The United Nations General Assembly recently proclaimed 2021-2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development to generate the knowledge, data, science, infrastructure and partnerships needed to inform policies for a well-functioning ocean. What better time to engage the first stewards of the ocean—the Indigenous peoples of the world—in the conversation.
In September 2019, this is exactly what happened at OceanObs’19 in Honolulu, Hawaii, a decadal conference that has been happening for 30 years and brings together the global ocean observing science community to chart innovative solutions to society’s growing needs for ocean intelligence and governance. For the very first time, the conference hosted 53 Indigenous delegates from around the world to join 1,500 ocean scientists and policy makers.
“We have a lot to learn from people who have been living on the edge of the sea and using its resources for millennia,” comments Kim Juniper, Ocean Networks Canada’s chief scientist, who also served as a member of the OceanObs’19 organizing committee and facilitated the international Indigenous delegation. “They know how the ocean system works, even if their knowledge is not documented in scientific textbooks or research publications.”
Indigenous peoples have been governing ocean resources and shoreline ecosystems based on the principles of sustainability for thousands of years. They are in a unique position to inform the identification of ocean observing needs for the future.
“We’re not just guides, we are the original Arctic scientists,” comments Mia Otokiak, Nunavut. “We’re all experiencing the bad sides of climate change and to have such a wide range of Indigenous peoples come together so we can work together on these issues is amazing.”
“We have to try to elevate Indigenous knowledge to balance science so we have the best possible information, the best possible science for our political leaders to make informed decisions,” comments Ken Paul, Director of Fisheries at Canada’s Assembly of First Nations.
The opening ceremony set the tone for the week-long conference, featuring an Indigenous gift exchange that provided a moving and powerful message for all delegates. A hand-carved Coast Salish paddle—representing the unison and forward momentum of teamwork—was exchanged with a braided cord from Saipan—signifying the strength that comes from being bound together in this important work—and a Hawaiian lei—as a sign of friendship.
Throughout the week the Indigenous delegation engaged with the ocean science delegates, and discussed the meaning and need for true partnerships, relationships between visiting researchers and Indigenous communities, and the need to support and strengthen ocean stewardship and governance.
These discussions culminated in an Indigenous town hall event attended by ~100 conference delegates. Indigenous panelists shared their unique knowledge of the crucial need for ocean observing to adapt to climate change; reducing risks to marine hazards; enhancing marine spatial planning and food security; monitoring ocean health and marine traffic in traditional ocean territories; and for capacity-strengthening.
In another first for the ocean science community, the Indigenous delegation authored a declaration calling on the ocean observing community to formally recognize the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples worldwide, and to establish meaningful partnerships with Indigenous communities, organizations, and Nations.
“This was a great opportunity for the scientists and government officials to walk away with a better understanding and ability to incorporate the Indigenous community knowledge systems into the frameworks for their programs, research, and activities,” says Michael Vegh, representing Indigenous youth from British Columbia.
The conference concluded with Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission delivering the Coastal Indigenous Peoples Declaration to the conference as a whole, outlining the need to learn and respect each other’s ways of knowing, negotiate paths forward to design, develop, and carry out ocean observing initiatives, and share responsibility and resources.
“Ten years from now, I hope to see [Indigenous] Nations with their own scientists, more capacity to answer their own unique questions, and greater collaboration and partnerships with academia and research institutions that want to do good work in each Nation’s territory,” says Michael Vegh.
The pan Canadian Indigenous Delegation from all three of Canada’s coasts—Nunavut, British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia—was made possible by generous support from Tides Canada, Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network, Oceans Collaborative and ONC.
An Indigenous Ocean Governance Forum at OceanObs’19 in Hawaii