Of Droughts and Flooding Rains: Local and Institutional Perceptions of Environmental Change in an Australian Estuary

Article excerpt

In 2003 when the commercial catch of Acanthopagrus butcheri (black bream) dropped to its lowest point since the 1970s, the commercial fishers of the Gippsland Lakes in Australia's southeast maintained that it was too soon to tell if the stock was in trouble. The fishers did not consider the decline fundamentally different from other changes that had occurred over the last 100 years. It seemed to the representatives of the fisheries department, however, that fishers were denying that a change had occurred. The divergent interpretations were, in part, a result of divergent frameworks through which the passage of time was conceptualized. I show that the temporal frames of reference that commercial fishers use to judge the state of the environment are out of sync with institutional orientations that focus on smaller temporal intervals.

Key words: commercial fishers, fisheries management, time scales, communities of practice, environment

Introduction

In the summer of 2003, commercial fin fishers who fished the Gippsland Lakes in southeast Victoria (Australia) remained unfazed by a report that indicated that the population of an important commercial species of fish called black bream (Acanthopagrus butcheri) had crashed. This apparent population crash became known in the local press as "the bream crisis." The fishers agreed that their catch had declined, but did not categorize that change as fundamentally different from others that had occurred throughout the past 100 years or so. To representatives of the state fisheries department, however, it seemed that fishers were denying that a change had taken place. As the debate progressed, it became clear that those most reconciled and responsive to shifts in environmental systems - the fishers - were also most likely to deny that the shifts were of a fundamentally different order to usual levels of environmental variation. And, on the other hand, those most aware of the extraordinariness of the particular change and of its possible anthropogenic origins - fisheries scientists and managers - found it difficult to reconcile to that change. Here, I concentrate on the practices of commercial fishers and the contexts that inform their assessments of environmental change. I provide an account (albeit less detailed) of the perspectives of fisheries managers and scientists whom I came to know while conducting fieldwork with the lakes fishers.

During "the bream crisis" the normally civil relationship between Department of Primary Industries (DPI) staff (managers and scientists) and commercial fishers grew tense. The "crisis" revealed how "disagreements over what is relevant; whether, and how much, something is worth knowing and doing; what to make of ambiguous circumstances. . .and who cares most about what" (Lave 1993:15) are likely to arise when different communities of practice, which produce different kinds of knowledge, are brought together by competing or shared interests (King 2005; Pálsson 1998; Paolisso 2002; Roepstorff 2003).

The resentment and distrust that developed between commercial fishers and fisheries management during "the bream crisis" was not unusual. Social scientists who study disputes about access to natural resources point out that often it is the different understandings about how humans should properly relate to their environment that lie at the heart of such disputes (Baviskar 2003; King 2005; Williams 2000). Though many of these disputes occur in the context of perceived environmental change, few analyses explore the effect of differential temporal outlooks on these fraught scenarios. I suggest that social scientists and natural resource management researchers and practitioners should pay more attention to the temporal dimensions of environmental knowledge production. Furthermore, I argue that in order to understand how environmental change is interpreted, it is crucial to understand the social and practical dimensions of everyday life in which temporal orientations are constituted (cf. …