…on Zoom, because that’s how we do everything these days. Professor Brooke Porter of the Umbra Institute’s Center for Food & Sustainability Studies last week gave a remote guest lecture to a graduate wildlife management class at New Mexico Highlands University. Porter’s lecture was a provocative invitation to think about the management of ecosystems that are in rapid change: “Introduced species and changing biodiversity: Are mermaids the solution?”
After working and studying in Florida, Hawai’i, and Eritrea (including a stint with the United Nations), Porter started work on her doctorate in New Zealand. Her research focused on shifting marine tourism and alternative livelihoods in the context of small scale fisheries. In other words, what can fisherfolk do for alternative or supplemental livelihoods when small-scale fisheries either decline or are suppressed to create marine reserves? Porter’s research location was the Philippines, where she encountered the surprising (but intriguing) phenomenon of modern-day merfolk.
As Porter explained to the bemused (and landlocked!) wildlife management students, mermaiding—the act of swimming in a monofin tail costume—is becoming increasingly popular. Although some merfolk (mermaids and mermen) only swim recreationally, many professional merfolk forge careers teaching at mermaid schools or performing at events such as birthday parties, corporate events, and special aquarium events. Thought to be associated with the Proteus Effect, many professional merfolk identify as ocean inhabitants and therefore protectors of their realm, in other words, self- ocean activists and/or ocean ambassadors. They use their performed identities and events as platforms for spreading ocean awareness and advocacy.
Most of us were fascinated by mermaid stories in our youth. The “reenchantment” of seeing people acting as merfolk, Porter explained, creates a combination of empathy, wonder, enchantment, and curiosity absorbing the observer into a fantastic and actual aquatic realm. On a larger scale, Porter’s research findings indicate the potential for a general reenchantment within event spaces. With a sprinkle of magic, a dash of the “arationale,” and pinch of empathy, events may have the ability to become important platforms for conservation-oriented and critical knowledge sharing.
The point, Porter told the students, is to try to use alternative methods, such as fantasy to engage the public in conservation action. This dovetails with some of the research she’s doing at the lake near Perugia, Lago Trasimeno, with the fisherfolk there. At Lago Trasimeno, Porter with the support of previous Umbra students as research assistants, used a pile sort method to explore the fisherfolks’ understanding of a rapidly changing biodiversity. Through continued research, she plans to bridge findings from both projects in hopes of a sustainable future for Lake Trasimeno.
Interested in learning more about Water from Professor Porter?
Check out her course Water Resources: Environment, Society, and Power.