For her doctoral study, Sara Thornton worked with the freshwater fishes and fishing communities of the lowland peat forests in the centre and south of the Indonesian state of Kalimantan in Borneo. Sara’s thesis covers the natural ecology of multiple fish species as well as the difficulties of working in a tropical region, and developing methodologies for gaining clearer insight into local feelings about their environment and all those who intrude, including foreign researchers.
Steve Lockett asked Sara how her thesis can help the conservation battles faced by those working on mahseers? And how better studies, with more direct involvement of locals can help to build a more sustainable picture of both problems and solutions?
Steve Lockett: Thank you for talking to me Sara. It is clear that fish were not your intended study target when you first considered looking at this region. What made you focus on freshwater fishes?
Sara Thornton: I was always really interested in the social side of conservation and I knew I wanted to focus on a knowledge gap. For a couple of summers I had been working with Borneo Nature Foundation: I found that it was common to see people fishing but we didn’t know a lot about the fish in the peat-swamp. A lot of the studies in that region were on forest dynamics and primates, but very little had been done on fish - as far as we knew.
It was clear that fish surveys would contribute to understanding the peat-swamp habitat as these forests and their aquatic habitats are linked very closely. I also wanted to take an interdisciplinary approach: fish are an ideal topic for discussions on local community dynamics due to the importance of fishing at the local level. Understanding local dynamics and values would provide good lessons for conservation.
SL: So from the start, your ideas of conservation were linked to “what is important to the local communities?”
That is, for me, one of the first questions we should always ask and understand before we set up a conservation initiative. I am a guest in places like Indonesia so we have to take a respectful approach from the start. Local peoples’ priorities and perspectives should come first.
SL: In this region, are fish viewed purely as a resource?
Of course it depends upon who you talk to. Relationships and understanding about fish and rivers can be much more complex than a single “resource” viewpoint. They are an important source of livelihood and food but there are other, more complex elements too. This is the same as in other parts of the world and certainly in other parts of Borneo.
Spiritual beliefs related to specific fish or rivers are part of how some people relate to the landscape and non-human animals, and we have to understand that when we study an ecosystem. In Borneo people told me about many different types of spirits which can both cause harm and bring benefits to people. These worldviews and ideas around sacredness can be complex. They can, of course, also vary among or between local communities. It can also be really different from how researchers tend to understand “spirits” or what is meant by “sacred”. I think it’s really important that we are open to this complexity and to different worldviews.
SL: In what way were fish a difficult subject to get to grips with?
Well, I had never conducted fish surveys in a peat swamp: In fact I had been involved with very few fish surveys before I went to Borneo. It was all new to me.
My first approach was to find someone who knows what they are doing. I found a local fisherman, Dudin, who of course knew all the local species. Together we trialled various traps and designed our study methods. I was also learning Indonesian alongside learning about these new (to me) fish species. Many are difficult to differentiate in the field - some of the catfishes and snakeheads, for instance. In addition, some of the local names can sound very similar and there were a lot of names to learn very quickly. Then, trying to convert those local names into Latin scientific nomenclature using a printout of an old identification guide or online sources was a further challenge.
We did compile a species list, which may need updating, but it is a strong start to help wider understanding of local fish diversity.
I had been fishing with my family in Finland, and had experience of actually handling fish. After that I had been on fish surveys in Peru, using nets, but I wanted to use capture methods that were locally-appropriate and less damaging to the fish. Along with Dudin, we had to use trial-and-error to find the best ways of targeting certain fish.
Some fish were very painful to hold if you are not careful, with sharp spines.
SL: Watch out for tilapia, they have gill covers that will cut your hands to ribbons!
Oh, I didn’t know that. But I quickly learned that different species all have characteristics that make sampling difficult. When you drop a fish and it starts running across the ground, that is a wake-up call!
I designed my programme to minimise handling time, using buckets to keep the fish wet and covering them to not have them exposed to the tropical sun. Being careful with the fish helps; they are more calm if they are less stressed. Because we had so many traps to check; time wasted on poor handling could affect the whole day’s work.
SL: Are the fish using this particular habitat migratory in habit?
Some will migrate upstream during higher water levels, so there are seasonal migration patterns but we don’t know much about their migration patterns. It is another big knowledge gap, along with specific ecology. Having to work in dense, damp forest makes it more complicated.
The local knowledge came from Dudin; his understanding of how the fish respond to various changes was vital for our work together. If I saw a change in capture data, my first call was to Dudin to ask if he had an opinion on why this may be happening.
SL: Does the seasonal movement of fishes make study more difficult?
