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common ground

Stewards of the Human Landscape
Spring 2001

Online Archive

*  The Value of Ground Truth: Sustaining America's Fishing Communities

(image) Illustration of park constituants.

"Environmental problems create winners and losers . . . Losers suffer from lost resources, health, and livelihood. Their powerlessness is often tied to poverty, ethnicity, or religion. "

Barbara Johnston

by Shirley J. Fiske

Ground-truthed information, I learned at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, is data collected by remote platforms like satellites interpreted with information from instruments such as rain gauges or buoys on the earth's surface. The instruments on the ground act as a corrective if clouds obscure the satellite's view—a vital function when it comes to tracking weather patterns like hurricanes.

Ethnography is another way of getting ground-thruthed information. Anthropologists begin at the most elementary level, the ground level, as a starting point for understanding how people organize themselves, what is important to them, and how political institutions, social class, and ethnicity affect their attitudes or values. This type of ground-truthed information is enormously useful in setting responsive and scientifically accurate policy for natural resources in general and, at NOAA, coastal and marine resources in particular.

This article highlights one of NOAA's primary responsibilities—building and sustaining America's marine fisheries. With fisheries, as with the weather, NOAA needs information from many sources to know what is going on at the ground level. The efforts described here were undertaken by university faculty sponsored in part by NOAA's National Sea Grant Program and National Marine Fisheries Service. They are two examples of how NOAA uses ethnographic knowledge to accomplish its mission.

Identifying Fishing-Dependent Communities

NOAA's responsibilities encompass more than measuring the biological and economic indicators of harvesting fish. From its inception, the law establishing the agency's stewardship, the 1976 Magnuson Act, called for describing a community's culture as well as its historic participation in fishing. Under the 1996 reauthorization of the act, concern for the health of fishing communities reached new visibility. Since many fishermen began to face overall limits or individual quotas on how many fish or shellfish could be harvested, the bottom line was that many communities were under severe economic stress. Fishermen were unable to make their vessel mortgages, service businesses like ice or gas suppliers were going bankrupt, and families faced the social problems that go with being out of work for a long time.

When large numbers of families are affected, the whole community feels it. The reauthorization called for assessing the regulations' effect on communities' sustained participation in fishing—their ability to survive. It further required efforts to mitigate adverse impacts.

Congress, however, did not define what constitutes a fishing community—a controversial issue, because they are not always cohesive, bounded seaports. Fishing communities are often a network of individuals and businesses linked to the production of the finished product, and each link is dependent on fishing harvests for their income. The reauthorization of the Magnuson Act brought new regulations calling for a more comprehensive definition of these communities. The National Marine Fisheries Service assigned the task to an anthropologist, Dr. Patricia Clay, because of the discipline's established body of research on fishing families, their communities, and the industry in general.

The job did not depend on new ethnographic fieldwork, but rested on a generation of earlier research sponsored primarily by the National Sea Grant College Program and NMFS. This research, as it has informed the regulations, recognizes that a fishing community is not solely comprised of vessel owners, but includes crew members and families with varying levels of dependence on the harvest. It also includes secondary businesses that process, market, and supply. Under the new regulation, a community must have a geographic locus as a minimum to be considered a community, but its unique economic and social conditions will be considered, including networks that extend beyond town or seaport lines.

The act required each NOAA region to address "community-dependency." Each region used existing data to draw minimal community profiles. All the regions, however, are seeking to develop more thorough descriptions of communities. The northeast region—through an agreement with anthropologists at MIT, the University of Rhode Island, and economists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—hopes to develop technical guidance on how to identify communities and describe both sociocultural and economic dependency.

New Ways to Manage Maine's Lobster Harvest

NOAA does not have a specific ethnography program located in one place in the organization, like the National Park Service. But it is clear that NOAA's investments in anthropology, through the National Sea Grant College Program and National Marine Fisheries Service, have been important in shaping management practices for coastal and marine resources, as illustrated by the work of University of Maine anthropologist Jim Acheson.

The National Sea Grant Program, one of NOAA's partnership programs that underwrites science and outreach on coastal issues, first funded Acheson in 1977 when he studied the adoption of wire lobster traps in three communities along the coast of Maine (traditional traps were made of wood). This work began a long-term research relationship between Acheson, the Maine Sea Grant Program, and lobstering communities and families, which has fostered trust and respect for academic research among lobstermen. The value of the work was underscored by the development of an innovative approach to managing Maine's lobsters.

