Double-Heart of Stacked Stones, Penghu, Taiwan

Indigenous People, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Climate Change: The Iconic Underwater Cultural Heritage of Stone Tidal Weirs

Lead institute: Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology [UNESCO UNITWIN Network for Underwater Archaeology]

  1. Prof. Akifumi Iwabuchi (Academic Institution) Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, Japan.
  2. Prof. Bill Jeffery (Academic Institution) University of Guam, Unincorporated territory of the United States of America.
  3. Prof. Yi Hye-Yeon (Academic Institution) Mokpo National University, South Korea
  4. Prof. Masahito Kamimura (Academic Institution) Chikushi Jogakuen University,Japan.
  5. Prof. Cynthia Neri Zayas (Academic Institution) University of the Philippines, Philippines
  6. Miss Madgalena Nowakowska (Academic Institution) University of Warsaw, Poland
  7. Dr. Paul Montgomery (Academic Institution) TCD Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin, Ireland
  8. Prof Magda Minguzzi (Academic Institution) Nelson Mandala University, South Africa

The underwater cultural heritage of stone tidal weirs is a sustainable and eco-friendly fishing practice along the shoreline. Weirs were built in various shapes and styles to catch certain fish at certain times of the year. Many extant examples remain and provide a tangible link to the sustainable fishing practice that incorporated traditional ecological knowledge, and the spirit world, providing balance and harmony for indigenous people for thousands of years. Today they are not just examples of the past, but as a guide to future sustainable marine ecological conservation.

Our project strives to reconnect and reinforce the relationship between maritime communities and their natural environment through the medium of fish weir and interaction with the natural environment. Traditional communities considered the ocean not to be a physical barrier but rather as an avenue for trade and the acquisition of resources. The impact of modernization, overfishing and pollution have forced many indigenous communities to relinquish the use of fish weirs and the loss of a wealth of local ecological knowledge.

Our strategic aim is to reprise and reassess the relationship between the ocean and indigenous communities’ indigenous values and the cultural environmental balance that they traditionally had with their surroundings. Bringing together specialists in anthropology and archaeology to work with local communities to conduct field work around these monuments and their intangible cultural heritage. Our efforts are hindered by the unfortunate fact that much of the intangible cultural heritage and local traditional knowledge associated with these structures is already disappearing and soon may be lost forever.

Ultimately our aim is to promote the use and application of this deep ocean knowledge, that our project has identified through its use of modern scientific methods an interaction with local indigenous communities around the world to contribute to a more sustainable mode of development. Only by gathering and refining these data with relevance to modern scientific methods can we hope to fuse a body of knowledge together that can be utilised not only by scientists but also by the indigenous communities who interact with the ocean on the day-to-day basis.

Stone fish weir in Western Cape, South Africa.
Stone fish weir at Chipiona, province of Cádiz, Spain 2022.
Man fishing in stone tidal weir in Timor-Leste
Stone tidal weir (Kota) in Timor-Leste 2022
Figure Fish weir or Ach, Yap Federated states of Micronesia,
Figure Stone fish weir, late mediaeval Northern Ireland.
Stone fish weirs at Chipiona, province of Cádiz, Spain. BY Paul Montgomery
Tidal fish weirs, Lough Swilly Ireland

The aims of this project are:

  • A comparative investigation of the role and impact of fish weir practices on modern fishing communities and the implications of national policies and perceptions of fishing;
  • To define and utilise TEK methods and tools of what we term ‘indigenous sciences’ utilised by indigenous communities as part of their fishing activities;
  • Integrating and utilising modern social and natural sciences in an investigation of indigenous fishing and TEK to 21st century modern science;
  • To utilize both traditional and modern scientific approaches and understanding of a future direction for sustainable management of the marine ecology.
  • To engage with and take direction from local indigenous communities in the development and shape of this project. Enabling and encouraging communities to revive the use of fish weir practices as a way to conserve and curate their local ecological knowledge and traditions for their own communities and as a tool for the wider world’s conservation of marine ecological zones.

When addressing any archaeological monument there is a need to establish a baseline of information which can be used both as a tool to understand and interpret the findings of this project but also as a tangible outcome of this research. The understanding of what constitutes a fish weir/fish trap as a structure varies widely from country to country. The level of recording in the cultural heritage or archaeological registries are not consistent in their recognition of these monuments. Our project will develop an international database of stone tidal fish weirs using a common framework, which will record them and document their physical structure and their adjoining environments. Moreover, the project will investigate and record traditional tangible and intangible cultural (Living Heritage) practises used in stone-walled fish weirs including how, when and why individual species are captured. Thus, we will contextualise ecologically the fish weir in collaboration with oceanographers and marine biologists, to chart the wider marine ecology and ecological changes surrounding stone-walled tidal weirs.

In select cases we will attempt to record a Digital Elevation Modes (DEM) of some monuments as a way of recording their physical state at the time and to be used as reference for assessing the future impact of climate change on these monuments. An important aim of the project is to actively engage with indigenous communities who currently or in the past have utilised stone-walled fish weirs and their subsistence approach to fishing. Helping to acknowledge the value of TEK, integrating the valuable intellectual and cultural capital of fishing weir communities contributes to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The project will champion the approach of many of these communities to the conservation of fishery resources as part of their cultural identity and a reflection of their deep empathy and understanding of the natural environment (TEK). Promoting the inherent value of this unique cultural heritage asset can contribute to the economic, environmental, and human health of communities as well as helping educate indigenous communities’ youth about their own identity and history.

Enhancing our understanding of the interaction between humans and the marine zone and possibilities for management and conservation is an important component of modern scientific natural and social sciences. This project is about our interaction with the marine zone and the unique role that fish weirs played in indigenous communities’ development and adaption to an ever-changing world. The importance of the project is highlighted by the ongoing challenges of climate change and economic fluctuations that have challenged and shaped coastal communities throughout history and will continue to do so in the coming decades.

Author Dr. Paul Montgomery, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Funded by