Sarah Keene Meltzoff, 2013. Listening to Sea Lions - Book Review

Sarah Keene Meltzoff, 2013. Listening to Sea Lions. Currents of Change From Galapagos to Patagonia. Altamira Press, 271 p. 

By any account, this is an unusual book, not easily stuck into a single category or discipline. Sarah Keene Meltzoff has woven some two decades of field research along the Latino Pacific coast into the six stories she tells from cover to cover: "Coastal people and their sea lion counterparts epitomize sea change as they struggle with changing climates."

I I had the priviledge of seeing a little bit of her working methods in action, when she was researching the seas of change in Spanish fisheries policy in the mid-1980s after the country had entered the EU. In the preface to the book, she already sets the tone by letting the reader get glimpses on her own path of discovery and the approaches she developed and matured over time. It is the story within the story of the book with people like Margareth Mead offering orientation and mentoring in the early stages of her career. The reader can appreciate the serendipity engendered by getting ever closer to linking ethnographic field observations and empathetic relations with leaders in fishing communities. The critical engagement with these leaders and their communities, with fisheries administrations and traders sharpens the sense of place and the different perspectives, but also for the quest for extracting lessons of wider applicability. I enjoyed reading the book for more than one reason and I hope others will be enticed to read and enjoy it too.

First of all, as a marine biologist with a particular interest in fisheries and resource management, I've always been wondering why the self-defeating serial pattern of overexploitation, so obvious to me and my peers, did little or nothing to stop others from going down the same path. There was more to be discovered than Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' or a resigned echo to Henri Poincaré's statement "Les faits ne parlent pas" (The facts don't speak). Sure enough Poincaré uttered the famous phrase in a somewhat different context, yet he pointed – as in so many other occasions – to something profound. Nor are we alone to grapple with bad decisions hurting one's own people despite of available evidence as documented by late historian Barbara W. Tuchman in her famous book "The March of Folly". Transposed to fisheries and coastal governance, the some of the vexing issues are: What constitutes evidence in science and in wider society. What speaks to different people so as to influence their decisions? What can be done to create more shared understanding as a prerequisite for consensus building and action that helps to cope better with often chaotic change in human-environment systems?

Here we are quickly onto a fundamental difference between science and society. When discovering and accurately explaining the laws of nature, we 'make sense' of the observed and understand why we observe what we do. In the economics and social aspects of fishing strategies it is mostly about making ends meet and seizing an opportunity, especially in a highly variable environment affected by El Niño events as in the Pacific. When it comes to societal negotiation processes about issues that matter, such as how to manage fisheries resources or a particular type of coastal development, it is rather more frequent to see different interest groups and perspectives confronting each other. You may see them citing different types of evidence, interpreting the same facts in opposite ways and, of course, expressing value judgements or deeply held beliefs taken a truth, whether consciously or not. It is not as much about getting it right rather than getting a good deal for oneself or one's group and of having ones own logic prevail.

In story after story, Sarah Meltzoff narrates the boom and bust cycle of fisheries. But you won't get the Beverton and Holt model on the development of fish populations, estimates of maximum economic yield, or conceptual approaches to fisheries and coastal governance to iron out the ups and downs. Instead you will learn about some of the inner workings of the fishing communities she has researched from their own perspectives, digested from her 17 years of field notes. As she spends time with their leaders, men and women, with traders and researchers, as she characterises their physical, economic and social environment, as she interviews administrators and conservationists, she integrates these different strands and perspectives into a compelling narrative of change. "Ethnographic storytelling in this book weaves descriptions of lives. Strong individuals who are often leaders of the various interest groups voice opinions based on their group's beliefs or concepts, which are learned at the knee of institutions, such as one's family, schools, political party, or religion. Concepts are often unconscious ideals of beliefs taken for granted as truth – comparable to the grammar of one's mother tongue that is automatic and unquestioned."


It is Meltzoff's stated goal to make future managers, leaders and NGO activists caring about the fisheries and their marine environment aware of the diversity of perceptions so as to help devise more adapted and effective governance schemes. Approaching the fisheries from this distinctly human angle and explaining some of these beliefs and their background makes for an immensely rich and refreshing reading and gets one thinking about one's own assumptions taken for granted. It is a travel into why some of the schemes devised with models based on average conditions, longer-term trends or simply a control attitude in mind yield so many unintended consequences and hardly what they profess to do.

