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«Tim Martindale Thesis submitted to the Department of Anthropology of Goldsmiths, University of London, for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, ...»

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Such arguments have formed the basis of subsidies, bounties, grants and loans that have been secured for fishing interests since at least the seventeenth century (although how much these benefits have reached the lower strata of fishers is another matter). Bounties on salt taxes were granted for pilchard exporters in the seventeenth century (Rowe 2006), nineteenth century bounties were granted to boat owners to expand the fleet, early twentieth century government loans were granted to fishermen in the south-west to help them install engines on their boats, and subsidies continue to the present day. The fact that European governments (including Britain) have subsidized the fishing industry and continue to do so has been a major factor on producing overcapacity in the industry and the serious depletion of fish stocks.

Furthermore, as I discussed in the earlier literature review, quotas can be seen as embodying a modernist production regime and an instrumentalist perspective on the human-nature relationship and are therefore not really a break with the dominant philosophy of the past but in fact a variation of it generated to attempt to fix the problems caused in part by earlier versions.

Don and his family’s sense of victimhood as a result of the trial, and images projected of families persecuted by the system, articulated concerns and issues that were more than merely a plea for compassion. Their complaints also expressed concerns about more complex issues to do with, firstly, the perceived limitations of current scientific knowledge used in setting quota limits and the practical and moral difficulties of conforming to quota rules (including the issue of waste); and secondly, concerns about the fairness of the ways quotas (and therefore access rights conceived as ‘territorial’) are allocated between nations as a ‘common-pool’ resource to be shared by the European community. In the present and subsequent chapter I have taken the first set of concerns as my focus.


The court-case and Don’s evocations of a bygone sovereign fishery highlight how the historical experience of modern fishing communities (including the ‘overfishing problem’) is really inseparable from the scientific and managerial developments in the higher governmental echelons of society. Fishermen like Donald Turtle began their early fishing careers in the post-war years, many having done service in the Royal and Merchant Navy. To some extent their outlooks were of their time and they shared certain commonalities of view with people like Michael Graham at the MAFF laboratories – an enthusiasm for the adventurous, outdoor life and a belief in the possibility and value of fully utilising natural resources for the good of the nation.

Where practical difficulties arose, such as how to slow the rotting rate of cod during the time it took to get it from distant water fisheries and onto the market, it was believed they would be solved through strategies of technological and logistical ingenuity. However the Cornish fishers, with their particular outlook of independence and restraint, may have found more in common with the philosophical and socialist-minded scientist Graham and the novelist and Inspector for South-West Fisheries Stefan Reynolds (1881-1919) than with the dominant consensus that emerged in international fisheries management in the 1950s. The political arguments that were used to secure subsidies for expanding the fisheries may have rested in part on stoking the public’s romantic image of the heroic fisherman, but the idea that fishermen are dependent on nature was much more genuinely held onto by fishermen themselves. Dependence, danger and unpredictability remained dominant features of their experience of nature, but their differences of perspective from the politicoscientific consensus which saw the oceans as a thing to be tamed to man’s will and utility was concealed by the rhetoric from which, for a time, both parties benefited.

Now that the dominant neo-liberal and utilitarian consensus has been carried to its full conclusion in the form of quotas and the sustainable development discourse, the deficiencies of this view, in terms of ecological impact and social inequity, is being contested by fishers who all the time were really working with constraints and outlooks not shared or predicted by the dominant models.

Figure 64: Map of North-East Atlantic fishing areas demarcated by the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES). FAO 2001.

6 WORKING THE ‘WESTERN APPROACHES’ It is vitally necessary for the fisherman and particularly the type known as the “longshoreman”, the man who does not go out of sight of land to do his fishing, to know the rules of the sea, and to know what the bottom of the sea is like, in order to be able to decide what particular type of fish finds the particular type of ground to its liking, and consequently may be expected to frequent it. For fish are more susceptible to a set type of sea-bottom than are sheep or cattle to a set type of pasture.

The large black conger clings to the black rock, his protective colouring being made full use of accordingly; similarly the large brown pollock loves the area where the brown, ribboned seaweed languidly sways in the undertow, while its nearest relative—locally known as the “whiting pollock” from its silvery resemblance to the whiting—is a roamer not branded by any local colour: he takes the silver and grey of the great sea. The crab, the lobster, the crayfish, each possesses its “home ground,” and it is the discovering and marking of these grounds that is a great part of the business lore of the longshoreman (Cowls n.d.: 36).

In the particular case of the Newlyn Court Case, the defendants highlighted the issue of waste generated through fishing quotas. This presents something of a paradox. How can fishers complain about waste which is arguably a product of their activity and unselective technology? To understand that, and the limitations of the quota system, it is necessary to look in more depth at the way fishers conceive the environment in which they make their livelihood and the way they conceive of value and reward. In this chapter I argue that the kind of environmental determinism that is politically invoked in negotiations over fishing livelihood and industry (with variants emphasising social structure or technology) is a kind of simplified, blanket version of complex local ideas through which fishermen understand (1) the kinds of environment (or natures) they work in and with; (2) the kind of work they do and knowledge they have; and (3) the way they evaluate the science and management of fish quotas.

