March 21, 2016

MIT Sea Grant is making sure fishing communities are heard

MIT Sea Grant is celebrating Sea Grant’s 50th Anniversary with a look back at the work of our anthropologist Madeleine Hall-Arber. Madeleine started with MIT Sea Grant in 1976 part time while working on her PhD in anthropology at Brandeis. Her work throughout her time at Sea Grant has focused on fishing communities in New England, studying the social impact of new regulations and working to make fisherman safer.

Madeleine spent her first summer at graduate school going out on the boats with fishermen in Provincetown. She would make her way to the docks at 4 o’clock in the morning, hail a captain, and spend the day out on the boats interviewing fishermen and observing. “Everyone was really friendly, I was only turned away once when there was bad weather. I learned a lot that summer about the issues facing fishermen and fishing communities which laid a foundation for the work I do now.” Madeleine eventually joined MIT Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Service, where she organized seafood festivals and events aimed at coastal communities. It was in 1993 when Peter Fricke, a social scientist at NOAA Fisheries, asked Madeleine to work on a social impact assessment of groundfish that she began to truly use her anthropological research skills.

First enacted in 1976, the governing fisheries legislation, the Magnuson–Stevens Act, required that regulators take social impacts into account, but at the time, the “best available data” focused on the effects of regulations on fish stocks, not their impact on fishing communities. Peter Fricke was the first non-economist social scientist to be permanently hired by National Marine Fisheries Service and he recognized the need for experts to conduct formal Social impact assessments (SIAs). Madeleine helped write the first assessment for the northeast region, and has never looked back. She continues to this day to be actively engaged in research about how communities are affected by fishing regulations and sits on the Herring Plan Development Team of the New England Fishery Management Council. Her assessments have provided the background “Human Environment” for several management plans. Recently, she worked with colleagues to develop a process to more systematically consider public comments. Participation by fishermen is critical to a well-managed fishery, but fishing regulatory bodies do not always know how to effectively and equitably handle comments, particularly when proposed regulations receive thousands of comments with conflicting views. The technique used by Madeleine and her colleagues identified major themes, enabling regulators to quickly gain insight into the communities that could be affected by their regulations.

The role of women in fisheries has always been of particular interest in Madeleine’s research. After meeting the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives at the seafood festivals that she coordinated early on, she has worked closely with them to improve communication between fishing communities and regulatory agencies. When asked why her research focused on fishermen’s wives, she responds, “They were the movers and shakers of the community, the shore-side voices of the fishermen. Gloucester fishermen’s wives were very active in the community, they worked with an environmental conservation organization to discourage offshore oil permits and were involved in rallying the community around the Magnuson–Stevens Act, making sure the act represented the needs of the fishing community.” Madeleine remains close with Angela Sanfilippo, the head of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives. Several years ago Madeleine worked with Angela to promote one of the largest and most successful community-supported fisheries in the country, Cape Anne Fresh Catch, a direct marketing program that helps increase fishermen’s returns while providing fresh, local catch to consumers.

Madeleine has also spent a considerable amount of time on fishermen safety. Fishing and coal mining are generally considered to be the most dangerous professions in the US. Madeleine has facilitated hands-on safety training, conducted workshops with fishermen, and most recently co-authored a book dealing with loss of life within a fishing community. The book, 'RESCUES: Responding to Emergencies at Sea and to Communities Under Extreme Stress', aims to help fishing communities understand, cope with, and prepare for loss of life. There is very little institutional support for families and communities when tragedies occur, rather fishing community leaders traditionally gather resources and provide outreach as needed. Seasoned community leaders, however, who have experience dealing with such events are beginning to retire. This book is an effort to preserve their wisdom and knowledge. RESCUES has site specific information, important inside tips about insurance, contact information for rescue personnel and much more, all of which will help Massachusetts fishing communities respond to loss of life in an effective and timely manner.

When Madeleine started she was the only trained non-economist social scientist in the Sea Grant network, now almost all Sea Grant programs have at least one social scientist on staff with expertise ranging from fishing communities to geographers and a variety of aspects of human dimensions as they relate to environmental resource management. Social science helps us understand how people interact, how people learn, what people value, and how people make decisions. Having trained social scientists in the network enables Sea Grant to better understand human behavior, determine community needs and develop programs that benefit coastal communities. Natural resource management is really about managing how people interact with the environment. After all we aren’t really able to change things like fish behavior, but we can help communities learn to modify their behavior to improve coastal ecosystems. Understanding human behavior is a piece of the puzzle that allows for more informed decisions as we work toward happy, prosperous, and healthy coastal communities.


Madeleine Hall-Arber holds up a cod while observing Provincetown fishermen for her summer field work in pursuit of her graduate degree in anthropology at Brandeis University in the early '70s.