Fishing Community Resilience: An Interview with Dr. Teresa Johnson

photo of Teresa JohnsonTeresa Johnson is an assistant professor of marine policy in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine. She is currently working on a research project funded by Maine Sea Grant to evaluate vulnerability and resilience of Maine fishing communities. Salarius spoke with Dr. Johnson in November about what she’s learned so far.

Salarius: Which communities have you selected for your study and why?
Johnson: We’ll be looking at Eastport and Lubec, but separately. Many profiles treat them as one, but they are very different: they focus on different species; Easport is in the bay, while Lubec faces the open ocean; they have long-standing cultural differences and deserve their own stories. Also Port Clyde, because they are emerging as a great example of resilience. They’ve organized themselves well, and have responded to change by hanging on to their groundfish fleet. How are they able to do that? And then Rockland. I grew up in the Rockland-Thomaston area, and I’ve seen the significant changes in the community. I like that there’s more opportunity, and people want to come to Rockland. These are good things, but questions linger in my mind, like what if the fisheries came back? Would they fit into the community the way they did before, at the same level?
Salarius: Are there things Maine’s fishing communities are already doing to become stronger and more resilient? Does resilience come from the bottom up or from the top?
Johnson: Groups like Penobscot East Resource Center, Cobscook Bay Resource Center, the Island Institute and Sea Grant, are assisting fishing communities strengthen what they already have. They’re not telling fishermen what to do, but working with them to provide resources and assistance with things like marketing, and facilitating discussions about what these communities want for their future. They also provide the leadership that is so necessary. Also the working waterfront efforts in the state help fishing communities keep a foot in the door, so that if and when the fish come back—and I do believe they’ll come back—we’ll be able to go fishing.
Salarius: So what then is the role of larger government entities like the Department of Marine Resources or NOAA Fisheries?
Johnson: They provide support: funding research, collecting and providing data, supporting groups like the Lobster Zone Councils. They also act as a conduit between local and federal levels.
Salarius: To what extent is fishing community decline the result of a linear pattern that begins with resource depletion, followed by regulation and loss of access?
Johnson: In a paper I wrote with my colleagues that was published earlier this year, we talked about “creeping enclosure,” the way that regulations and policy changes have a cumulative effect of restricting a fishery without that being the explicit goal.
Salarius: How did we let this happen?
Johnson: We didn’t plan. Cumulative impact is supposed to be evaluated[i] but how do you do it? How do you account for unintended consequences? Did anyone intend for limited entry followed by days at sea rules to make it so that small-scale groundfishermen who lost their boats or switched to lobstering couldn’t go back?[ii]
Salarius: What can communities do when confronted with such a fate?
Johnson: Communities have to know what they want, and we have to create space for people to ask, What does it mean to live and work in this community? What do we want to be in the future? What can we do to make it possible for our kids to stay and work here? If you don’t have vision, then you are just reacting. But if you know what you want, you can imagine the possibilities, and what you need to do to achieve that desired future.
It is troubling that we are so dependent on lobster now,[iii] and the recent economic downturn opened a lot of people’s eyes, and got people talking about what to do. There’s no good answers, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, but having these conversations is important. And it’s an opportunity for other members of the community to help, to educate themselves about who is fishing in their community and what species are caught and how they can buy local seafood. In these communities, people who aren’t fishermen are just as tied to fishing, and they can take ownership of that identity. The ‘sense of place’ in some of these communities is about a shared experience that brings people together and lifts them up.
Salarius: So, what is the role of culture in community resilience?
Johnson: Resilience literature uses the term “social memory”[iv] to describe the importance of local knowledge to reminding communities about how things used to be, to understand how the community responded to change in the past and what the possibilities are for the future. Key people in the community keep the stories alive. Look at what Penobscot East is doing with their “Sentinel Fishery” project– they’re having to remember and re-learn where and how to catch fish in coastal waters that haven’t been fished for decades.
Salarius: Aha! That is where culture, art, music, poetry comes in—the role of culture in resilience that I’ve been struggling to identify: it keeps social memory alive.
My conversation with Teresa really helped things fall into place. In New Orleans, musicians and artists and everything else about their place-based culture helped the community survive multiple disasters by sustaining and recording the social memory of the city’s history and heritage, and by so doing cleared the path for a way forward. The city needed storytellers, painters, and brass bands in the street.
Social memory is intangible; it is not about clinging to the past or being trapped in some nostalgic reverie. Teresa Johnson talked a lot about the importance of community vision. But to know what you want, you have to know where you’ve been: your history and heritage. And who are the keepers of heritage? The elders, the storytellers, the painters, poets, and musicians. They remind us who we are, and how we’ve survived past struggles. They help us imagine the future.

[i] Magnuson-Stevens National Standard 8 requires that managers “take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities” and “provide sustained participation of and minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities.”
[ii] Since 1990, Maine’s groundfish fleet shrank from 350 boats to about 70.
[iii] Lobster accounted for 70% of the value of the state’s total commercial fish landings in 2009.
[iv] After catastrophic change, remnants (‘memory’) of the former system become growth points for renewal and reorganization of the social-ecological system… Social memory comes from the diversity of individuals and institutions that draw on reservoirs of practices, knowledge, values, and worldviews and is crucial for preparing the system for change, building resilience, and for coping with surprises (Folke et al. 2005).