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Bridge Organizations and New England Fisheries Management During the Trump Presidency



Fisheries management is both an ecological and a social venture. After all, to achieve sustainable fish stocks, fisheries managers must gain the compliance, if not cooperation, of industry stakeholders. In New England (United States), this process is further complicated by sociocultural and political institutions around individual choice and mistrust of government. These challenges have been especially evident during Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidential administration, since a significant part of his political appeal is based on anti-government, anti-elite, and individualist ideologies. At the same time, a number of fishing communities in New England have side-stepped mistrust of the government and science through the creation of bridge organizations that connect industry stakeholders directly to sustainable practices. This article explores both the particular challenges posed by American norms around governance and individualism and the success of bridge organizations in overcoming the sustainability limitations set by those norms. Based on interviews with fisheries stakeholders like Ole, Stevie, and Jim (conducted between 2015 and 2019), this research explores identity built around individualism against the backdrop of the Trump administration and considers whether sustainability can once again be a part of what it means to be a “good fisherman” in New England. Ultimately, the paper contends that, in spite of deeply rooted norms around individualism and distrust of political and scientific authority, organizations that bridge fisheries stakeholders and fisheries managers can help to integrate sustainability practices into New England fishing communities.
Bridge Organizations and New England Fisheries Management During the Trump
1. Introduction
“I don’t blame the government for making the rules; that’s their job.” At first
blush, Ole
sounds like many of the Norwegian fishermen I’ve previously interviewed
[1]. He wasn’t happy to abide by fishing regulations, but he seemed to accept the
government’s role in making them. The difference with Ole was that, although he was
born in Norway, he has been fishing in Fairhaven, Massachusetts for over sixty years.
Fairhaven, just across the bridge from its better-known neighbor, New Bedford, is home
to a significant population of fishermen of Norwegian descent who immigrated in the
middle of the 20th century. As I sat with Ole and his brother, Stevie, I strained to see
connections to the Norwegian interviewees I had previously engaged. Beyond the
above quote, Ole and Stevie betrayed little of the typical Norwegian mindset toward the
role of government in fisheries. In fact, when I asked if his statement indicated that he
trusts those regulations, he scoffed. “Of course not,” he said, “you can’t trust the
government to do anything!”
“We had our own internal management system back in the late 1950s, you
know,” Stevie chimed in. “We had a pound limit of 11,000 on scallops, but the
government replaced it with rules that ruined many families.” All of a sudden, Ole and
Stevie, who began the interview reservedly, seemed in their element. They described
instances of government overreach, mused about the freedom they used to enjoy on the
water, and agreed that Donald Trump would be the best president in history, “if he
would just keep his mouth shut,” because “he’s a businessman, not a politician.” In
other words, they sounded like many other New England fishermen.
In a sense, it’s no wonder that New England fishermen might value
independence, fear government overreach, and rail against catch limitations. These
exceptionalisms have deep roots in New England going back to the colonial period,
when dissenters left England to fend for themselves in America, and later fought off the
tyrannical king (with their own guns) when he tried to impose taxation on them [2]. For
many, tyrannical government is still a threat, and catch limits feel like a modern form of
In this paper, the names of interviewees have been changed to ensure anonymity.
unfair taxation, which threatens the free and independent lifestyle that drew them to
the sea in the first place.
“They’re basically cowboys on boats,” claims Jim, a local historian of fishing,
who comes from “a long line of New Bedford fishermen.” Jim believes that
sustainability was a part of the local fishing identity before government regulations and
politicization of fisheries management made conservation into a wedge issue. “My
father taught me that good fishermen catch the right fish, with the right gear, without
any input from the government,” Jim explained. “Now, that kind of talk feels
antithetical to our identity as fishermen.”
Based on interviews with fisheries stakeholders like Ole, Stevie, and Jim
(conducted between 2015 and 2019), this research explores identity built around
individualism against the backdrop of the Trump administration, and considers
whether sustainability can once again be a part of what it means to be a “good
fisherman” in New England. Ultimately, this paper contends that, in spite of deeply-
rooted norms around individualism and distrust of political and scientific authority,
organizations that bridge fisheries stakeholders and fisheries managers can help to
integrate sustainability practices into New England fishing communities.
