We are what we measure.   It's time to measure what we want to be.

Average age of commercial fish harvesters

Average age of commercial fish harvesters

This indicator, from the Maine Economic Growth Council and the Maine Development Foundation measures the perception among fish harvesters that there is a promising future in the fishing industry. This is a measure that shows links between the environment, economy and society. It connects the health of the fish stocks with the economy of the fishing industry and the stability of the way of life based on the fishing industry.

Overview of the Issue
A healthy fishing industry in Maine both provides jobs and defines a lifestyle for people in the community. If fish stocks are high and fishing is seen as a reliable source of income, more young people will choose to make a career of it, and the average age will decrease. If it is not seen as a profitable industry, young people will look elsewhere for employment and the average age will increase. Besides young people choosing other fields, if fishing does not provide adequate income, fish harvesters may be forced to postpone retirement, which would also increase the average age.
Data is available on this indicator going back 13 years to 1985. Until 1991 the average age increased steadily, then dropped until 1995. From 1995 to 1997 there was a sharp increase in the average age, which earns this indicator a "red flag" from the Maine Economic Growth Council, meaning the health of the fishing industry needs to be watched closely. Further increase in the average age is a signal of environmental, economic and social instability.

Indicator Evaluation
Compared to other community indicators, this indicator scores somewhat above average as a measure of community sustainability. It is an excellent indicator in that it addresses carrying capacity of natural, social and built capital.

Carrying capacity of the community capital
Natural capital - although the indicator does not directly measure the carrying capacity of the fish stocks, one of the region's most important renewable natural resources, it reflects the viability of that stock in people's willingness to rely on fishing for a livelihood.

Social capital - The indicator does measure both the connectedness and people parts of social capital. As fish harvesters age and young people increasingly go into other industries, the intra-generational connectedness and the culture of a way of life is eroded. As older fish harvesters die, the skills and knowledge they possessed is lost to the community.

Built/financial capital - The indicator also measures the carrying capacity of built capital, since as the fishing industry becomes less viable, there is a large scale changeover to alternative industries, and existing boats and equipment sit idle.

Linkages - The areas of community addressed by this indicator include cultural/social, economy, education, recreation, and resource use.

Long term view - although it may be hard to define the ideal or target average age for fish harvesters, it is possible to see that a continually upward trend shows an industry in decline.

Understandable - This is a very simply stated, easily understandable indicator. It summarizes the same complex information that is gathered by analysts and experts, but it is understandable, relevant, and powerful. This indicator was chosen to be for the Spotlight in part because it is a good example of one that approaches a politically sensitive issue in a non-political way. It is a measurement that both the fishing industry and environmentalists can agree on even if they can't agree on what a sustainable rate of fishing might be.

Ways the Indicator Has Prompted Change
The indicator itself is not responsible for any particular policy or behavior, but it has been useful in providing a common ground for discussions between environmentalists and the fishing industry.

How to Improve the Indicator
It might be useful to take into account the changes in age distribution in the population as a whole. As people are living longer and healthier lives they are apt to continue working longer and drive up the average age in any industry. On the other hand, to add in that information would be to sacrifice the simplicity that gives the indicator its strength.

Other Things People Should Know
About the data points: For the year 1997, the data gives the average as of October. The average age may also be affected by state regulations. Also, a recent freeze on new licenses for lobster and urchin fisheries was partially responsible for the recent rise in average age. However, a freeze on licenses is also a bad sign for the fishing industry.

Data Sources and Additional Information
This indicator comes from the 1996 progress report "Measures of Growth: Setting Performance Measures to Achieve Maine's Long Term Economic Goals" from the Maine Economic Growth Council. The Maine Economic Growth Council is a 19-member multi-stakeholder group appointed by the governor and legislative leadership to establish state goals for a sustainable economic growth and continually report on progress towards the goals. The Council has established 54 indicators and publishes a progress report annually. although concerned with economic 'growth', the Council has a long-term time horizon and defines the economy very broadly to include healthy natural resources and vital communities.

The report was prepared by the Maine Development Foundation. It can be found on their web site, http://www.mdf.org, along with further data and discussion. The website includes a page specifically devoted to each indicator where one can see the data graphed and read explanatory text. Our thanks to Craig Freshley of the Maine Development Foundation for providing input to this Indicator Spotlight.

The source for the data is the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Ages are taken from applications for Maine commercial fishing licenses.

We are very interested in including comments from reviewers that add to the general discussion of measuring sustainability. As we receive appropriate comments, we will add them here. If you have comments about a particular indicator that you would like to include, please send us a message. Likewise, if your community or organization has an indicator that you think would be a good indicator to highlight, please let us know.