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The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: MIT Sea Grant is Making Sure Fishing Communities are Heard

The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: MIT Sea Grant is Making Sure Fishing Communities are Heard

The development of social science at MIT Sea Grant

By Kathryn Baltes, MIT Sea Grant

MIT Sea Grant is celebrating Sea Grant’s 50th Anniversary with a look back at the work of our anthropologist Madeleine Hall-Arber. Madeleine started with MIT Sea Grant in 1976 part time while working on her PhD in anthropology at Brandeis. Her work throughout her time at Sea Grant has focused on fishing communities in New England, studying the social impact of new regulations and working to make fisherman safer.

Madeleine spent her first summer at graduate school going out on the boats with fishermen in Providencetown.  She would make her way to the docks at 4 o’clock in the morning, hail a captain, and spend the day out on the boats interviewing fishermen and observing. “I was only turned away once, when there was bad weather. I learned a lot that summer about the issues facing fishermen and fishing communities which laid a foundation for the work I do now.” Madeleine eventually joined MIT Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Service, where she organized seafood festivals and events aimed at coastal communities. It was in 1993 when Peter Fricke, a social scientist at NOAA Fisheries, asked Madeleine to work on a social impact assessment of groundfish that she began to truly use her anthropological research skills. 

Madeleine Hall-Arber holds up a cod while observing Provincetown fishermen for her summer field work in pursuit of her graduate degree in anthropology at Brandeis University in the early '70s. Image: Madeleine Hall-Arber.

The The Magnuson–Stevens Act, enacted in 1976, required that regulators take social impacts into account, but at the time, the “best available data” focused on the effects of regulations on fish stocks, not their impact on fishing communities. Peter Fricke was the first non-economist social scientist to be permanently hired by National Marine Fisheries Service and he recognized the need for experts to conduct formal Social impact assessments (SIAs). Madeleine helped write the first assessment for the northeast region, and has never looked back. She continues to this day to be actively engaged in research about how communities are affected by fishing regulations and sits on the Herring Plan Development Team of the New England Fishery Management Council. Recently, she worked with colleagues to develop a process to more systematically consider public comments from fishermen. The technique used by Madeleine and her colleagues identified major themes, enabling regulators to quickly gain insight into the communities that could be affected by their regulations.

The role of women in fisheries has always been of particular interest in Madeleine’s research. After meeting the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives at the seafood festivals that she coordinated early on, she has worked closely with them to improve communication between fishing communities and regulatory agencies. When asked why her research focused on fishermen’s wives, she responds, “They were the movers and shakers of the community, the shore-side voices of the fishermen.” Several years ago Madeleine worked with Angela Sanfilippo, head of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives, to promote one of the largest and most successful community-supported fisheries in the country, Cape Anne Fresh Catch, a direct marketing program that helps increase fishermen’s returns while providing fresh, local catch to consumers.

Madeleine has also spent a considerable amount of time on fishermen safety. Fishing and coal mining are generally considered to be the most dangerous professions in the US. Madeleine has facilitated hands-on safety training, conducted workshops with fishermen, and most recently co-authored a book dealing with loss of life within a fishing community. The book, 'RESCUES: Responding to Emergencies at Sea and to Communities Under Extreme Stress', aims to help fishing communities understand, cope with, and prepare for loss of life. This book is an effort to preserve the wisdom and knowledge of seasoned community leaders. RESCUES has site specific information, important inside tips about insurance, contact information for rescue personnel and much more.

When Madeleine started she was the only trained non-economist social scientist in the Sea Grant network, now almost all Sea Grant programs have at least one social scientist on staff with expertise ranging from fishing communities to geographers and a variety of aspects of human dimensions as they relate to environmental resource management. Social science helps us understand how people interact, how people learn, what people value, and how people make decisions. Having trained social scientists in the network enables Sea Grant to better understand human behavior, determine community needs and develop programs that benefit coastal communities. Natural resource management is really about managing how people interact with the environment. After all we aren’t really able to change things like fish behavior, but we can help communities learn to modify their behavior to improve coastal ecosystems. Understanding human behavior is a piece of the puzzle that allows for more informed decisions as we work toward happy, prosperous, and healthy coastal communities.

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