2. Methods
This research uses vertical slice analysis [3], or studying up [4], based on the multi-sited
ethnographic interviews referenced above [5]. Vertical slice analysis aims to understand
a system by tracing its power structures from the bottom up, using ethnographic
methods commonly applied to the detailed understanding of cultures and societies to
map human political systems. In the context of this research, this means “understanding
the relationships of power and influence and of contention and cooperation within the
fishery regimes that form the ‘vertical slice’ of our analysis” [1]. This data is then
combined with interviews from fisheries stakeholders (quoted with pseudonyms
throughout this paper), and analysis around sociocultural and political institutions, to
generate conclusions.
3. Case Examination
3.1 The Outlaw Mentality
“Americans love outlaws. Think of heist movies. Robin Hood. Even the black hat
villains in Westerns. We love outlaws, even when hate them.” In his mid-thirties, Brad
is younger than most fisheries stakeholders in New England, and his perspective is
fairly unique. Trained as a social scientist, he leads a fishermen’s association that
collectively manages its members’ quota, and has worked with fishermen from across
the region. With his training, and from his birds-eye vantage overseeing the activities of
dozens of owner-operators, Brad can identify the major social and cultural drivers of
the political behavior of New England fishermen.
“The fishermen’s outlaw-hero, at least here in New England, is Carlos Rafael,” he
continues. “It’s not clear if he’s more of a Robin Hood or a black hat villain. I think he’s
different things to different people, or a little of both. But, at the end of the day he gets a
lot of support, even from people who probably should hate him.” The story of Carlos
Rafael has received such wide media coverage lately that he is known beyond fishing
circles. Called the “Codfather” in the media, he is, depending on who you ask, either an
immigrant fisherman who made it big, became a pillar of the local community, and was
harassed (and eventually imprisoned) by the federal government; or, a criminal
ringleader who built his fortune dodging the law and crushing competitors.
“He’s definitely a hero to many of the independent fishermen I work with,” says
Brad. “He stood up to the government. He openly said for years that he would find
ways around any regulation they came up with, and fought them off in court.
served time for tax evasion, which is probably a badge of honor for some of these guys.
Now he’s in deep trouble,
but many in the industry are rooting for him. Nothing he
does is really in their interests, but he is their champion, anyway.” This is all the more
striking given the way Rafael describes the small-scale fishermen who support him. In
an interview with Vice magazine, he referred to them as “mosquitoes on the balls of an
elephant” and “maggots screaming on the sidelines” [6].
To be fair, these statements were made during what may have been the high-
point of conflict between fishermen in New Bedford. In 2013, just a few years into a
newly-established sector-based fisheries management system, many were coming to
fully understand the advantages that Rafael had secured himself by hoarding permits.
His smaller competitors were now largely dependent on his willingness to lease permits
to them, making him into a sort of fisheries landlord. As one might expect given these
circumstances, Rafael has his critics within the industry, though many remain quiet out
Rafael and his company were found not guilty of price-fixing in the 1995 case United States v. Carlos
Seafood, Inc.
Rafael has been convicted of federal charges ranging from conspiracy to bulk cash smuggling. He was
found to have falsely reported the species of more than 815,000 pounds of fish to NOAA.
of fear.
One man who wasn’t afraid to openly condemn Rafael recalled him once
bragging about shorting his workers’ pay. “I fucked $250 from out of these guys,” he
remembered Rafael saying with “hoarse, cruel laughter” [7].
Still, many view Rafael’s actions as an unfortunate product of the new sector
management system, which was designed to create winners and losers, with the goal of
collapsing the industry into the hands of a few. They don’t blame Rafael for exploiting
an inequitable system that should have instituted a fleet ownership cap to prevent the
capture of the local industry by kingpins.
Further complicating Rafael’s reputation are his relationships with his
employees. Although Rafael was not known as a generous employer by his lower-tier
workers, he recognized the need to foster loyalty from his captains. According to one
New Bedford fisherman, Bob:
Carlos is called the Codfather for good reason. He’s ruthless if you’re in his way,
but he takes care of his captains, giving them rent-free housing and paying them
well. He also brings a lot of money into New Bedford, and supports many on-
shore businesses related to fishing… I think many of us are happy to see someone
finally stand up to the government, and he’s one of the few who has the
firepower to do it well. I also like that he speaks his mind, and isn’t afraid of
offending anyone. We need more honesty in the conversations between us and
the government.
