Remember the days when most everyone was talking about “small is beautiful”? The catalyst was E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book by that title and subtitled “Economics as if People Mattered.” Then came the 80s and 90s with its extravagant lifestyles fueled by a hot stock market, globalization and huge companies like Wal-Mart spreading inexorably across the globe.
While there are signs we’re finally coming back to the wisdom of that concept in agriculture with more sustainable community farms popping up around the country, in the fishing industry it hasn’t been heard of much. Mostly what we hear is just gloom and doom about the disappearing fish and fishermen loosing their livelihoods.
Well, Ted Ames and his wife Robin Alden, both involved in fisheries issues for decades, are giving us some hope. As speakers last week at a Citizens Offering New Alternatives public forum in Newcastle, the couple from Deer Isle presented an inspiring case for how failing fisheries can be turned around, using just this concept of small-scale management.
Fishermen become stewards
“Our only hope is for fishermen to take the reins… to become stewards” of the resource, Alden said. As a former head of Maine’s Dept. of Marine Resources, she knows from experience the “failure,” as she put it, of bureaucracies to control fisheries issues.
The system of fishery quotas to control species populations sets up a dynamic of “power” and “greed” and doesn’t address the fundamental problems of why the resource is depleting – from habitat loss and “overwhelming technology,” for example, Alden suggested.
“The conversation should be based on principles,” which can be implemented more easily in a smaller setting, she said, because humans “can’t operate well beyond a certain geography.” This kind of “communitybased government” is being used successfully in third world countries in forestry and agriculture, she added.
Ames, a long-time fisherman and also a scientist, presented a slide show of his research into lost fisheries along the Northeast coast, work that won him a MacArthur Foundation award last year. As part of the fishing community, he was able to chart old fishing grounds, and what became clear was that cod and other fish spawn along the coastal shelf in the Gulf of Maine, within 20 miles of the coast, and this is where the fisheries had collapsed most dramatically.
The graphs showed fisheries productivity over a span of years. High productivity was the general rule until it began to decline precipitously in the late 1960s with the advent of huge foreign fishing trawlers coming into the Northeast coast waters. When the offshore limit was enforced to protect American fishing fleets, the numbers climbed dramatically. However, very soon after, the productivity fell rapidly again.
“Marine ecosystems are very complex and always changing,” Ames said, indicating that not enough thinking about this complexity goes into management of fisheries. “The Gulf of Maine was incredibly productive… a great biological soup of plankton and alewives” along with the larger fish, he said. In fact, he found a historical connection between cod and alewives: when the alewives disappeared along the coast, so did the cod.
“The key to a healthy ecosystem is diversity and habitat,” Ames said. In addition to loss of habitat and diversity, groundfisheries have also suffered from technologically overly sophisticated fishing boats taking all of the little that’s there. By 1990, the cod fishery collapsed, followed soon after by flounder. Ames, along with 30 percent of the fishing population, was forced to leave fishing. “Fishermen were on the edge of despair,” Ames said.
He then turned to lobster fishing. Interestingly, the lobster industry has become a model of stewardship in the Gulf of Maine, with lobstermen and scientists joining together in a “collaborative effort,” as Alden remarked, to monitor the population and establish re-seeding programs. “Fishermen working with scientists – this is transformative,” she said.
She and Ames have recently helped found the Penobscot East Resource Center, dedicated to “…collaborative marine science and sustainable economic development to benefit the fishermen and communities of Penobscot Bay and the Eastern Gulf of Maine.” It provides support to local groups engaged in community-based fisheries, groups such as the Stonington Fisheries Alliance.
Their hope is that such alliances will spread to other communities, bringing the “small is beautiful” idea from philosophy into reality. Indeed, it has become apparent it’s not just a “beautiful” idea, but, as exemplified by the fisheries issue, an absolutely critical one as well.
For more information, or to get involved in their efforts, they can be reached at the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, 367-2708. The website is www.penobscot east.org.