A Sea View: Marine connectivity, and the myth of the ‘Primitive isolate’

In biology, there has been a prevailing paradigm of marine connectivity: the ocean connects all (particularly if you have a planktonic stage). The paradigm of high marine connectivity led to misunderstandings in population biology and marine ecology, which in turn have long excused overfishing, marine pollution etc. In recent work I have been studying the connectivity of fish populations in the Southern Ocean. What Antarctic fish show us is that in the marine world, connectedness to other populations (vs isolation) is extremely variable and depends on many factors  – geographic location, life history strategy, and the vagaries of an intensely fluctuating environment (e.g. the effect of an El Nino year on local currents). The paradigm is now changing -accepting the reality that for most animals, the sea is as full of physical barriers as any terrestrial environment.

Potential projects in this area include:

a)      Marine Connectivity, the Boundless Sea, and the ‘myth of the primitive isolate’.  

I am interested in how we view the sea culturally, historically, aesthetically – and how this aesthetic affects things from our science to our politics. In contrast to the biological view of high marine connectivity, the historical view for most human populations appears to portray the ocean as ‘the great divide’ separating and isolating human societies. Perhaps not surprisingly, that which we assumed for marine animals (high connectivity across the sea) is actually not so true for them (there are geographic & temporal barriers everywhere) – but is instead true for us. Where we have generally viewed the sea as the most vast of barriers, humans have in fact moved far more freely across it then expected. Indeed a different view of islands may be held by seafaring islanders vs continental landlubbers. In some situations islands are understood as hubs connected by the sea, rather than isolated entities separated by a sea barrier. (Even what we consider the most remote of islands, Rapanui, has been recast as a hub of cultural connectivity (Dr. D. Bendrups).) How do our historical aesthetics of the sea vary across cultures, and what are the drivers of such variable views? To contemporary islanders is the sea a connector or a barrier? Are there hemispherical biases? If you surveyed New Zealanders today, do they look to sea and feel connected or cut off? How does this affect our view of and management of the marine environment as a natural resource? For example, in areas where local geography is at odds with the marine connectivity paradigm (where the sea is fragmented by island groups, fjiords, or reef systems) is there less of an aesthetic of a broad mixing ocean environment and how does this affect fisheries practice? Does sustainability correlate with marine geography?

  • Potential collaborator in
  • John Terrell (Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology Department of Anthropology, The Field Museum Chicago): instead of conceiving of islands as vertices – they are more like nodes in social network.

b)     Following the Kelp: Ancient Human Migrations and Modern Tangle Harvest.

The history of human interaction with kelp: from the paleolithic, to 20th century Hebridean tangle wars, to modern harvesting and international alginate demand.

  • potential collaborators at U. Oregon; Westray, Orkney Islands

c)     The Life and Tales of cod: Fisheries from Neolithic to Now.

  • potential collaborators at McDonald Inst. for Archaeological Research, Cambridge; Flemish Heritage Institute, Brussels; Roskilde Univ, Denmark; Univ. New Hampshire, USA


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