This characterization of Rafael is useful in understanding the political leanings of
many fishermen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Although the election was not
originally a focus of my research, the subject was raised so often by interviewees that I
couldnt ignore it. Donald Trump didn’t win any of the New England states in
November, but if you were to judge his chances based solely upon my conversations
with fishermen in the summer of 2016, his outlook would have seemed bright.
New England fishermen have traditionally swung conservative, but in a much
quieter way, according to James, a long-time fisheries manager:
You always knew that they were more likely to vote Republican, but it was never
a big deal. Now, I hear about Trump all the time. I’m friendly with the guys,
According to anonymous sources, Rafael once threated to grab a harbormaster “by the neck and throw
[them] down these stairs” and “throw [them] in the water” and “hold [their] head down” [3].
even though we’re sort of on different sides, so it’s kind of banter. They know
that mentioning Trump gets my goat.
Conversely, New England fishermen also have a long history of working with
Democrats, and many respondents listed progressives such as Ted Kennedy, Barney
Frank, and Elizabeth Warren as politicians the industry has counted on for support in
recent decades. Trump’s candidacy, however, seems to have activated a new kind
response. New England fishermen don’t like him because he’s a politician they can
trust; instead they trust him because he’s not really a politician at all. In a sense, he’s an
anti-politician, which to many interviewees is even better.
Like Rafael, Trump was perceived by many fishermen as abrasive, willing to
speak his mind, and at odds with traditional government, even as he ran for the
nation’s highest political office. As one respondent, Matthew, put it:
Trump doesn’t appeal to me because he’ll fix things [within the fishery
management system]. I’ve lost so much hope that I just want him to tear it all
down. I really don’t have any idea what he’ll do if he’s elected, but I do think
that whatever it is, it’ll be different, and that’s enough for me.
Other fishermen echoed this sentiment, calling Trump a “wildcard” and “the
political establishment’s worst nightmare.” Scott, a sector manager from Rhode Island
estimated that more than 90% of the fishermen he knows openly support Trump: “It’s
the thing they bring up when interactions with the government go sour, as they usually
do. Trump will change that, they say. He’ll scrap the whole system.”
This anti-governmental sentiment helps to explain not only Trump’s following
but also the unlikely support of Carlos Rafael in the fishing community. Antagonism
toward the government pervades many of the issues discussed with fishermen in New
England and was a strong political norm in every fishing community I visited. It’s not
that there are no outliers; some respondents harshly criticized Rafael, and others
claimed that they would never vote for Trump. There were also significant divisions
over broader issues, such as sustainability and efforts to recruit young fishermen. In
fact, many of the issues that are controversial among fisheries stakeholders concern the
tension between long-term and short-term interests.
3.2 Short-Term Angst vs. Long-Term Hope
“Never trust a scientist.” Gene had just finished landing his catch and was
walking to his truck when I asked him to chat. In his late-forties, his weathered skin
gave him the look of someone who had spent the better part of his life battling the
elements. “I can’t tell if they’re lying or if they believe the crap they tell us, but they
don’t know a damn thing.” Gene has been fishing since he was a teenager, starting on
his uncle’s boat in the mid-1980s. “Now those were tough times,” he said, wiping his
brow. “That’s why those of us who have been around for a while just chuckle when
they say that stocks are low. We’ve seen it bad. Things are better now, if you’re good at
what you do.”
Figure 1: Fishermen landing skates in Cape Cod.
The idea that a good fisherman can still prosper is a point of pride for many New
England fishermen. “Sure, it’s never easy,” Gene allowed, “but it wasn’t for the older
generation either! This has always been a tough profession.” Mark, a captain who was
standing nearby interjected to disagree with Gene’s suggestion that things have always
been tough,
“Are you kidding? Sure, it’s always been a tough job, but my grandfather used to
go out no more than an hour and find more cod than he could catch. Anyone
who says that the stocks are what they used to be is not being honest. Not for
cod, at least. After the crash in the early 1990s, it never came back. If it’s not
worse, it’s because it couldn’t really get any worse. That’s why we need to use an
ecosystem approach when we figure out our catch numbers.”
