An offshore Maine lobstering port at sunset.
Photo credit: Loren McClenachan.

By Loren McClenachan and Benjamin Neal.

Read the full paper here.

The Maine lobster fishery is iconic, but relatively new. For centuries, diverse fisheries, including cod, halibut, and herring characterized the Maine coast. This history ended abruptly with a series of fisheries crashes, and lobster rapidly grew to be the most valuable fishery in the United States. Given the long history and recent rapid change, we wanted to know how lobster fishers viewed the natural state of the coastal Gulf of Maine. We wondered what species lobster fishers associated with a “natural” nearshore ecosystem, and how these baseline views contributed to their visions for an idealized future. 

We interviewed Maine lobster fishers and found a rapid shift in perceptions of what is natural in coastal ecosystems. While long-time fishers associated abundant cod with a natural nearshore Gulf of Maine, memories of a historically cod-rich Gulf of Maine were fading among some younger fishers who began their careers after the cod crash in the 1990s. This is important because we also found that fishers largely desired in the future what they considered natural in the past. 

Our results highlight the importance of how local knowledge shapes visions of future productivity.  Yet we also found two key limitations to local knowledge. First, fishers identified institutional barriers to achieving their idealized futures, including the loss of access to fisheries as wealthier fishers accumulated fishing licenses, leaving many without a connection to the diversity of finfish that historically supported their communities. Second, even older fishers lacked memories of earlier ecosystems that included more abundant predators like halibut, prey like alewives, and megafauna like whales. 

Our work shows that fishers’ memories are essential but insufficient to recover productivity in marine ecosystems. Both local knowledge and environmental history are essential to conservation, as they help to preserve memories of past productivity and contribute to visions of future recovery.