Exploring the challenges of sustainable fishing in New England

Kathy Lin’s internship at the Environmental Defense Fund taught her about climate change’s impact on local fishing communities. “Our goal was to help these communities become more resilient in the face of a changing ecosystem.”

A growing body of research suggests that climate change and rising water temperatures are resulting in the shift of fish species northward.

The most exhilarating moments of Kathy Lin’s summer internship with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) came about on a chilly July morning 10 miles out to sea off the coast of Rhode Island. Aboard a 20-foot long fishing boat, Kathy and her guide for the day—a native New Englander and lifelong professional fisherman—hauled fluke and talked shop.

“We were on the water at 3 a.m.—in time for the fish,” says Kathy. “My guide let me borrow a pair of his big rubber gloves so that I could help with the catch. In between hauls, I asked him about how climate change has affected his livelihood.”

A growing body of research suggests that climate change and rising water temperatures have caused a shift in the migration patterns of fish. Some species move to new areas; others die off. These changes impact the daily catch—and the livelihood of local fishing communities.

“At EDF, my job was to uncover how climate change is affecting fishers in the region in terms of what they catch and their profitability,” she says. “Our goal was to help them become more resilient in the face of a changing ecosystem.”

Kathy spent eight weeks travelling through New England visiting fisheries and interviewing fishers to understand how they are adapting to the effects of climate change. Kathy also helped write a set of recommendations for business practices to help the fishing community diversify its sources of income.

“Having Kathy drive this very important organizational initiative was really exciting for EDF,” says Sarah Lindley Smith, Manager of Northeast Coastal Ecosystems for the group. “As a nonprofit we have to be careful with our resources. We don't necessarily have the budget to do everything we want to. So having access to high-quality interns who can take on big, substantive, complex problems brings a lot of value to our organization. And it allows us to expand our vision.”

Kathy says became interested in these issues after taking part in Fishbanks—the popular management flight simulator based on the Fishbanks game created by Dennis Meadows, a former MIT Sloan professor. The web-based version was adapted by Professor John Sterman to teach students about the challenges of sustainably managing common pool resources.

“Fishbanks is a great microcosm for the complexities of collective action,” she says. “I wanted to understand collective action better.”

Her stint at EDF was part of the Sustainability Internship Program, supported by the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan and made possible by a generous gift from Anna Gabriella C. Antici Carroll  ’92 and Joseph D. Carroll ’91. Kathy says the dedicated internship program was one of the things that first attracted her to MIT Sloan.

It was, she says, a prime opportunity to explore the conditions necessary for successful resource management. “It's a real challenge because many stakeholders are doing the best they can while operating under a great deal of uncertainty,” says Kathy. “There's a lot we don't know so it’s hard to make the right decisions.”