Using local knowledge to help coastal restoration design

Integrating the knowledge of local fishermen and coastal Louisiana workers with scientific processes used to design coastal restoration project has been a difficult task.

In addition, there has been some hesitation about using “traditional ecological knowledge” because scientists have questioned how talking to a few people living in the area can be the basis of making coastal policy.

That’s where the method created by the team called Sci-TEK, which stands for Scientific and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, comes into play.

“We’ve created a systematic process that mimics the scientific method,” said Matthew Bethel, project manager with the UNO’s Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences.

With a $500,000 grant from the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Bethel and a team of academics, coastal nonprofits, community representatives and others created a method of how this local knowledge could be harnessed.

The project initially started as a dissertation Bethel did in developing a method to bring local knowledge of one community in Plaquemines Parish to find out their priorities for restoration. Bethel said he was approached by representatives from the state who were interested in seeing if the work could be expanded to include a larger area.

By November 2010, Bethel and the team started developing and applying the method to the Barataria Basin, including the parishes of Plaquemines and Jefferson.

“There are people within the state who really want to see traditional ecological knowledge included,” said Michelle Esposito, research associate with the UNO Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology.

“Restoration kind of happens to people,” she explained of how projects have happened along the coast.

The plans are designed and modeled in Baton Rouge, then the idea is presented to the people living in the coastal communities who usually get a three-minute chance to talk at a public meeting and then the project is built, she said.

That type of process damages trust and sometimes isn’t good for the coast because there are pieces missing from the project that could have been provided by locals, Esposito said.

Coastal residents have a wealth of information on conditions they observe on a daily basis, whether it is weather, currents, tide or other factors that could affect a project, she said. Residents also see the fate of projects that have been built before, Esposito said.

Given that information, local fishermen and others who work in the coastal system have priorities of what projects they’d like to see done first.

Those observations are then mapped in a way that they can be incorporated with the physical science map of geology, hydraulics, biology and more.

“Once we have a map, it can be incorporated into the process they already use,” Esposito said about the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, agreed and said the problem in the past with how to incorporate local knowledge is how to base policy on one or two people’s opinion.

“How do you weigh it when the model says X and they say Y,” Graves said.

Graves and Jerome Zeringue, director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, agreed that this new method will help give the state a way to bring this knowledge into the planning process used by the state.

“We want to make sure we use all available information,” Zeringue said.

The search for people with local knowledge began at places where people congregate, such as boat docks or shops. Esposito said 400 people were asked whom they would recommend to talk about the subject of coastal restoration needs.

A list of people mentioned multiple times was then taken back to the communities and people there were asked whom they would select off the list.

“The most recommended was the 13 people we chose,” she said. “The guys we went out with were just really knowledgeable.”

Numerous boat trips were made and information was logged in a way that could be useful to scientists and computer modelers. The purpose of the method they developed is to help provide another layer of information to the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s decision-making process.

Meetings to present the program will be from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lindy C. Boggs International Conference Center at the University of New Orleans, 2045 Lakeshore Drive, Room 257, and in Baton Rouge from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the State Library of Louisiana seminar room, 701 N. Fourth St.