The Fisherman and the Sea

Net profits at what cost?

There are hundreds of small fishing communities in Atlantic Canada. I live in one of them. Deer Island is a vibrant community of about 800 souls on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy in Passamaquoddy Bay, an hour’s drive from Saint John. Some 32 years ago I arrived on Deer Island to do research for my PhD thesis in Sociology through the University of New Brunswick. My thesis – completed in 1987 – was called, Making It Pay: The Organization and Operation of the Deer Island Fishing Economy. I fell in love with the island, and with one of the local fishermen, and have lived here ever since (but that’s a story for another day!).

Deer Island is everything you might imagine a small island fishing community to be. It’s rural and rustic and rugged and incredibly beautiful. The people are fiercely independent, very family and community oriented, and proud of their resilience in the face of the persistent vagaries of nature and of government policies and global forces.

Many Deer Island residents are descendants of the original European settlers who came here some 250 years ago. Indigenous peoples – the Passamaquoddy – had fished these waters for many generations before that. The word “Passamaquoddy” means “pollock aplenty” and was an apt description of the waters of Passamaquoddy Bay, given the abundance of pollock and other fish and marine species in the area. The roots connecting people – both Indigenous and settlers – to Deer Island and the surrounding area are rugged and gnarled. They have withstood many a storm.

Not everyone on Deer Island fishes, but fishing is the economic and cultural backbone of the community. My husband (Dale), son (Judson) and son-in-law (Dalen) fish together on a boat named after our son and daughter (the Abbie and Judson), as is the tradition in many fishing communities in this area. Dale’s father and grandfather and great grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all fishermen. Our four grandchildren live on Deer Island. As soon as they can walk they spend time at the wharf and in the boat, stretching lines, painting buoys and helping seine the weir (where we catch herring that are processed locally as sardines). They grow up, immersed in fishing as the way of life of their family, down through the generations.

Life on Deer Island revolves around the fishing seasons: scallop fishing in the winter, lobster fishing in the spring, weir fishing in the summer, and another lobster season in the fall. My thesis describes the Deer Island fishing economy as a multi-species boom and bust fishery. When I did my research the weir fishery was the most lucrative fishery in the mix. Lobster fishing helped fishermen get by from one weir season to the next and the scallop fishery was a generally smaller component of the fishing economy, but important especially when the herring or lobster didn’t come. Fishermen could withstand the bad years in any fishery by working hard in all three and saving money during the good years to tide them over in the bad.

Over the past 30 years, though, things have shifted. The lobster fishery has become the dominant industry and young fishermen (like our son) have never (yet) seen a really “bad year”. The weir fishery has fallen on hard times (though older fishermen wait expectantly for signs of renewal). The scallop fishery continues to be an important part of the mix with some seasons being more lucrative than others. All of the fisheries are tightly regulated by government policy and some fishermen – including my husband, Dale – are actively involved in fisheries organizations that work to find and promote the delicate balance between conservation/sustainability and economic viability.

All in all, fishermen work hard – usually 12-14 hours per day, 6 days a week, during the peak seasons. They fish in all kinds of weather and are ever conscious of the dangers inherent in their work. It’s not a life for everyone, but for those who stay here to carry on what is usually a family heritage, there is nowhere else they’d rather be and nothing else they’d rather do. Fishermen will say that they fish, not for the money, but for the sheer love of it and that’s true enough. But make no mistake, fishing has been very good to Deer Island and many other communities in Atlantic Canada, despite the sometimes dire reports people in Central and Western Canada might hear through the media.

The fishery is complicated – it’s VERY complicated. The ocean is incredibly and beautifully complex. There are many unknowns and despite the diligent work of scientists and policy makers, we simply don’t know all of the variables and consequently, projections and predictions are rarely accurate. This is true locally when it comes to the fisheries of Deer Island, and it’s true globally. It’s true in fishing and in agriculture. Think for example of the effects of the Green Revolution in Africa.

Sam Mutisya, who worked with CBM as a National Field Staff in Kenya (for many years prior to his death in 2009) had formerly been an agronomist and extension worker for the Kenyan Government. I had the privilege of traveling across Canada with Sam and with Dr. Judson Pothuraju (a CBM colleague from India) doing some workshops (called Hunger for Change) around food security in 2007. I remember Sam telling audiences that the Green Revolution was intended to be for the good of Africa, to increase their agricultural productivity. As an extension worker, it was his job to travel about the country telling farmers to forget all of their conventional and traditional practices and learn new and better ways of farming. Each week he would go out to tell individual farmers what they should do in order to increase their productivity and store their produce with less spoilage. Eventually, however, they had to acknowledge that the new ways were not actually better and they had to recover the traditional knowledge that had been set aside.

