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Coasts Under Stress: Restructuring and Social-Ecological Health

By Rosemary Ommer

November 4, 2013

Review By Tracy Summerville

Resilience. This is a word that, for me, conjures up a feeling of hard times met with bald-faced determination to get through whatever comes one’s way. Coasts under Stress brings this idea to life through its examination of the threatened and fragile ecosystems of Canada’s east and west coasts. There is a lot to say about this book: conceptually, it tackles its research question on different scales (temporal, spatial), which reminds us that we are part of a long human and biological history; methodologically, it asks the reader to avoid disciplinary bias and to look through the lenses of a range of actors in both the human and biological worlds; substantively, it asks us to see these communities as resilient in their efforts to restructure and as microcosms of larger cities in which the deep connectedness between humans and their environments might not be so obvious. This is a tall order for both the reader and the research team, but I think it succeeds. 

The research question asks, “What can be done to stem the crisis of rural community decline?” Ommer et al. argue that, in order to answer this question, it is imperative to understand what the decline is about. How did we get to a place where ecological health and human health are suffering, considering that both the east and west coasts have traditionally been places of resource wealth and abundance? At first glance, it seems that the researchers conceptualized two jigsaw puzzles: they would piece together secondary and primary research across a range of disciplines and put them together to create two pictures, one of each coast, and then they would compare the experiences to determine better paths for governing the restructuring of these human and biological communities. Their approach is compelling because it recognizes that these puzzles are not one-dimensional static pictures but, rather, that they tell the story of resilience and restructuring over long periods of time: ecological restructuring has to be measured differently than human community restructuring, and yet the two are inextricably linked. The authorship of the book makes it clear that these puzzles need to be constructed by a large interdisciplinary team capable of collegiality, cross-fertilization of ideas, and willingness to move away from the kind of jargon that sometimes halts fruitful collaboration. The result is a picture more like one of those fantastic 3-D puzzles whose construction eludes most of us. 

The book is divided into three sections. For reasons of space, I follow the issue of the fishing industry, although the team covers other renewable resources (forestry) as well as non-renewable resources (mining and oil and gas). What is so interesting is that it appears that, in this restructuring process, even our idea of which resources are renewable may have to change. The first section covers the history of the restructuring of resources in coastal communities. The chapter entitled “Not Managing for Scarcity” captures most clearly the essence of this first section. It seems impossible to believe that the fishing industry on both coasts could be in such dire crisis, and yet it appears that abundance allowed for capitalism and technological advances (if they can be called that) to create a context for gross mismanagement. The authors demonstrate that the degradation of marine systems, which has resulted from many variables – including more invasive fishing techniques, policy changes, lack of communication between policy makers and fishers, and other issues – has had a quite sudden and alarming impact on both coasts. In the second part of the book, the authors look at how these changes have affected human socio-economic, physical, and mental health. In the simplest terms, Canada’s health care system is in crisis, but in rural and remote communities, stresses are exacerbated by declining populations (particularly the out-migration of youth), the loss of jobs, and the loss of local food sources. Both coasts have experienced drastic stock reductions, which have led to a reduced numbers of fishers and processing plants. 

So what is to be done? Section 3 lays out some possible solutions and potential issues for guiding the restructuring process. I found the discussion of the aquaculture industry most informative. It seems that aquaculture is not new; what is new is treating aquaculture as an industry. Industrialization has come as a result of seeing aquaculture as a method of diversification. Governments, Ommer et al. argue, are attracted to this model of economic growth and so have regulated and subsidized this new industry. In British Columbia, the authors point out, aquaculture once sustained a number of family farms but is now dominated by “eleven producers, of which five multinationals control 81 percent of production” (330). Much of the technology and expertise regarding aquaculture has come from Norway, but this exogenous knowledge does not always fit the new environment: the introduction of Atlantic salmon, for example, has raised a number of worrisome issues (330). Aquaculture is but one area in which science, traditional knowledge, and public policy need to be integrated. 

Here is where I found it difficult not to wear my disciplinary hat. As a political scientist, I thought that the most compelling aspects of the book were the policy and governance implications of the findings. Most interesting was the idea that neither more nor less government was the answer but, rather, more collaborative governance. The crisis in the fishing industry is most illustrative of this point. Across time and space, decisions have been made in a context of imperfect knowledge; it was imperfect because knowledge-sharing was exclusive and not inclusive. Scientific modelling was favoured over traditional knowledge, economy over ecology, one species over another, dependence over diversification. And while it will always be true that knowledge will be imperfect, Ommer et al. conclude that “co-management and stewardship is an essential component in finding the best way forward” (447). It may be that these communities will have to restructure their economies and identities, and while they have already shown great resilience, they cannot succeed without the leadership of good governance. 

This book challenges the traditional model of Canadian federalism. The politics of identity, province-building, and outdated jurisdictional divisions must be challenged. Ommer et al. see coastal communities as laying bare the challenges of economic, ecological, and community restructuring that will come to all global communities as we face issues of sustainability. Peak oil predictions, climate change, and environmental degradation remind us that our way of life will be challenged and, most likely, restructured. 

Coasts under Stress will be most useful in graduate-level courses in health, planning, political science, biology, and other areas that look at the connections between human and ecological health and policy. It is written clearly, grounded in the literature, methodologically sound, critical of itself, and thought-provoking.