Posts tagged ‘conversation’
I just got back from a trip to Maine, where I finally met Meredith Mendelson at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, and met with fishermen and fishing community advocates in the Downeast region (and got in some Acadia National Park time, too!). It was exciting to talk with Robin Alden and Ted Ames at the Penobscot East Resource Center, and to meet Gary Libby of the Port Clyde Fresh Catch community-supported fishery (they’ll be starting one of the Amendment 16 sectors). I got valuable perspectives on Amendment 16 and organizing the Conversation around it. I learned a lot, too, about how Maine and other more remote parts of New England view the management conversation, what they need and could use from something like the New England Fish Forum, and so on. I also thought a lot about some of the challenges ahead. There are lessons I am learning that I didn’t know were in store at the start of this summer:
TAKING TIME TO CHAT
Meeting new people and building relationships with them is proving to be the most important part of my work this summer. It is by meeting and talking with people that I was inspired to start the New England Fish Forum, of course, and how I have learned (and continue to learn) about the state of fisheries management in New England. But establishing these relationships is no longer for research or background, though it serves that foundational purpose: this is my work. I am really recognizing that presenting and pitching the Fish Forum idea is almost secondary to what happens around those conversations: the informal chatting. This is how I get a sense of how people are feeling and what they’re thinking, and it’s also a way to un-jade the jaded and motivate the weary.
Last weekend I took a trip to Downeast Maine for the Fish Forum, to meet with some key community leaders and talk with community organizers and fishermen there. I had an agenda: to introduce the Fish Forum and its project, to gather feedback about how best to engage people in participation, to generate ideas for the points of discussion at Fish Forum meetings in August, and to put a face to the emails I have been circulating around the New England fisheries listservs. In Bar Harbor and Blue Hill and Stonington and Portland I did do these things, but I think the most important work from that weekend was not, in fact, the conversations that focused on my particular agenda. It was the hangin out, the straying from topic. There is a part of me that wants to be very efficient about all this, to go in, get my feedback, and use that time in as productive a way as possible, so that I can form the plan for the meetings and see some real effect from my work this summer. But communication can’t happen in a vacuum—in fact, communication requires intangible in-person relationships, and that’s what the Fish Forum is based on.
I spent seven hours with Howdy Howton on Sunday. He’s the groundskeeper at the College of the Atlantic and a retired fisherman. For seven hours there was no lack of conversation as he drove me from Mt. Desert Island to Deer Isle and points in between, to meet with fishermen, a biochemist and the director of a fishing community foundation. We talked about the local food movement, maca powder, yogurt, music, local radio, and, of course, fishing. And sitting under a tree in a parking lot in Blue Hill at a community-supported fishery pick-up (works just like a CSA), I joined in a conversation with a couple as they talked about their in-laws, pesticides, beer, and, of course, fishing. I was there to learn about Amendment 16, but what happened was the establishment of relationships. At the risk of inefficiency, I wouldn’t have it another way. Because of those conversations, with their loose ends and meandering topics, these generous people provided me with the names and numbers of other people, invited me to visit their shipyards—gave me an in to an even wider community. You can’t rush these things. But then, Downeast Maine is pretty effective at slowing a New Jerseyan down.
WHO TO TRUST?
I’m learning a lot about the politics of starting an organization, especially a social/cultural one. The New England Fish Forum depends on relationships and social networking. In some ways this poses a challenge for thinking about the sustainability of the Fish Forum—something I’ll write on later—but it also poses a challenge for getting the right relationships that will advance the goals of the program rather than undermine their success. The Fish Forum relies on mentors and community leaders to spread the word, convince scientists, policymakers and fishermen that participating is worthwhile, and distribute some of the responsibility of planning these Conversation meetings so that I, as the official organizer, simply don’t have the resources or connections to do. In other words, the momentum of community outreach about the Forum relies on community leaders to do that outreach and on mentors who know the dynamics of these relationships to offer their expertise.
