Fresh perspectives on fisheries science: attending my first social science conference

Earlier this month I got the opportunity to go to the MARE conference in Amsterdam. This marine event that has long been on my calendar since I started my PhD and finally this year I got the chance to go! I’m so glad I did – it was a really friendly, interesting and fun conference which has left me inspired and with a new energy to get analysing all of my interview data!

The theme of the conference was ‘Dealing with Marine Mobilities’, so just a slightly broad remit! As such, it exposed me to a number of new topics, some of which I had very little experience of. A few particular highlights for me included hearing about modern slavery in the fishing industry from Prof Christina Stringer, being taken aboard European cargo-ships through the story telling of anthropologist Johanna Markkula, being told about the role of drama and dance in connecting communities to their past maritime heritage, as well as hearing about the psychological coping mechanisms Alaskan fishermen use whilst at sea.

The range and breadth of the conference was inspiring whilst at times also overwhelming – there were so many interesting sessions which inevitably couldn’t all be attended! I focused most of my attention to fisheries sessions given it’s my main research area, but I also attended a few outside of my own remit. I myself spoke in one of the ‘Coastal threats and vulnerability’ sessions to talk about my research that I have been undertaking regarding UK fishermen’s perceptions of climate change and its potential future impact on fisheries in the south-west UK region. I admit I was a bit nervous – it was my first 15-minute talk at an international conference and I wasn’t entirely sure how to pitch it given that I’m not a social scientist and haven’t attended a social science orientated conference before. However, it went really well and I got some useful feedback and ideas that I am hoping will help take my research forward!

Some of the other sessions that I attended were run by other researchers from Exeter University. One of my supervisors Rachel Turner, alongside Lucy Szaboova, held a great session surrounding ‘Health and the hidden vulnerability in fishing communities’. A range of talks in this session with case studies from Cornwall, North and North-West Ireland and Australia demonstrated the importance of understanding the health of fishermen, both physical and mental, and how this can be tackled. Discussions surrounded the culture of silence that exists within many fishing communities regarding health issues, particularly mental health, the accessibility of health care for fishermen who often work difficult and long hours, and the perspectives from which we can view these issues e.g. from wellbeing or economic viewpoints.

Carole White of UEA and Madeleine Gustavsson of Exeter University ran a session entitled ‘A future for fishing? Intergenerational perspectives on social (im)mobilities and fishing identities’. I found this session particularly thought provoking in part because it emerged as a theme within my own work with fishermen and the wider industry in Brixham. Currently there is a lack of recruitment into the fishing industry in many parts of the globe, and the talks at this session helped to explore current trends, some of the reasons behind this and what initiatives there are or could be developed to help address these issues.

Overall I found this a really great conference, particularly as an early career researcher due its openness and supportive atmosphere. Some other reflections I’ve had can be summed up in my typical blog post list style:

  • The marine environment is pretty complicated and has lots of stakeholders! Obvious, and I kind of knew this already, but getting out of the fisheries bubble for a few days made me realise that lots of other industries rely on the marine environment. I’ll leave the marine spatial planning to someone else though I think….!

 

  • Social scientists are a fun and friendly bunch. I was a bit nervous about attending as I felt that I might be a bit out of place as an ecologist, but I soon felt at ease. I particularly enjoyed the boat ride winding through Amsterdam’s canals to reach the conference on the first day – great ice breaker!

 

  • There are many research perspectives that can be harnessed to approach similar problems. I often am guilty of thinking from my ecological perspective, but it was really refreshing to be exposed to the ways other researchers are thinking about and addressing similar research questions. I guess the challenge is utilising all of these in the best way to make effective change!

 

  • Social scientists (incl. (and not limited to) anthropologists, sociologists, human geographers etc) are really great storytellers. Something that really stood out to me was the way people talked about their research – there was much more emphasise on the narratives and wider story of the research people had undertaken. So natural scientists take note! Stories, experiences and narratives are much more compelling and engaging than simple research messages (I think at least).

I think I’ve rambled on enough now, suffice to say it was a great conference and I would encourage others, including those with non social science backgrounds, to attend. Here’s to 2019!

Some self reflections in the Stedelijk Museum after the conference – would recommend a visit!

 

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