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Noble, M., P. Duncan, D. Perry, K. Prosper, D. Rose, S. Schnierer, G. Tipa, E. Williams, R. Woods, and J. Pittock. 2016. Culturally significant fisheries: keystones for management of freshwater social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 21(2):22.

Culturally significant fisheries: keystones for management of freshwater social-ecological systems

1Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, 2Gamilaroi Traditional Owner, NSW Aboriginal Land Council, 3Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, 4Paq'tnekek Mi'kmaq First Nations, 5Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, 6School of Environment, Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University, 7Tipa and Associates Ltd., 8National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, 9National Cultural Flows Program, 10Murray Lower Darling River Indigenous Nations


Indigenous peoples of North America, Australia, and New Zealand have a long tradition of harvesting freshwater animals. Over generations of reliance and subsistence harvesting, Indigenous peoples have acquired a profound understanding of these freshwater animals and ecosystems that have become embedded within their cultural identity. We have identified trans-Pacific parallels in the cultural significance of several freshwater animal groups, such as eels, other finfish, bivalves, and crayfish, to Indigenous peoples and their understanding and respect for the freshwater ecosystems on which their community survival depends. In recognizing such cultural connections, we found that non-Indigenous peoples can appreciate the deep significance of freshwater animals to Indigenous peoples and integrate Indigenous stewardship and Indigenous ecological knowledge into effective comanagement strategies for sustainable freshwater fisheries, such as Indigenous rangers, research partnerships, and Indigenous Protected Areas. Given that many of these culturally significant freshwater species also play key ecological roles in freshwater ecosystems, their recognition and prioritization in management and monitoring approaches should help sustain the health and well-being of both the social and ecological components of freshwater ecosystems.
Key words: adaptive freshwater management; aquatic resources; bivalve; comanagement; crayfish; cultural keystone species; eel; Indigenous ecological knowledge; Indigenous water rights; lamprey; salmon; social-ecological resilience


Freshwaters are often an intrinsic part of place and central to linking human values and relationships with areas of cultural significance (Langton 2002, 2006, Harmsworth et al. 2011). Accordingly, many Indigenous peoples have value systems and concepts that recognize interconnections between people and freshwaters (Table 1), which typically seek to balance the human use of freshwaters by respecting them as a gift (e.g., Blackstock 2001, Tipa 2013) and harvesting in a manner that does not compromise ecosystem integrity (Kahui and Richards 2014). Indigenous people have managed their freshwater environments accordingly for thousands of years (Haggen et al. 2006, Gunditjmara people 2010, Aboriginal Water Initiative 2012), often with a keen awareness of seasonal cycles of hydrological change (Blackstock 2001). Through thousands of years of stewardship, Indigenous peoples have developed deep cultural connections to freshwaters and the freshwater animals that help maintain their cultural, social, and economic health and well-being.

Aquatic animals are often central to human connections to freshwaters by providing an important food source and/or a focal point for culturally significant events, ceremonies, and intergenerational teachings about the natural world (Cristancho and Vining 2004, Garibaldi and Turner 2004, Schnierer 2011, Alfred 2014). As such, these cultural keystone species (CKS) influence the cultural identity of a group of people via the species role in subsistence, spirituality, and/or Indigenous economies (Garibaldi and Turner 2004, Butler et al. 2012, McCarthy et al. 2014). Maintaining connections to these species through traditional practices is crucial for the social-ecological resilience of Indigenous cultures. Despite this importance, freshwater CKS are often not formally recognized in modern management and monitoring approaches, which have traditionally focused on threatened species and, more recently, ecological keystone species that perform key roles in maintaining biodiversity, ecosystem health, and bolstering resilience to disturbance (Bond 1994, Gunderson 2000, Caro 2010). Equitable integration of Indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK) into modern fisheries management can empower Indigenous people via recognition of their sovereignty (Bohnesky and Maru 2011, Alfred 2014) and support of customary harvest values and practices (Schnierer 2011, Butler et al. 2012). If we are to bolster social-ecological resilience in freshwaters, we must recognize culturally significant species, engage a range of people in building cross-cultural capacity and understanding of freshwaters, and include IEK in adaptive management plans (Berkes et al. 2000, Moller et al. 2004, Stephenson and Moller 2009, Ruiz-Mallén and Corbera 2013).