This was the first mention, let alone approval, of an ecosystem approach that I
heard from the mouth of a New England fisherman. At first, I chalked Mark up as an
outlier, perhaps one of the few pro-government stakeholders in a group that is
otherwise decidedly down on centralized fisheries management. I hesitantly asked
Mark, “Is NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] pushing an ecosystem approach
now?” Mark scoffed:
If NMFS suggests something, it’s time to run like hell. Any fisherman with a
brain knows that we’re working in an ecosystem. If one part goes bad, the whole
thing collapses. I think the government will come around to that eventually
because it’s so obvious, but that’s not how they’re managing things now. Their
science is garbage.
Fishermen often hold little faith in the science behind NMFS’s management of
New England fish stocks. It was surprising, however, that two fishermen who seemed
to strongly agree about government overreach into fisheries management could
disagree so strongly about the state of the fisheries themselves. As I continued my
research, a pattern emerged that helped to explain this dichotomy. There were several
communities where openness to longer-term thinking had taken hold. This sensitivity
to the future resulted in progressive ideas about fisheries ecology, climate change, and,
at times, collaboration with conservation NGOs, seemingly without significant changes
in attitude toward the government or its fisheries management systems. These
communities where longer-term, ecologically-minded thinking had gained a foothold
seemed to have one attribute in common: the establishment of a local stakeholder
organization that served as both a forum for these new ways of thinking and a bridge to
outside conservation groups.
The “bridge organization” phenomenon has been identified by several scholars
[8][9][10][11]. Such organizations narrow the divide between communities that are
skeptical of conservation, and conservation organizations that can provide them
expertise, technological innovation, and strategic assistance. In New England, some
communities formed collective fishing organizations that gradually came to work with
conservation NGOs on fisheries sustainability. As one NGO fisheries specialist told me:
I don’t think the relationships we’ve built could have happened without our
partner organizations. These community-based organizations are usually staffed
by people who work with the fishermen daily and sometimes are from the
communities themselves. They have a huge amount of trust and social capital in
those communities. At the same time, they have mostly trained as environmental
scientists or biologists, at least at the undergraduate level, so an ecosystem
approach is natural to them, and working with a conservation organization
seems like a good thing, to them.
In this sense, the bridge between fishermen and conservationists is not just
organizational, but very much relies on individual human connections. As one leader of
a local fisherman’s organization put it: “We know how to speak both languages. In
organizing parlance, we can change registers depending on who we are communicating
with. In some ways, we’re like interpreters, but with fisheries expertise, as well.”
Brad is one of those interpreters. He cautions that it’s not always as easy as it
Am I trusted? Yeah, sure. The guys like me. They think I’m trying to help. But,
I’m not one of them, and I never will be, I suppose. They rib me all the time
about my college degree, how I belong behind a laptop at Starbucks instead of a
fishing boat. But in the end, if I suggest something they might listen. They won’t
adopt a new technology wholesale, but one guy might try it, and others will
follow if it helps them to fish better. They’re willing to shift some of their
thinking to longer-term issues. But, it still has to make financial sense. This isn’t
about making them into environmentalists, a label they would hate. It’s
convincing them that conservation means more money over time.
Paul, a fisherman from Maine who is open to sustainability innovations,
including electronic jigging machines and onboard video monitoring, echoes this
I’ll do anything that helps the bottom line. I suspect there are more fish
out there than scientists say, but if I can avoid bycatch, both because I’ll
stay out of trouble and because it may lead to better stocks in the future,
why not. If there’s some technology that can help me do that, and
somebody’s going to help me get it pretty cheap, sign me up.
Still, many communities remain deeply skeptical of collaborating with
conservation organizations. Dennis, a long-time fisherman from Gloucester, MA is
quick to disparage fishermen in Chatham, MA for their relationships with both
conservationists and regulators. As he describes it, “Those hookers
down in Chatham
sold us out. First, they were in bed with the government to get a catch history
benefitting them. Now they’re getting all kinds of “enviro” money. They aren’t really
fishermen anymore.”
