The End of Cod: RI Loses A Natural Resource Economy

The good old days of the fishing economy off the Grand Bank.

When we think of the Northeast, natural resource economies might not instantly come to mind. But of course the ocean has played a central role to the Ocean State’s economy since the days of Roger Williams. Rhode Island’s rich fishing history has faded significantly in recent decades as the collapse of the cod fisheries has caused severe declines in catch limits.

Reductions of 77% in the Gulf of Maine and 61% off Cape Georges are in order. Many fishermen will lose their jobs. Coastal communities will likely suffer serious economic problems, even if they have developed something of a tourist economy; the ones that haven’t will struggle much more.

Letters to the editor and interviews with workers in recent weeks have demonstrated the deep angst fishing reductions are causing. Take this recent letter to the editor in the Journal. The writer, a fisherman and Ph.D. student working on fisheries, says the reductions reject what his eyes tell him–that there are lots of fish in the sea, forget what the computer models say. The writer struggles with what this means for his family, his future, and his personal identity.

What does it mean to lose a regional identity based around natural resources? Again, while this might not define the Rhode Island economy to the extent it did 50 years ago, for communities in New England that still have active fishing economies, the cultural change can be as devastating as the economic struggles.

As a historian of natural resource economies in the American West, I’ve seen miners in towns like Butte, Montana and Leadville, Colorado struggle to adapt to closure of mines, holding on to their mining identity while other cities in Montana and Colorado create vibrant tourist economies. In my home state of Oregon, loggers turned out of their jobs in the 1980s and 1990s have also found it difficult to thrive in an economy now recast around tourism and high-tech industry. Pockets of poverty surround the supposed hipster paradise portrayed in the TV show Portlandia.

A significant number of loggers and their now-grown children have created a new way to live off the land: by growing marijuana or producing crystal methamphetamine under the forest cover. Ranchers around the West find themselves selling their cows and property, unable to compete with big industrial cattle operations and instead dividing their property into housing developments.

There’s no easy answer to the economic or cultural adjustments required when people get thrown out of their job by resource depletion, globalization, or other developments out of their control. Loggers blamed environmentalists, even though environmental regulations played a relatively small role in the timber industry’s decline. Ranchers blame government regulations on grazing national forest land and now fishing communities blame government bureaucrats and arbitrary regulations.

Again, the loss of cultural identity through work is a hard blow to take. But there is precedent for the federal government to assist workers who lose their jobs because of environmental restrictions. The 1978 expansion of California’s Redwood National Park led to the unemployment of loggers. Rather than leave them to their fate without government assistance, labor unions, environmentalists, and the federal government created the Redwood Employee Protection Program which provided significant payments to workers displaced by the shuttered mills. They received direct payments from the federal government until 1984 to build a bridge until they could find other work. The generosity of this was controversial–President Carter himself was quite skeptical when he signed the bill. And in many ways it didn’t work that well. There were battles over who should qualify–were the mills shutting down because of a lack of timber or because of globalization and mechanization? Moreover, there were some disappearing funds and management issues. We don’t need to get into these details now. What’s notable though is that at least one time the federal government decided to expand the welfare state, however tentatively, to workers put out of work in order to save rare resources.

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Erik Loomis is a progressive, a native Oregonian and a professor of history at the University of Rhode Island focusing on the Civil War era as well as labor and environmental history. He also blogs for lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com and you can follow him on twitter @ErikLoomis.

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