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Coming Up Empty Economic anthropologist James Acheson studies the effect of humans on the marine resources by Aimee Dolloff


In the Gulf of Maine waters, the contrast couldn’t be more striking. Crustaceans are plentiful and the lobstering industry is thriving, while groundfish stocks are at all-time lows and the fleets are on the verge of extinction.

The effect of humans on the marine resources — from overfishing to policymaking — is undeniable, controversial and little-understood. And that’s where economic anthropologist James Acheson comes in.

In a two-year National Science Foundation-funded project, Acheson is taking a closer look at where policies and practices in the groundfish industry may have gone wrong through the years. His goal is to provide insight as to what management practices are effective — and why.

For Acheson, the bottom-line question is: Why does one management plan succeed and another fail?

“We can’t really implement plans if we don’t know what’s going on,” says Acheson, a University of Maine anthropology and marine sciences professor, named the 2009 Distinguished Maine Professor for his research connecting the social, cultural and environmental components of marine policy. “The groundfishing industry is a case of scientific and institutional failure. We need to understand how it got there, and how other management practices were effectively put in place, in order to try and reverse the damage that’s been done. The evolution of the lobster industry is a perfect example to compare.”

For nearly 80 years, there has been a conservation effort in the lobster industry with regulations established, often with the help of industry people, to protect and manage the resource. Efforts to manage the groundfishing industry have been far less successful, and the reasons for this difference are far from clear, Acheson says.

Further exacerbating the disparity are the stocks. While lobster numbers are at an all-time high, groundfish stocks such as cod and haddock have reached a 500-year low.

A 1978 report co-authored by Acheson, The Fishing Ports of Maine and New Hampshire, noted there were 343 boats groundfishing in Maine and New Hampshire. Today in Maine, there now are fewer than 25 boats, and some of those are only going out a few days a year.

Unlike the lobster industry where conservation rules were passed by Maine lawmakers in response to heavy lobbying by industry leaders, groundfishing is managed by the federal government. While Maine groundfishermen have expressed their opinions, they appear to have been disadvantaged in the industry’s top-down management process that takes little note of local input.

Why have those concerned with lobster management been able to devise effective conservation rules, while the groundfishery has not been able to do so?

The answer to this question isn’t obvious, says Acheson, whose extensive research on Maine’s lobster industry spans more than three decades and includes two seminal volumes, The Lobster Gangs of Maine and Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry. It can only be answered by exploring one of the most basic questions in the social sciences — namely, when and under what conditions will humans generate effective rules to constrain the behavior of individuals?

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Winter 2009

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