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Fishing Industry Perspectives on Sea-Level Rise Risk and Adaptation

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Sea-level rise, already occurring over Florida’s coast, stands to generate a significant impact on the state’s fishing industry and coastal communities, exposing vulnerable areas and populations to extreme events and disrupting established patterns of fishery and marine resource use. Using a semi-structured interview approach, this study evaluated fishing industry perspectives on sea-level rise risk and adaptation in three Florida coastal communities. The results showed that adaptation responses vary across industry sectors and communities and are strongly influenced by experience, community dynamics, and age. Generally, older fishers are less willing to relocate due to social factors, such as strong place attachment, compared to younger fishers, who are more likely to retreat and/or work from a less vulnerable location. These findings suggest that adaptation responses, while influenced by experience, are mediated by age, attachment to place, and worldviews, and that these factors need to be accounted for when crafting adaptation strategies across coastal communities.
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Article
Fishing Industry Perspectives on Sea-Level Rise Risk and
Adaptation
Amanda Daria Stoltz 1, *, Manoj Shivlani 2and Robert Glazer 3


Citation: Stoltz, A.D.; Shivlani, M.;
Glazer, R. Fishing Industry
Perspectives on Sea-Level Rise Risk
and Adaptation. Water 2021,13, 1124.
https://doi.org/10.3390/w13081124
Academic Editors: Borja G. Reguero
and Gary B. Griggs
Received: 26 February 2021
Accepted: 14 April 2021
Published: 20 April 2021
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Copyright: © 2021 by the authors.
Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.
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Attribution (CC BY) license (https://
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4.0/).
1Department of Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA
2Division of Marine Ecosystems and Society, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA;
m.shivlani1@umiami.edu
3Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/Fish and Wildlife Research Institute,
Marathon, FL 33050, USA; bob.glazer@myfwc.com
*Correspondence: astoltz@ucsc.edu; Tel.: +1-301-356-3496
Abstract:
Sea-level rise, already occurring over Florida’s coast, stands to generate a significant impact
on the state’s fishing industry and coastal communities, exposing vulnerable areas and populations
to extreme events and disrupting established patterns of fishery and marine resource use. Using a
semi-structured interview approach, this study evaluated fishing industry perspectives on sea-level
rise risk and adaptation in three Florida coastal communities. The results showed that adaptation
responses vary across industry sectors and communities and are strongly influenced by experience,
community dynamics, and age. Generally, older fishers are less willing to relocate due to social
factors, such as strong place attachment, compared to younger fishers, who are more likely to retreat
and/or work from a less vulnerable location. These findings suggest that adaptation responses, while
influenced by experience, are mediated by age, attachment to place, and worldviews, and that these
factors need to be accounted for when crafting adaptation strategies across coastal communities.
Keywords: coastal management; adaptation; sea-level rise; climate change migration
1. Introduction
All along Florida’s coasts, the disastrous effects of sea-level rise (SLR) are already
taking place [
1
,
2
]. As the rate of SLR continues to increase, so will the severity of the
consequences, such as shoreline erosion, saline intrusion into the water table, and the
increased inundation and flooding of coastal areas [
3
]. Studies have shown that even
gradual SLR will cause a substantially higher frequency of previously rare storm-driven
water heights and an increased intensity of coastal flooding events [
4
7
]. The frequency of
nuisance flooding in Florida has already risen with the approximate four-and-a-half-inch
rise in SLR over the last 50 years, which has decreased the efficiency of many storm-water
systems [8].
As coastal human populations continue to grow in Florida due to coastward migration
and urbanization, more people are at risk of the hazards of SLR than ever before [
9
].
Florida’s population has grown to 21.5 million residents, an increase of 14.2 percent over
the 2010 to 2019 period [
10
]; an estimated 75 percent of Florida’s population has in the
recent few decades resided in coastal counties, which are most at risk from extreme events
and SLR [
11
]. Analysis finds that this trend will continue, and that population growth
will continue to be concentrated in storm-surge risk zones [
12
]. Socioeconomic drivers can
have the power of mitigating SLR, in the case of sea wall construction, or exacerbating the
issue, in the case of wetland destruction. Therefore, in developed areas, socioeconomic and
shoreline dynamics are inextricably tied [13].
To address this ongoing threat, the state has started, albeit in fits and starts, to take
meaningful action. In 2017, the State of Florida Legislature approved $50 billion for beach
renourishment to combat erosion, and in 2021, the Governor of Florida’s budget proposed
Water 2021,13, 1124. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13081124 https://www.mdpi.com/journal/water
Water 2021,13, 1124 2 of 18
$1 billion to address sea-level rise impacts, as part of a newly created Resilient Florida
Program that, among other actions, provides funding for local resiliency programs and
requires SLR projection studies for state-funded coastal construction projects commencing
from July 2021 onwards [
14
]. Individual cities and municipalities in Florida are also funding
efforts to defend the coastline from increased flooding.
Touted as the “fishing capital of the world”, Florida boasts an abundance and diversity
of saltwater fisheries off its 1200 mile coastline [
15
]. The fishing industry in coastal Florida,
however, is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of SLR because of its physical presence
along often sinking coastlines and a high dependence on marine resources. Florida’s
coastal communities rely heavily on the fishing and/or tourism industry, and an estimated
27 percent of all recreational saltwater fishing in the US occurs in Florida [
16
]. The total
impact of the recreational saltwater sector is estimated at $9.2 billion, and it supports
88,501 jobs. Commercial fisheries, while not as lucrative as the recreation sector, are
diverse and vary greatly from charters to commercial fishers to aquaculture operations [
16
].