The charge that the Cape Cod sector received preferential treatment in how
quotas were determined was commonly repeated in Gloucester and New Bedford
(where one respondent called the Chatham leadership “crooked”). Moreover, its true
that while the quota in most New England sectors was set using the range of 1996 to
2006, Cape Cod’s sector was set between 2001 through 2006, yielding higher quotas.
But, the animosity, and underlying differences in perspective, run much deeper than
this single issue. It is clear that the fishermen’s organizations that reject collaboration
with conservation groups are not only ill-equipped to serve as bridge organizations
(drawing staff only from the industry side, and usually with little-to-no training in
environmental conservation), but that they often intensify industry hostility toward
ecological concerns. In other words, they serve as walls, rather than bridges (a fitting
distinction, given the election rhetoric simmering just below the surface during these
3.3 Young vs. Seasoned
David and I were sitting on a bench by New Bedford’s harbor when he told me:
There used to be a community among fishermen, but now it’s every man
for himself. The council is rigged in favor of the big guys, just like the rest
of the government. It’s get yours, and get out. That’s why the ecosystem
approach doesn’t have wide appeal. I think we all know the stocks are in
trouble, but we also know it’s an excuse to screw us. Only the younger
guys care about that stuff, for the most part.
A joke based on the original name of the Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance, the Hook Fishermen’s
He said it in a resigned way. He himself had started out as a young guy, the son
of an Azorean Portuguese immigrant who practically raised David on a boat. David
thinks back to those early days, and how different things were:
When I started out, the fish were everywhere. They were easy to catch. Of
course, I can see that things have gotten bad. But I think we’re all worried
that the more we admit it, the more they’ll use it against us. I would like to
see more young people in the industry. The way they think, it would also
be good for conservation. But there’s no room for them. The ones in it
already are barely making ends meet.
Glenn, from Cape Cod, agrees that young people are needed, “to escape the
selfish trap we’re all stuck in.” He worries that older fishermen make decisions on such
a short time horizon, that they don’t think enough about the future of fishing. In his
I have two young crewmembers. They still have decades of fishing in front of
them, I hope. They seem more willing to take some lumps now if it will make
things better in the long run. I try to do my part. I catch dogfish now, which is
MSC certified and the stocks are very healthy. They don’t sell here, but it’s good
for the “fish and chips” market in England.
Judging by the sheer number of dogfish landed in one afternoon in Chatham, the
dogfish population is indeed healthy. Some, however, like Steve, a young crewmember,
are worried that it’s only a matter of time until that stock is overfished:
There are plenty of dogfish and skates, but we didn’t learn our lesson.
Some folks are already pushing to double the daily catch limit. Even after
all that we’ve seen, many are still resistant to management. We should
bring dogfish and skates into the sector system. It’s even better for the
markets—why fish twice as hard when the more we catch the lower the
price goes.
Steve is just 25 years old. He admits that it’s easier for him to talk about
sustainability since he has very few expenses. “I live at home with my parents,” he
explains, “and I don’t have major expenses like a mortgage or a loan to pay back. I also
don’t have to worry about buying or leasing quota. I hear the older guys talk, and I get
why they’re more concerned about money than how many fish are out there. It’s hard
work, and some of them are just getting by.”
Figure 2: Young crewmembers landing dogfish in Chatham, MA.
Chris, an owner-operator, confirms Steve’s assessment:
We’re hardly surviving. How can you let young folks in when there’s not enough
to go around as it is? How can you talk about fish stocks when I might lose my
house next month? How can I worry about climate change when sometimes I
can’t afford the fuel to go fishing?
At the mention of climate change, I become curious about Chris’ thoughts on the
issue. I ask him if he meant to say that climate change is indeed happening, but he just
doesn’t have the capacity to worry about it. According to him:
Any long-time fisherman paying attention has noticed climate change. It’s
happening all around us. We’re out on the water so much of our lives, of
course we see the changes. In fact, that’s part of what gets me so mad. We
always get blamed for destroying fish stocks, while practically every other
industry is behind climate change, which is really destroying the fish
This echoes something that Brad, the sector manager from Maine, said:
New England fishermen are the largest Republican voting bloc that
believes in climate change, partially because it redirects the blame over
fish stock declines. Lobsters are already disappearing from southern
Maine. In fact, Maine fishermen recently held a big climate change
conference, which was very well attended. The tenor of that meeting was
‘how will we adapt,’ with very little discussion of whether climate change
is actually happening.
