudden and widespread deterioration of coral reef environments has
become a major concern in recent years. Through Dr. Mulrennans work,
local sources of empirical and interpretative information on aspects of
coral reef ecology, previously weakly documented, are being made
available to the scientific community.
By linking scientific models and methodology to local knowledge, a fuller
picture of the nature, extent and direction of environmental change is
likely to emerge.
According to Dr. Mulrennan, This type of information has significant
management implications, too, particularly in relation to establishment
of marine protected areas, the regulation of fisheries, the tracking of
indicator species, and the protection of indigenous management practices.
Dr. Mulrennans work in Torres Strait is part of a collaborative
effort with her husband, Colin Scott, an anthropologist at McGill.
Their interests in indigenous marine management systems also takes them
to northern Quebec, where they work with the Cree community of Wemindji,
on the central east coast of James Bay.
Despite radical differences between these two study areas, Dr. Mulrennan
said that both communities share important cultural, social and political
circumstances. In particular, the failure of central governments in Canada
and Australia to recognize the rights of these peoples with respect to
their seas and to give them a voice in the management of these environments
is a major impediment to the continuity of these cultures and environments.
According to Dr. Mulrennan, this situation may soon change. This summer
she and her husband, together with their four-year old son, intend to
return to Erub, where they will help the Islanders put forward a legal
claim to the seas, reefs and waters adjacent to their tiny island.