What this story illustrates is the importance of humility in the face of complexity. Problems today are almost never simple. And the way we address problems – our fixes or solutions – can’t be simple either. Systems are resilient and adaptive. People are resilient and adaptive. Communities are resilient and adaptive. We are not simple machines. Science is a valuable tool in understanding how things work but solutions that depend only on science to address complex problems are rarely effective and can do more harm than good. Science tends to specialize, to understand the parts in great depth. But reality is a massive, multi-dimensional, dynamic network of systems, intersecting and adjusting. Everything is connected.

We often think of the environment as being something that is there for us to manage and use, or even exploit – something that is outside of us and under us. After all, didn’t God tell us in Genesis 1:26 and 28 that we would have dominion over the land and the sea and rule over all of the creatures therein? But what does that mean? As I observe the relationship between fishermen and the sea, it’s fascinating to think about responsible stewardship in light of ever-evolving technologies, conflicting perspectives on access to resources (Who has the right to fish and under what conditions?) and other uses of the sea (Does our need for alternative energy in the form of tidal power trump the traditional claims fishermen have to the sea?).

Fishermen are intricately tied to the marine environment…when it comes to policies around marine use, it is a mistake to see fishermen as being outside of the ecological system. Whatever fishermen do or don’t do will have an impact on the environment. We have an impact no matter what we do.

The collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery is usually dated to 1992 and is attributed to overfishing and mismanagement and maybe even subtle shifts in environmental conditions. Cod fishermen could no longer make a living. Some had to leave the fishery and others – those who had or were able to secure other licenses – shifted their efforts to other species such as shrimp, crab, lobster, sea urchins, etc. Between 1992 and 2007 the value of the Newfoundland fishery actually tripled. Many people speculate that the health of the lobster fishery throughout Atlantic Canada is due, at least in part, to the collapse of the cod fishery since cod are predators of lobsters. As the cod fishery shows signs of revival, fishermen are watching nervously to see what impact a healthier cod stock will have on other currently lucrative species.

Another thing people “from away” might find surprising is the number of fishermen who are active members and leaders in their churches AND occupying leadership roles in the various fisheries associations and organizations. My husband was at a meeting a few years ago with the Provincial Minister of Fisheries, himself an active member of a Baptist church. At one point in the meeting, he asked the group of fishermen assembled there, how many of them are active in churches in their home communities and all but one raised their hands. I find this fascinating. These fishermen are deacons, elders, even lay pastors in their churches and are constantly integrating their faith with their identity and work as fishermen. In many cases, the leadership development that they receive in their small local churches equips them to be spokesmen at meetings with government officials and other stakeholders.

Just before the fall lobster season we have an annual, island-wide blessing of the fleet service. The churches take turns hosting the service and all fishermen and their crews are invited. Every boat and every captain and crewmember is prayed for by name. A slideshow, set to music, featuring all the island boats, fishermen and women, wharves, and local fish buyers is a highlight of the service. Many fishermen and their families are active members of churches on the island and it’s an opportunity to get together as friends and neighbours, to celebrate our connection to the sea and to ask God’s blessing on the various fisheries.

Like rural people around the world, fishermen on Deer Island are very conscious of the shifts they see when they’re on the water – small, but significant and incremental evidence of shifting patterns in the climate. Whether or not these are “evidence” of global warming is of less immediate interest to them than the impact that these changes have on the migration and habits of fish. Conversations amongst fishermen almost always include an exchange of observations about weather and how it might be impacting their fishing efforts, fish habitat, fish migration and fish health. It’s a complicated business.

If you’re a climate change skeptic, sit down with a group of fishermen or farmers anywhere in the world and ask them about climate change. It may shock you to hear the kinds of things they notice on a daily basis.

Whether or not these shifts are simply “natural” shifts, or shifts that reflect ill-conceived human activity, really is not their main concern or first priority. Their focus is on survival. For too many, especially in the global south, survival literally means having enough food for themselves and their families to live from one day to the next. For my family – at least at this point – survival is more about maintaining a treasured way of life.