In this review, we explore the cultural significance of some key freshwater animals that underpin Indigenous fisheries and communities around the world and how their recognition as CKS can enhance management approaches to sustain Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, as well as the freshwater ecosystem goods and services on which we all depend. We focus on freshwater animal groups with cross-continental importance to draw on multicultural examples of Indigenous freshwater fisheries management in North America, including the United States and Canada; Australia; and New Zealand. Our specific aims were to (1) identify species that facilitate cultural connections to freshwaters and have cross-cultural, ecological, and economic importance; (2) explore cross-cultural approaches to fisheries management, using the case study of freshwater eels to illustrate the diversity of approaches and benefits of recognizing culturally significant freshwater animals; (3) examine barriers and issues with Indigenous access to culturally significant fisheries; and (4) suggest future approaches to improve freshwater management via recognition of CKS and adoption of IEK in comanagement, research partnerships, and Indigenous custodianship.


Our exploration of Indigenous freshwater fisheries in North America, Australia, and New Zealand identified four common animal groups playing particularly important cultural roles within the Indigenous communities of these nations: eels/lampreys, other finfish, freshwater bivalves, and crayfish. Through their role in traditional subsistence foods, ceremonies, celebrations, and/or other spiritual practices, these freshwater animals reveal some trans-Pacific similarities in Indigenous recognition and values, as well as some notable differences (Tables 2-5). Ecological research to date also suggests that many of these freshwater animals are vital for maintaining good water quality, nutrient cycling, trophic webs, habitat engineering, and/or other key components of freshwater ecosystem integrity and function. We explore both the cross-cultural and ecological importance of these freshwater animals, as well as the extent to which these species fit the characteristics described by Garibaldi and Turner (2004) to be recognized as CKS.

Eels and lampreys

Eels (Anguilliformes) and lampreys (Petromyzontiformes) are eel-shaped fishes that are thought to be CKS because of their central role in trans-Pacific Indigenous cultures as food, medicines, and raw materials in ceremonies and celebrations (Table 2). Eels and lampreys undergo large migrations between freshwaters and the open ocean and so provide a key form of aquatic connectivity and nutrient transport (Haro et al. 2000, Lewis 2002, Casselman 2003). Indigenous peoples have developed substantial knowledge of their spatial and seasonal distributions, habitat requirements, behavior, and migratory patterns. Cultural fishing for eels and lampreys is important for Indigenous community well-being, capacity and capability development, and the passing down of IEK among generations across Indigenous nations spanning the Pacific Ocean (Fig. 1).

In North America, the Pacific lamprey (Lampetra tridentata) is considered sacred to elders of the river and is used in “First Foods” ceremonies for the Columbia River Tribes (CRITFC 2011, 2014) and for bathing and special medicinal uses (Close et al. 2002). Adult lampreys have historically been a major component of animal biomass in North American streams, and tribal members of the Yurok and Karuk tribes in Northern California have long recognized the significant role of lampreys in the Klamath River ecosystem as essential contributors of marine-derived nutrients and organic matter (Close et al. 2002, CRITFC 2011). North American First Nation tribes, such as the Mi’kmaq, also share a rich cultural history with the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), or ka’t, which is an important traditional food (Prosper 2002, Casselman 2003). Eeling is considered a group activity that strengthens the community groups by passing down the important customary practice to future generations (Davis et al. 2004, Denny and Paul 2010, Weiler 2011) and helping to support community bonds by sharing the catch with people not able to fish for themselves (Prosper 2002). Ka’t is also part of important spiritual offerings, such as a gift to the grandfathers (Apuknajit) on the last day of January to give thanks for surviving the prior winter months (Prosper 2002). Legends of the Mi’kmaq depict eels as significant in shaping both the earth and human lives, along with interacting with other important spirits (Weiler 2011).