The State of Florida issued 12,000 saltwater commercial fishing commercial licenses and
1700 wholesale dealer licenses for the 2019/20 fiscal year, which accounted for 80 million
pounds in harvest and $222 million in dockside value; Florida’s commercial fishing industry
generates an estimated $3.2 billion in income and supports 76,700 jobs [
17
]. Charter
fishing operations, which are an almost ubiquitous fixture in most Florida tourism coastal
communities, generate an estimated $69.7 million and contribute $151.2 million to the
state’s economy annually [15].
Another, often underappreciated value of Florida’s fishing industry is the role it
plays in maintaining diverse and vibrant working waterfronts. Recognized as waterfronts
that provide access to the public to navigable waters and facilities in support of vessels
and vessel-based activities, including commercial fishing facilities, dock, wharfs, and
marinas, and boat hauling repair facilities, among other types (ex. Florida Statute 342.201),
these areas play an essential role in sustaining fishing operations and attendant fishing
communities. As waterfronts become less available due to a combination of gentrification,
regulatory impacts, and climate-related scarcity, fishing communities stand to lose access
to areas vital to fishing operations and information exchange (such as fish houses). The
locations where fishers often meet to exchange information of fishery conditions and trends,
prices, and rule changes engender and foster social capital and serve as nodes in wider
social networks [
18
] already subject to fragmentation [
19
21
]. Florida’s vulnerable fishing
communities may further disintegrate as sea level rise raises the premium on access sites
least affected by/or most resistant to climate change, namely sea level rise.
However, whether the aforementioned state-driven initiatives, and related private
efforts, will prove effective in holding back the sea and mitigating SLR impacts in Florida
(and elsewhere) remains unclear, as predictions vary greatly; some predict widespread
human migration away from coasts [22,23], while others point to emerging and maturing
technical ability that will enable the successful protection of coastal areas [
24
,
25
]; organiza-
tional networks, in particular, may play a role at the local level to prioritize policies and
technology [
26
]. There are also many important psychological aspects of adaptation, and an
individual’s perception of risk is paramount [
27
]. While experience influences individuals’
concerns over climate change [
28
], worldviews and values may shape risk preferences,
especially as these relate to policy options; thus, decision-making is likely more complex
than a form of rational utility maximization at the individual level [
29
]. The goal of this
study was to assess fishing industry perspectives of SLR risk and adaptation in the three
Florida coastal communities, and the primary objective was to evaluate how community
level factors, such as the types of fisheries, levels of resilience, and amount of SLR-related
threat, influence views on adaptation.
Water 2021,13, 1124 3 of 18
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Study Area
The three research areas chosen for this study include Cedar Key (Levy County),
Conch Key (Monroe County), and Fort Myers Beach (Lee County). The sites were identified
by the authors who have local expertise in each area. These three communities represent
differences in fishing practices, size, and reliance on tourism and other economic activities.
The differences between each community are described further below and inform the
perspectives of the fishers interviewed for this study.
Cedar Key is an isolated and historic fishing community that has survived large-scale
economic and natural changes. The island is located in Levy County along Florida’s central
Gulf coast [
30
] (Figure 1). Historically, mullet fishing was the mainstay of the town and
had been practiced in the area for generations. The passing of the 1995 Florida Net Ban
essentially ended the mullet fishery in the area and out-of-work fishers were provided
with federally funded jobs, retraining in shellfish farming [
31
]. The fishers who stayed and
participated in this research reported success in the aquaculture industry exceeding their
previous income from traditional commercial fishing. Currently, clam aquaculture and
tourism (including charter fishing) are Cedar Keys’ two main industries [
30
,
32
]. The success
of the aquaculture industry in Cedar Keys is due to more than luck and perseverance. The
island is surrounded by the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, which was established
in 1929 and includes 800 acres of federally protected land [
33
]. These protected areas have
shielded Cedar Key from the environmental impacts of coastal development that would
threaten the water quality needed to grow shellfish [31].
Conch Key is a small, traditional fishing community that has not changed significantly
in its infrastructure since its development in the mid-20th century. The five-acre island is
located in the Middle Keys just east of the city of Marathon (Figure 2). Unlike the other two
communities, Conch Key is already experiencing the effects of SLR with some areas of the
island underwater at high tide. Conch Key is unique from the rest of the Florida Keys in
that it is zoned as a special commercial fishing district and is one of the last communities of
its kind [
34
]. This zoning allows Conch Key’s residents to fish commercially from the island,
pile lobster and crab traps in their front yards, and keep their commercial fishing boats at
their docks. Conch Key consists of a mix of retirees, commercial fishers, charter captains,
and retail/hotel operators. In 2018, at the time of this study, there were approximately
10 commercial fishing families and three wholesale distributors on the island. The main
fisheries in Conch Key include spiny lobster, stone crab, and finfish.
Fort Myers Beach represents a new type of community, where commercial fisheries
are in transition. Unlike Cedar Key and Conch Key, Fort Myers Beach is home to a larger,
heavily developed fishing community that is highly dependent on tourism. Located on
Estero Island in Lee County, the island is a popular tourist destination filled with charter
operations, hotels, restaurants, and retail (Figure 3). The growth of the Fort Myers Beach
community has been a result of the combination of fishing and tourism industries [
35
].
The shrimping industry boomed on the island after researchers from the University of
Miami and shrimp fishers discovered the Tortugas pink shrimp fishery [
36
]. Other fisheries
present on the island include snapper, grouper, yellowtail, and cobia. The docks are host
to vertical longline vessels, crabbers, and a substantial number of charter operations that
span four marinas.
2.2. Survey and Interview Instruments
The project team developed the survey questions for the interviews, with the assistance
of fishery managers, fishery researchers, and fishing industry members unrelated to the
study. The interview questions are available in the Supplementary Materials and addressed
the following topics: demographics, which consisted of questions on age, race, gender,
and zip code; level and type of economic investment, including job dependence, tenure,
work location flexibility; work activity, such as the amount of time invested, environments
targeted, and the perceived threats to business sustainability; trends and changes, including
Water 2021,13, 1124 4 of 18
experience with storm events, changes in the community or environment, future plans,
and predictions; and perceptions of climate change and SLR.
