Tuesday, September 1, 2015

ME: July 20-25 Trip Log: Part 2 - Working In Conservation

Lobster Boat with stern sail.

Each morning while attending Audubon's Hog Island Educator's Camp Week (to include the following week solo camping in Acadia National Park), I awoke to the sound of lobster boats leaving port around 0430. The signature thrumming from their powerful inboard engines made me imagine crews dressed in slickers and warm hoodies sipping hot coffee while they cut through the chilly, thick morning fog. 

Traditional Greenland-style skin-on-frame kayak (qajaq).

On a hike across Hog Island we came to an open beach where we rested and explored. A traditional Greenland-styled qajaq (kayak) glided by. Almost of all of my team had no idea what they were looking at so I explained how the boat was designed as an extension of the Inuit hunter - part of his body - responsive, nimble, flexible yet strong. How integral this boat design was to a thousand year tradition of seal and whale hunting in the High Arctic! The great fishing fleets of Europe arrived in the mid-1500s and indigenous systems of hunting collapsed. With a rapid expansion of fishing technology over the following centuries the whale, seal, and fish stocks collapsed as well. Greed became an extension of a new economic order. 

Surveying moths at night.

Western North Atlantic societies may have learned many environmental lessons the hard way by experiencing near total losses of major stocks of fish, marine mammals, northern forests, and valuable soils, but clearly there are new lessons to be learned layered over the historic tales of the rise of industrial technology. At dinner one evening we discussed some of those lessons, but an important point made too: that we never stop learning from historic case studies. It isn't a simple equation of problem + solution = problem solved. With each new 'solution' there comes a whole suite of new challenges: human population, climate change, technological advance, and a false sense of conservation progress.

A volunteer seabird monitor on Eastern Egg Rock.

Many of the participants in this week's Audubon Educator's Camp were experiencing a natural world that seemed to push at their personal comfort zone. A long hike through the humid coastal woods was not always spectacular scenery or a nicely groomed path. It was root-filled and required careful navigation. At one point the navigation broke down completely and we became fairly lost. Some people grumbled, others took it as a new adventure in wayfinding. Meanwhile on the mainland, a group of  bog explorers fell through a floating mat of sphagnum moss only to stand chest high in chilly tannin-stained water. Laughter and squeals commenced as they worked together to figure out how to extricate themselves from the pond without further damaging the floating mat. What a metaphor-filled day!

Harbor seals hauled out on a favorite sunning rock.

When I speak with young folks and college students interested in conservation careers, I'm sure to explain that this work does not always fit the romantic notions of saving the whales or preserving magnificent landscapes. Sometimes conservation looks like the lobstermen (in Maine) or crabbers ( in Maryland) hauling in their traps and throwing back the undersized catch. Sometimes there is grumbling, but most all know that to take everything is to rob not only the ecosystem of its valuable members but to rob the future of watermen. Here in the Mid-Atlantic we've only just begun to explore the case studies of collapse, recovery, and adaptation to changing environments and circumstances, but some regional departments of environmental sciences and studies are looking more closely at the history and future of conservation careers as shaped by our past experiences. 

Bombus terricola! In abundance!

To hear the lobster fleet go out every morning one could easily be fooled into thinking the lobster industry is thriving, and yes, this year it has been okay say some. But in 2012 lobster prices tanked, causing chaos and despair in the Northeast seafood market. The Maine Lobstermen's Union formed to give fishermen a political and economic voice as well as a common conservation platform. They are as dependent upon multiple economic drivers, regional and global markets, and resource policies as they are upon the sea itself. "We're a new generation of fishermen," said one young lobster-women I met that week, "Most of us understand ecological principles - we've had some science education - some of us have advanced degrees. So why not make conservation priorities important to the union as well? Without them I can't my daughters or granddaughters that the opportunity to do what I've done will even be there."  Today a person working in conservation can wear many hats.

Banding a black-capped chickadee.

One of our  Hog Island instructors  reinforced the idea of "working in conservation" as compared to "working for conservation" - a distinction that is important today. For those who do not engage directly in conservation issues day-to-day, the idea of what a conservation worker is might not fit the old 20th century stereotypes. We discussed that although much as been accomplished in the last century, we are still using 20th century project-oriented ideas and that a much more radical and adaptive suite of practices needs to replace them. Conservation and livelihood must function together for the long haul and the idea of project-based strategies is now extending across decades and generations. Follow the lobster-woman's lead, I thought, even if her boat is not sparkling with high tech equipment and might be in need of new paint.

