Examining Leadership for Sustainable Development in a Transitioning Maine Fishing Community

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Coastal Communities and Economics


Cynthia Duncan UNH - Department of Sociology Principal Investigator

Students Involved:

Jody Grimes UNH - Department of Sociology

I am writing to request a development grant to partially fund a small study in "Herring Bay," Maine (a pseudonym), that would provide an important link with ongoing work in other North Atlantic fishing communities. The money would support field work expenses for an innovative project examining leadership for sustainable development in a community that relied historically on the herring industry and more recently has moved to salmon aquaculture and tourism.

The Maine study focuses on social, economic and demographic change in Herring Bay, a remote fishing community, systematically looking at who leaves, who stays and who is moving in, and analyzing who participates in and provides leadership for efforts to bring about sustainable development in the face of the fisheries changes. While interviewing residents in Herring Bay last summer, we found substantial demographic changes were occurring that affected adaptation and future development.

People "from away" were moving in, some launching new businesses, others buying coastal land and building high-end summer homes. Several filled local leadership positions--as editor of the paper, superintendent of the school and manager of the marina. These newcomers clearly bring vital resources to a community hard hit by a declining economic base, infusing "new blood" into a traditional rural area. But we also found that long-time residents are changing in significant ways. They are considerably more educated than their parents, and in the 1990s many are finding a way to make a living at home rather than moving to jobs in urban settings. Still others are returning to their native communities after spending time elsewhere. In Herring Bay, a number of these returnees have assumed important community roles, like the director of a regional health clinic whose training and technical knowledge are invaluable to his native community. They change their home communities when they bring back work and civic experiences gained elsewhere.

These changes present both challenges and opportunities for building resilient, sustainable communities. For example, natives and newcomers worked cooperatively to construct a new marina, an effort widely regarded as forward looking. However, the project also brought to the fore tensions between commercial fishers who had traditionally moored for free and now have to pay a dock fee, and the community leaders responding to a changing economic base.

During the same period, native political elites battled newcomers over town budget issues in a hotly contested and divisive election. While an influx of newcomers might help revitalize rural communities, people from away and tourism development also put new strains on local services and bring pressure for new zoning regulations and property tax increases. People from away challenge existing social and institutional arrangements, creating conflicts with long-term residents over who will benefit from the changes and who will bear the costs.

The future of rural communities facing economic changes depends on their human resources (the human capital of natives, returnees and newcomers) and on their ability to trust one another and work together (the social capital embedded in their relationships). The study described here will examine these resources and relationships "in action," and make empirical contributions in the areas of human capital, social capital and civic engagement. We will employ a multi-method strategy, combining in-depth interviews with case study analysis of two community institutions and two development initiatives.

Doctoral sociology student Jody Grimes will conduct interviews with 40-45 community leaders including natives, returnees and newcomers. The interviews will be semi-structured, following an interview guide designed to collect information about the individuals' family background and human capital, including education, training, work and life experiences, as well as their leadership capacity, including their vision for the future, their strategies for action and rallying support, and their interpersonal and political skills. We will also collect information about their contribution to the community's social capital through their civic engagement and volunteerism, their views about how their community works, who runs things, how decisions get made, what happens when people disagree, and the social networks that connect people to resources outside the community.

These in-depth interviews will be combined with four case studies that examine these leaders in action in two social institutions that maintain community functioning (school and town governance) and two community development initiatives (an historic preservation project that celebrates the town's fishing history and a recreational marina designed to attract tourists). The case studies will involve participant observation, meetings, informal discussions and review of archival sources including meeting minutes, contemporary and past newspaper accounts, funding proposals and other related items.

All data will be coded and analyzed using Lotus Notes, a data management program adapted for qualitative analysis by UNH faculty in consultation with a software developer. The program permits rigorous analysis to identify patterns and themes using propositional framing, descriptive codes and summaries, analytical codes and memos, and visual displays of the data. Together, analysis of the interviews and case studies will present an integrated picture of the human resources and social forces shaping the community and determining whether it prospers, stagnates or declines. The research protocol will be approved by the University of New Hampshire Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Research Subjects before interviews are conducted.