Rosemary Ommer and the Coasts under Stress Research Project Team, Coasts under Stress: Restructuring and Social-Ecological Health

By Sandlos, John | Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Rosemary Ommer and the Coasts under Stress Research Project Team, Coasts under Stress: Restructuring and Social-Ecological Health


Sandlos, John, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies


Rosemary Ommer and the Coasts Under Stress Research Project Team, Coasts Under Stress: Restructuring and Social-Ecological Health (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007), ISBN (0773532250) 9780773532250; [SBN (077353203X) 9780773532038.

IN HER EXTRAORDINARY 1955 BOOK, The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson described coastlines as an "elusive and indefinable boundary" (11). While Carson's work was focused solely on the natural history of the littoral zone, her definition could equally be applied to the broad and complex social and ecological changes that Rosemary Ommer and the Coasts Under Stress Research Project Team describe in their massive study of Canada's Pacific and Atlantic coastal regions. With a supporting cast of over 50 co-investigators and innumerable research collaborators, Coasts Under Stress is in itself an exercise in crossing the intangible boundaries that encapsulate our understanding of Canada's coastal regions. Through careful and detailed study of the social and economic changes that underpin the history of ecological transformation in their study regions, the book's authors attempt a full interdisciplinary account of the crisis that has so severely impacted many rural communities along the shores of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. By touching on a remarkable range of issues (not only the predictable discussion of fisheries, aquaculture, and offshore oil development, but also health care restructuring, rural education, nutrition, and substance abuse) and a diverse array perspectives including science, sociology, history, and geography (to name only a few of the disciplinary approaches in the volume), the authors attempt to synthesize the multiple lines of causation that have produced collapsed fisheries, depopulated communities, and social stress among rural families in coastal regions.

Of course, the great danger of such an ambitious project is that it might collapse under its expansive scope and complexity. For the most part, Coasts Under Stress manages to weave together different strands of knowledge about two very different socio-ecological regions into a seamless whole. Ommer and her co-authors employ several key organizing principles, most notably the concept of restructuring (economic, social, or ecological) as a means to link together the impacts of diverse external phenomena such as government cutbacks, capital flight, and collapsing ecosystems. The authors also successfully integrate concepts across the great divide of the social and biological sciences. I found the discussion of cultural keystone species particularly valuable in this regard, a concept that recognizes the link between human societies and culturally significant ecological agents (salmon, cod, sea kelp, etc.) while resisting the managerial tendency to reduce such species to mere stocks of valuable resources. There are also excellent individual chapters on the historical development of fisheries and mining, while the latter section of the book provides extremely valuable chapters assessing the potential for various economic activities such as aquaculture and tourism to increase and/or diminish the resilience of coastal communities. One of the strongest chapters included lengthy quotations from coastal residents whose lives had been profoundly affected by socio-ecological restructuring. Indeed, the authors' ability to combine local voices with data-driven research material from so many disciplinary perspectives is one the great strengths of Coasts Under Stress, resulting in a virtuoso research effort and one of the more unique and engaging studies of regional environments that I have ever encountered.

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