Franklin Island Light.

After listening to Dr. Steven Kress talk about how his own ideas of seabird restoration changed from species recovery (project-based) to ecosystem restoration (generational) at an evening presentation in the Fish House I thought about the implications of dedicated long-term human guardianship. More importantly I thought about those pivot points of experience that turned ideas on their heads. The ah-ha moments one year may well be the old news the next, but in conservation work we are constantly faced with large and small points where new ways of approaching old problems are available.

Atlantic Puffin.

But it takes even more. Most people know and accept that worldwide terrestrial, marine, and atmospheric crisis are the result of two hundred plus years of heavy industrial activity. Despite what the keepers of the world's major religions claim, the dominate religion of the industrialized world is the worship of the God of Growth. "More and more and more still," is the mantra of a modern society enthralled with its own hypermaterialism. One only need to see a tidal marsh littered with plastic debris or stroll a beach where garbage is interwoven into the wrack -or worse still the plastic-filled carcass of a seabird.  The idea that eggs, feathers, and bird meat were consumer goods so popular that entire species were put at risk, places so much of the responsibility on the consumer themselves. Now it's not the direct poaching of these animals but the indirect 'fallout' of the consumer waste stream that endangers entire ecosystems. We learn from this history and the lessons help redefine the idea of what conservation work looks like.

Atlantic Puffin mates.

The light keeper on Franklin Island during the late 1800s and early 1900s stood guard over his island's tern and puffin colony to protect them from greedy egg and feather hunters. His main job was to keep oil in the light, to mark the island at night and in fog to warn ships away. He wasn't paid to guard birds. But he knew that serious poaching occurring there and throughout the hundreds of nesting colonies on Maine's numerous 'egg rocks' endangered the birds and the ecosystem to which the birds belonged.

"Our work seemed done, but had only just begun."

Seabird eggs had become quite the society delicacy in Boston and New York and high society was willing to pay what it cost to get them. Much money could be made selling the eggs, and even more money could be made serving them! But at least on Franklin Island, poachers had more to contend with - often facing down an angry light keeper with a shotgun. The lighthouse keeper was not paid to protect the birds. His job was to warn ships off the shoals. But he and is family are known today for the dedication they demonstrated as compassionate conservationists as well as protectors of life and property on the sea. 

Common tern bringing food to chick.

Conservation work looks nothing like it did a hundred years ago,or even last year. But the light keeper who worked on Franklin Island did not make his biggest contribution as a light keeper - he is known today among all light keepers along the Maine coast as the one who saved colonies of terns and guillemots and puffins. He was part of a generation of people who cared enough about birds that they changed the minds of consumers in Boston and New York and collapsed an economic driver the chain of supply and demand through legislation. And he was also a person who saw his work extended beyond the duty of light keeper.

Yellow-rumped Warbler bathing in freshwater pool.

While we explored Harbor Island, our team observed a flurry of small birds visiting a tiny pool of rainwater. Here we were on an island surrounded by a vast salty sea, and this dinner-plate sized pool of water was where many species of sparrows, warblers, and finches had gathered in a riot of color and activity. I turned and saw my team all looking at the birds, as varied as the birds themselves in profession, background, experience, and ecological knowledge - and all - including the birds - were the image of conservation work in the 21st century.


The biggest take-away from my experience on Hog Island was this: Conservation is not what is once was but we need to keep learning from our conservation history. Conservation work does not look like it did just ten years ago!  Project-based environmental education has its place but we must prepare students for multi-faceted jobs in conservation from environmental justice to landscape restoration to economic-ecosystem dependencies to even the kinds of college courses and job training they may need.


See the August 2015 issue of The Working Waterfront (Vol. 28, No. 6: 9) for an explanation and history of the Maine Lobstermen's Union, its history and its future. http://www.islandinstitute.org/working-waterfront

The young lobster-woman I spoke to gave credit to a conservation worker program she was involved with during her college years at UMaine. I was interested to see agriculture, forestry, and conservation combined under this one agency - now that's integrated conservation!

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