While I did meet some fishermen who questioned climate science, these outliers
often seemed more attached to the notion of environmental science being generally
shaky, and were not specifically ardent in their climate change denial. And, again, age
was a factor. Very few young fishermen question climate science, just as they are less
likely to dispute declining fish stocks. As Jeff, a fisherman from Cape Cod relates,
“There are huge differences in approach to sustainability between younger and older
fishermen. That’s one reason we need young blood in the industry. Preferably locals.
They are the future of our communities.” What Jeff has noted, I posit, is a generational
shift in norms and values around governance and sustainability in the industry.
Recognizing the importance of these changing attitudes to achieving sustainability, he is
making plans to turn his boats over to his two young crewmembers. He would have
liked to have seen the business stay in the family, but now almost 60 years old, Jeff
never found time to marry and start a family, and his nieces and nephews have chosen
college over fishing. As Jeff puts it:
These young guys [his crewmembers] are like family to me now. They
came here looking for jobs because they love being on the water. It’s a
calling for them, like it was for me. They have their whole future ahead of
them. Hopefully there will still be fish here in 10 or 20 years for them to
3.4 The Role of Norms and other Sociocultural Institutions
Sociocultural institutions can be difficult to define. Commonly-cited definitions
include the “settled habits of thought common to the generality of man” [12, p. 239], the
informal rules that “regulate the relations of individuals to each other” [13, p. 367], “the
rules of the game for society” and “humanly devised constraints that shape human
interactions” [14, p. 3]. Most useful for the purposes of this paper, perhaps, is the
definition put forth by Kiser and Ostrom: “rules used by individuals for determining
who and what are included in decision situations, how information is structured, what
actions can be taken and in what sequence, and how individual actions will be
aggregated into a collective decision” [15, p. 179]. Whatever the particular definition,
many agree that institutions are durable, robust, and sticky [16, 17], though they are
constantly evolving, albeit slowly [18]. Because of fishing’s traditional relationship to
culture and livelihoods, “fisheries institutions may be especially difficult to forecast or
direct,” [5, p. 40]
leading some to wonder whether actors can hope to change deeply set
institutions such as those in fisheries “if their actions, intentions, and rationality are
conditioned by the very institution they wish to change” [19, p. 398].
At first blush, New England fishing communities seem to hold competing norms
about fisheries management, and appear to be at odds with one another on important
management issues. Some reject scientific findings that commercial stocks are
overfished, while others are actively engaged in collaborative research and practices to
increase sustainability. Some are protectionist about allowing new fishers into the
industry, while others are actively hoping to attract younger fishermen to their ranks.
There are certainly many rivalries between sectors, and accusations of selling out or
refusing to abandon unsustainable practices are common. A closer examination,
however, reveals an industry that agrees on a few key points about fisheries
management. Above all else, there is a deep-seated mistrust of government regulators
and the sector management system NMFS instituted in 2010.
See [1] for a detailed discussion of sociocultural institutions as they relate to fisheries.
Figure 3: Fishermen protesting the NMFS in Gloucester.
This mistrust spills over for some into a general skepticism of sustainability
measures and government management of fisheries at all. For many respondents, there
seemed to be some cognitive dissonance around the issue of sustainability—through
personal experience they recognized that stock populations were in decline, but
admitting as much would only support increased regulations that threaten their
Others navigated this dissonance by divorcing the issue of sustainability from
regulation, or at least the style of regulation that NMFS was promoting. Instead, they
reclaimed the mantle of “resource expert,” teaming their local and experiential
knowledge with the formal training of academic researchers and conservation NGOs.
Typically, this pivot was made possible in sectors that hired leaders trained in resource
economics or sustainability, who then acted as bridges to the academic and
conservation worlds. Credibility among fishermen within the sector is maintained,
despite the pivot toward sustainability because the government-backed sector system is
still criticized on both ecological (poor science and lack of an ecosystem framework) and
socioeconomic (creation of unnecessary economic competition and promotion of a
handful of “winners”) grounds.