For research, it is a variable we have to take into consideration, hence it is important to conduct surveys across a range of times of year. There are other factors at play, which can be as simple as: someone who starts to use fertilisers in a particular area changes nutrient input values. Or weather changes in El Niño compared to La Niña years may give more or heavier rain, or hotter days than expected. At least we now have a baseline for the area and can understand more with further research.
SL: I know that the rivers you worked on are not home to mahseers (ikan kelah in Bahasa Indonesian) but many in that region are. Across the mahseer range, the use of destructive fishing methods is a huge and growing problem. From your experience of Kalimantan, what are the main methods in use?
The main forms of harmful fishing methods are electric fishing and also the use of larger fish traps and finer meshed nets. Local fishers felt that there are more people fishing than ever before, which combined with more intensive trapping, they feel, is putting much greater strain on the rivers. One trap I saw was close to the size of a local house! They are also putting out more traps.
It is a practical decision to try to take more fish. Despite us researchers wanting to put “issues” in an easy-to-address box, this may be due to there simply not being other options for livelihoods and we cannot ignore that. Some of this may be due to lack of access to larger towns or cities where other jobs may be available; it may be because there are local environmental challenges that have forced more people into fishing as a fall-back option. The challenge for us is how to find locally-appropriate solutions in a complex landscape.
SL: Are these forms of fishing used by locals or outsiders?
Both. The definition of “local” and “outsider” can be difficult to interpret and may depend upon the type and scope of the discussion. In one village where I worked, there was a local, natural split bounded by the river; depending upon the type of discussion taking place, those on one bank could be “outsiders” or part of the village.
“To begin to change anything we have to understand the reasons for decline in fishes.”
SL: In studies I have done, in India, Malaysia and Thailand, I have found that it is easy to put the blame on “outsiders” for loss of fish, greater use of destructive methods etc., can “locals” be encouraged to be more aware and not use the blame as a green light to follow suit?
It is common to have that “blame the outsider” mindset. Some people clearly travelled from outside the province to target fish in rural villages of my study area.
To begin to change anything we have to understand the reasons for decline in fishes. A complication is that communities are not homogeneous and people can have many differing perspectives on why fish declines are happening. We have to understand that a community is diverse. There is no single solution for every context; we have to go from a local focus and the diversity within that community as the start point. The two communities where I worked were both geographically and mentally, “miles apart”; they both had very different challenges. There were some similarities, like over-fishing, but the reasons for that may not always be the same, so subtle differences in approach are needed at the local level.
SL: Our colleague Michael Risdianto travelled through Dayak villages in north-central Kalimantan, explaining about the dangers of using destructive fishing methods and had huge success. Do you think we can we create a platform for a wider, shared understanding and combating of the destructive fishing menace?
Yeah, I am sure we can. It is great to hear about Michael’s initiative.
I think there is scope for knowledge and skill-sharing between communities and taking that as a way to improve messages. It is also time to move on from “global north” telling “global south” what to do, to an environment where we support community initiatives and efforts to build wider networks through knowledge-sharing.
SL: Your studies relied heavily upon local research assistants; how were attitudes to them different from their reactions to you as a foreigner?
We had a team of six local research assistants and Dudin. He would help to organise the team and he has continued the fish surveys through the pandemic (of course following health and safety guidelines).My interview team was slightly different from the fish survey team but they all came from within the region. Those doing interviews were not necessarily from the local villages but they were from the area.
When conducting interviews you have to consider if the interviewees are willing to discuss things with you, as you are a foreigner. There may be local power dynamics at play, and there may be some knowledge that is just not for us as foreigners to have access to.
Generally people love to talk about fish, so they are usually happy to share. This is especially the case if I talk about local names for the fish.
Often the villagers would tell me if there is a specific knowledge they cannot share with an outsider. But they also treated me as someone trying to learn about their lives; they were proud to share their stories. They like talking about things that matter to them. This is also something special when it comes to fish: across the world they are so important to people of many different cultures. This common relationship with fish is something that has also made me build quite an emotional attachment to them, too.
SL: Can an outsider bring a different mentality? Or greater objectivity?
What I found was that me admitting “I don’t know about your fish” and genuinely asking for help broke down barriers, and most were happy to teach me about their rivers and relationships to various fish species. Likewise, it really felt like a gift to me whenever people were willing to share their knowledge. I was also a young woman (22-years-old) when I started working in this field and that was probably also helpful in making people feel at ease around me. I was very much a student, in many senses of the word.
I often take issue with the word “objectivity” because there are many different ways of seeing the world and they are equally valid. My research is about understanding this variety of worldviews and relationships which we have involved in our environment. If we bring multiple views into the study, we have a better chance of understanding both issues and solutions.
