Despite several important studies, Indigenous fisheries generally receive less attention from scholars and managers than the 17th-20th century capitalist commercial fisheries that decimated many keystone species, including oysters. In new research, archaeologists investigated Indigenous oyster harvest through time in North America and Australia, placing their data in the context of sea level histories and historical catch records.
Oysters are important components and indicators of resilient coastal ecosystems, but they also carry cultural and economic significance for people worldwide.
Their ecological and cultural roles became well-established when post-glacial sea level rise created and stabilized estuaries around the world.
Despite contributions from conservation paleobiology and archaeology, oyster management strategies often rely primarily on knowledge and data gathered during the past 200 years or less, a period during which many oyster fisheries collapsed under the weight of over-harvest, pollution, competition with non-native species, and habitat loss.
Today, the decline of oyster fisheries is a global phenomenon with as much as 85% of 19th century oyster reef area lost by the early 21st century.
In contrast to capitalist commercial fisheries, intensive Indigenous fisheries thrived for millennia.
In their study, Temple University’s Dr. Leslie Reeder-Myers and colleagues investigated historical oyster fisheries in eastern Australia, the Pacific Coast of North America, and the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast of North America.
The researchers combined regional sea level histories and historical catch records with archaeological records on oyster abundance, geographical distribution of sites containing oysters and ethno-historic accounts of harvest, management and farming from Indigenous communities.
They suggest that oyster fisheries overseen by Indigenous communities were widespread and persisted for 5,000-10,000 years.
They indicate that the oysters were actively stewarded and that they played a central cultural and dietary role.
“This contradicts the theory that pre-colonial nearshore ecosystems were ‘pristine’ or ‘wild,’ and were instead resources successfully stewarded by Indigenous communities,” they said.
“Future management of oyster reefs must center Indigenous communities and Indigenous community members to develop inclusive, fair and successful strategies for harvest, restoration and management.”
The study appears in the journal Nature Communications.
L. Reeder-Myers et al. Indigenous oyster fisheries persisted for millennia and should inform future management. Nat Commun 13, 2383; doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-29818-z