Acheson's insightful 1988 book The Lobster Gangs of Maine laid the groundwork for fishery managers and lobstermen to understand the web of relationships that determines their survival and quality of life on the water: the principles of territoriality and "ownership" of lobster resources, the social organization of harvesting on a local scale, and the implications for the reigning conceptual paradigm in fisheries. Along with others such as the National Science Foundation, the Sea Grant Program in Maine continued to fund Acheson, who has researched the political history of lobstering, trap technology, management issues such as trap limits, and views of the "boom and bust" phenomena from the perspective of those in the industry as well as that of biological scientists, suggesting management strategies using the knowledge of lobster fishermen.

Acheson's longstanding work, along with that of his colleague at the University of Maine, economist Jim Wilson, has positioned them among the leaders involved in recent changes in lobster management. In 1995 Maine enacted a new approach to state lobster management, resting on local councils and "zones," in which lobstermen play an integral role in tailoring the regulations to their immediate area, deciding such issues as how many traps an individual can have or when they can fish. The law provides for several important innovations: (1) The creation of zone councils, drawn up to reflect various localized fishing conditions, historical "territories," and the needs of fishermen in different areas of the coast; (2) more authority and responsibility for the lobstermen—the councils can propose gear restrictions, regulate time of fishing, or other management practices—to be implemented in their area; and (3) the establishment of a two-year apprenticeship program, which in effect limits entry to the field while passing on practice and traditions to the next generation of lobstermen.

Cited as an example of co-management between the industry and state resource managers by some in the fishing industry, the new program is just getting underway. Many have contributed to the innovations, including state resource managers, marine extension specialists, lobstermen's associations, scientists, and the lobstermen themselves. Central to its development, however, is the work of the two social scientists that provided the ground-truthed knowledge of how the fisheries function. Wilson's work on chaos theory in economics, for example, argues that government has a role in setting the general parameters of fishery management, but that other decisions can and probably should be based on more local knowledge about the health and functioning of an ecosystem. Acheson's work on the social organization of lobstering has shown the value of building on local traditional practices, rather than instituting statewide homogenous regulations. These research legacies are being played out as the new laws are implemented through the Maine department of natural resources working with local zone councils.

Acheson and Wilson continue to play a lead role in developing the new councils. Along with the head of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, a representative of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and other individuals, they are members of the lobster zone working group, which in 1996 held meetings from the southern tip of the state to "down east" Maine, to address local questions and concerns regarding the new management regime.

This model of how fisheries can be run in partnership with state fishery managers—utilizing local control (instead of a top-down, one-size-fits-all management) and the expertise and stewardship of generations of fishermen—is now being considered by both fishermen and state resource managers as a model for harvesting scallops, soft-shell clams, and sea urchins in the Northeast. The results so far? It is early, but it seems that lobster co-management has been launched successfully.

Most impressively, local councils are stepping up to responsibility and actually imposing stricter trap limits. This development counters the widespread belief that fishermen will "fish out every last fish in the sea" if they are allowed to manage their own fisheries. There are subtler but equally important results: the zone councils have brought into political participation a new generation of fishermen (the 30 to 40-year-olds) who are apparently consummate politicians as zone chairs. And, information sharing among state resource agencies and fishermen has improved dramatically. The end results will be better conservation of lobsters, better compliance with regulations, and more tailored rules commensurate with local practices and needs.

The Payoffs

Identifying the nature and extent of fishing communities, fishing-dependency, and how management measures affect all tiers of the harvesting enterprise are all important considerations. The ground truthed approach—talking with people first to incorporate their knowledge, social organization, and values—has important payoffs for resource management agencies.

Shirley J. Fiske is currently on leave from NOAA, working as a Brookings Institution Legis Fellow on Capitol Hill with issues such as invasive species, coral reefs, alternative energy sources, and land and water conservation—from the human perspective. For more information, contact Shirley J. Fiske, R/SG, National Sea Grant College Program, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910, (202) 224-6361. Collage photographs courtesy Shirley J. Fiske and Jim Acheson.