A risk-based approach to rapid vulnerability assessment in New England fishery communities
Funding:  National Marine Fisheries Service
Project Date Range:

Project Summary

The primary goal of our project was to demonstrate the practicality and utility of an innovative rapid vulnerability assessment method for gathering routine social, economic, and cultural information about vulnerabilities of sub-groups to inform fisheries management decision-making. The information derived from assessments based on this method can improve understandings of potential vulnerabilities and disproportionate impacts arising from proposed regulatory changes.

Read more about the theoretical background of this project.

This project builds on an earlier project funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service to characterize and identify vulnerable populations among northeast fishery stakeholders (Award to Clark University by the Department of Commerce #EA133F-04-SE-0802, October 2004 - September, 2005). This project established the importance of considering vulnerability of fishing communities to describe the impacts of environmental, social, economic, and demographic changes. This project tackled the question of how information about vulnerability can be gathered as part of routine data gathering requirements of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

As part of the current project we demonstrated how a "causal chain model of risk" supplemented with an innovative technique for rapid vulnerability assessment can be used to gather routine information about vulnerabilities and risks of disproportionate impacts within fishery sectors and/or fishery-related communities.

To demonstrate its practicality and utility we organized our work around two objectives: 1) apply the method in multiple fishery communities in New England and 2) assess the practicality and utility of the method. We applied the method in three areas. Reports can be downloaded about each case study (see below). They were:

  • Chatham, Massachusetts
  • Coastal New Hampshire
  • New Bedford, Massachusetts

The risk-based method to rapid vulnerability assessment can be a useful component of management efforts to promote sustainable marine fisheries. It can be applied broadly, and to different scales of interest. There are several benefits.

First, the approach has a capacity to explicate vulnerabilities and disproportionate impacts to sub-groups within commercial fishery sectors and fishery-related communities. It can also link these vulnerabilities and impacts to specific driving forces. An advantage of vulnerability assessments comes from the multi-dimensional characterization of vulnerability that encompasses exposure, susceptibility, and adaptive capacity. Unlike impact assessments, vulnerability assessments help to focus attention on capacity factors, that is, factors that promote mitigation, coping, flexibility, adaptation, and resilience as well as exposure to threats that can result in undesirable impacts.

Second, the proposed method produces "useable knowledge." It is used to derive information from a diverse sample of fishermen, fisheries managers, and fishery scientists. Its open-ended, qualitative approach ensures that subjective yet important matters of social and cultural concerns/conflicts and psychological perceptions are incorporated into the final analysis. Their knowledge and experiences are represented – or mapped – in a way that enables identification of important gaps in knowledge, areas of agreement, and critical variables and interactions. Thus, it can inform data gathering efforts by focusing attention on key variables and their interactions. Furthermore, it provides a means of highlighting the rationale for believing that disproportionate impacts and vulnerabilities may be related (or not) to specific management actions.

Third, the method can lead to assessments being conducted in days or weeks – not months or years, as required for a "full blown" assessment that seeks to be comprehensive. Comprehensive assessments are impractical from a resource management perspective. Thus, the method provides an opportunity for strategic, cost-effective approach for improving input to decision-makers. It also avoids problems that arise from more opportunistic approaches because of the underlying conceptual models of risk and vulnerability that guide data gathering and explicitly link to management options.

Fourth, while the ability to implement the method rapidly allows managers to obtain an inexpensive and quick first-cut at understanding threats and change (e.g., new regulations, economic threats, changes to community structure, changes to fish stocks) its simplicity also lends itself to being reproduced over time and within multiple communities and sectors by gathering data about a consistent set of indicators (with room to supplement specific studies with additional, locally or sector-relevant information). This will allow managers to develop an understanding of trends, even if they acknowledge that it does not provide "the complete picture." Furthermore, the rapid vulnerability assessment component of the method can be used as a "first cut" whose results can focus further more detailed assessments or to supplement other routine information gathering activities (e.g., Community Profiles).

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