Water 2021, 13, x FOR PEER REVIEW 4 of 20
Figure 1. A map of Cedar Key with the study area outlined.
Conch Key is a small, traditional fishing community that has not changed signifi-
cantly in its infrastructure since its development in the mid-20th century. The five-acre
island is located in the Middle Keys just east of the city of Marathon (Figure 2). Unlike the
other two communities, Conch Key is already experiencing the effects of SLR with some
areas of the island underwater at high tide. Conch Key is unique from the rest of the Flor-
ida Keys in that it is zoned as a special commercial fishing district and is one of the last
communities of its kind [34]. This zoning allows Conch Keys residents to fish commer-
cially from the island, pile lobster and crab traps in their front yards, and keep their com-
mercial fishing boats at their docks. Conch Key consists of a mix of retirees, commercial
fishers, charter captains, and retail/hotel operators. In 2018, at the time of this study, there
were approximately 10 commercial fishing families and three wholesale distributors on
the island. The main fisheries in Conch Key include spiny lobster, stone crab, and finfish.
Figure 1. A map of Cedar Key with the study area outlined.
When asked about their response to SLR, participants were shown maps of how a
future scenario of SLR (one meter by 2100) would occur in their area over time on an iPad
(Figure 4). These images were based on elevation and divided into five-year intervals
using data that depicts the trajectory of a meter of SLR by 2100 from NOAA (located
at https://coast.noaa.gov/slr, accessed on 20 November 2017). The map layers were
presented to participants with the explanation that they depict a hypothetical situation in
which the sea-level would rise one meter by 2100 with no preventative measures having
taken place. It was also explained that the maps show a half inch of SLR per year, but
that SLR is not linear and would instead be an uneven process and that storm events
may exacerbate SLR impacts. Inundation levels were determined by the area of land
Water 2021,13, 1124 5 of 18
underwater at mean higher high water. After engaging with the visual depictions of SLR
in their community, participants were asked if they would stay in their community once
SLR causes inundation in areas that they live and work.
Water 2021, 13, x FOR PEER REVIEW 5 of 20
Figure 2. A map of Conch Key with the study area outlined.
Fort Myers Beach represents a new type of community, where commercial fisheries
are in transition. Unlike Cedar Key and Conch Key, Fort Myers Beach is home to a larger,
heavily developed fishing community that is highly dependent on tourism. Located on
Estero Island in Lee County, the island is a popular tourist destination filled with charter
operations, hotels, restaurants, and retail (Figure 3). The growth of the Fort Myers Beach
community has been a result of the combination of fishing and tourism industries [35].
The shrimping industry boomed on the island after researchers from the University of
Miami and shrimp fishers discovered the Tortugas pink shrimp fishery [36]. Other fisher-
ies present on the island include snapper, grouper, yellowtail, and cobia. The docks are
host to vertical longline vessels, crabbers, and a substantial number of charter operations
that span four marinas.
Figure 2. A map of Conch Key with the study area outlined.
2.3. Data Collection
This research was part of a project developed between the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission and Marine & Coastal Research Corp., entitled: “Projecting
changes in three Florida coastal fishing communities resulting from sea level rise and the
anticipated impacts to Species of Greatest Conservation Need”. The data collection con-
sisted of 44 semi-structured in-person interviews completed between December 2017 and
February 2018. Each research trip was conducted after thorough background research on
the fishing industry in each community, including the identification of fish houses and pro-
cessing centers, marinas and boatyards, and other fishery infrastructure locations. Seafood
Water 2021,13, 1124 6 of 18
wholesalers were selected through online research, as seafood wholesalers typically have a
website or a page on Yelp or Facebook. The identification of commercial fishers in each
region was completed by obtaining lists of active, dedicated commercial fishers from their
respective fish houses, as well as spending time at docks and marinas in the morning and
afternoon in order to find fishers whose contact information could not be provided by fish
houses. Charter captains were identified through their contact information available online
or from their marina’s office. Fishing industry members without online presences were
identified through snowball sampling. Interviews took place in the participant’s location
of choice (usually on the waterfront, fishing vessel, or office). Participants who agreed to
the interview but were unable to meet in person were contacted for a phone interview.
Water 2021, 13, x FOR PEER REVIEW 6 of 20
Figure 3. A map of Fort Myers Beach with the study area outlined.
2.2. Survey and Interview Instruments
The project team developed the survey questions for the interviews, with the assis-
tance of fishery managers, fishery researchers, and fishing industry members unrelated to
the study. The interview questions are available in the Supplementary Materials and ad-
dressed the following topics: demographics, which consisted of questions on age, race,
gender, and zip code; level and type of economic investment, including job dependence,
tenure, work location flexibility; work activity, such as the amount of time invested, envi-
ronments targeted, and the perceived threats to business sustainability; trends and
changes, including experience with storm events, changes in the community or environ-
ment, future plans, and predictions; and perceptions of climate change and SLR.
When asked about their response to SLR, participants were shown maps of how a
future scenario of SLR (one meter by 2100) would occur in their area over time on an iPad
Figure 3. A map of Fort Myers Beach with the study area outlined.
Water 2021,13, 1124 7 of 18
Water 2021, 13, x FOR PEER REVIEW 7 of 20
(Figure 4). These images were based on elevation and divided into five-year intervals us-
ing data that depicts the trajectory of a meter of SLR by 2100 from NOAA (located at
https://coast.noaa.gov/slr, accessed on 20 November 2017). The map layers were pre-
sented to participants with the explanation that they depict a hypothetical situation in
which the sea-level would rise one meter by 2100 with no preventative measures having
taken place. It was also explained that the maps show a half inch of SLR per year, but that
SLR is not linear and would instead be an uneven process and that storm events may
exacerbate SLR impacts. Inundation levels were determined by the area of land underwa-
ter at mean higher high water. After engaging with the visual depictions of SLR in their
community, participants were asked if they would stay in their community once SLR
causes inundation in areas that they live and work.
