Tuesday, October 22, 2013

James Shewmake accepted for assistantship at Memorial University

James Shewmake, who earned his master's of science degree with SNRAS in May, was recently hired by the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research as a temporary research professional. He is helping ISER build GIS capacity in social science research and developing the spatial analysis of social data for the Bureau of Land Management Rapid Ecological Assessment program.

James Shewmake at Paxon Lake.
Memorial University in St. John's Newfoundland, Canada has accepted Shewmake for a full paid assistantship with Barb Neis and the Marine Environment Observation Prediction and Response program. While working on his doctorate he will examine fishermen's knowledge of extreme weather events, how they navigate the risks of foul weather, what ports of refuge they use during severe events and the decision-making processes they use while fishing.

After a childhood in Mississippi and Alabama, Shewmake studied in the fisheries science program at Mississippi State University. He realized he was more interested in the human dimensions of fisheries and changed to a political science degree with a minor in economics. During a break from school, he came to Alaska and worked in the salmon hatcheries for a few years, then transferred to the University of Alaska Southeast where he earned an interdisciplinary liberal arts degree.

Shewmake originally chose UAF because he was interested in joining the Peace Corps and was drawn to the Master's International Program with SNRAS. "Unfortunately I'm no spring chicken and the Peace Corps has pretty tough physical requirements," Shewmake said. "I wasn't given much hope that I'd get a good fisheries-related position so I decided not to risk going overseas for two years for what may or may not lead to a thesis. Instead, I chose to stay in Alaska and hand-picked a topic in a location I was familiar with, and used my connections and hard headedness to pull together a more personalized research project."

During his studies with SNRAS, Shewmake learned to endure uncertainty and keep grinding away. "Sometimes you just have to out-stubborn the challenges you face," he said. "Grad school was certainly a string of challenges."

His research was "Spatial Resilience and the Incorporation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Mapping Sitka Herring." The short title is summed up, "Why subsistence takes place where it does and why that's important."

"Sitka was my gateway to Alaska, and it's a community that has always been close to my heart," Shewmake said. "I didn't know much about herring, but I knew it was a big commercial industry and I knew that there were problems on the subsistence side. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Subsistence just happened to have some money for a graduate internship and an interest in having more spatial analysis to complement their qualitative research, so I spent a year in Juneau traveling back and forth to Sitka and other places working on my research and learning about how to be a good ethnographer. The research was pretty timely, the Board of Fish had just established a Subsistence Only Zone, which is effectively a cultural marine protective area within Sitka Sound. I wanted to see why certain areas were more important for subsistence than others, and to take that data from being qualitative to something more quantitative that biologists and policy makers could hopefully digest easier. I learned that there's a lot that goes into subsistence herring egg harvesting and that it takes a lot of time and the right circumstances in the right places. My research showed that good harvest years were ones where participation (number of households harvesting) and opportunity (average spawning days in subsistence areas) work together. If either (or both) of those variables drop too low, needs go unmet."

GIS was one of the most important skills Shewmake gained at UAF. Professor David Verbyla hired Shewmake as a teacher's assistant."Through working on projects for him and having to teach other students how to do spatial analysis, I made huge gains in my competency in GIS," Shewmake said. "I also took GIS programming my last semester, and that package of skill sets, with my background in social science research, is the reason I was hired at ISER. My research interest in using what people know about the environment, and my work in spatial analysis were also a major factor in getting the PhD assistantship."

Once in Canada, Shewmake will work closely with fishermen in the Newfoundland/Labrador fisheries, collecting data on what they know about severe weather, emergency preparedness and work safety. "I'll get to see a lot of the Atlantic side of Canada," he said.

Shewmake thinks he will ultimately end up as a professor, teaching human dimensions of fisheries and researching the how, where and why people fish where they do.  

"More and more of the science and management of fisheries is gearing towards including the human element, and it's an important one," Shewmake said. "I think I have a lot of experiences (and eventually knowledge) to impart to the next generation of managers."
In free time, Shewmake enjoys photography and writing for the Alaska Commons. He helped build a business plan for the site. "Like any good Alaskan I love the outdoors," he added. He and his girlfiend spent a week on Paxson Lake last summer and he just bought his firs pair of snowshoes. "As soon as there's some powder on the ground here in Anchorage, I'm looking forward to giving that a whirl."

James Shewmake (right) hauls in herring.

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