SL: So the conservation intention should always be to work in partnership with those who have first-hand knowledge of the river, using (or training) a local as a conduit to ensure accuracy of information exchange?
It is the only way to work, I feel: in partnership. I trained my research team to use some equipment but it was still a co-training exercise. I needed training in how to identify the fish and how to not be stupid in the forest.
Local knowledge and scientific knowledge start to merge in the “real world”, there is a lot of co-learning happening and it needs to continue. We have always depended on local knowledge; but I think researchers have not always been good in acknowledging it.
SL: And how do we ensure we select those researchers who have either: a) genuine intention to work for the locals and their environment? and b) will come with an open or enquiring mind, not bringing pre-set thinking or viewpoints?
It is clear that “parachute science” is no longer acceptable (it never was, but there are increasing amounts of open discussions about this) and social media platforms are helping to drive those changes. It may not have happened fast enough or early enough but it has to continue from now.
To answer your specific questions: we all bring our own pre-set ways of thinking. For everyone who needs to travel to a different community to work, there is always unlearning we can do. This is the same whether we are talking about social sciences or natural sciences, project leaders or research assistants. It can be hard to find the “right people” for projects.
We also need to accept that people may be in a different stage of this journey of unlearning and re-learning. To me I just try to be as loud as I can about my views on research ethics and collaboration, and I hope that that attracts people with similar values.
SL: Similarly, are there steps we should take to check that data or information collected in the field are not as a result of distortions or ingrained, non-objective ways of seeing the habitat?
All forms of knowledge have their owns ways of being validated and tested. We can triangulate different types of data and information to get better results.
We should always challenge our own assumptions: are those things we think “true” actually knowledge?
It is better to collect a range of information, and then explore why some forms or sources of information may conflict with each other.
SL: Even if something clearly is wrong?
Then we need to understand why someone holds that viewpoint. Only then can we work to change any mindsets (where of course this is appropriate). There will be moments when we have to challenge inaccuracies but it can all depend on context. Sometimes it may not be my place to decide what is correct or truthful; other times it may be important to challenge inaccuracies.
SL: A large part of our work at Mahseer Trust is about sharing information. We believe that those who are intimately involved with their local river may feel that their problems are unique, whereas many of the issues faced by freshwater species are common throughout the mahseer range. How can we better connect the far-spread reaches of the mahseer range?
The place to start is connecting with local organisations and assessing with them what their needs are. That’s when to build a network. Some can be through workshops, either remotely or in-person. Photography and storytelling are great methods to connect people; travelling exhibitions will connect people.
Some issues may be unique but also many are shared and connecting those may also offer different solutions to tackling issues. Once again, flexibility in approach is needed to address issues that may appear similar but can be subtly different at a local level.
SL: You were part of the recent IUCN freshwater fish study for Sundaland, which assessed hundreds of species within Indonesia and Malaysia. For many regional researchers, this area is believed to be ‘ground zero’ for mahseer species (the drowned Uttara Sunda river basin paleochannel connects rivers through the whole Southeast Asian mahseer range). How is there a comprehensive conservation action plan for so many fish species in this region, that has no mahseer included?
I was involved with that workshop in 2019 in Singapore and I was informed that it was happening through Borneo Nature Foundation. I don’t know exactly how participants were chosen but it is likely that it was down to who had contacts through personal or organisational networks. We were all assigned species depending on who of the 19 attendees had experience. We could only cover the species and habitats for which we had experience “in the room”. It was clear there would be some pretty big blind-spots.
I’m pretty sure we also didn’t include any Data Deficient species. To consider those, we need more information on distributions and ecology. Because all of the local mahseer species are Data Deficient, that may be one reason for their not being included.
It was so obvious that this kind of report comes down to “who is in the room”. There was a lot of focus on peat swamp fish because several of us in the room had a particular interest in these habitats (and they are also of great conservation need and interest for the region’s fish species). There were others with specific species interest, so it all depended on who was there. Accessibility is an issue that can hopefully be changed by the use of more online or hybrid formats, and more work on connections with other organisations will help to bring experience of other fishes “into the room”.
SL: What do we need to do to ensure mahseer are included in future freshwater conservation action plans?
It is a hard one and as I just said, requires time to build connections with other organisations. Bodies like Freshwater Life Project and Shoal are a part of the picture and both you and I have connections with them. Still, there is a lot more we can do to strengthen and build these connections among those working on freshwater fishes.
We are all working towards the same goal, maybe with a different focus on species or locations, but we do need to create those connections for the good of all freshwater species.