Salmon archaeology

Posted on September 22, 2010

What insights into the sustainable management of aquatic ecosystems can be gained from the archaeological record?  The evidence from fish bones accumulated over the last 7500 years in thePacific Northwestshows great temporal stability in terms of the use of salmon by indigenous peoples.  Given that significant ecological and social changes have occurred over this period, the observed constancy points to a capacity for sustainable management of highly prized salmon resources.   The archaeological record offers no evidence that salmon stocks have been strongly affected by human population density, and salmon sustainability doesn’t seem to be the result of systematic attempts to improve habitats or to target salmon predators.   Rather, it appears that social institutions and beliefs have played a key role in sustainable management, since local traditions contain many regulations and rituals that deal with salmon harvesting.  These include references to the ownership of capture locations, the timing of harvest, and the collaborative construction and dismantling of fishing weirs.  Social conventions such as these have effectively acted to convert salmon from an open access to a common pool resource.  Because native NorthWest coast peoples have enjoyed access to a wide range of foods, including many types of fish, mammals, birds, invertebrates and plants, it’s likely that overexploitation of salmon has also been avoided by species substitution when salmon abundance was low.  Modern-day efforts to rebuild salmon stocks and protect their habitats may benefit from actions that reestablish direct links between community groups and fish populations, thereby creating a sense of proprietorship.

Reference:  Campbell, S.K. & Butler, V.L.  2010.  Archaeological evidence for resilience of Pacific Northwest salmon populations and the socioecological system over the last ~7,500 years.   Ecology and Society 15(1): 17. [online] URL:

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