"I've Had Dolphins…Looking for Abalone for Me": Oral History and the Subjectivities of Marine Engagement
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"I've Had Dolphins…Looking for Abalone for Me":
Oral History and the Subjectivities of Marine Engagement
Abstract

While oral histories have been used as a source of information about marine species and ecosystems in the past, this article explores how oral histories of fishers and divers can be read as narratives about human relationships with marine environments and animals. We propose that in listening closely to people who have long and intimate experience of the underwater world, we can begin to understand the emotional and experiential dimensions of unsustainable fishing practices. These narratives also encourage us to acknowledge and take seriously the ongoing significance of anthropomorphism as a way of conceptualizing and relating to the nonhuman world. Oral histories have a significant role to play in fostering human capacity and, indeed, desire to live ethically in and with a more-than-human (marine) world.

Keywords

anthropomorphism, emotion, fishing and diving, human-animal relations, marine conservation, marine environmental history

Oral history is playing an important role in studies of our ocean environment. It is being employed for a range of purposes, including identifying perceptions of change in the marine environment, providing data about the nature and degree of environmental change, determining marine species at risk, and understanding the effects of changing environments and regulatory regimes on fishing communities. While such uses are significant and timely, we argue that oral history can also offer important experiential insights into the marine environment, and that [End Page 260] we are only just beginning to exploit the full potential of oral history to intervene productively in marine conservation. In this article we explore how oral histories of fishers and divers can be read as narratives about human relationships with an ocean environment. In doing so, we hope to illuminate the important role such oral histories might play in fostering human capacity, and indeed desire, to live ethically in and with a more-than-human (marine) world.1

The South West Capes Oral History Project

In 2006 researchers at the University of Western Australia undertook an oral history project associated with a benchmark scientific study on marine communities of the South West Capes, a region of Western Australia which extends from Geographe Bay around Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin (fig. 1). The region was the subject of a state government proposal to establish a marine park (subsequently declared in 2012), and the proposal gave rise to considerable tensions among stakeholders because of different and conflicting interests in the marine environment. The scientific study involved sonar mapping of the seafloor and a biological survey using conventional sampling techniques and underwater video. The oral history component was designed to provide an indication of how the local community perceives change and continuity in the marine and coastal environments of the South West Capes region within living memory, as well as record some of the experiences of local fishers and divers that constitute part of the marine heritage of Western Australia.2

Between late 2005 and early 2006 the University of Western Australia project team conducted oral history interviews with fifteen fishers (recreational and commercial) and a dive operator, focusing on their activities around the South West Capes region. Each interviewee had at least twenty years of experience in the region. The interviews provided information about the changes they perceived in marine animal populations over the last thirty to forty years, including seals and whales (increasing), snapper (declining), sharks (declining, except white pointers) and herring (fluctuating).3 The historian on the project later sought out documentary evidence relating to snapper and herring populations, [End Page 261]

Fig 1. Map of the South West Capes region and surrounds. (Map reproduced courtesy of Springer Publishing Co.)
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Fig 1.

Map of the South West Capes region and surrounds. (Map reproduced courtesy of Springer Publishing Co.)4

which verified the oral testimony and suggested reasons for the changes, including human impact and environmental variation.5 Here the oral histories played a supporting role: they usefully highlighted areas for further research but presented less compelling evidence for environmental change than the historical documents. However, it soon became evident that these oral histories of fishers and divers could serve a different purpose—one that was at least as valuable...


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