Rider on the Storm

Michael Orbach

by John Manuel
When it comes to environmental assaults, the social scientist, conservationist, and Duke Marine Lab professor is as comfortable talking to a single fisherman as he is to state and national policymakers.
s we paddle our sea kayaks into Bogue Sound between North Carolina's mainland and the outer banks, Michael Orbach eyes the horizon. A plume of dark, gray clouds is spreading like a serpent over the sound, tongues of white licking out from the leading edge. Whitecaps rush toward us like urgent messengers, warning of the storm to come. Orbach is only mildly impressed.

"We'll need to keep an eye on that," he says of the cloud bank. "Let's make our way up-wind. That way, if it gets worse, we'll have an easy ride back."

>Orbach is no stranger to this environment. With his powerful build, giant handlebar mustache, and windburned complexion, he looks like a man who has spent his life behind a ship's wheel. And to a large extent, that is true. "I grew up on the water," says the forty-seven-year-old California native. "I'm an old surfer and sailor. Part of what keeps me so happy in this job is being able to be on the water doing my studies."

A professor of marine affairs and policy, Orbach directs the Coastal Management Program in Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. Stationed at the Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina, he is never far from the sight or smell of the ocean . But he's not a pure scientist. You won't catch him dissecting fish in the lab or taking water samples. He is by training a cultural anthropologist--more at home talking with fishermen about their families and how they make a living. That perspective, co mbined with his enormous experience, has made Orbach an invaluable resource to state and national policy makers as well as to Duke students.

"Mike is a national treasure," says B.J. Copeland, director of the University of North Carolina Sea Grant College Program, which has extended multiple grants to Orbach. "There is a tendency in this country to approach fisheries problems from a strictly sc ientific standpoint. But that won't cut it here. Fisheries is a multi-disciplinary issue. We need someone who understands the fisherman as well as the biologist. That's Mike."

Orbach sees a trend in this country toward involving the social sciences in public policy-making; and he says we will be better off for it. "Part of the regulatory reform movement we are experiencing says we should analyze the impact of environmental poli cies on people before we enact them. Although I question the motives of some who are behind it, I believe that position is correct."

Orbach is a graduate of the University of California at Irvine and at San Diego, where he received his bachelor's in economics and a master's and Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. It was while doing research for his Ph.D. thesis on the tuna seinermen of San Diego that he decided to pursue cultural anthropology as a career. "Coming off the tuna boats, I found I was in high demand by policy makers. They wanted to hear from someone who could help explain how the fisheries system was working from a human perspe ctive."

From 1976 to 1979, Orbach was a social anthropologist and social-science adviser with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C. Following that, he was associate director of the Center for Coastal Marine Studies for thr ee years at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1983, he came east to take a job as professor of anthropology and senior scientist for the Institute for Coastal and Marine Resources at East Carolina University in Greenville. He was lured to Duke in 1993. "Two things attracted me to the Duke School of the Environment," Orbach says. "First, it's considered a highly professional interdisciplinary program. Second, it's focused on helping people solve problems in the real world."

Tackling real-world problems is Orbach's forte. In all of his positions, he has studied or formulated coastal and marine policy. He has been a board member of the National Research Council Committee on Reducing Porpoise Mortality from Tuna Fishing, and a consultant to the federal government on managing the fur-seal harvest in Alaska. He has also written a book based on his Ph.D. research, Hunters, Seamen and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego, and such articles as "Fishery in Transition: The I mpact of Urbanization on Florida's Spiny Lobster Fishery."

"I've been involved in coastal and marine policy on all coasts of the U.S., in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Alaska, and the Pacific," he says. "I guess you could say there aren't many marine issues I haven't faced."

That should be of considerable comfort to North Carolinians because, right now, they face a crisis in terms of their marine fishery. Since 1980, stocks of all the state's major fin fish have declined sharply. Catches of summer flounder are down 75 percent . Hauls of gray trout are down 65 percent. Croaker catches have dropped by half. Harvests of oysters and scallops are at historic lows. Pollution has hurt some species, but the biggest single factor appears to be overfishing. Commercial fishermen armed wi th bigger nets and faster boats are catching fish faster than the fish can reproduce. Some fear that the state's $1-billion fishing industry will go the way of New England's, which has essentially collapsed, putting thousands of people out of work and lea ving consumers with rising prices for fish.