But how do I know who to trust? How do I find mentors and community leaders and then, how do I choose mentors and community leaders who will contribute to the culture I hope to influence, instead of undermining it? Answering these questions can be difficult and pose legitimate concerns. Individuals have political agendas, ideologies, good and bad reputations, and their own interests, and the Fish Forum can be a platform for opportunists. I expect that most everyone who participates in the New England Fish Forum has his or her own interest and motivation for doing so. But I want to keep the forum from being associated with any given group, movement, or personality, since these associations may undermine the open, transparent, trusting culture I am working to foster.
Sometimes I feel like the more people I talk to in commercial fishing—be it a fisherman, a head of a organization, a Council member or a scientist—the more confused about everything I become. I also recognize now more than ever the biases of individuals, the nuances of individual opinions, the complexities and diversities of “industry,” and the drastically different attitudes among individuals, which range from completely burnt out to stubbornly idealistic.
By now I am used to mentioning a person’s name to someone and getting a highly negative or highly positive reaction back. The positive reactions are great; the very negative ones can be alarming. In some cases I have relationships with the people with certain reputations, as I do with their critics. My strategy has been to be observant, open-minded and cautious, friendly with everybody because I can learn something from everybody, and to establish myself as constantly neutral. It is through recurring conversations with individuals that I can evaluate those people and their helpfulness as Fish Forum allies.
I want to coin the term ‘community scheduling’ if it doesn’t already exist. This is hard, especially for the New England Fish Forum. The dates for the first Conversations keep getting pushed back. As of now there will be two meetings early in August, at the Coastal Institute at the URI Bay Campus.
Community scheduling requires flexibility, and balancing the desire to ‘get it right’ and start off on the right foot with the recognition that things always have to start somewhere, and can’t go anywhere without a beginning. These two desires don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they can sometimes seem to conflict. It can be frustrating to want to see some clear results for my work, and to have these meetings be well-attended and regular, but to be faced with the reality of scheduling.
Things have been a bit difficult not only because of the nature of people’s work and personal lives (geography and variable work hours keep many individuals from attending New England Fisheries Management Council and other meetings), but because of the particular timing. In June, everyone was busy either preparing for the major NEFMC meeting in Portland, where Amendment 16 to the groundfish FMP (fisheries management plan) was passed, or they were hard at work fishing (both groundfish and fixed gear have heavy seasons throughout June and the beginning of July), or they were juggling both. In early July, the groundfishing season was still in full swing, and people were weary of meetings after the exhausting haul of Portland. But now things are settling, fishermen are grappling with the decision to join a sector or the common pool category, scientists are working on the catch limits and everyone has had some time to think a bit harder about the future, anticipated problems, strategies with which to proceed, and what the real impact of Amendment 16 will be.
The first New England Fish Forum Conversations will provide the space to talk about these issues, to settle confusion and exchange ideas, fears, hopes, and offer the opportunity that doesn’t otherwise exist for those on different sides of the fence to rub shoulders. So while my plan for the timing of all this has changed and in some ways my goals for the summer have been delayed, I think (I hope) it’s been in response to real needs and on-the-ground changes.
I wanted to do a quick check-in post making public the New England Fish Forum web presence(s)! The main site is here for the New England Fish Forum, and the sister project, the interactive Knowledge Database, is here.
I’ve been in touch with a lot of people over the last week, and things look promising for the first Conversation to take place in June in Rhode Island (a southern Massachusetts one will also be coming up). While fisheries management is endlessly frustrating, it seems, I am continually heartened at how eager and willing fishermen, scientists and managers are to talk to me when I introduce the Fish Forum as an idea. In the meantime…
1. Our Fish Interactive Knowledge Database
I am meeting with the heads of fishing industry orgs, scientists, managers and people at collaborative research initiatives to get this really useful–not to mention used!