‘They’re dictating to me what I can catch... I might as well go and drive a bus’ At the time of our interview in 2008 Jonathan Fletcher was a shell-fisherman working pots off the Lizard, operating a small boat single-handedly out of Cadgwith cove. In his mid-fifties, Jonathan has lived on the Lizard since age three and became a fisherman in his early twenties. I asked him about the kinds of pressures and constraints that influenced how fishermen make a living. He said that there were forms of fishing that had been gone into that were now ‘grinding to a stop’ as a result of the combined pressures of fuel prices and a shortage of fish in the sea. In his view however, shortages of fish are a political problem in that there has been a lack of regulation. He saw regulation as necessary to control technological change and expansion in fishing capacity and efficiency that was inevitable in a competitive economic environment. In the 1970s and early 1980s a mackerel boom in the South West led to fleets of Scottish mid-water trawlers and purse-seiners descending on waters off the Cornish coast and landing to European and Russian factory fishprocessing ships. Jonathan said that at the time Cornish fish producers called for limitations to be placed on the industrial scale fishing that was occurring. However, in his view the government was slow to respond leading to the stock almost being wiped out.

Although the fishermen roundly get blamed for it, they say “well you went out there and caught the stuff, it’s your fault” – you can’t not do it. You know if everybody else is going up the motorway at eighty miles an hour from London to do business in Worcester, and you’re competing with him, you can’t get on your bike, and go up there and expect to achieve the same results, because he would have done three day’s business before you got halfway there. It’s an analogy that I think is fair. You have to...you have to keep up with the rat race. What you need is someone to slow the rat race down.

Jonathan often used analogies in our interview to show how the fishing industry was the same as any other industry or trade in terms of the pressures and incentives to develop, grow and beat your competitors. As such, his argument went; it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect fishermen to self-limit their activities. In all forms of fishing, the imperative remains the same and therefore, politics must stand above the labour. However, the dilemma that fisheries regulation presents, as Jonathan saw it, is that competitiveness between fishermen was intrinsic to the way of life and is undermined by catch limits.

You’re taking away the pioneering, go-getting, catch-hunting thing that fishermen do, because you’ve dictated to me what you’re going to earn. You know, I might as well go and drive a bus and know what I’m going to earn at the end of the week and have the weekend off. So it’s really very difficult… So whilst on the one hand explaining how fishing is like any other commercial enterprise, on the other hand Jonathan was also at pains to underline how fishing was distinct, and therefore difficult to reorganise.

There are people who have been fishing for generations, you know seventh generation, small fishing village, family fishermen, and they do it because that’s what their family did and that’s how life is. And they can’t.., it’s not that they don’t have, or couldn’t acquire skills to do anything else; they’ll still keep fishing because that’s what they do. It’s a totally different way of carrying on.., along with many others. I appreciate how the miners felt when they got clobbered..; it’s a whole way of life when all the people in your village are centred around one industry.

(TM): Is it that communal aspect of it that makes it quite a special kind of livelihood?

(JF): I don’t know, I find it very hard to pin down... it’s a basic thing.., it sounds like a cliché but it is the old hunter-gatherer thing, where you actually do go out and achieve something, off your own skill and patience and work... and get a return. I’m never quite sure, but it’s the achievement and it’s the freedom of the life as well, you know what I mean… totally self-reliant and free of the issues that accrue to being in an office or a financial institution or what you will.

In Jonathan’s account, it is not only the multi-generational, community-centred characteristics of fishing that make it a distinct kind of work and one difficult to move out of, and neither is it purely the competitive element. It is also the fact that profit accrues as a fair reward for endeavour, hard-work and innovation, and for no other reason. As he paints it, this is man pitting himself against nature – a free, selfsufficient and non-exploitational enterprise. However whilst the fisherman looks to nature for his living, he looks even more to the market, for it is the market that ultimately determines the price he will receive for the products of his labour. The fact that fishermen increase their technology and their capacity as a part of competitive business often not only depletes the stock but oversupplies the market, which is especially a concern with a perishable commodity. The issue, for Jonathan, comes back to the same dilemma of how you impose limitations without killing the spirit of the enterprise.

You’ve got the problems with the fishermen seeing interference right down to what they can catch, and if you come through the gaps, when you come home to harbour and there’s ten of you, ten boats, two men on each boat, and you’ve all got exactly the same amount of fish, because that’s what you’re allowed to catch... [Sighs] that’s not what it’s about. It’s got something to do with competition, you don’t want to do the other man down, but you want to feel that you, if you’ve been more clever, or worked harder, that you’ve got a bit better return for it. That’s human nature I think. I mean the same would apply for any trade I suppose. Look at the unions in the seventies, talking about parity, but in reality everybody wanted to earn a little bit more than everybody else, otherwise you end up living in a row of semi-detached houses, where you’ve all got the same furniture, you’ve all got the same cars, what is it that’s separates you from the man next door? You’re either going to go out and drink and fight, or you’re going to go out rock climbing, or you know it’s your hobbies and the rest of your life that separates you from the sameness of that sort of existence. That’s the sort of existence you might be imposing on fishing, which won’t sit easily with it.

On finishing school, Jonathan had started out in an insurance office in London but he found it unsatisfactory work.

You’ve got to have something in your life – well people who work in drudgery, for about five days a week, a lot of them will go fishing, won’t they, for their sport, or hobby. Strange that. But it’s pitting themselves against nature and achieving something, isn’t it.

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