Across the Pacific Ocean, eels also play a key role in the lives and identity of Indigenous peoples. New Zealand freshwater eels (Anguilla dieffenbachia, A. australis, and A. reinhardtii), or tuna, were the most important freshwater fish to Māori, with this species permeating place names, proverbs (whakataukī), legends, songs (waiata), and artwork. Eels were widespread, abundant, and often grew to a large size. This is particularly true of the long-finned eel (A. dieffenbachii) that is found only in New Zealand, which was easy to catch and preserve and provided a critical source of dietary fat (McDowall 2011). Prior to taxonomic systems of describing eels, the Māori had many cultural names for tuna according to their coloration, season, size, behavior, locality, and palatability (e.g., McDowall 2011). In southeast Australia, the Gunditjmara people of the Budj Bim lava flow also have a long history of harvesting kooyang, or short-finned eels (A. australis), as well as the oldest known aquaculture of eels dating to 6600 years before present (Gunditjmara people 2010, Richards 2011, McNiven et al. 2012). Smoked kooyang was a treasured food source and was traded for valuable flint along the coastline, where Australian Aboriginal reliance on freshwater eels was recorded in petroglyphs (Sefton 2013) and the naming of culturally important areas, such as the Kooyang Sea Country (Gunditjmara people 2010). Kooyang continues to be a culturally important subsistence fishery for Aboriginal peoples throughout southeast Australia, with large ceremonial gatherings coinciding with the seasonal eel migrations helping to connect Indigenous people of the region to the oceans beyond Australia (Framlingham Aboriginal Trust and Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation 2004, Pease 2004).

Ecologically, adult lampreys have historically been a major proportion of the large-bodied animal biomass within streams, where the juveniles are important detritivores and filter feeders that help to maintain good water quality and provide a food source for other animals such as salmonid fishes (Close et al. 2002, Jellyman 2012, NIWA 2013). Eels have also been a large part of the freshwater animal biomass in a wide variety of freshwater habitats, including coastal estuaries, lakes, wetlands, rivers, mountain streams, and alpine tarns, and can penetrate large distances inland (McDowall 2011). Adult eels are often the top predators in freshwater ecosystems and are opportunistic feeders consuming a diverse range of food, including stream insects, terrestrial insects, snails, freshwater crayfish, fish, and even small birds (Haro et al. 2000, McDowall 2011, Jellyman 2012). Through their diadromous migrations, eels also play a critical role in nutrient transport between the ocean and freshwater ecosystems (Haro et al. 2000, Casselman 2003). Given their ecological and cultural importance, eels and lampreys can be characterized as ecological keystone species and CKS, and so should be of key concern for freshwater management, research, and monitoring that considers the values, practices, and rights and interests of Indigenous peoples across these trans-Pacific nations.

Other finfish

Salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) are a prime example of a culturally significant finfish in North America, where Native American and First Nations peoples have sustainably harvested salmon for subsistence and trade for more than 11,500 years (Table 3). The cultural importance of salmon is reflected in First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest collectively calling themselves wy-kan-ush-pum (“salmon people”) where salmon are considered to unite all tribes and races of the region (CRITFC 2014). Like eels and lampreys, salmon provide a key link between freshwaters and the ocean and a food source for both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (Willson and Halupka 1995, Cederholm et al. 1999). Although Native American tribes have managed salmon species with a deep understanding of how to sustain healthy populations (Landeen and Pinkham 1999, Haggen et al. 2006, Johnsen 2009), severe declines since European settlement have created an urgency to restore salmon populations in freshwater ecosystems for both their cultural and ecological importance.

