Maine fishermen: adapting in a sea of change

Increasing environmental uncertainty coupled with rapidly changing market conditions in the Gulf of Maine raise important questions about the ability of Maine’s commercial fishermen to adapt. How resilient is the industry to these shifting waters? Who is best positioned to adapt and who is most vulnerable?

“We have started to explore these questions by studying the relationships fishermen have to marine resources in Maine,” says Joshua Stoll, assistant research professor at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences and lead author of the paper “Uneven adaptive capacity among fishers in a sea of change” published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

“Most assessments of adaptability are conducted at the community scale, but our focus is on individual-level adaptive capacity because we think community-level analyses often obscure critical differences among fishermen and make the most at-risk groups invisible,” says Stoll, whose research was funded in part by a grant from the UMaine Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, where he is a Faculty Fellow.

In their analysis, Stoll and co-authors Beatrice Crona and Emma Fuller identified over 600 types of fishing strategies in Maine based on the combinations of marine resources that fishermen target to support their livelihoods.

“Even though we have a tendency to think ‘lobster’ when anyone mentions Maine’s marine resource economy, the reality is that people also harvest scallops, urchins, clams, elvers, seaweed, and many other marine species,” Stoll says. “Understanding these different connections, which have been largely ignored, is critical to understanding if, when, and how a person responds to changes in environmental and market conditions.”

Using six attributes of adaptive capacity that were identified by fisheries experts in Maine, Stoll and his co-authors evaluated each fishing strategy employed in Maine and found that only 12 percent of commercial fishermen are well positioned to adapt in the face of changing socioeconomic and environmental conditions.

This is due in part to the nature of the rules and regulations that are being implemented to curb overfishing and sustain fish stocks. These rules not only act to constrain the types of gear used, where and when fish are targeted, and the size of fish that can be taken, but they also act to constrain who and how many people can participate by way of limiting entry.

“I think you could potentially look at the results of our research and hit the panic button,” Stoll says, “but if you do, you’re missing a key point.” That is, the commercial fishing sector has a long history of overcoming adversity and an aptitude for innovation when confronted with challenges.

“The key takeaway from our research is that more attention needs to be given to the complex connections fishermen have to different fisheries,” says Stoll.

Such attention can help marine resource managers and policymakers better understand the vulnerabilities the commercial fishing sectors have to potential changes on the horizon, including, for example, rapid fluctuations in the price of particular fish or decreases in availability of a species as the result of climate change.

Contact: David Sims, Communications and Outreach Coordinator, Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, 207.581.3244;