The potential threats to that way of life come from a number of directions. Some of the current concerns are tidal energy proposals for the Bay of Fundy, a push from the Federal Government to designate 10% of Canada’s coastal waters as Marine Protected Areas by 2020; the corporate intrusion in the fishery (through processing companies owning licenses, rather than independent fishermen); the effects of chemicals used in the aquaculture industry on wild fish health and fish habitat; global markets for fish and seafood; the effects of warming water temperatures and shifts in the acidity of ocean waters that affect the marine ecosystem in ways that can neither be controlled nor predicted; and the usual concerns about whether or not the next season will be a good one.

We are very concerned about sustainability because we want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be able to live and make a living here. Though in some ways we are worlds apart from small-scale farmers or fishers in Kenya or India, in other ways we have more of a sense of solidarity with them than we have with urban professionals in Canada.

For those who depend on the land or the water for their survival and livelihood, there is a fraternity that transcends other social, economic, or political categories. And rural people around the world will testify that they see the front edge of the effects of climate change. And those effects are disturbingly real.

Christians often don’t talk much about climate change and global warming, but when they do, there are some pretty divergent views. There are those who staunchly argue that the hype around climate change is just fear-mongering based on economic and/or political agendas. There are those who believe that climate change is real and are frightened by the forecasts of the likely effects of global warming, but don’t feel any sense of responsibility and thus are neither motivated to adjust their own way of living nor to advocate for better policies. There are those who believe it’s likely all true, but who fall back on the Scriptural promises that God will make a “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1-2; 2 Peter 3:10-13) as reason enough to wait patiently for things to unfold according to God’s plan and timing.

Many Christians find that there are more pressing issues to be concerned about than climate change…But I believe that just below the surface these concerns are ALL connected and are directly or indirectly impacted by our relationship with the environment.

The most vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change are the poor and the marginalized. Like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, they are the first to feel the effects of natural disasters, oil spills, market fluctuations, soil erosion, water scarcity and austerity policies. Caring for the poor and marginalized is central to the gospel of Christ. These are justice issues that cannot be ignored or spiritualized away.

In the midst of all of this, what should we think? Who should we listen to? Do we need to be climate scientists ourselves in order to make sense of the various arguments? Where is God and what, if anything, does He call us to do about climate change? What does Scripture have to say that will help us navigate this issue?

Let me be clear. I am NOT a climate scientist. Certainly I have read and heard from some Christian climate scientists who are very good at breaking the science down for the non-scientists among us. I am convinced that they know what they are talking about and that they do not have some sinister or hidden agenda when they warn us of the dangers directly linked to the ways we humans have failed to be good stewards of God’s creation. I do believe that natural systems have a good deal of flexibility and elasticity, but there are limits, and we are terribly naive if we do not heed the warnings that the earth itself is giving that it is under too much stress.

I am also NOT a theologian. But I am a thinking person and I want my life to line up with God’s commands to love Him and love my neighbour. In a nutshell, here’s my current thinking. God created the world and, in the beginning, everything was in dynamic balance. The environment wasn’t fixed but was fluid. Everything was good. After the fall (Genesis 3), however, the balance was upset as humanity’s relationship to one another, to the land, and to God, was fractured. Over time, humanity sacrificed the environment for economic growth – death by a thousand cuts. The population grew and grew and we had more mouths to feed. An agrarian economy gave way to an industrial economy and local management gave way to more centralized authorities and globalization. All of this added further stress to the environment, which has been groaning as a result of our mismanagement. This affects our capacity to live in harmony with one another and with the land (and water) that sustains us.

The system is broken and though it is tempting to point fingers and assign “blame” for the current state of affairs, that doesn’t address the urgent needs of the most vulnerable. God calls us to love one another and to care for those in need. How can we come alongside those who are directly affected by changing climate patterns?

I believe that there are three levels of response: the first is to provide immediate assistance (in the form of food aid, programs designed to help mitigate the effects of climate change, assistance in adapting food production practices to get the best yields with the use of limited inputs); the second level of response is to advocate for justice in the form of better policies and supports for the vulnerable; and the third is to recover our own sense of stewardship as we consider how we live, day by day.

Whatever you may think about the causes of changing climate patterns, and whether or not the scientists are correct in their dire predictions about the future of the planet if we do not make adjustments, Christians have ample evidence to be concerned and engaged in efforts to mitigate the effects and advocate for better approaches. I encourage you to join with other people of faith who want to be part of the solution by getting involved in advocacy efforts spearheaded by Citizens for Public Justice and other civil society and faith organizations.

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