In Australia, Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii) have a particularly strong cultural significance for Australian Aboriginal communities living within the Murray-Darling Basin (Table 3). Being part of the dreamtime creation story of the Murray-Darling system, Murray cod play a significant role in Indigenous cultural identity (Ginns 2012). Once a significant food source, fishing for Murray cod would often occur as a group activity, with Murray cod representing 25% or more of the edible freshwater cultural catch in some areas (S. Schnierer and E. Egan, unpublished manuscript). Indigenous cultural connections to this species remain strong, despite severe regional declines since European settlement, and their important ecological role as apex predators is now well recognized (Ebner 2006).

In New Zealand, the Māori have deep cultural, social, and economic connections to the New Zealand whitebait, which are juveniles of five different Galaxias spp. (Table 3). They provide a subsistence food for the Māori who target annual whitebait migrations and preserve (dry) their catches for many months (McDowall 2011). Whitebait species have a complex life cycle that typically involves mass migrations between freshwaters and the open ocean, although several whitebait species have developed landlocked populations in river systems associated with large lakes. Whitebait provide a primary food source for many other aquatic and terrestrial species but have been overfished by European settlers (Department of Conservation 2004, McDowall 2010, 2011, Morris et al. 2013) and are now in decline across much of New Zealand because of the loss of spawning habitat, trout predation, poor water quality, and infrastructure blocking stream passageways (Department of Conservation 2004, NIWA 2010a, McDowall 2011).

Although there are many finfishes that support connections between Indigenous people and their freshwater environments, we have chosen these three species as prime examples of finfish CKS. Declines in the abundance and/or range of these species has had severe consequences for Indigenous well-being. Even though some efforts have been made to address these species declines through understanding the effects on non-Indigenous peoples, their cultural significance is yet to be fully recognized so that a more equitable approach to freshwater finfish comanagement can be fully realized.


Bivalves have facilitated Indigenous cultural connections to freshwaters in multiple ways (Table 4), but severe declines in bivalve diversity and abundance have severely altered contemporary Indigenous usage. Freshwater bivalves were an abundant food for Indigenous peoples in North America, New Zealand, and Australia for more than 60,000 years, with the shells used in medicines, tools, and jewelry, and incorporated into legends, songs, and proverbs (Hiroa 1921, Parmalee and Klippel 1974, Lyman 1984, Humphries and Winemiller 2009). Archeological evidence within middens indicates that Native Americans sustainably harvested freshwater mussels for at least 6000 years before the arrival of European settlers, but since then mussel biodiversity has severely declined, with 75% of U.S. freshwater mussel species endangered (Hughes and Parmalee 1999, Machtinger et al. 2007, Thorp and Covich 2010). New Zealand freshwater bivalves, or kākahi/kāeo, were also once an abundant cultural resource, reflected in middens, place names, Māori tradition, legend, and mythology (McDowall 2011). Likewise, Aboriginal people in Australia sustainability harvested freshwater bivalves for more than 10,000 years within the Murray-Darling Basin, which were seen as a reliable food source by the Aboriginal people when they would travel and/or gather together for large groups during ceremonies. However, there are now minimal modern freshwater bivalve harvests by Indigenous peoples across these nations because of severe population declines arising from habitat loss, poor water quality, and pollution (Table 4). Although the ecological consequences of such losses are yet to be fully resolved, the role of bivalves in maintaining good water quality via filter feeding (Box et al. 2006, Howard and Cuffey 2006, Machtinger et al. 2007) suggests cause for serious concern. Indeed, the loss of the New Zealand freshwater mussel (Echyridella menziesi) from lake systems in New Zealand has been linked to a lowering of water quality and increased toxic phytoplankton blooms (Walker et al. 2001, McDowall 2002). Notably, natural resource management and fisheries agencies have been slow to address declines in freshwater bivalve populations, perhaps because of the lack of general public interest and/or knowledge of these species. Given the importance of this CKS group, a more formal recognition of bivalves is needed and could be addressed through better recognition of IEK for this group to reveal pre-European baselines and key information for their recovery.