"We are at a critical time right now," former North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries director Bill Hogarth told the Raleigh News & Observer recently. "What we do in the next three or four years could determine whether we have a viable fishery in the twenty-first century."

The group that everyone is looking toward to solve the fisheries crisis is the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission. This seventeen-member commission, appointed by the governor, sets policy and regulations covering coastal waters out to three miles from shore. For many years, the commission was composed primarily of commercial fishermen, who saw little need for restrictions on their industry. That has begun to change. Faced with evidence of a steady decline in the fishery, then-Governor Jim Martin i n 1985 dismissed all of the presiding members of the commission and asked John Costlow, director of the Duke Marine Lab at the time, to head up a new one. Costlow agreed on the condition that he could have a hand in picking the new members. Martin acquies ced, and Costlow proceeded to nominate the commission's first natural and social scientists, including Orbach.

Orbach soon demonstrated his considerable skills as a mediator and problem-solver. As a cultural anthropologist with extensive experience in marine affairs, he understands the scientific viewpoint, but he also appreciates the impact "scientific solutions" can have on people. "My approach is the human dimension," he says. "All of our laws are based on human values. The issue is not how to maintain a pristine environment, but how to structure an environment that satisfies people's diverse needs."

In 1989, the commission was for the first time considering putting a size limit (thirteen inches in length) on flounder. Public hearings were held at which commercial fishermen showed up in force. They loudly debunked the proposal, saying it was certain t o put them out of business. The protests led a number of the commissioners to doubt that the regulation could be accepted, but Orbach was of a different mind.

"I knew that you often don't hear from a representative sample at public hearings," he says. "So I put on my social-scientist hat and constructed a survey of flounder fishermen in the state. I asked the fishermen how they thought the proposed regulation w ould affect them and whether they would oppose a thirteen-inch size limit. Seventy-two percent of the fishermen said they would support the size limit, even though they felt it would hurt them economically in the short run."

After the commissioners saw the results of Orbach's survey, they went ahead and passed the regulation without protest from the fishing community.

Orbach says that this kind of social-science approach serves two important functions. "First, it puts formal information into the equation. Second, it lets people know their opinions are being considered. Many of the fishermen told me I was the first pers on to come out on their boat and talk to them."

David McNaught, former director of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, says Orbach's success goes far beyond his research skills. "Mike is one of the best facilitators of the democratic process in eastern North Carolina. He is able to listen to people with very divergent interests. He has opinions of his own, but he is able to subordinate those to the greater process. He is a real believer that if you get enough of the parties together and give them good information, you will get a resolution to the problem at hand."

Orbach admits that there is a "live free or die" element among the commercial fishermen who refuse to believe overfishing is a problem and will resist any attempt at regulation. But he says that this viewpoint is not representative of commercial fishermen as a whole. "I find most commercial fishermen have a concern for the resource they depend on. They are generally willing to accept limits on their activities, if you can prove there is a problem and that the proposed limits will solve that problem. They also want to know that the impact of proposed regulations on them is being considered. In that respect, they're no different from the average landowner who wants to know why he shouldn't develop a particular piece of property with a half-acre wetland on i t."

Many of the problems with North Carolina's fishery are external to the local fishing community, Orbach says. Out-of-state fishing vessels have come in droves to fish the local waters. Hog farms and other upstream agricultural and forestry operations are p olluting the waterways. Retaining walls built on soundside shorelines are destroying marshes where fin fish and shellfish breed. And government agencies sometimes make their own blunders.

"Look what happened on the Roanoke River last summer. Fishermen had been cooperating with government agencies in restricting their catch of striped bass in the river. Then along came a big rain and the Army Corps of Engineers released a bunch of water ups tream from Kerr and Gaston lakes so people could keep using the boat ramps. The water spilled out into the floodplain and sent fish into the shallows. Then the Corps shut off the water and created an anoxic condition that killed thousands of fish."

Orbach's guidance was to prove invaluable again in the 1990s. Throughout the previous decade, North Carolina's crab fishermen had watched their catch fluctuate while the number of crab pots being put out was steadily increasing. Orbach had helped Florida' s spiny lobster fishermen address a similar problem in the 1980s, so the crabbers turned to him for help. He applied for and won a grant from the UNC Sea Grant Program to study the problem. With the help of the crab fishermen, he essentially concluded the re were too many traps being put out for too few crabs--a situation most crab fishermen had previously thought to be impossible.

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