Figure 4. Examples of maps showing contemporary sea levels and the scenario of one meter of sea-level rise by 2100 in
Conch Key, Cedar Key, and Fort Myers Beach.
2.3. Data Collection
This research was part of a project developed between the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission and Marine & Coastal Research Corp., entitled: “Projecting
changes in three Florida coastal fishing communities resulting from sea level rise and the
Figure 4.
Examples of maps showing contemporary sea levels and the scenario of one meter of sea-level rise by 2100 in
Conch Key, Cedar Key, and Fort Myers Beach.
A total of 44 participants were interviewed: 21 in Fort Myers Beach, 12 in Cedar Key,
and 11 in Conch Key. These totals represent a census sample of the fishing industry, in
that all fishery stakeholders had a physical presence in the community (i.e., an identifiable
local business operation such as a fish house, charter fishing operation, commercial fishing
vessel, etc.), self-identified as being a community member, and were either an owner or
manager of a fishery business operation. Participants were assured that their names and/or
the names of their business would not be used to identify them in the report.
2.4. Data Analysis
The data obtained in this project were collected in person using Qualtrics, a survey
program, on an iPad and analyzed using Microsoft Office Excel. The interviews were audio
recorded with permission from the interviewees. The data were coded using inductive
coding to develop the concepts and themes discussed in this paper. The adaptation
responses to the SLR scenario were coded as ‘retreat’, ‘stay and adapt’, and ‘stay without
adapting’. If respondents answered that they would leave their community or move
inland, their answer was coded as ‘retreat’. By contrast, where respondents reported that
they would stay in their community despite changes caused by the SLR scenario, they
Water 2021,13, 1124 8 of 18
were then asked if they would spend money defending their business or home by way of
armoring, defensive measures such as sea walls, or by accommodating, building up their
property. If respondents chose to stay in their community and spend money armoring or
accommodating for SLR, these responses were coded as ‘stay and adapt’. If respondents
reported that they would stay in their community but did not agree to spend money
on defense or accommodation, these responses were coded as ‘stay without adapting’.
Individual’s views on climate change were gleaned from a qualitative analysis of the
transcripts. The interview questions used to assess an individual’s views on climate change
included, “On a scale of one to ten how worried are you about sea-level rise?”, “Based on
your experience fishing, have you seen any large environmental changes in the areas that
you fish in over time?”, and “How would you rank climate change in terms of how it may
affect your fishing operation (1 to 5, where 1 is high impact and 5 is no impact)?”.
3. Results
3.1. Cedar Key
Cedar Key is highly vulnerable to SLR and storm events. The maps depicting the SLR
scenario of one meter by 2100 show the only road in or out of the town inundated at high
tide. The maps show that the main marina will be flooded by 2050, the bridges throughout
the island will become compromised by 2080, and by 2100, many parts of the island will be
uninhabitable.
The twelve Cedar Key fishery stakeholders who participated in this project included
five shellfish aquaculturists, three seafood wholesalers, and four local charter captains.
Three of the shellfish aquaculture operators also owned their own seafood markets from
which they sold both their own products and products purchased from smaller operations.
The age of the respondents ranged between 36 and 65 years old, and 84 percent of the
respondents were over 44 years old. A total of eight percent of the respondents interviewed
were female. A majority of the respondents in Cedar Key (67 percent) have been in the
fishing industry for more than 20 years.
The interviews revealed that the community in Cedar Key is tightly knit and has
withstood several significant regulatory restrictions, disasters, and environmental changes,
including the transition from net fishing to aquaculture due to the 1994 Florida Net Ban [
32
],
the 2010 BP (British Petroleum) Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Hurricane Hermine in
2016. Hurricane Hermine was a category 1 storm that caused substantial damage to local
infrastructure. Respondents reported that the town came together to rebuild after the storm.
Many of the residents of Cedar Key have lived there for multiple generations. There are
many close familial ties within the commercial fishing and seafood wholesale community,
and 75 percent of the commercial aquaculturists reported having family currently involved
in the fishing industry. Furthermore, several respondents described a successful lobbying
effort in which the locals fought to prevent the development of a golf course in the area for
fear it would negatively impact the environment.
The fishing community is tightly connected through its participation in local orga-
nizations, and 88 percent of Cedar Key’s commercial fishers and aquaculturists belong
to organizations including the Cedar Key Oyster Association, Organized Fishermen of
Florida, The Cedar Key Aquaculture Board, the National Aquaculture Association, and
The Cedar Key Oyster Board. Only 25 percent of the commercial fishers and aquaculturists
believed that their business is negatively impacted by competition.
When asked about climate change, only half of the respondents expressed the belief
that climate change is occurring. The other half believe that any climatic changes are
cyclical and not the result of anthropogenic activities. Their disbelief was due to the
following factors: distrust in government, lack of physical evidence, and recent experience
with cooler weather. However, denial of climate change did not prevent respondents from
describing changes in their community from flooding on the roads to the increase of fish
species, such as snook, which are typically found in warmer waters further south. This
experience is supported by scientific studies that have shown that juvenile snook have been
Water 2021,13, 1124 9 of 18
killed by episodes of cold weather near their northern limits [
37
]. This suggests that as the
Gulf waters warm, Cedar Key fishers may see increased warm-water species surviving in
areas that the species could previously not inhabit.
