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Volume 2, Number 3
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Nature and Science:
The Watermen-Scientists Dialogues

"We wanted see if we could get beyond surface disagreements to the underlying values that they all share."

In a meeting room at the Wye Research and Education Center, a University of Maryland facility near Queenstown on the Eastern Shore, watermen gave up several days of work to attend three meetings last year to meet with Paolisso and his team. Scientists gave up those same days, coming from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and other marine laboratories. Technical experts from the Maryland DNR also came, hoping for a more constructive conversation than often occurs at public hearings.

At the first meeting considerable uncertainty filled the air. What exactly was this all about? Would it prove a waste of time?

"We wanted to see if we could get beyond surface disagreements to the underlying values that they all share," said Paolisso. He began with an exercise that "mapped" on a large piece of paper the various crab-related issues that watermen and scientists found especially important - then the group aggregated these key issues around basic concerns or "interests."

"By getting people to look beyond issues - where they may often disagree - to their underlying interests, we can get them to understand not only what they believe, but why they hold those beliefs."

While a number of watermen complained that their knowledge is often not appreciated by others, scientists too expressed some frustration at being misunderstood. Anson "Tuck" Hines, a long-time crab researcher at SERC, commented that most people don't understand how scientists work. "They usually work to disprove something," he said, not necessarily to build a case for a particular way of doing things. That, he argued, is just how science works.

When it comes to a better working relationship among watermen, scientists and management agencies, Hines said, "Non-cooperation hasn't worked. So that has been 'disproved.' So how do we test whether cooperation works?"

Hines and others also described the difficulty of getting grants and running research laboratories and the constant worry about adequate funding. Watermen seemed to understand the themes of hard work and financial worries. They also listened with a sympathetic ear as staff from the Maryland DNR described the difficulties they face trying to work on the complex and politically charged blue crab issue.

Rom Lipcius, a well-known crab expert from VIMS, added that around the country and even around the world scientists are being asked to be more proactive, to identify warning signs more loudly when they spot them.

Hines agreed, and pointed to the collapse of ground fisheries on Georges Bank as a prime example. In that case, he said, "scientists didn't advocate clearly enough."

"If blue crab stocks were to collapse in the Chesapeake Bay," said Lipcius, looking at his fellow scientists, "we would feel this as a personal failure."

According to Smith Island waterman Eddie Evans, "It all comes down to trust. Can I trust Tuck? Will he trust me? Will managers trust what scientists tell them?" The key, he said, "is being honest."

Though he is still analyzing the transcripts, Paolisso saw an apparent progression during the three meetings. In the first, he says, participants - especially watermen - stated their grievances and argued their case. At the second gathering, participants began to listen to each other, and the scientists seemed more willing to open up. By the third meeting the conversations came fast and fluid, and those gathered around the table seemed to address each other more as individuals, in an easy, informal manner.

As part of his effort to build understanding, Paolisso has encouraged workplace exchanges between watermen and scientists. Some of the participants have taken up this offer and now feel they have a better sense of what kind of work the others do. "I didn't know who they were," says Evans, speaking of scientists like Hines and Yonathan Zohar, who directs the University of Maryland Center of Marine Biotechnology. Evans has now seen how fast crabs can grow in the laboratory, and this squares well with his own observations about crabs.

Seeing the kind of work they each do and understanding where their information is coming from has helped to build a bridge between participants with very different backgrounds. Says Evans, "That's how you gain respect."

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