Georgia’s Fishing Traditions and Fishing Futures: Oral Histories of Commercial Fishing
The project raises awareness of the experiences of commercial fishermen and their changing livelihoods in Georgia by documenting local fisheries knowledge and the perspectives of commercial fishermen about the state and fate of Georgia’s commercial fishing industry, through the use of oral histories.
Historically, Georgia’s productive coastal and marine environments have supported a number of commercial fisheries. Most prominent have been shrimping and trapping of blue crabs, but fishermen have harvested a number of other finfish and shellfish species as well. Despite a steady decline in recent decades, Georgia’s commercial fisheries are vital to the state’s coastal economy. Its commercial fleet provides fresh and local seafood to millions of visitors and residents, and its continued presence plays a critical role in the state’s coastal heritage and culture. Unfortunately, Georgia’s fishing industry struggles to maintain its presence on the coast and compete in the global marketplace. Traditional fishing communities are being devastated by social and economic forces such as increased regulations, loss of working waterfronts, and rising operating costs. Increasingly, a younger generation of fishermen is not entering, or remaining in Georgia’s commercial fisheries because these barriers to making a living persist. The consequence of this “graying of the fleet” is that as fewer fishermen enter or remain in the fishery, and older fishermen retire, a rich body of knowledge about community fishing history and culture disappears.
However, preserving their stories, memories and lives through the collection of oral histories can teach us about the history and cultural values of this group, preserving the information for current members of a community as well as future generations.
These oral histories are being collected by anthropology students at Georgia Southern University, under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer Sweeney Tookes of GSU, and Mr. Brian Fluech of University of Georgia Marine Extension/Georgia Sea Grant. This project is training the next generation of social scientists who may work with fishing communities, to be conscious of and concerned about the impacts of regulation and laws on fishing communities, and to positively associate commercial fishing with rich culture and history.
Nationally, there are efforts to collect and preserve these histories. NOAA hosts the Fisheries Oral History Database known as Voices from the Fisheries (VFF). This database is a central repository for consolidating, archiving, and disseminating oral history interviews related to commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing in the United States. The interviews can be accessed by the public, resource managers, and other interested stakeholders. Stories of Georgia’s fishermen will be added to this site, in order to make the narratives as widely available as possible.
The ultimate goal of this project is to create future allies for Georgia’s fishing communities. The materials will all be made widely available to the public, in the form of an audio-visual display that will travel from Georgia Southern University’s Museum to the Blessing of the Fleet, and the Brunswick Sea Grant facility, among other locations. This travelling historical and cultural display assures that a wide variety of Georgians will be exposed to the practices, joys, and trials of commercial fishing that Georgia fishermen have experienced. The intimate contact of hearing fishermen’s own voices sharing their experiences will ensure that audience members learn of these challenges and histories in very personal, visceral way that will impact their future dealings with the seafood industry and coastal Georgia.