Of the respondents who worry that climate change will or is affecting their businesses,
one noted that the annual cold front has been arriving a month later than usual, affecting
the bottom line of both oystering and clamming operations as shellfish typically thrive
in cooler water. Another fisher spoke of his experience with recent hurricanes in the area
and his fear that hurricane strength will increase over time. Others stated that they were
concerned about SLR and had seen visible impacts including the main road regularly
flooding with high tides. One oyster wholesaler was particularly concerned about the
impacts of erosion and explained that he has seen entire islands disappear over time and
subsequently experienced the loss of oyster banks.
When shown the maps of how SLR could affect their community, a minority (eight
percent) of the respondents in Cedar Key said that they would move their business inland
or ‘retreat’ (Figure 5). Those who indicated that they would stay in Cedar Key were split
between whether they would adapt to SLR (42 percent) or whether they would not adapt
(50 percent) either because they do not believe SLR is going to impact them or because they
do not believe they could prevent the impacts of SLR.
Figure 5. Cedar Key fishing industry responses to the scenario of one-meter SLR by 2100.
3.2. Conch Key
Conch Key is approximately three feet above sea-level and several areas of the island
experience flooding during high tides including the road which connects the original
island with a manmade section of the island that was created using fill. According to
respondents, Hurricanes Donna (1960) and Wilma (2005) both led to island-wide overwash,
and Hurricane Irma (2017) caused significant damage to the island community including
substantial losses of both crab and lobster traps. The maps, which show the SLR scenario
of a one-meter rise by 2100, are bleak for the island. By 2040 under the scenario, the
northernmost, manmade part of the island will be underwater; by 2045, there will be
significant inundation on the main island, and by 2070, the majority of Conch Key will
be underwater.
The respondents from Conch Key included seafood wholesalers who also fish commer-
cially, commercial fishers, and a charter captain. There were 11 respondents interviewed,
and they ranged in age from 31 to 66 years old; 55 percent of interviewees were over
51 years of age. Over a quarter (27 percent) of the interviewees have been working in the
Water 2021,13, 1124 10 of 18
fishing industry for 10 years or less, 18 percent of the interviewees have been working in
the fishing industry for 11 to 20 years, and 55 percent have been working in the fishing
industry for over 20 years. A total of 18 percent of the interviewees were women.
The interviews revealed that there is a high level of trust and cooperation among
the commercial fishers in Conch Key and most of the fishers sell primarily to one fish
house located on the island. The repeated interactions have likely reduced transaction
costs, promoting bonding social capital as identified in other, resource-dependent commu-
nities [
38
,
39
]. However, according to a respondent who works as a seafood wholesaler,
Conch Key has changed from an all-fishing community to a tourist community in the last
fifteen years. In recent years, several waterfront properties have been sold to people outside
of the fishing industry, and the residents of Conch Key are concerned that outsiders buying
properties on Conch Key for recreational purposes may contribute to a loss of working wa-
terfront. The effects of gentrification that affect the Florida Keys [
21
] are also felt in Conch
Key, where business owners have had trouble finding employees that can afford housing.
An interviewee who works as a lobsterman said that there has been a lot of development in
Marathon, a large population center near Conch Key, which has contributed to a decrease
in available workforce housing. He now struggles to find employees willing to assist with
building lobster traps.
Fishery industry views on climate change in Conch Key were varied. Approximately
half (45 percent) of the fishers in Conch Key stated that they believe that climate change is
occurring and believe that it will have a large future impact on their lives. These fishers all
mentioned that they have seen a rise in sea level in the past five years and that there has
been a change in seasonal patterns including hotter summers.
While the remaining fishers interviewed said that they do not believe in climate
change, they did acknowledge that there have been changes in the climate and sea level.
These interviewees were uncomfortable with the term ‘climate change’ and preferred to
attribute any environmental changes to natural and cyclical processes. One respondent
indicated that he thought climatic change could have positive impacts as well, and that
warmer waters may bring more lobster north which would benefit the lobster fishery. Only
one of the interviewees, in the older age group, said that he has not seen any changes in
climate, his target fishery, or the sea-level.
However, despite that the majority of the respondents acknowledging climatic changes,
only 27 percent of the respondents in Conch Key thought that SLR would have a large
impact on the future of their business. These respondents reported that SLR is negatively
impacting their businesses now through increased flooding and that they have already
begun making decisions to protect themselves from future impacts including not purchas-
ing property on the island or building sea walls and concrete docks. Only 18 percent of
respondents in Conch Key believe that SLR will have no impact on their businesses and
the rest believe it will have a minimal impact.
After being shown the images depicting the SLR scenario in their community, 27 per-
cent of Conch Key interviewees indicated that they would retreat (Figure 6). One fisher
in the ‘retreat’ group already had plans to sell his property in the next five years before it
becomes too difficult to sell due to SLR. Interestingly, one of the respondents who chose
“retreat” as his response was a commercial fisherman who does not believe in climate
change but who dislikes raised concrete docks which he believes have caused a decrease in
the water quality of the canal next to his home that he used to swim in years ago when
he was younger. He explained that if concrete docks become the norm, he will leave the
island but stay in the Florida Keys.
Of the remaining respondents, 55 percent chose to ‘stay and adapt’ and work to defend
their community from the impacts of SLR and 18 percent chose to ‘stay without adapting’,
indicating that they are either unable to adapt due to financial or technical considerations
or believe that there is nothing to be done.
Water 2021,13, 1124 11 of 18
Figure 6. Conch Key fishing industry responses to the scenario of one-meter SLR by 2100.
3.3. Fort Myers Beach
Fort Myers Beach is less physically vulnerable to SLR than either Conch Key or Cedar
Key, but in the maps depicting one meter of SLR by 2100, the beach will be underwater by
2035. By 2055, the surrounding marshes, the eastern tip of San Carlos Island (on which Fort
Myers Beach is located), and the marinas will be compromised. Residential areas do not
begin to flood until 2075, and by 2090, some areas of the island are completely underwater.
