Local Economic Stewards: The Historiography of the Fishermen's Role in Resource Conservation

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The history of conservation has largely focused on the origins of the movement. The scholarship on the origins of conservation is often confined to a recurring debate between professionals championing efficient management and laborers championing local stewardship. In marine environmental history, fisheries historians highlight the role that fishing laborers played in both community and resource conservation, arguing that fishermen closely stewarded the resource and tried to limit the impact of industrial capitalism. In making this case, marine environmental historians rely heavily on E. P. Thompson's theory of moral economy. In this review of the historiography, I argue that marine environmental historians have paralleled southern agrarian historians in the Americanization of Thompson's theory, stressing not popular riots but a quest for a yeoman utopia among resource workers. Yet many historians of fishing labor inappropriately equate a moral economy with a moral ecology by overemphasizing ecological motivations to fishermen's desire to limit extraction. They create a false image of a fisherfolk seeking independence from market forces. This article uses the specific case study of Maine sardine-herring weir fishermen to illustrate how fishermen could be both capitalist and conservationist. Their campaigns were directed less toward limited production than toward the local control of that production.

Original Citation

Payne, B. (2013). Local Economic Stewards: The Historiography of the Fishermen's Role in Resource Conservation. Environmental History, 18(1), 29-43. https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/ems115