Evidence is emerging for the cultural importance of freshwater crayfish, with their remains in middens suggesting crayfish may have once been an abundant food source for Indigenous communities across North America, New Zealand, and Australia (Table 5). Australian Aboriginals are thought to have utilized Murray crayfish (Euastacus armatus) as food (Kohen and Merrick 1998), and historical accounts report Aboriginal women using crayfish for body decoration (Humphries 2007). Recent research has revealed that freshwater crayfish and yabbies (Cherax destructor) are still taken in reasonable numbers for food by Aboriginal cultural fishers in parts of the Murray-Darling River basin (S. Schnierer and E. Egan, unpublished manuscript). Traditional use of freshwater crayfish (Paranephrops planifrons and P. zealandicus), or kōura/kēwai, by Māori as a food source and focal species for Māori customary practices is also evident in New Zealand. For instance, in the Te Arawa Lakes region, kōura are harvested using a variety of traditional methods, including the tau kōura, which involves placement of bracken fern bundles (known as whakaweku) on the lake bed, in which kōura take refuge and are captured (Hiroa 1921, Kusabs and Quinn 2009). Freshwater crayfish (Cambarus spp. and Astacus spp.) are also an abundant food source for the First Nations and the Native American people across North America (Assembly of First Nations, Environmental Stewardship Unit 2007, Cherokee Nation History and Culture 2014), particularly for the Chitimachas, Houmas, Choctaw, and Attakapas tribes of the Mississippi, Teche, and Lafourche river basin in Louisiana (Irwin 2014). Ecologically, crayfish are known to be critical for maintaining streambed health by processing detritus and cycling nutrients in freshwater ecosystems, as well as “engineering” streambed sediments via their burrowing activities (Reynolds et al. 2013). Although crayfish have started to become a target for freshwater conservation and fisheries management through their increasingly threatened status (Richman et al. 2015), their recognition as CKS would provide clearer pathways toward effective comanagement, whereby both IEK and social relevance could be integrated into their management and recovery plans.


Despite their cultural and ecological significance, all the freshwater animals mentioned previously have suffered severe declines as a result of environmental degradation and historical overfishing following European colonization (Revenga and Kura 2003, Dudgeon et al. 2006, Darwall et al. 2008). Such declines have greatly affected the subsistence economies of Indigenous people, who have lost access to freshwater fisheries and the ability to sustain cultural fishing practices and knowledge (Haggen et al. 2006, Dick et al. 2012). In response, many Indigenous people are driving the improved management, restoration, and conservation of freshwater species in North America, New Zealand, and Australia (e.g., Fraser et al. 2006, Woodward et al. 2012, Galbreath et al. 2014). Indigenous people have been working with other agencies to develop approaches that involve cooperative, community-based, and collaborative comanagement strategies (Tipa and Welch 2006, NIWA 2010a, Hill et al. 2012). The main goal has been an equitable framework for Indigenous people to incorporate their requirements for freshwater resources and share their wealth of IEK (Jackson et al. 2012, Ens et al. 2015). We draw on trans-Pacific examples of the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia, the Māori of New Zealand, and the Gunditjmara of Australia to illustrate how Indigenous peoples are working to sustain, revive, and restore cultural freshwater eel fisheries (Fig. 1).

Historically, the cultural and ecological importance of eels has been overlooked by fisheries management agencies in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, probably because of their low commercial food value, conflicting social values, and community misconceptions around their role in freshwater social-cultural ecosystems (Mattson 1949, Close et al. 2002, Jellyman, 2012, Dittmer 2013). Consequently, historical eel management plans and strategies have largely failed to recognize the social impacts of the loss of important eel subsistence fisheries for Indigenous communities (Davis et al. 2004, Jellyman 2007, Gunditjmara people 2010, CRITFC 2011). Indigenous custodianship and customary fishing of eels, however, is starting to reemerge as a priority in contemporary management. For example, the Kooyang Sea Country Plan (Framlingham Aboriginal Trust and Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation 2004) reasserts the Gunditjmara Indigenous people of southeast Australia as managers and caretakers within country declared as an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA; Weir 2009). In this IPA, the Gunditjmara people have been rehabilitating critical wetland habitats and stream connectivity for migrating eels (Framlingham Aboriginal Trust and Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation 2004, Pease 2004, Gunditjmara people 2010). Similarly, in New Zealand, rapidly declining tuna stocks have prompted Māori-led initiatives to manage and restore critical eel habitats in freshwater ecosystems (e.g., New Zealand Government 2013, Shortland 2013, Te Wai Māori 2013). In North America, declines of ka’t abundance have brought many First Nations tribes together to work on communicating the importance of these species to the wider public and developing strategies for rehabilitating eel populations on their traditional, self-governed lands (Prosper 2002, Goodbrand 2009, Denney and Paul 2010). A commonality among all of these examples is the coming together and empowerment of Indigenous tribes to rehabilitate and protect a culturally important fishery that unites many people.

