From fisheries, shipwrecks and archaeological sites to myths and stories handed down through generations, marine heritage covers a spectrum of physical entities, practices and activities – both tangible and more intangible – that have shaped and been shaped by the indigenous cultures that have used oceans and coastlines for thousands of years.
In areas where native peoples are so intertwined with the surrounding environment, studying this socio-cultural dimension can uncover valuable information and boost understanding, which in turn can inform strategies managing and preserving such areas, particularly as they are exposed to new environmental and anthropogenic pressures.
The issue was handed the spotlight during the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) held in Manchester, UK, July 23–27, where for one session experts from a range of fields gathered to address marine heritage and the interdisciplinary challenges associated with collecting data across social, cultural and economic boundaries.
One speaker was Sanne Holmgaard, a social anthropologist at the Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research. In one investigation, Holmgaard travelled to the remote village of Smeerenburg in the northwest of the Svalbard archipelago to monitor the state of cultural heritage. This settlement was previously home to a whaling station, evidence of which now exists in the form of dilapidated buildings, blubber ovens, and graves. Productivity here peaked around the year 1630; since then though and the drying up of whaling there, pressures from climate change and damper conditions have led to more rot in the materials as well as erosion and sand drift on the shore.
Comprising anthropologists like Holmgaard, archaeologists, ecologists and engineers, the highly interdisciplinary team set about collecting remote sensing data such as satellite images and photographs taken by drone, coupling these with ground-based surveys.
"We see vegetation as an indicator," explained Holmgaard. "The vegetation is quite sparse and it takes a long time for it to regenerate. So we see if the vegetation is changing and if it's changing more on and around the structures. That's one of the things we use the remote sensing data for, and we can also see the erosion and sand drift."
Alongside the climate, Holmgaard described how a marked increase in tourism to the Arctic region is another factor impacting cultural sites such as the one at Smeerenburg station.
"There's this fascination with the high north that brings people up here. They go to sites and disembark in more locations than they did before, which puts a lot of pressure on the sites which are not really managed. So people walk over them and sometimes remove things or take a souvenir. So we're seeing the impacts of that."
"Vegetation is disappearing and tourism is increasingly damaging it, so it needs to be managed in some way. At the same time it's necessary for the Svalbard community to put a lot of effort into promoting tourism, so this needs to be balanced."
As well as broadening the horizons of science and comprehension of the practices of indigenous people and the mutual relationships they have with the natural world, projects such as Holmgaard's potentially also serve the purposes of ecosystem management. Although this, especially for cultures at higher latitudes, comes with challenges.
"I think the heritage is more intangible (in the Arctic). There is less that has been recorded and, in terms of management or putting a value on things, there is less that is evident – grand buildings, and so on. So when we map cultural heritage we map hundreds of small remains of coastal huts for example. It's not as easily sold into the management system perhaps."
"A lot of cultural heritage is both land based and by the coast and is closely tied to the use of an ecosystem, so using the ecosystem in times past – almost a remnant of an ecosystem service. It's very intertwined. Also it's close to the cultural identity, so it's important for us that heritage is not just something in the past but something that is used now. Both for tangible and intangible. And that is changing – what makes sense and what is considered valuable to different people at different times."
Holmgaard's last point about changing values ties in with one key area when looking at historical marine data and the use of ecosystems: change over time. From a management perspective, long-term alterations in ecosystems, and their associated human impacts, have a crucial say in the setting of reference point for goals including conservation and potential restoration. This is due to the concept of historical baselines – or conditions that occurred prior to a particular period of human disturbance.
In this regard, ICES is carrying out some important work of its own, with the Working Group on the History of Fish and Fisheries (WGHIST), a collective of historians, fisheries scientists, and marine biologists, bringing together case studies of historical exploitations of stocks and ecosystems to gauge the value for modern marine management. One such instance was the tale of consumption and production patterns of European oyster.
The need for cooperation and pooling of skills across disciplines that is embodied in necessitated by Arctic research is also reflected in the work of Strategic Initiative on the Human Dimension (SIHD) counting amongst its tasks the study of all human components of the ecosystem – including such factors as values and culture.
Simon Cooper from ICES communications team participated in ESOF 2016 in Manchester this July.
Photo: Tim Ellis, Flickr