All along the docks at the fishing port of Point Judith, at the very tip of southern Rhode Island, big draggers and small lobster boats alike have sat idle through their usual seasons. Though Point Judith-Galilee remains one of the nation's major fishing ports--landing fluke, scup, pollock, winter flounder, herring, bluefish, menhaden, squid, skates, dogfish and lobster, among other species--southern New England's ports share a pattern: more and more boats are skipping seasons and making fewer trips. A combination of insufficient labor, high fuel prices and stricter regulations have forced many boat captains to limit their fishing.
Tori parks the Lobster Truck in front of Point Judith's lobster boats seven days a week to sell shellfish. Once upon a time, the lobsters she sold to tourists were supplied by the lobstermen behind her; they were a Rhode Island product. Tori was among the few women who would join the lobstermen at fishery meetings in the area, and she let her presence be known. Then, in the mid-1990s, an oil spill precipitated the collapse of the Point Judith lobster fishery. The restocked lobster fell prey to a shell disease that has devastated a once lucrative business; fuel prices have made it even harder for lobstering to bounce back and the fishery continues to struggle. Tori has her own scientific theories about why lobsters have faired so poorly, but these days, she doesn't make these inklings public. She has removed herself from fishery politics in southern New England, and she interacts only rarely with the local lobstermen, because she doesn't have to. Though she won't advertise the fact, the lobsters she sells out of the Lobster Truck today are shipped in from Canada.
Tori's decision is an increasingly common one in the fishing communities of southern New England. The shift to food systems with ever-widening gaps between source and mouth has been in motion for decades. But Point Judith's Lobster Truck does not merely symbolize the weakening of local economies and estrangement from our food sources. It is symbolic of the danger that New England's fisheries will be lost if the local fishing industry collapses. Fisheries' managers must meaningfully address the importance of local fishermen--and the fishing communities necessary for their survival--if they hope to work for localized marine improvement rather than outsourced marine degradation.
Fishing communities have long been accused of weakening fisheries by catching too many fish. This accusation is logical and warranted. But it is an inaccurate environmentalist spasm that fears fishermen and maintains that less fishing out of local ports is better for the ocean. This overly simplistic view is problematic not only because it ignores the human communities that rely on fishing for their way of life; it also endangers our nation's fisheries by disempowering an interest group that depends upon conservation. Yes, local fishermen kill fish. But local fishermen are also necessary for the survival of fish at a time when other marine industries have little need for them; fishermen represent an interest in healthy fisheries at the local level, where it counts.
New England's fishing communities--Point Judith, New Bedford, Gloucester--do not just have cultural value. To steal jargon from the ecologists, they offer an indispensable environmental service: local awareness and locally vested interest in a healthy fishery. Without fishing communities, the state of the world's wild fisheries would be at the mercy of disinterested mega-trawlers, interested only in the bottom line and ready to move to the next species and the next fishing ground until the only seafood available would come from corporatized aquaculture.
Madeleine Hall-Arber is the director of MIT Sea Grant's Center for Marine Social Sciences and conducts social impact assessments of fisheries regulations in New England. After decades spent studying interactions between people and fish in human communities, she hopes that a place remains for small fishing operators in the area, for social and for ecological benefit. Smaller boats are more flexible for adaptation to different fishing gear or targeted species. Since fisheries management is dynamic and regulations are always changing, this propensity for flexibility is indispensable for effective compliance.
If these smaller scale fishermen are forced out of business or are outcompeted by international trawlers, fishing activity only moves to foreign seas, reducing the opportunity for domestic input and oversight over fishing activity that will still have environmental impact elsewhere. Fishing operations that are not tied to the local community are alarmingly out of touch with community concerns. A spokesperson for a New Bedford fish house with international customers revealed in an interview that she was startlingly unaware of the ecological and economic discussions going on in the hard-hit New Bedford fishing community. On the other hand, the owner of a bait company in Point Judith, whose customers are local lobstermen, was knowledgeable not only about the state of fisheries, but also about other environmental issues impacting the fishing community, including issues of industrial pollution and pesticides. In fact, an ongoing study by the Northeast Consortium's Collaborative Research Visioning Project clearly supports the importance of idea sharing between sectors. The more involved fishermen are with the management of local fisheries, the more scientists and fishermen can share valuable knowledge about the marine environment--knowledge that is crucial to effective marine conservation.
For years, the organizational structure of fisheries management has reinforced the fishermen v. fish relationship. Though regional councils serve under the federal umbrella of National Marine Fisheries Services, they are divided into committees by species or fishing method and largely omit social, economic or other ecological factors (like climate change) not directly related to their target demon, overfishing. There have been some positive changes in fisheries management ideology, notably with the updated federal Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1996, which requires that the "needs of the community" be considered in fisheries management, and requires the public to have the chance to weigh in. But this "chance" is mostly restricted to very limited, often poorly publicized periods of public comment that occur as a side note to council meeting business. More often than not, fishermen are either unable to attend these meetings or feel their concerns fall on deaf ears; many walk away in clear disgust. It will always be impossible to please everyone in fisheries management. The problem is that the current fisheries management framework places the human community at a less important level than the ecological one and ignores their interconnectedness.
Given the importance of maintaining the local fishing industry--especially the continued presence of small and medium-sized boats with ties to the community--it is time to integrate conservation and local fishing more rigorously. Ecosystem-based management is a good place to start when thinking about community-environment systems. Ecosystem-based management is an approach in conservation biology and environmental science that grew out of the criticism that managing single issues and sectors (say, Maine lobster or nutrient pollution) fatally ignores the interactive way that these systems really function. Managing for one issue without also considering multiple others may work against long-term management interests.
Fisheries managers should go beyond the Magnuson-Stevens Act and adopt a systems approach that applies not only to fisheries science but also to the way they think about the fishing industry's importance to conservation goals. There needs to be place-based management that considers fish and responsible fishermen as mutually important. And this approach needs to come about quickly. With the recent economic downturn, nail-in-the-coffin fuel prices and management that often appears to ignore the practical reality of fishermen's lives, southern New England's fishing industry is in bad shape. This is the moment for creativity and collaboration, not environmental clich√©. It's not a story of too many fishermen, not enough fish. It's a story of fishermen and fish, and both need our support.
Some names have been changed.
KATIE OKAMOTO B'09's scientific purpose is revenge.