A Failure of Public Outreach: Fisheries Management and Resentment

I was driving through town the other day when I spotted a truck with a bumper sticker trashing the National Fisheries Service. They’re getting rarer, these days, because we don’t have much of a fishery left anymore. There was a time when Fort Bragg brought in a lot of fish and fishing was an important income source for a lot of residents, but that time is drawing to a close, and the trucks with bumper stickers like that are starting to age out of functionality. But you do see them now and then, just like you see the trucks with bumper stickers about timber management.

People make the mistake of thinking that Fort Bragg is liberal and progressive because of its location, but it’s much more complicated than that. This is a town where, until very recently, most people had working class jobs at the mill or the harbour, and many of them had conservative values, resenting what they perceived as government interference with their livelihoods. While the nature of survival has changed, the sentiments have not, and a failure to recognise that would be a mistake.

Being the raging hippie that I am, I happen to favour timber and fisheries management. Not just because I like the planet and believe we have an ethical obligation to preserve natural resources for their intrinsic value, but also for the benefit of future generations and the current economy. If you strip natural resources, you ensure that there are none left, which means people cannot generate a living from them. Sustainable management of natural resources requires thinking about how to keep resources productive and supporting people in the long term, not just how to extract the most now without thought to the future.

In other words, I, like these government agencies, am trying to think of the people in these industries when I think about how they should be managed. Yet, inevitably, proper management requires restrictions, which means that individuals within these industries suffer as a result of fisheries and timber management. When agencies advocate for limitations on catches or changes to timber standards with the goal of preserving resources, it means less short-term income for people, and that hurts; especially when the economy is in the toilet and opportunities for alternative employment are dwindling. Every time restrictions are proposed, they hurt people, and this is a delicate balance that must be recognised and honestly confronted when talking about these issues.

I don’t favour unmanaged use of natural resources. Not just because I don’t want to see the Earth stripped and then abandoned, but because I am, at heart, a utilitarian. It would hurt more people to lift all controls than it would to keep implementing measures to protect resources; look at what happened to New England’s once-abundant cod fishery, for example, as a result of unrestricted fishing. Or, for that matter, to our own urchin fishery.

It’s patronising, though, to suggest that people don’t understand this or need to be lectured about it. Telling people that the way they’re supporting themselves is wrong and they need to change traditions and habits is not going to be received well in any industry, by anyone; the problem here lies not with those thick-headed fishers, but with poor public outreach on the part of the agencies responsible for evaluating fisheries, making recommendations, and putting them in action. And with the people on the ground conducting surveys, monitoring fishing activity, and performing other tasks to ensure that fisheries are in compliance with regulations.

People in the fishing industry are not incapable of critical thinking, nor are they interested in ruining their chances for themselves and their descendants. Many, however, need to be convinced that these measures will actually benefit them, especially when they come from conservative backgrounds and are raised in a tradition that eschews government interference. Especially if they have seen the results of government interference gone wrong, or if they’re opposed in general to social policies that involve intervention on the part of government agencies. A veteran, for example, might point to the failures of the VA to argue that she doesn’t trust the government when it comes to protecting the fishing industry, since it’s not doing so hot on promises to veterans and that should be a fairly straightforward issue.

That requires public outreach, and education, and work on the part of agencies implementing these regulations. It requires getting to know local communities, identifying community leaders, and working with them on plans to protect their natural resources which also acknowledge the needs of the community. This can involve a lot of work, especially when it comes to convincing people of the merits of your measures; and the mistake many agencies make is talking down to people, telling them you’re just trying to help them, and why do they need to be so difficult? There’s a sense of resentment about agencies riding in on their high horses, informing people that this is all for their own good, and putting through sweeping changes that don’t appear to make sense, don’t account for local issues, and directly interfere with how much take-home pay you get at the end of the week.

Progressives are fond of rolling their eyes at bumper stickers with sentiments like ‘save a tree: wipe your ass with a spotted owl,’ but they’re missing the larger picture here. It’s easy to be high and mighty when you think you’re on the side of right, and when government agencies are reinforcing your beliefs. And it’s especially easy when you’ve never actually worked in any of these industries and you don’t understand the issues on an immediate, visceral level. To cultivate support for more responsible timber and fisheries management, you need to meet people on the ground, and that requires getting out of your saddle for once.