Academic journal article Human Organization

The Political Ecology of Small-Scale Commercial Fishermen in Carteret County, North Carolina

Academic journal article Human Organization

The Political Ecology of Small-Scale Commercial Fishermen in Carteret County, North Carolina

Article excerpt

Fishing communities along North Carolina's coastline struggle to maintain a viable fishing industry. No one points to any one thing contributing to the decline of the fishing industry, but to a collection of events and conditions that make it impossible for local commercial fishermen to sustain a livelihood. Drawing on the theoretical orientation of political ecology, we engaged in ethnographic research during the summer of 2006 in Carteret County. We interviewed fishermen, fish dealers, consumers, and restaurant owners to learn more about the political economy of the environment and the shared waters and fish. We learned from the research that regulations are in place that protect the waters and impose limits on who can fish when and the catch limits, but less protection is available for the fishermen and their families, who for many generations made their living by working in the fishing industry.

Key words: participatory action research, political ecology, local commercial fisheries, North Carolina

Introduction

Commercial fishing is a central part of North Carolina's coastal heritage. For centuries, fishermen and their families have worked the waters, built boats and nets, and sold seafood along the coast. Descendents of European families who established fishing communities in Carteret County several hundred years ago remain in the area. Although these families began working the water, few have been able to sustain the legacy of full-time fishermen by earning their livelihood from the sea. Until the late 1 990s, a commercial fisherman could take care of his family and maintain his boat from the income derived from full-time fishing, but today's fishing communities along Carteret County's coastline struggle to maintain a viable fishing industry. No single thing has caused the decline of the fishing industry, but a collection of events and conditions make it impossible for local commercial fishermen to sustain a livelihood.

Much of the consuming public is unaware of the challenges local fishermen face in their daily operations. Though there is widespread reporting of the poor state of the oceans, there is limited coverage the effects of international trade has had on a local fishing industry. In stark contrast, people in the coastal regions such as Carteret County North Carolina, where the research for this paper was undertaken, are quite aware of the effects international trade has had on their local economy and the local seafood supply in their region. Drawing on the theoretical framework of political ecology, this study used participatory action research to examine the lives of commercial fishermen in Carteret County and to offer suggestions for direct marketing of fresh local seafood.

A Political Ecology Perspective

Political ecology embraces the cultural, economic, political, and environmental systems at local, national, regional, and international contexts. The emphases are on access and control over resources, interactions of production, policy, and decision making power as they relate to environmental adaptations. Eric Wolf (1972) used the terminology of political ecology to discuss ownership of land and natural resources as it connects with the greater ecosystem, with society, and, specifically, with power systems ofthe elite. Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) expanded on political ecology, focusing on issues of land management and degradation in non-industrial countries. They state, "The phrase 'political ecology' combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy, and together they encompass the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resource use and also within classes and groups within society itself' (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:17). Their approach, like Wolf's, characterizes local adaptation and management of resources as inextricably linked to global processes through power, production, and economic hierarchy.

This interpretation of political ecology is easily applied to the complexities of the commercial fishing industry and its relationships with natural resources and with local, state, and international policies and power systems within a socioeconomic framework. …

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