Mistrust in government, especially toward the federal level, comes as no surprise
to those who have spent time talking politics with fishermen in New England. The
belief that The United States would be better off altogether with a much smaller and
less active federal government was widespread and adamant, and it was expressed
politically in this past election in the overwhelming support for Donald Trump that
fishermen reported (not because he would govern well, but because he would govern
lightly, or serve as a wrench thrown into the works of the government).
In the United States, this lack of trust in government at the turn of the 21st
century is a continuation of norms around individualism and government mistrust
identified by Alexis de Tocqueville during his travels in the United States in the early
1830s [20]. His description of these norms still rings true in American society today:
“Hence arises the maxim, that everyone is the best and sole judge of his own private
interest, and that society has no right to control a man’s actions… This doctrine is
universally admitted in the United States” [21, p. 22]. Remarking specifically on the
American ideal of individualism, he recommends states’ rights and local politics in
order to control, and perhaps even overcome, individualism. De Tocqueville writes in
Democracy in America, “Local liberties, then, which induce a great number of citizens to
value the affection of their kindred and neighbors, bring men constantly into contact,
despite instincts which separate them, and force them to help one another” [21, p. 511].
De Tocqueville’s primary concern about individualism was its potential to
negatively impact societal cohesion. Inherent in de Tocqueville’s statement, “Selfishness
is a vice as old as the world…individualism is of democratic origin,” is the irony that a
trait born of democracy may then come to undermine democratic society by favoring
individual thinking too strongly [21, p. 24]. In place of the authoritarian monarch, in
other words, all citizens may imagine themselves to be ruler of their own individual
fiefs, cutting themselves off from the cares of greater society. This desire to be left to
one’s own devices has significant traction in modern America, especially among certain
socioeconomic and demographic groups. De Tocqueville worried that, ironically,
despotism could take hold in a democracy under just such circumstances, noting:
I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves
without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill
their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny
of all the others [22, citing 23, p. 663].
Growing out of the nineteenth century concept of the “common man” (the idea,
stemming from the democratic ideal, that all men were equally capable of leading
society), present-day anti-elitism might be considered a more generic version of anti-
government sentiment and its not-so-distant cousin, anti-intellectualism. Transcending
critiques over governance, the recent resurgence of anti-elitism has emboldened
fishermen in their claims that it’s not simply regulators who mismanage the system, but
the scientists and the science behind the quotas that are part of the problem. Anti-
elitism may be especially well-rooted among New England fishermen, where elite
families (e.g., Boston Brahmin society) held sway longer than in other regions, and early
political leaders such as John Adams, Elbridge Gerry, and George Cabot defended the
importance of governance by elites.
In the end, these sociopolitical forces might have sprung from erosion of social
capital that de Tocqueville feared individualism would engender. In his seminal work
on social capital, Putnam finds, “If we consider state differences in social capital, per
capita income, income inequality, racial composition, urbanism, and education levels,
social capital is the only factor that successfully predicts tax compliance” [24, 347]. Its
easy enough to apply the same logic to fisheries compliance and cooperation. Although
Putnam’s study finds New England relatively rich in social capital, the fishing
industry’s individualistic institutions do not reflect the region’s generally
communitarian norms.
As Putnam argues, “In effect, in a community rich in social capital, government
is ‘we,’ not ‘they’… in this way, social capital reinforces government legitimacy.” He
continues, “In a community that lacks bonds of reciprocity among its inhabitants,” on
the other hand, individuals don’t “feel bound to pay taxes voluntarily, because [they]
believe that most people cheat, and [they] will see the tax system as yet another broken
government program, instituted by ‘them,’ not ‘us’” [24, p. 348]. Considering the
evidence above, including first-hand accounts from fisheries stakeholders, it can easily
be imagined that while Norwegian fishing communities fall in the former category,
with high affinity for communitarianism and high social capital as a result [1], New
England fishermen fall in the latter category, in which stakeholders place the highest
trust in themselves and find little social capital on which to build.
4. Discussion
Still looming within this narrative is the figure of Carlos Rafael. For many
outside the industry, it is unfathomable that such an exploitative, self-interested
character could become a folk hero, even among those he seems to abuse and revile.
