Forgotten whales, fading codfish: perceptions of 'natural' ecosystems inform visions of future recovery.

Published online
04 Sep 2023
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

McClenachan, L. & Neal, B.
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Publication language
Maine & USA


Perceptions of past ecological change affect views of current ecosystem state, but how do baselines help to shape stakeholders' visions of an idealized future? Here, we investigate links between perceptions of natural baselines and visions for the nearshore Gulf of Maine among a key stakeholder group, active lobster fishers. We ask three related questions: (1) What do fishers perceive as a 'natural' Gulf of Maine? (2) How do perceptions of the past predict individual and collective visions of an ideal future? and (3) How is existing management perceived as supporting these visions? We found that fishers perceived the ecosystem to be 'natural' an average of one decade before they started fishing. Three species dominated views of natural systems: cod Gadus morhua, lobster Homarus americanus, and herring Clupea harengus, but while long-time fishers associated abundant cod with a natural nearshore Gulf of Maine, memories of a historically cod-rich Gulf of Maine were fading among some younger fishers who began their careers after the cod crash in the 1990s. Perceptions of 'natural' ecosystems dictated future visions for the majority of taxa; on average, fishers remembered and desired abundant cod and herring, but perceived halibut Hippoglossus hippoglossus and endangered right whales Eubalaena glacialis to have always been rare. Fishers described a vision for the future based on views of past ecological and social baselines, including fisheries deconsolidation and diversification, but expressed a lack of shared vision with and trust in federal management institutions to achieve these goals. In particular, memories of cod abundance in the 1970s and 1980s were coupled with memories of a diversified and accessible fishery, but fishers doubted that the recovery of cod would result in their restored access to cod fisheries. Together our results demonstrate that past personal experiences limit perceptions of what is possible, highlighting both the value and limitations of local ecological knowledge in places that have experienced ecological change over centuries. They also demonstrate how stakeholder perceptions of both social and ecological baselines shape visions for future ecosystems but are mediated by contemporary issues like trust in institutions and fisheries access.

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