Twenty-one respondents were interviewed in Fort Myers Beach, including two shrimpers,
14 charter captains, two commercial fishers, two seafood wholesalers, and one charter
captain who also fishes commercially on the side. Participants’ ages ranged between 18
and 70 years old; 76 percent of the interviewees were 41 years or older. Fishing experience
among respondents ranged between 1 and 45 years and 33 percent have been in the fishing
industry for over 20 years. Ten percent of the respondents were female.
The interviews revealed that the commercial fishing industry in Fort Myers Beach
has waned over the last decade. Expensive costs associated with entering the commercial
fishing industry, such as permits and licenses, have kept new entries to a minimum.
Shrimping has also declined in the area, which respondents attributed to regulations,
including one that prevents shrimpers from harvesting their bycatch. Another trend
identified by participants included depleted fish stocks and increased pollution from
water discharged from Lake Okeechobee. The commercial fishers interviewed reported
competition with other fishers overfishing spots and competition from seafood wholesalers
outside the community.
The for-hire fishing industry in Fort Myers Beach has grown steadily over the years,
alongside the growth in tourism, and a majority of the captains reported that their business
income had increased. While the main activity offered on these boats is fishing, 47 percent
of the captains occasionally offer other activities including eco-tours, shelling, crabbing,
weddings, funerals, and snorkeling.
While charter captains were knowledgeable about the other captains and services
offered at their host marina, they had little to no knowledge of charter captains in the
larger Fort Myers Beach area. Only 33 percent of the captains reported belonging to
recreational fishing or conservation organizations and two of the captains interviewed
shared a dislike of organized fishing groups and the belief that no group would be able to
create positive change.
Water 2021,13, 1124 12 of 18
When asked about climate change, a majority of the commercial fishing respondents
(86 percent) and 47 percent of the charter captains said that they do not believe that climate
change exists. One charter captain was fervently against any discussion of climate change
because he believed that Al Gore invented the concept as a fear mongering tactic for
gaining clout, raising funds, and increasing regulation. Those who do believe in climate
change identified warmer summers that have changed fish migrations and caused a decline
in tourism as less northerners have come south to escape the cold. One charter captain
noted, “Climate change has affected fishing and made it a lot worse because the waters
are getting warmer. We used to have a definitive summer and winter and we do not have
that anymore”. Overall, 57 percent of Fort Myers Beach respondents did not believe SLR is
occurring and did not think they would be affected in the future.
When shown the SLR scenario of a one-meter SLR by 2100, 24 percent of respondents
reported that they would retreat inland or move elsewhere, 43 percent said that they would
stay without adapting, and 33 percent said that they would stay and do everything in
their power to adapt and defend their coastal community from SLR (Figure 7). None of
the commercial fishing respondents who said that they would not adapt to SLR believe
in climate change or SLR. Several respondents explained that they think adaptations are
another form of governmental regulation or an “elaborate governmental fabrication”. Two
respondents explained that they would not need to adapt because either the area where
they work will not be affected or they live on their fishing vessel. Of those who reported
plans to adapt, one shrimper said, “Every place on the waterfront has bulk headed and
filled. I don’t see anyone running for the hills right way”.
Figure 7. Fort Myers Beach fishing industry responses to the scenario of one-meter SLR by 2100.
The respondents in the retreat category included a commercial fisher who has property
further inland and who plans to sell his Fort Myers Beach property before SLR makes it
too difficult to sell. A charter captain in this category explained that he will stay as long as
business is good but indicated that he will leave if Fort Myers Beach becomes too expensive.
Interestingly, another charter captain said that he originally planned to stay in the area for
the next 10 years but has been pushed to leave by the 2017 hurricane season, “I never really
put much into climate change but the strongest hurricane on record kind of made me think
there’s something more to it. As I said, it pushed me more towards getting out of here but
there are so many conflicting reports on what to believe, you know, and I’m sorry but I
Water 2021,13, 1124 13 of 18
think Al Gore is a moron... But after seeing almost 200 mile-an-hour wind on a hurricane I
mean, that’s crazy. There might be something more to it than I originally thought”.
3.4. Intercommunity Analysis
Across the three communities featured in this study, 43 percent of the interviewees
reported that they would ‘stay and adapt’, 34 percent reported that they would ‘stay
without adapting’, and 23 percent said that they would ‘retreat’ or move inland if SLR
began affecting their lives negatively. Respondents in Conch Key and Fort Myers Beach
were more likely to choose ‘retreat’ as an option than respondents in Cedar Key
(Figure 8).
Conch Key respondents were more likely than the other two communities to choose to
‘stay and adapt’ and Cedar Key respondents were the most likely to choose ‘stay without
adapting’ as a response.
Water 2021, 13, x FOR PEER REVIEW 14 of 20
I never really put much into climate change but the strongest hurricane on record kind
of made me think there’s something more to it. As I said, it pushed me more towards
getting out of here but there are so many conflicting reports on what to believe, you know,
and I’m sorry but I think Al Gore is a moron... But after seeing almost 200 mile-an-hour
wind on a hurricane I mean, that’s crazy. There might be something more to it than I orig-
inally thought”.
3.4. Intercommunity Analysis
Across the three communities featured in this study, 43 percent of the interviewees
reported that they would ‘stay and adapt’, 34 percent reported that they would stay with-
out adapting’, and 23 percent said that they would ‘retreat’ or move inland if SLR began
affecting their lives negatively. Respondents in Conch Key and Fort Myers Beach were
more likely to choose ‘retreat’ as an option than respondents in Cedar Key (Figure 8).
Conch Key respondents were more likely than the other two communities to choose to
‘stay and adapt’ and Cedar Key respondents were the most likely to choose ‘stay without
adapting’ as a response.
