In environment-dependent industries, vulnerability to change is a function of three things: exposure (what kinds of impacts are felt by a resource user?), sensitivity (how much does the impact affect them?), and adaptive capacity (to what extent can users shift behavior to avoid harm/maximize benefits from the change?). To a large degree, the adaptive capacity of a community of resource users depends on non-environmental factors, such as economics, regulatory contexts, and social structures.

In Rhode Island fisheries, several types of vulnerability form the backdrop for adapting to environmental change. Fishery stakeholders participating in the Resilient Fisheries RI project have identified the following issues as contextualizing their adaptive capacity:

  • Shrinking of the fleet: RI’s fishing fleet has atrophied over the years. This change is particularly stark in certain locations, such as Newport.
  • Aging of the fleet: Very little new boat construction is taking place. Many boats still in use are 40 years old. This is a concern for insurance and safety.
  • Loss of shoreside services: Some boatyards and fish dealers have gone out of business, particularly in places such as Newport that are affected by fleet shrinkage and gentrification.
  • Consolation: Consolidation occurs when individual boat owners sell their vessels to individuals or companies already owning another or several other boats. Consolidation can be seen as either an adaptation to change or a driver of vulnerability, depending on whom you ask.
  • Rise in business expenses: Costs associated with fuel, fishing quota, and at-sea monitors are all concerns for fishermen.
  • Changes in markets: Market volatility is a big concern for certain species, such as scup.
  • Shortened business planning horizon: Frequent regulatory and other types of change have made it hard for fishermen to plan more than a season out. Many feel that making investments in the future is risky.
  • Forced specialization: A general trend towards licensing individual species or groups of species has made many fishermen feel that they are boxed in to certain fisheries, and no longer have the flexibility that they did when they were younger.
  • Lack of entry of young fishermen: The average age of fishermen continues to climb. Captains have a difficult time finding qualified crew. Aspiring fishermen and experienced deckhands have a hard time acquiring the permits and capital needed to become boat owners.