Indigenous-led rehabilitation projects have often evolved into innovative comanagement strategies with local and federal governments. For example, recommendations and outcomes form the Kooyang Sea Country Plan (Framlingham Aboriginal Trust and Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation 2004) motivated negotiations with commercial fishers and the state of Victoria to remove commercial netting in tributaries of Lake Condah, to allow eels to complete their migration and increase in abundance within this significant cultural eel fishing place (McKinnon 2007). A key aspect of this work has been collaborations between the Gunditjmara and government scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and universities to mesh cutting-edge science with traditional management practices (Gunditjmara people 2010). In New Zealand, eels are undisputed as a culturally important species, with mātaitai reserves, which are exclusive customary fishing areas, and unique comanagement approaches underway in several waterways to protect eels and the ecosystems that support them (e.g., New Zealand Government 2013, 2014d, Ngā Papatipu Rūnanga Working Group 2013). Outreach by First Nations people about the cultural importance of eels has also developed into comanagement decision-making strategies with Parks Canada to integrate IEK into management, with field monitoring by local Indigenous people (e.g., Goodbrand 2009). At a national level, Mi’kmaq people are also working with Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to identify important cultural fishing grounds that need special recognition (Weiler 2011).

Collectively, these examples around a key freshwater animal illustrate how different groups of Indigenous people have been able to use CKS recognition to motivate new management strategies. Management agencies that have traditionally overlooked cultural dimensions to eel fisheries have now become aware of their CKS status, from which comanagement and other innovative frameworks have evolved for more equitable management of both the social and ecological dimensions of these globally important fishes. Promoting the cultural importance of eels has also empowered Indigenous people to gain an equal voice in the future management plans and approaches. Ultimately, recognition of these species as keystones in both a social (CKS) and ecological sense, has provided a platform to unite non-Indigenous and Indigenous worldviews and values to progress our equitable management of freshwater ecosystems (Garibaldi and Turner 2004, Caro 2010, Butler et al. 2012).


Recognition of Indigenous rights and needs to access culturally significant freshwater animals has been important for overcoming legal barriers to Indigenous connections to freshwaters since European settlement and colonization. Traditional use of culturally significant animals was largely determined by territorial occupation of Indigenous peoples and their complex tribal social-political systems. Since European settlement, however, Indigenous peoples’ access to water and cultural fishing practices has become regulated by colonizing governments that may or may not recognize such cultural traditions and values (Appendix 1). In New Zealand, Māori possession and control of taonga (all things highly prized) and management of freshwater species was originally granted in 1840 with the Treaty of Waitangi, with the second article granting rights to taonga and habitats, which encompasses fisheries (Waitangi Tribunal 1988, 1992). However, these rights have often had to be reasserted through modern legal challenges. Similarly, Native American tribes have often had to gain rights to access culturally important freshwater animals in traditional locations through legal challenges supported by the Winters water rights doctrine, inside or outside reservation lands, including private lands (Winters v. United States 1908, Osborn 2013, CRITFC 2014). Such rights can sometimes be recognized in compensation for loss, such as that made by the U.S. Congress to Native Americans who lost access to tribal fishing sites along the Columbia River after these areas were inundated by numerous dams (CRITFC 2014). In other cases, equitable Indigenous access rights have come much later after European settlement. For example, First Nations people were given the right by the Supreme Court of Canada to fish for food, ceremonial, and cultural reasons, which was applied across Canada to establish freshwater access priorities in the 1990s (see R v. Sparrow 1990, Issac 1999). In Australia, legal recognition for Aboriginal access to freshwater fisheries came with the passing of the Native Title Act 1993 (OPC 2014: section 211), which defines Aboriginal rights to hunting, fishing, and gathering, along with cultural and spiritual activities in relation to both land and waters (Altman 2004, Jackson and Morrison 2007, OPC 2014). Further amendments have provided the basis for other state-level legislation, such as the New South Wales fishing legislation on Aboriginal subsistence bag limits, which recognizes the customary significance of fisheries (Schnierer 2011, New South Wales Government 2016).

