Aboriginal communities successfully farmed oysters for thousands of years before colonisation.

Oyster fisheries managed by Indigenous communities in North America and Australia persisted successfully for more than 5,000 years prior to the arrival of European colonists, a paper in Nature Communications suggests. This research demonstrates that these fisheries were both managed and woven into cultural traditions, and that they could inform future fishery management. 

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Oysters are important indicators of the health of coastal ecosystems and also carry cultural and economic significance within communities worldwide. However, as much as 80% of the 19th century oyster reef areas have been lost by the early 21st century.

Current management strategies for oyster fisheries rely primarily on data from the past 200 years, a period when many global fisheries collapsed due to over harvest, pollution, competition with non-native species, and habitat loss. Despite increasing recognition of the importance of historical data in understanding the world’s ecosystems, knowledge from Indigenous communities and archaeology has often been neglected in conservation and ecology.

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Leslie Reeder-Myers and colleagues investigate historical oyster fisheries in eastern Australia, the Pacific Coast of North America, and the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast of North America. They combine 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.  The authors suggest that oyster fisheries overseen by Indigenous communities were widespread and persisted for 5,000–10,000 years. The authors indicate that the oysters were actively stewarded and that they played a central cultural and dietary role. The authors suggest this contradicts the theory that pre-colonial nearshore ecosystems were ‘pristine’ or ‘wild’, and were instead resources successfully stewarded by Indigenous communities.

The authors suggest that future management of oyster reefs must centre Indigenous communities and Indigenous community members to develop inclusive, fair and successful strategies for harvest, restoration and management.

IMAGE CREDIT: Tommaso Cantelli

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