Figure 8. Fishing industry responses to the scenario of one-meter SLR by 2100 in Cedar Key, Conch Key and Fort Myers
Beach.
Out of all of these factors, age was the most directly correlated with the adaptation
response (Figure 9). The majority of interviewees over 60 years of age chose to ‘stay with-
out adapting’ and only eight percent chose to ‘retreat’. When shown the SLR scenario,
respondents over 60 often remarked that they would not live to see the impacts of SLR,
even when their community was already flooding during high tides.
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60%
Retreat
Stay and Adapt
Stay without Adapting
Community Comparison:
Stakeholder Response to Sea-level Rise
Fort Myers Beach Conch Key Cedar Key
Figure 8.
Fishing industry responses to the scenario of one-meter SLR by 2100 in Cedar Key, Conch Key and Fort
Myers Beach.
Out of all of these factors, age was the most directly correlated with the adaptation
response (Figure 9). The majority of interviewees over 60 years of age chose to ‘stay
without adapting’ and only eight percent chose to ‘retreat’. When shown the SLR scenario,
respondents over 60 often remarked that they would not live to see the impacts of SLR,
even when their community was already flooding during high tides.
The worldview of each respondent, i.e., whether they are a climate change believer or a
climate change denier, also factored into their response to the SLR scenario. For the purpose
of this study, climate change deniers are defined as those who did not acknowledge any
changes in their environment over time and who were strongly against the idea of global
climate change, favoring instead the idea that any environmental changes are due to cyclical
and natural changes that cannot be influenced by anthropogenic factors. Climate change
believers are defined in this study as those who were comfortable discussing changes in
their environment such as recent changes in season length or more frequent tidal flooding
that they either believe are caused by climate change or may be caused by climate change.
Respondents who were climate change believers were twice as likely to choose to stay and
adapt than climate change deniers (Figure 10). Climate change deniers were five times as
likely to choose to stay without adapting.
Water 2021,13, 1124 14 of 18
Water 2021, 13, x FOR PEER REVIEW 15 of 20
Figure 9. Fishing industry responses to the scenario of one-meter SLR by 2100 in Cedar Key, Conch Key and Fort Myers
Beach categorized by age.
The worldview of each respondent, i.e., whether they are a climate change believer
or a climate change denier, also factored into their response to the SLR scenario. For the
purpose of this study, climate change deniers are defined as those who did not
acknowledge any changes in their environment over time and who were strongly against
the idea of global climate change, favoring instead the idea that any environmental
changes are due to cyclical and natural changes that cannot be influenced by anthropo-
genic factors. Climate change believers are defined in this study as those who were com-
fortable discussing changes in their environment such as recent changes in season length
or more frequent tidal flooding that they either believe are caused by climate change or
may be caused by climate change. Respondents who were climate change believers were
twice as likely to choose to stay and adapt than climate change deniers (Figure 10). Climate
change deniers were five times as likely to choose to stay without adapting.
Figure 10. SLR scenario responses categorized by belief or denial in climate change.
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70%
Retreat
Stay and Adapt
Stay without Adapting
Stakeholder Age and Response to Sea-level Rise
Over 60 51 – 60 41 – 50 31 – 40 18 – 30
Figure 9.
Fishing industry responses to the scenario of one-meter SLR by 2100 in Cedar Key, Conch Key and Fort Myers
Beach categorized by age.
Figure 10. SLR scenario responses categorized by belief or denial in climate change.
Why individuals chose to ‘stay without adapting’, ‘stay and adapt’, or ‘retreat’ was
based on push factors that fell into multiple categories and were coded as such. The
majority of the respondents (80 percent) who chose to retreat when presented with the
SLR scenario did so for economic reasons: fear of their property losing value or fear of
their business losing income. While economic factors were identified in the majority of the
retreat responses, the remainder of the retreat responses were due to the fear of increased
storm events or the dislike of adaptation methods.
The respondents who reported that they would stay in their communities but were
opposed to taking adaptive measures fit into six main categories: the belief that climate
change is a government fabrication, the idea that SLR will not affect them due to their
location or age, the need to focus on the issues in the present rather than the future, the
inability to adapt (usually due to financial constraints), the attitude that there is no way to
prevent the impacts of SLR, and the view that adaptations to SLR (e.g., sea walls, beach re-
nourishment, and concrete docks) are bad for the environment. Anti-adaptation sentiments
Water 2021,13, 1124 15 of 18
were found across the three communities and will prove to be an obstacle as Florida works
to protect its coastline.
Sense of place is another key factor that determines respondents’ reaction to the SLR
scenario. Individuals who chose to stay and adapt did so for social reasons more so than
economic. Interviewees who decided to ‘stay and adapt’ fit into four main categories: the
idea that their investment in their property was too high to not protect, the belief that they
need to protect their community from SLR impacts, the hope that their family will continue
living in the area, and the need to stay in the community that their family has lived in for
generations. These individuals reported a need to take care of their community as a whole,
an altruistic response also shown by their reaction to previous disasters such as hurricanes.
This social infrastructure appeared strong in Conch Key and Cedar Key, where fishing
industry members belonged to local groups and did not worry about competition. Another
sign of high social capital included reports of community members participating in efforts
to protect the environment. When high social capital is present, there is a greater desire to
identify with the community and defend it against SLR. Strong community identity may
explain why respondents in Cedar Key were less likely to choose ‘retreat’ as an option even
though the area is more vulnerable to SLR than Fort Myers Beach.