In many cases, legal barriers have persisted until key challenges, often hard won, by Indigenous peoples to gain recognition that access to CKS is vital to their communities, traditional culture, and well-being. For instance, access to cultural eel fishing only came after targeted legal action by First Nations people in Canada in the Marshall case, which was monumental in defining how Indigenous access rights extend to commercial allowances and licenses and recognizing the deep cultural importance of these fisheries to the Mi’kmaq people (see R v. Marshall 1999a, b). This challenge was prompted by the arrest of Donald Marshall Jr. of the Membertou Band, who was charged by Fisheries and Oceans Canada for illegally fishing for ka’t without a federal commercial license to sell eels (Prosper 2002, Davis et al. 2004). Although Marshall was fishing for eels from the shores of the Paqtnkek Reservation, he was charged outside the reservation boundaries (Prosper 2002, Davis et al. 2004). Following a six-year legal battle, charges were dropped and new provisions applied to allow Indigenous eel catches for both cultural purposes and a moderate commercial livelihood (Davis et al. 2004, Denny and Paul 2010, Cooke and Murchie 2015).

A further challenge for Indigenous peoples has been securing equitable roles in the decision-making processes for rehabilitation and management of freshwater animals that are CKS. For example, in the United States, each of the state-managed freshwater fisheries are overseen and regulated by the federal government, which adjudicates and mediates the fishing rights of Native American tribes (USFWS 1994). However, the United States’ Columbia River Treaty with Canada does not take into consideration the cultural importance of salmon to tribes along the river nor the ecological health of the salmon populations (CRITFC 2014). As a result, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) has requested to be involved in a review of the treaty, which it hopes will include its “Spirit of the Salmon” plan (Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit).

Although relatively recent legal treaties, policy reforms, and the implementation of freshwater management approaches that recognize and support cultural connections to freshwater fisheries are promising steps forward (e.g., USFWS 1994, 2013, UN General Assembly 2007, Armstrong 2008, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2009, Duff et al. 2010, Durrette 2010, Smyth et al. 2010, Schnierer 2011, Collings 2012, Osborn 2013), further challenges remain. Formal recognition of freshwater animals that are CKS for each Indigenous nation should be a priority in this regard. Although some, such as eels and salmon, have gained increasing recognition, there are many invertebrate species identified in this review that are yet to be recognized as CKS by the broader group of freshwater stakeholders and government agencies. Through recognition and subsequent protection of the rights of Indigenous people to access these CKS, we see the capacity for modern management to take better account of the dual social-ecological importance of these species and move forward to remove legal or other barriers to Indigenous access to these species. In so doing, we can develop a more inclusive approach to the adaptive management and long-term resilience of social-ecological freshwater ecosystems.


