Bowdoin College's Holly Parker: Storytelling vital in seaweed sector's battle to win support of local communities

Published on
September 19, 2023
Holly Parker.

The U.S. state of Maine has the potential to build a sustainable blue economy and create opportunities across its expansive coastline, but according to Bowdoin College Schiller Coastal Studies Center Director Holly Parker, this requires innovators who can extend their message beyond the “echo chamber” the seafood industry too often becomes.

At the 2023 Seagriculture U.S.A. conference, which took place in Portland, Maine, U.S.A. for the second straight year, Parker called on seaweed farmers to communicate their mission to develop ways of engaging with those who may not feel the urgency needed to achieve sustainable action.

At last year’s conference, I was struck by the attendees’ universal enthusiasm for expanding the seaweed industry in Maine, [but] like many conferences, we end up in an echo chamber,” Parker said at this year’s edition of the conference.

Parker, who began working in the seaweed and kelp sector in 2018 as the director of the University of New England's Institute for North Atlantic Studies, said the seaweed industry is poised for growth. However, she couldn’t help wondering about "what happens when we try to implement this work in our small, coastal communities where those working on our waters and waterfronts are already experiencing pressures and stressors.”

“What if they do not welcome these initiatives with open arms and minds?” she said. “In my own work in sustainability, I have found that the art of story listening, which includes asking questions that elicit lived experiences and create an understanding of how a point of view has been created through loss and gain – through fears and hopes – can help us begin to understand the person beyond the opposing position. We can [then] further build trust by storytelling and sharing our own lived experience [hopefully creating] the opportunity to find common ground where it seemed impossible.” 

Through storytelling and story listening, Parker said coastal communities may come to understand the benefits sustainable initiatives offer. Kelp farming, for example, offers several benefits to coastal communities, including protecting these areas from harmful tidal waves, providing shelter and effective breeding grounds for lucrative fish species, and carbon sequestration. Parker said highlighting these benefits in an approachable way can help build and solidify social contracts for aquaculture initiatives, creating a lasting social license in the process.

To pursue the construction of sustainable blue economies across the state, Parker advised seaweed farmers take a step back to dissect the “what” and “why” surrounding sustainable commitments, and also focusing on the “who” and “how.” Doing this not only triggers sustainable change; it also ensures it lasts, she said.

Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College

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