Science alone may not be able to describe every aspect of complex environmental systems, but a little local knowledge gives it a better chance, according to a young researcher at The University of Western Australia.
Sarah Laborde, of UWA's Centre for Water Research and Discipline of Anthropology, has shown how adding what fishermen know about a particular lake to what scientists know can help everyone understand the ecosystem better.
An environmental engineer who has recently submitted her joint PhD thesis in physical limnology and cultural anthropology, Sarah Laborde is the lead author of a study published last week in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Scientists of the United States of America, or PNAS.
With her co-authors, also from UWA, she describes both the knowledge of professional fishermen whose livelihoods depend what they catch in 45 kilometre-long Lake Como in the north of Italy, and scientific data about the subalpine lake's hydrodynamics.
"At Lake Como, where high resolution data-collection on large and complex hydrological systems is a challenge, we used qualitative data from fishermen combined with scientific theory to develop a hypothesis which was then verified by numerical modelling," Sarah said.
The fishermen accurately described internal wave motions and were also able to give the scientists information that they were unable to get otherwise because of limitations of sampling resolution.
Sarah said the fishermen depended on accurate experiential knowledge of the lake and the prevailing winds because they needed to know how far down to sink their nets according to the season and the species of fish they wanted. They also needed to know about the currents in order to avoid entangling their nets with those of other fishermen.
"Scientific knowledge aims to explain and predict natural phenomena. Local practical knowledge emerges from the adaptation of people's life and work to natural phenomena through their lifestyle, history and everyday practices. Local knowledge, therefore, like scientific knowledge, gets to know natural environments," Sarah said.
"Where relevant and possible, the intellectual engagement of scientists with other knowledge groups such as local knowledge holders can result in a more comprehensive scientific understanding of environmental systems."