Aqua & culture: An overview of the role of relational ecology in island-based development

Picture of horseshoe crab shell covered in barnacles and seashells.

Empty horseshoe crab shell. (Michaela Compo/George Washington University)

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As the tide laps gently against the worn rock-face, two pairs of small feet tramp across the sandstone. One foot slips and the other follows down into a hidden crevice, before recovering balance and continuing on to catch the other pair. Along the wide tidal platform, at foot-level, pools of water grace the shoreline. These tide pools, fueled by the Pacific just a few footsteps away, are home to crabs, seaweeds, and other invertebrates. Organisms that have made their home, whether it be temporary or permanent, watch as small feet pause in their presence, mutually awestruck. A pair of larger feet join the two and help to identify the inhabitants of the tide pool. These inquiries coupled with inherent curiosity and compassion, as disclosed by the owner of the larger feet, serve as the best education a parent could hope for their children. As my feet stood planted on the rock, waiting to hear the next species name or vertebrate distinction, an empty horseshoe crab shell brushed gently up against my ankle.    

Scaling up these intimate moments between human and nature, the coasts offer a window into the function of relational ecology in sustainable development: to address the question of how a community’s connection to the ocean impacts the development of aquaculture.

Islands and Oceans

The interconnected waters of Planet Earth serve as a bridge between land masses, as well as between humans and the environment. In the context of all ecologies, that of the ocean is the most biodiverse and contains the most that is unknown to humanity. In using this ecosystem for profit, human industry has commodified the ocean and exploited this biodiversity. 

In response to this large-scale degradation, aquaculture industries around the world have been developing methods to pursue these resources in a way that honors the ocean and its invaluable ecosystem. The stewards of such innovations are largely the Indigenous groups of coastal communities, who have been thriving in unity, using these “new innovations” for millennia. 

Through their cultural tradition and roots in the physical environment, many communities illustrate the expanded parameter of human understanding that is present when society and environment exist in unity. Although Indigenous communities serve as the most deeply and widely connected communities in communion with the natural environment, there are non-Indigenous communities that have developed to share similar values. 

Relational Ecology

In the discussion of post-human geographies — environmental philosophies that de-center humanity — relational ecology serves as the philosophy that represents the “vitality of non-human actors –– climate, animals, plants, waterways –– and their relationship with humanity and amongst one another.”  Developed in this context by Tim Ingold, relational ecology, as a theory and in practice values all, “who might come to share in each other’s wisdoms.” It is this sharing of wisdom, alongside cosmetological beliefs, that inform Indigenous ways of life. Their stewardship and comprehensive awareness of the patterns in the natural world give the Indigenous populations an opportunity to serve their environment and community. This relational ecology can be carried over into the development of plans for aquaculture, thus encompassing some aspects of the rich connection between the community, especially those who are Indigenous, and the environment. 


Aquaculture is defined as the “cultivation of ocean-dwelling plants or animals, for human consumption.” Ever-growing, aquaculture industries in Japan, Korea and China have set the stage for developments across the oceans. Humans are looking to alternative, sustainable food sources to sustain themselves as the world’s resources dwindle. These processes may require sophisticated systems of machinery, nets and treatments. Aquaculture requires specificity and careful planning in order to be successful, and sustainable. 

Despite the challenges and potential for degradation, there are innovators pushing forward to promote large-scale production. Sustainable use of ocean resources has taken place for millennia by Indigenous peoples on island nations and other coastal regions. From a larger-scale perspective, by scaling up their subsistence model there is potential to “consume marine food in a more diverse and insightful manner, including eating from lower trophic levels and limiting bycatch and waste.”

Island Relational Ecology

Large-scale aquaculture development is happening, and will continue to do so. It is a large opportunity for a shift in economic and societal perspectives that focus only on industrial endeavors, to the ontological basis of relation ecology, so that aquaculture might be conducted in a more sustainable manner.  Their position in the economic and geopolitical shadow of multinational corporations often makes small island nations vulnerable to be exploited and ignored. A broader understanding and awareness of natural processes and patterns give policy makers and industry leaders an opportunity to collaborate with local communities to expand sustainable ocean aquaculture. 

This philosophy of relational ecology, fueled by curiosity and compassion, can be carried out by anyone, anywhere, no matter how small their feet are. 

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