Second, I liked that the research brings out a pattern despite the captivating specificities of each fishery in its distinct geographical and historical context. So, you will meet Doña Anita Chapi, a pioneer on Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador, José Cariaga of Caleta San Pedro in Coquimbo, Chile, and many others. Through the differences of each site and community, one discerns the pattern of change. Key are people's responses to market opportunities and to their experience of often extreme environmental variability. Foremost it is the market that makes the fishery. When there are buyers for a formerly unused species, a fishery will spring up to meet that demand so long as it can be supplied. Within the survival strategies of fishermen the world over even beyond the Latino Pacific focus of the stories, Meltzoff distinguishes three recurrent factors: migration as adaptability to change; a wide-spread consideration of fisheries as a social safety net in times of hardship, which leads managers to consciously accept transgression of rules; and thirdly side-stepping regulations by the fishers, when they imply short-term restrictions to their economic activities. Particularly the latter point reflects the discrepancies between longer-term or larger-scale ecological analyses and the more fine-grained in-the-water experience by fishermen of environmental change. These factors are indicative of the limitations of top-down management, which is often out of tune with environmental variability and market change. The empirical evidence in this multi-facetted panorama view suggests moreover that collaborations and alliances between groups may shift with circumstances and that expediency and opportunistic choices should be expected. My own work in other regions, such as West Africa, largely confirms the pattern.


The book is also an illustration about weak communication and limited mutual understanding and engagement between the different parties taking an interest or being involved in the fisheries. In the prevailing governance settings, there are precious few opportunities to compare beliefs or perceptions held in one group directly with those of others and even fewer for joint learning. Trust is a scarce commodity. In these circumstances, it is not easy to come up with viable alternatives to the current waste of resources. On the other hand, there are clues a plenty as to how to rethink management approaches and explore more reflexive institutions that can better accommodate the diversity of interests and perspectives. It is a wide-spread observation in other 'sectors' that this enhances chances for consensus building as a basis for devising rules and regulations that can be enforced for balancing competing claims between fisheries, tourism and conservation. Meltzoff thus advocates participatory management as a strategy for the future that needs to be adapted for the specifics of each fishery or coastal development requiring management.

She not only teaches critical engagement with local communities, but has set up the non-profit Isabela Oceanographic Institute (IOI) to practise it. The practice flows from the recognition that co-shaping change starts with local knowledge, but that this requires updating the local knowledge with other sources of knowledge. The combination of credible local leadership and openness to collaborations with outsiders promises plentiful mutual benefits. IOI is there to demonstrate it, even if setting it up was a drawn out process and sustaining it is by no means easy. The rewards are that the local community acquires new insights, resources and capabilities to set their ambitions higher, while students and academics gain unique study opportunities, including in practising civic engagement. Living in with local families moreover ensures bonding, a flow of ideas and retaining resources in the community. The approach pays heed to the identification of the importance of multi-way learning through doing things together. It also recognises that time is needed to absorb new knowledge. Having myself seen the difference critically engaged science can make to the cumbersome negotiation process of chosing one course of action over another, I have often insisted upon the need for more. It can significantly shorten the time between new research results and their use, which is otherwise measured in decades. As different groups of citizens, the experts of impact, can better fathom the implications of new knowledge when confronted with it through an engagement process. That reveals the pros and cons faster. The options and trade-offs can also be addressed in more transparent ways. The scientists on their part gain from the opportunities for asking more relevant questions and from novel ways for extracting answers.

Finally, the distinctly human focus of the book is narrated in quite accessible, and at times, poetic language. Meltzoff underlines the nature of her empathetic and largely personal account by concluding every chapter with a letter to a friend or colleague that blends snippits of personal and professional comment on the case just described with unrelated friendly exchange. You sense the connectedness of human relations through and beyond the research. There is no doubt that the book is driven by scientific questions and process, though the presentation of results and the process don't use typical modes of scientific publication. Scientific books are usually crafted in hermetic language, often for good technical reasons. But that makes a difficult read even for the specialists in the field. The standard presentation assumes that the reader posesses much prior knowledge in the name of efficiency (write to the point!) of communication among peers. Research into science communication suggests that actually even scientists prefer reading storylines offering wider context to the facts and their interpretation.

So, here we are blessed with an unusual and highly readable blend of personalised story telling, technical conclusions and the personal letter as bonus material. For good measure, an appendix provides the Latin names of marine creatures mentioned in the book and a glossary of technical terms. Bibliographical references and a useful index complete the documentation. One may hope that the paperback version likely to become available next year will increase accessibility compared to the hard cover by lowering the price tag.

In conclusion, the book is an important, highly readable, ethnographic contribution to ongoing reflections about how environmental change affects human societies in complex ways and how to come to grips with it by combining local with global knowledge.

Cornelia E Nauen, August 2013