I would like to hold at least three, but hopefully more, Conversations this summer. These will be informal meetings between industry members, scientists and managers, sort of in the vein of the last workshop but without a research intent. I may prompt and moderate but in general I envision these as alternative salons for shoulder-rubbing and hopefully communication to happen in a way that is positive and more productive than within the Council structure, at least as it is perceived. I am trying to book the Commercial Fisheries Center at URI East Farm for the first one, and I wanted to coordinate with the Women & Fisheries project as well (they envisioned an all-women workshop for the month of June). I still believe that the Fish Forum must include men in the discussion, but I agree that having some of the Conversations be all-women will be beneficial for a number of reasons that I’ll write about in greater detail another time.
3. Fish Party ’09
I met with a wonderful marine anthropologist at SMAST last week. She is young and enthusiastic and has done her own share of work not just on fishing boats (for her education) but with women in fishing. She feels like a lot of the best breaking down of barriers happens at parties and we may be planning a party with no meeting agenda, nothing on the table to discuss, just invite everyone remotely related to fishing in New England, in the spirit of being in the same boat. Must consider food, beverage and location and timing questions of course. I’m thinking July, week before the Point Judith Blessing of the Fleet, or mid-August, before the Cape Cod Hook Association’s Hookers’ Ball. Yes, that is a thing.
This will be in the back of my mind for the fall… setting up a 24-hour 1-800 number that is staffed that fishermen can call to ask any questions about the latest regulations, since so many of them don’t seem to now who to call, and end up frustrated at the lack of communication from management. It would need separate funding.
I learn and relearn just how interesting fisheries issues are in New England. The networks and avenues through which the commercial fishing industry operates as a community are complex, organic and difficult to map. Meanwhile, the council structure is accustomed to organizing, boxing and bagging its own fisheries categories that usually do not correspond with how the commercial industry community (to whatever extent it is a ‘community’) goes about getting things accomplished. This is a fascinating human problem with ecological as well as social consequences. Perhaps the New England Fish Forum will be one way acknowledge and strengthen the less structured but nonetheless important relationships in fisheries.
by Katie Okamoto
In southern New England’s fishing towns, where I have spent most of my time, big draggers and small lobster boats alike sit idle through their usual seasons. Here, people talk about a sea change. Nobody is exactly sure how things will change, but there is a definite sense of now-or-never. Managers talk about a “transition” and a “new path.” Scientists talk about partnerships with fishermen. Fishermen talk about being on the brink of local extinction or stronger survival—the question is which way the ball will roll.
This summer, while searching for interviewees for my thesis in Environmental Studies, I met many inspirational people on all sides of the fisheries management table, people who were moved to tears talking about the “fishing way of life,” people who despite a climate of cynicism and distrust believe in the collective power of individuals to come together around a social and ecological legacy. The founder of a New Bedford fishermen’s advocacy group put it this way: “Right now collaboration is the only thing to free us.”
Local food systems like New England’s fishing industry are essential to sustaining the resource. Yes, fishermen kill fish, but they also need healthy fisheries. It will always be impossible to please everyone in fisheries management. The problem is that the current structure places the human community at a less important level than the ecological one, fatally ignoring their interconnectedness. True collaboration is hindered by miscommunication, resentment and insufficient knowledge-sharing, and the interactions to improve those relations are rare in the existing hierarchical management structure.
I have been interested in how environmental issues are communicated between ‘experts’ and the public; my experiences in fisheries turned that academic interest into an obsession of urgency. Collaboration really is the only thing to free us—not fishermen, not scientists, not managers, but us, all collective problem-solvers and users of the ocean. While managers, scientists and fishermen can vehemently disagree, there is consensus around these words: trust, respect, knowledge-sharing. The change that’s in the air will not be positive without different, better interaction. Sadly, like the fish, patience, hope and enthusiasm are not everlasting, especially if relations between fishermen, scientists and managers undergo further strain in the economic downturn. Fishermen seem to be on their last string.
I have described the New England Fish Forum as a labor of love and frustration. Though what I hear in management meetings can be discouraging, the people in those meetings inspire this project. With the help of the Fish Forum, I hope they will inspire each other. It will be a definite challenge, but in many ways it is now or never.