Perhaps the answer to this riddle can be found at the nexus of two strong sociocultural
norms within New England fishing communities. The first of these is a norm of
skepticism toward government and science, and in particular, government fisheries
managers. Not only was this norm expressed repeatedly by respondents in direct
statements questioning the motives, qualifications, and ethics of federal fisheries
managers, but it was also implicitly and explicitly raised in conversations about the
widespread support among fishermen of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
The second of these norms is a strong admiration for individualism. This might
be expected as an outcome of self-selection to a career that was once strongly rooted in
individualism. Fishing was once the work of owner-operator captains and crew that
often consisted of younger family members. Much pride still remains in this sense of
self-sufficiency, and this, in turn, engenders derision of what many respondents
referred to as “government handouts” in the form of subsidies and other proposals for
economic relief. The sector system, itself, plays negatively into this norm, forcing
individualistic actors into economic cooperatives. The results are exacerbated when
sectors are composed not of relatives and long-standing neighbors (that is, community-
based sectors), but of economically opportunistic strangers, who often come from
different communities, and even states.
Figure 4: New Bedford fishermen protesting proposed subsidies in Vineyard Haven during a visit from
President Obama.
These two norms taken together greatly influence the attitudes of fishermen
about citizenship. Most respondents consider it their general duty as citizens to keep
the government in check, and this applies specifically to the case of fisheries
management. For example, Jeff, a fisherman from Gloucester, believes that the
government, “by its very nature, is designed to reach into your pocket, whether it’s
taking tax dollars or fishing quotas.” It is no wonder then, that Carlos Rafael, despite
the damage he has done to both the industry and individuals, finds support from fellow
fishermen. Consider Rafael’s public declaration at a federal fisheries management
meeting, “I am a pirate. It’s your job to catch me” [7]. This is a very appealing statement
from both an individualistic and an anti-government perspective. For a profession and
culture built around being the captain of one’s own ship, constantly battling against
nature, scarcity, and even the government, perhaps the image of a pirate resonates.
In the end, Rafael’s calloused attitudes toward competitors and his own
employees dovetailed with the norms of New England fisheries. “I didn’t steal from
anybody,” he once said. “Maybe I hustled a lot of fishermen down there, y’know
wheelin’ and dealin,’ but shame on them if they didn’t know better” [7].
What is this, if
not a statement of individualism and a “may the best man win” spirit? To fishermen
who take pride in their unique ability to find fish, and who claim that the government’s
gloomy reports about fisheries sustainability reflect a lack of that same skill, Rafael’s
boasts about outmaneuvering both his competitors and the government may well
sound heroic. Like Trump, he casts himself as an expert dealmaker, and in doing so he
taps directly into the norms and values of New England fishing communities.
5. Conclusion
Against the backdrop of prominent anti-establishment figures—Rafael locally,
and Trump nationally—we can see how pervasive individualist, anti-government, and
anti-intellectual norms are in many New England fishing communities. These norms
have deep roots in the United States since the early days of the republic, but anti-
establishment socio-political institutions have proven especially durable in fishing
communities compared to other parts of New England. Bridge organizations, however,
have found success in several fishing communities in forging fruitful connections
between industry stakeholders and fisheries managers from government, academic, and
Compare this with Donald Trump’s October, 2016 statement that having successfully evaded taxes
“makes [him] smart.” [25]
civil society organizations. When channeled through a bridge organization, scientific
knowledge, technological solutions, and best practices that support sustainable fisheries
are more likely to be accepted by fishing communities that are otherwise skeptical of
sustainability measures promoted by fisheries managers.
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24, 2013. Accessed at on
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[7] Borrell, Brendan. “The Last Trial of the Codfather,” Hakai Magazine, January 10, 2017.
[8] Brown, L. D. "Practice-Research Engagement and Civil Society in a Globalizing
Society." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, The Hauser Center (2002).
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Global Environmental Governance: the REDD+ Partnership as Bridge Organization."
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[12] Veblen, Thorstein. Veblen on Marx, Race, Science, and Economics (The Place of
Science in Modern Civilization and Other Essays). New York: Capricorn Books, 1969.
[13] Parsons, Talcott. “Prolegomena to a Theory of Social Institutions.” American
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Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
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(2010): 378-385.
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change” Marine Policy 28, no. 2 (2004): 137-149.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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