Severe declines in the well-being of both freshwater animals and Indigenous peoples worldwide indicate a clear need to improve our management of freshwaters as integrated social and ecological systems. In a basic recognition of human rights, management agencies need to take special consideration of Indigenous peoples’ rights to cultural catches that should be negotiated separately from recreational and commercial fishing allowances. Barriers to cultural fisheries that restrict access to CKS can lead to a loss of cultural stability and a diminution of IEK, as well as aggravate social justice issues (Nursey-Bray 2009, McCarthy et al. 2014). In seeking both social and ecological resilience in increasingly disturbed freshwater ecosystems, CKS can provide focal species for identifying and monitoring key cultural and subsistence ecosystem services that affect the resilience of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. In supporting social groups that culturally and economically rely on these species, we will also increase the potential for better management and regulation of broader ecosystem health (Berkes et al. 2000, Tipa and Teirney 2003, Moller et al. 2004, Stephenson and Moller 2009, Ruiz-Mallén and Corbera 2013). This is because many CKS are also ecological keystones that underpin key ecosystem processes that provide resistance and resilience of freshwaters to environmental disturbances. As we have explored, this approach has the potential to bolster long-term sustainability of freshwater social-ecological ecosystems through the formal recognition and inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the management of CKS around the world.

Indigenous nations have deep historical knowledge of their ecosystems, ecological constraints, presettlement baselines, and holistic management approaches that are invaluable for adaptive resource management of human connections to freshwaters (Berkes 2008, Jackson et al. 2012, McCarthy et al. 2014). This is a priceless repository of long-term observations of environmental change and adaptation methods from which we can learn how to best manage our degrading freshwater ecosystems (Berkes et al. 2000, Moller et al. 2004, Haggen et al. 2006, Cozzetto et al. 2013). Many Indigenous groups have sought to work with contemporary management agencies to develop cooperative recovery and comanagement programs that recognize their cultural connections and draw on this depth of IEK. Importantly, IEK should not be exploited without transparent processes of consideration and incorporation into management and monitoring practices (Danielsen et al. 2009, Jackson et al. 2012) according to the principles of free prior informed consent (UN General Assembly 2007). In that regard, we see collaborative research partnerships as a key way of building trust and empowering Indigenous people in shaping long-lasting partnerships to solve environmental issues as equal collaborators. Importantly, Indigenous groups are willing to help other cultures understand how they as a people have survived in these landscapes for thousands of generations, often against a background of major climatic change and uncertainty.

In recognizing a freshwater animal as an Indigenous CKS, we take the first step toward improving freshwater access rights and our management of freshwaters as resilient social-ecological systems for all stakeholders. Critical to this recognition is the adoption of collaborative groups that work with local Indigenous communities to formally recognize cultural dimensions of water rights and the importance of cultural access to freshwater fisheries (e.g., Tipa and Teirney 2003, Goodbrand 2009, Duff et al. 2010, Moggridge and Mihinui 2010, Schnierer 2011). Indigenous communities must be actively involved in the management of these species to balance competing needs and values. Effective consultation on management decisions (e.g., catch limits, listing of vulnerable species, modifications to river regulation, and availability of access) and freshwater policy changes may be best achieved through comanagement and comonitoring approaches, management plans that draw on IEK, and direct Indigenous custodianship (e.g., Indigenous rangers and IPAs). CKS also have the capacity to open cross-cultural lines of communication to build greater awareness, which in turn will optimize the recovery of the species, lead to better compliance of fisheries quotas, and build valuable partnerships. Therefore, it is important not only to formally recognize each culturally significant species, but also to follow through with active comanagement of the species so that decisions about necessary strategies, harvest allocations, and mechanisms for conservation/restoration are reached equitably for the long-term sustainability of freshwater social-ecological systems.


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We acknowledge and pay respect to the Indigenous peoples and their nations of North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Thank you to the previous generations and elders for their wisdom and strength in regaining Indigenous access rights to freshwater and aquatic resources. Thanks to C. J. Fulton for valuable discussions, and P. Lumley, P. Galbreath, and Z. Penney of the CRITFC for useful insights. Also, thanks to the Australian Society for Fish Biology for funding (M.N.) to attend the ASFB-ASL Congress in Darwin, 2014 Indigenous participation in research and management of aquatic ecosystems, which was the catalyst for this collaborative review.


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Address of Correspondent:
Mae Noble
Building 48, Linnaeus Way
The Australian National University
Canberra, ACT
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