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Doing What We Love: Stories from an all-Female Gillnetter in Bristol Bay, Alaska

By Lillian M. Saul, Graduate student researcher, OFI Module I

Setting back, Vinalhaven, Maine.

Part III: Why I am a Small-Scale Fisheries Researcher

*Journal entry May 15, 2020: Vinalhaven, Maine

I can say confidently I wouldn’t live here if it weren’t for the fishery. I won’t say no one will live here if not for the fishery. But this place wouldn’t look or feel the same. We live here because this is where the fish live. And we have good access from this island to the resource and so we end up benefiting quite well from it because of that historical access. There’s a lot of complexity that goes along with being on a remote island though. The isolation of this place often makes it feel, socially, like it’s stuck in the past. Often people mourn the social changes of the outside world. When I was a woman in a serious relationship with an island-born man my life was tenfold easier. Since becoming a single woman fishing here, I have run into some issues. But I have stayed because I love the community, and I love the fishing.

A friend told me that she has deep respect and appreciation for the unseen people who catch the wild fish she eats. She has a vision disorder, which makes it extremely difficult for her to look at screens or drive. After driving too long one day, she walked away with a month-long migraine. She says that eating wild caught fish is good for her brain. She doesn’t know why exactly, but she is certain it is.

In the U.S., lobster fishing communities in Maine are being sued by the federal government for protection of right whales. No right whales have been confirmed by science as killed or injured by Maine lobster gear. Federal fisheries managers propose “ropeless” fishing gear, which would put small-scale operators out of business due to cost and technological requirements. Fishers are pleading with the federal government. They are too tired to fight, but they fight for the right to maintain their coastal livelihoods. Fishing communities watch their world slip out from under them. Their situation is dire: not because of climate or the environment, but because of governmental policy.

Power inequities are at play between fishers and the non-governmental environmentalist lobbies. However, it seems that if a different process were put in place, these two sides might actually align when it comes to values and principles. Films, like Seaspiracy portray fishers as perpetrators, but there is no scientific data to implicate Maine fishers in the killing of right whales. My own cousin posted on social media that he is no longer eating fish, and no one else should either. Our livelihoods have a direct connection to the ocean, and they are sustainable! Isn’t that something to be celebrated?

This photo was taken on Greens Island, near Vinalhaven, by Willie Drury who owns and operates a company called Maine Magic Mud. Visit his sight here!

When I departed my home fishing community to come to graduate school in Canada, I received words of desperation. My captain started calling me, “the policy-maker.” I only hope to contribute to a conversation that is far larger and to which many scholars, communities and fishing people have dedicated their lives. I feel I can do more here at school than from the stern of the lobster boat. I am a scientist now, and I’m still learning what that means. But I will always carry the perspective of a fishing person inside of me.

Laws and policies in Canada acknowledge the economic, social and cultural values of fisheries. In Newfoundland and Labrador, fisheries are the lifeblood of the province, as they are in Maine, Alaska, and coastal regions all over the world. But income and money—benefits which have been well-documented—represent only a surface understanding of why fisheries are one of humankind’s most precious assets. Small-scale fisheries represent a way of engaging, interacting and understanding that is invaluable. Preserving these ties goes beyond ‘economic’ and ‘social’ considerations. It is about preserving a language with the ocean, a form of human consciousness. In this way, fishing people—settler and Indigenous—possess knowledge which can help leaders govern a better world. It is these local connections, this language with the sea, which small-scale fishers alone can contribute. Therefore, governance systems must figure out how to support and build these interactions, rather than further burden them.

Summer day, Vinalhaven Maine

I am doing this research because small-scale fisheries are strong and represent a way of living that is healthy, connected and grounded. Historically, small-scale fishing communities have served as the ocean’s protectors, not its perpetrator. Learning about these interactions can answer the question: how can we prioritize generosity, accountability, and the wild things of this world? Small-scale fisheries research does not apply solely to fishing people but is useful and relevant for everyone because it is about putting effort into what is good and healthy and makes us feel good and free. Instead of asking how can we advance, it asks: how can we heal? This research is part of learning how to care for our environment, as it has cared for us. We learn together. We pray together as we fall asleep each night, hoping that the earth will be intact and resources still available for our children and grandchildren. Isn’t that what the Blue Economy is all about, really?

What do we have now that is good? What do we already possess in our human toolbox which is precious and has the capacity to care for and give, rather than take and destroy? What are we not seeing, when we look at small-scale fishing communities?

*Friday November 26 represents the Too Big To Ignore Lab contribution to Memorial University’s 2021 Research Week. Please join us for an online symposium by clicking the zoom link below! We will meet at 10:30 am NL time for a collaborative discussion about why small-scale fisheries matter, and what does “Getting small right” mean to you? Later we will have a booth at the UC, where you can come grab a zine and talk to us in person about values, images and principles in small-scale fisheries, as well as ask us any questions about our research, and share with us your own experiences!


Lillian Saul is a researcher at Memorial University studying fisheries governance in Newfoundland and Labrador with a focus on inshore and small-boat fisheries. Her research explores opportunities and challenges to informing policymaking in this province with relevant principles, as outlined by the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries. She is also an active commercial fishing person! Lillian would be satisfied spending the rest of her days fishing on the water and contributing to learning about and solving complex problems in fisheries on shore. Ultimately, she hopes her work can celebrate the invaluable knowledge and vitality of fishing communities in Atlantic Canada and beyond.

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