Restoring knowledge

Changing ways of thinking in Western science
Modern science and First Nations Knowledge, handed down over generations, have long existed as separate entities. Now, geoscientist Dr Mitchell Gibbs is drawing on traditional practices in a bid to restore oyster reefs and to change ways of thinking within Western science.

So much more than just a culinary delicacy, oysters play a critical role in keeping estuaries clean and ecosystems thriving. A single adult oyster can purify over 200 litres of water per day, filtering toxins and microplastics, while natural oyster reefs provide food and shelter for fish, increase biodiversity and reduce erosion.

However, oyster reefs no longer provide the benefits they once did. Australia has already lost an estimated 99 percent of its Sydney rock oyster reefs and more than 92 percent of mud or flat oyster reefs. It’s believed that overharvesting for food and construction in the early days of European settlement, deforestation, and the impacts of our ever-changing climate have led to near extinction. 

Meeting the challenge of reversing the oyster population’s decline is Dr Mitchell Gibbs (PhD (Science) ’21), a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences. He spends many of his days speaking with Elders across Australia’s eastern coast, sharing ecological research and his own understanding of oyster farming and coastal management.

Oyster reefs were devastated in the early days of European settlement.

“I primarily sit down with Elders and knowledge holders and listen to them talk about their oral and lived history – what they’ve done in their lives and what they’ve seen,” Gibbs says. “Then I show the principles of science that are held within this. So this is driven by community – about what, where and how they want restoration to be done.” 

This exchange of Western science and First Nations Knowledge will allow community members to have a say in future reef restoration processes, which is what Gibbs is all about. “My interests lie in making sure that the knowledge Elders are sharing is being saved and passed down for the next generations. This knowledge is stored with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and in academia – for knowledge that has been approved to be shared in the academic space,” Gibbs says. “While this helps the health of the oysters’ environment, it also brings back places of practices, places of continued shared knowledge and places of sovereignty.

“We hope to be able to change the way restoration is done, ensuring that community members have a valid and meaningful say about what is happening, and hopefully to generate policy change.”

When he lectures students at the University of Sydney, Gibbs emphasises the fact that First Nations Knowledge is deeply place-based. “Each nation possesses its own unique organisms, ecosystems and practices that cannot be universally applied to other communities,” Gibbs says. “Modern science, by comparison, tends to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, using the same cultivation and restoration techniques for every oyster bed.”

Gibbs believes in bridging the gap between the two approaches and nurturing generational stories so that scientists can learn from First Nations histories.

Gibb's work aims to bring back Indigenous places of practices and to conserve traditional knowledge.

Community has always played a significant role in Gibbs’ life. A Dunghutti man through kinship, he grew up near Willawarrin, 30 kilometres west of Kempsey, in the Dunghutti nation. When Gibbs was a child, there were around 110 people in Willawarrin. They had a single main street, a post office and a pub. He spent a lot of his time with his father, who taught him and his twin brother about the ecosystems thriving in their backyard.

“We grew up on 100 acres just outside of Willawarrin,” Gibbs recalls. “When we were young, we’d go up the back of our place, and then my dad would tell us to go home on our own, without his help. So he knew that we could get home without him at any time. When the kookaburras would start laughing in the afternoon, that would be the sign that we had to go home. That’s when the sun’s going down. And there were markers in the trees that would point us home.”

The whole point of doing my research is to benefit our people. That’s what I’m going to do in the future, so that when we start looking at habitat restoration, we’re looking at it in terms of ... what is beneficial for our community.”

After watching an episode of Blue Heelers, young Gibbs dreamt of becoming a police officer. His nan urged him to go to university instead, so he chose to study the closest thing to his enthusiasm for the force, forensic science. A stint in forensics, including an honours degree studying fluorescein (a blood test reagent used in crime scenes), opened a world of options in the science field.

The next step for Gibbs was pursuing a PhD in biochemistry and marine biology at the University of Sydney. But when his research grant ran dry and his father fell ill, he struggled to find a way to continue his candidature.

“I was travelling up home because my dad was going through chemo at the time, every three weeks,” he says. “And so I’d apply for jobs, but then I’d have to tell them that I was going to be away for a week out of every three. And a lot of places weren’t really happy with that.”

He reached out to an organisation that provides educational scholarships to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, the GO Foundation, which supported him to be with his father and helped him through this challenging time.

Fast forward to 2023, and Gibbs’ academic career is going from strength to strength. He has been granted a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship, awarded to select scholars for their commitment to fostering cross-cultural understanding, with funding for an international exchange opportunity.

Gibbs plans to collaborate with Western Washington University on a project that learns about successful habitat restoration projects from Coast Salish communities in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. These projects have started with community engagement and, as such, Gibbs says they have been tremendously successful. This includes exchanging knowledge of shellfish between cultures, such as their practice of cultivating and harvesting clams through clam gardens – purposefully constructed rock walls that create ideal conditions for clam growth.

Gibbs wants to bring back this systematic approach of restoration to better help Australian First Nations communities to be active members in restoration. This will ensure that communities have a meaningful say about what happens in their backyards.

Dr Mitchell Gibbs is drawing on Elder's knowledge to help rejuvenate oyster populations and restore reefs.

In the United States, he will also examine how the Pacific Northwest region keeps open communication with its Indigenous groups. “They’ve got a very acknowledging and respectful relationship with Washington State, as well as with Western Washington University. That’s something which we don’t have in Australia,” he says. “What I’ll be doing is understanding the interactions between the community and the university and government, and making sure that when we do restoration here, we do it in a similar way to make sure that it is inclusive of communities and not just tokenistic.”

Gibbs’ ambition is to make sure First Nations storytelling scales beyond the research he is doing in the US. He hopes that Australia’s future is one with a firm grasp on conserving First Nations practices relating to coastal management and beyond.

“In addition to learning from Elders and knowledge holders, this also means making space for the continued practice of traditional knowledge – allowing it to be taught in universities or schools (for information that has been approved by communities) so that we can all do our part to protect and help our environment.

Universities are places of knowledge. They shouldn’t be representative of only one type of knowledge. That means having a university that is completely open to having Indigenous Knowledge heard and recognising Elders as knowledge holders.
Mitch Gibbs

“If you asked me what my greatest ambition is, I’d say to properly incorporate Indigenous Knowledge into university. This means to have meaningful input from community members into curriculums and to have community Elders recognised for being knowledge holders, including as lecturers or teachers.” 

Gibbs hopes his expertise as a postdoctoral researcher will serve as a powerful catalyst. “I’ve been fortunate enough to go through university and learn a certain skill set. So the best thing I can do is make sure that it benefits our community.

“The whole point of doing my research is to benefit our people. That’s what I’m going to do in the future, so that when we start looking at habitat restoration, we’re looking at it in terms of what community wants and what is beneficial for our community.”

2 November 2023

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