People often think of social science as a completely separate realm from the concrete facts of natural science, but Hopkins Ph.D. student Elena Finkbeiner disagrees. She thinks that understanding the interactions between the two fields is crucial for developing successful sustainable fisheries programs, and that some of her most important – and toughest – work is gaining the trust of fishermen (pescadores), in order to learn their stories.
For the past several years, Finkbeiner has traveled to Bahia Magdalena, a highly productive, world-renowned bay along the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, to observe the activities of regional small-scale fishermen. Finkbeiner, a student in Prof. Larry Crowder’s lab at Hopkins, first visited Baja California to study sea turtles, but realized that they are only one species impacted by poor fisheries management. Finkbeiner is interested in understanding how strategies that focus on fishing a broad range of species may help coastal communities and marine systems withstand sudden shocks. Everything from El Nino events to permit applications and legislation imposed by Mexico’s federal government affects which species fishermen target, and rapid increases in fishing pressure can wipe out a species faster than it can recover.
Finkbeiner’s work consists of interviewing fishermen in Bahia Magdalena, and studying the area’s interannual ocean cycles, fish catch compositions, and income variations over time. A large part of her work has involved earning the trust of local fishermen and their families, in order to listen to their stories and knowledge. Often, an interview will take place in the backyard of a fisherman’s home as she helps the family shell scallops or prepare empanadas, or on the beach as the fishermen haul in their catches at day’s end.
Finkbeiner stresses that, although she talks to local fishermen about their catch histories, her goal is not to impose specific management on them. Instead, her work treats the fishermen as the experts of the system, and focuses on gathering data about the region, from which she can understand historical trends, and fishing needs in the future.
Surprisingly, even though Bahia Magdalena is a world-famous natural region with a wealth of biological diversity, it has limited federal protection. Finkbeiner feels it is crucial to work with fishermen to understand the ways in which both natural processes and human use affect the region. She hopes that this more complete knowledge, combined with increased communication between local fishing needs and larger-scale government legislation, will help develop better cooperative systems in which fishermen can fish as sustainably and sensibly as possible, to maintain their livelihoods and the region’s unique biodiversity.