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Learning with Laura Orleans

Executive Director of the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center

By: Marketing Manager Intern, Kendall Foundation-UMass Dartmouth, Michaella Lesieur

Bold: Laura Orleans

Non-Bold: Michaella Lesieur

New Bedford, Massachusetts is the largest and most important fishing port in the northeast and the most valuable fishing port in the nation. A new museum telling the story of the fishing industry is the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, which makes a perfect day trip. We sat down with Executive Director, Laura Orleans to learn more about the Center and its mission.

Let’s first start off with a little bit of background for those who are not familiar with the Center. Located at 38 Bethel Street in the heart of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Center opened in June of 2016 “to tell the story of the fishing industry past, present and future through exhibits, archives and programs.”

There is no such thing as a typical work day for this hardworking director as our one on one Q and A looks over to the Center, its mission and much, much more...

Describe what a typical workday looks like for you? What is your favorite part about working here?

I don’t really have a typical day, which is one of the things I like most about my work. In the early part of the week when we are closed to the public, I am often doing behind-the-scenes things like researching new exhibits, writing grants, and planning programs. Sometimes those are also the days when we present programs for school groups and tour groups. Thursday-Sunday when we are open to the public, anything is possible.

Active and retired fishermen come in to share artifacts and stories, visitors from the local community and from around the world come to learn about the fishing industry. What I like best is feeling that we have created a community center for those who have spent a lifetime working in the fishing industry feel honored, those whose families worked in the industry feel connected and those who are interested in learning can do that.

What does the future look like for the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center? What are the Center’s goals?

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities our new exhibit “Not Just a Job: Work and Community in New Bedford’s Fishing Industry” will integrate themes of labor history and immigration and incorporate digital storytelling to create a more immersive experience for our visitors. The new exhibit is slated to open in the winter of 2021. We are quickly outgrowing our 3000 square foot space and would love to be able to expand our footprint, staff, and program offerings. We are working to revamp our permanent exhibit over the next 18 months.

How do you promote “underutilized fish?” What are the benefits of incorporating these fish and extending it out to the community?

Last year we partnered with the Port of New Bedford to present a series of cooking demonstrations and cooking classes promoting underutilized, abundant, locally harvested fish. We have also presented several Seafood Throwdown events in partnership with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.

These are “iron chef” style events in which two chefs have an hour to cook and plate a dish using a surprise seafood ingredient (always an underutilized species) and a panel of judge’s award points based on taste, appearance, use of the whole animal, etc. By promoting underutilized and abundant species, we help to build markets for these types of seafood, increasing their availability and value which in turn helps fishermen get a better price for their catch and takes pressure off less abundant species.

How have you seen the fishing industry evolve in New Bedford? How have the local fisherman made this a lifestyle?

I have been working with the local fishing community for 20 years and have seen many changes. I think the industry has become more focused on sharing its story with the public and working to promote a positive public image. People are increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from and ensuring that what they are consuming is ecologically sustainable.

Hopefully, they are beginning to understand that most fishermen are conservationists. They depend on having a strong and sustainable resource and are working hand-in-hand with scientists to better understand and protect the resource. The local fishing community is still dominated by families who have been involved for generations and passed on skills and knowledge from one generation to the next.

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