4. Discussion
The study found that, as described by Leiserowitz (2006), there exists a diversity of
views in the threat posed by SLR, regardless of whether respondents believed that climate
change is occurring or if climate change is mainly natural (i.e., cyclical) or anthropogenic
(i.e., linear). Much of this is shaped by present circumstances, such as on Conch Key where
rising sea level and storm-related overwash both demonstrate the chronic and episodic
effects of climate change. In Fort Myers Beach, the diversity of views was in part shaped
by past events, such as recent hurricanes, and it was also due to the majority of operations
being charter fishing operations (due to the gentrification of much of the commercial
waterfront over the past two decades) that rely on steady tourism for their income. Cedar
Key is the most traditional of the three communities, and it—more so than Conch Key or
Fort Myers Beach—has a community identity that has been shaped by the community’s
historical connection to its marine environment and resources. Fishing, in other words, has
been a way of life for generations on Cedar Key, and even when events such as the Great
Depression or the Florida Net Ban have presented challenges, the community has adapted
to recover and thrive.
Studies conducted in the Gulf of Mexico region (ex., Hamilton et al., 2012) have deter-
mined that long-term economic dependency plays a pivotal role in shaping community
identity and views on climate change and resource management. Residents from Gulf
of Mexico states such as Louisiana, which are highly dependent on offshore oil and gas
production, refineries, and other parts of the petrochemical industry, have been shown to
be less willing to believe in climate change compared to residents from tourism-dependent
Florida, who recently passed a constitutional amendment to prohibit offshore oil and gas
drilling [
40
]. Within Florida, however, resource-dependent industries, such as commercial
fishing, are in part shaped by the level and type of access they enjoy, based on the state
and federal fishery regulatory framework. Members of these industries are thus similar to
residents of oil- and gas-dependent states, as their identities are at least in part shaped by
their relationship with resource extraction.
In this study, individuals’ dependence on marine resources in some cases led to
negative opinions of hard adaptation responses such as seawalls or raised concrete docks.
This perspective was often based on fears of potential or realized damage to the marine
environment. Whether individuals’ views of hard adaptation solutions were legitimate
environmental concerns or politically charged is challenging to ascertain. This study shows
that the environmental discourse on adaptation will need to evolve, ideally alongside more
development in coastal protection technology, green infrastructure, and studies showing
Water 2021,13, 1124 16 of 18
the cost-effectiveness of these solutions [
41
]. More research is needed to examine the
perspectives on different types of sea-level rise adaptation methods.
Many of the individuals in this study who were anti-adaptation were in the older
generation. Across the three communities, age was a common denominator in the SLR
response to stay in the area without adapting. Studies have shown that climate change belief
certainty and climate change risk perception are negatively correlated with age
[4244]
.
The finding of age as a driver could contribute to a demographic shift in at-risk coastal
communities that could increase the population’s vulnerability and lower their overall
resilience.
Participant age, worldview, and community identity all factored into individuals’
response to the potential SLR scenario. These findings support coastal planning efforts
by illustrating why coastal planning must be conducted in a way that is sensitive to
place-based cultural norms and potential ideological or worldview issues such as climate
change skepticism [
45
]. Determining the factors behind how fishing industry members
will react to sea-level rise provides managers with an important baseline for creating
community-informed adaptation plans [
46
,
47
]. In other words, fostering consensus in
these communities about the risks of sea-level rise may equally or more important than
raising awareness.
5. Conclusions
The study findings demonstrate that factors influencing stakeholder views on SLR
are complex and interrelated, and that communities that may appear superficially homo-
geneous, whether those are in Florida or the rest of the globe, are in fact diverse and thus
may not respond to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ adaptation approach. Resilience therefore can best
be increased if the unique combination of factors influencing recovery and adaptation
are identified, assessed, and included in an adaptation strategy or framework, whether
these factors are measured in terms of socio-ecological indicators denoting resistance to
ecological and anthropogenic stressors [
48
] or instances (cases) of where communities have
rebounded from extreme events or chronic climate shifts. While the study does not predict
the future for fishing industries in coastal communities in Florida or in areas undergoing
similar changes elsewhere in the world, the results do show that age, sense of place, and
worldview all factor into stakeholders’ decisions to stay, adapt, or retreat when faced with
rising seas and an uncertain future.
Supplementary Materials:
The following are available online at https://www.mdpi.com/article/10
.3390/w13081124/s1, Florida Fishing Communities & SLR Survey.
Author Contributions:
Conceptualization, A.D.S., M.S. and R.G.; methodology, A.D.S., M.S. and
R.G.; formal analysis, A.D.S.; investigation, A.D.S.; resources, M.S. and R.G.; data curation, A.D.S.;
writing—original draft preparation, A.D.S., M.S. and R.G.; writing—review and editing, A.D.S., M.S.
and R.G.; visualization, A.D.S. and M.S.; supervision, M.S. and R.G.; project administration A.D.S.,
M.S. and R.G.; funding acquisition, M.S. and R.G. All authors have read and agreed to the published
version of the manuscript.
Funding:
This research was funded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for a
grant entitled: “Projecting changes in three Florida coastal fishing communities resulting from sea
level rise and the anticipated impacts to Species of Greatest Conservation Need”.
Institutional Review Board Statement:
The study was conducted according to the guidelines of the
Declaration of Helsinki, and approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Miami
(protocol code 20170775, approved 24 October 2017).
Informed Consent Statement:
Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.
Data Availability Statement:
Data available on request from the corresponding author. The data are
not publicly available to protect the privacy of the subjects.
Water 2021,13, 1124 17 of 18
Acknowledgments:
We would like to acknowledge Maria Estevanez for her mentorship, support,
and the creation of the maps used in this paper. Thanks also go to Kenneth Broad for his guidance
during this project, and to the University of Miami and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Commission for providing the needed resources. We thank Nicholas Castillo and Samantha Dowdell
who both assisted with crafting the survey questions. Finally, we owe immense gratitude to the
incredible fishers of the Florida coast who trusted us with their stories.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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