Ecology of the sacred: defining the interactions between maritime cultural heritage, traditional fishery systems and ecological conditions for sustainable development in the East African region


Fisher communities have acquired knowledge through the regular interaction with the marine environment, forming an identity that is incorporated into traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and this is largely passed down to subsequent generations. Vulnerable maritime communities have maintained a system of TEK that has allowed them to: i) stay resilient in the face of change; ii) use and protect their biodiversity to sustain their lifestyle and; iii) develop management structures that were effective and respected by all. Certain behaviours were regulated through the introduction of restrictions or taboos, in the belief that it could influence the desired outcome of an activity, due to a form of sacredness attached to the object (Shalli 2011). It is therefore imperative that we recognize, understand and value these practices and the role that they have in sustainable development before they disappear. The plethora of indigenous knowledge gained by artisanal fishermen is encountering threats from existing and emerging large-scale national development projects geared towards the Blue Economy industries, and with it a whole culture risks extermination, meanwhile the changing seascapes are becoming more vulnerable to the human pressures and natural climatic factors. By understanding the multidisciplinary nature of TEK, it can be an avenue through which co-management initiatives that are currently facing many challenges, are enriched further with effectively tested customary governance structures. The overarching goal of the study will be to better understand the linkages between maritime cultural heritage and ecological knowledge in the form of TEK and how best to apply them to inform sustainable development of marine ecosystems/resources.

A mixed method approach that combines qualitative and quantitative research techniques will be used in order to capture a broad spectrum of TEK in a short period. Qualitative techniques will include Community Resource Mapping, Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), Key Informant Interviews (KII) and Participant Observations, while structured questionnaire surveys will provide the quantitative data. The ecological condition of habitats and species assemblages of Kenya and Tanzania-Zanzibar will be investigated using non-invasive techniques such as underwater visual surveys, video techniques and remotely operated vehicles.


Image below: Plate 1: Large number of plastic bottles found at a mangrove area is an indication of a scared shrine. Location is Mtwapa Creek, Kenya.

Institution: Ulster University

Supervisors: Dr. Chris McGonigle and Dr. Colin Breen

Area of study: Geography and Environmental Sciences

External Supervisors: Dr. Mwanahija Salehe Shalli (Institute of Marine Sciences-Zanzibar,Tanzania)and Dr. Renison Ruwa (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research  Institute-Kenya)