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Jonathan talked about the competitive ‘race’ between fishermen and the time constraints of dealing with a perishable commodity and he evoked all sorts of images using analogies. However while there is a sense of a particular time-space dimension at work, there is little sense here in Jonathan’s narrative that either the competitiveness amongst fishermen – or the related market conditions that create the sense of a ‘race’ – has a historical dimension. When I talked with a fish merchant in Newlyn, some similar themes came up but with a more historicised slant. Robin Turner, again perhaps in his late fifties, owns and manages a wholesale fish merchant business J.H. Turner and Co. describing themselves as boat owners and agents, auctioneers, and exporters and retailers, J.H. Turner and Co. has been in business in one form or another since the late 1700s. Our discussion began with how Robin perceives the greater patterns in the ocean cycle.
Fish in the Western Approaches: ‘they all live together here’ Robin described a seven year cycle in the Atlantic, similar to the El Nino effect in the Pacific Ocean. The cycle fluctuates, but its somewhere between seven and nine years.
We have influences and influxes of fish here on the shore that are really obvious when you look back through your fishing records or buying and selling records, where you have the large influxes of small fish over the course of two to three years, then the predators that follow them in tend to be superior if you like and tend to be the top dog for the next couple of years after that, and then they vanish where you have two or three years where you have not very much fish. Then all of a sudden it all starts against again. Now it has absolutely nothing to do with climate change, it has actually nothing to do with global warming, it is something that happens. Where the fish go, where the fish come from in the first place, is still one of the mysteries that surround us.
In Robin’s view science is not yet able to offer any concrete theories on where the fish go when they disappear. He suggested that the majority of fish stocks in the Western Approaches are not pelagic fish (tuna etc) that migrate and therefore are living in the region all year round. However,..You’re looking at 3600 to 4000 square miles that these fish can inhabit. So they don’t have to move very far to become invisible. They also cannot be fished on certain terrains of the sea-bed, so it’s distinctly possible they may go there, but nobody can offer an exact location for these fish when they suddenly vanish or suddenly come back. It’s something that nobody can offer an answer to yet. And we have years of plenty and we have years that are pretty lean and barren, and that has happened through my great grandfather’s, great, great, great grandfather’s time, right through to the present day.
I asked Robin what fishermen in previous generations did to cope with these
Basically they looked at years of dearth as it were as something where they could make crab pots or possibly build themselves a new boat. I’m going back a lot of generations. More recent times have left people sort of out on a limb because unfortunately the world is less forgiving, time wise now and less forgiving financially.
If you have a commitment, unfortunately it gets paid every month, whether you be earning, or not, so the world itself has evolved, into more of a race, whereas in the past if there were years of not so plenty, people could work in agriculture, on the land, etc, rather than going to sea. So there was always a principle there that you could find yourself other employment. Nowadays I think things are a little bit less forgiving.
(TM): And do you think Newlyn’s changed itself as a place because of that, the social structure and that kind of thing, the social life?
(RT): Yeah, I think it has. I think Newlyn has become far less rich because of the particular dilutions that have happened through pressure. The speed of life, I wouldn’t say has got any faster because the speed of life in fishing has always been damn quick. You’ve got to be quick to go to sea, you’ve got to be first out there, the first shot, the first back into catch the market, so it’s always been very, very fast. The speed of life that I’m talking about, is sort of the pace of everything else, when its time off, there’s just not so much of it, I don’t think it’s quite the quality that it was, and I also think that we’ve encouraged, through people’s perception of the fishing industry as rather a low grade industry that requires very few qualifications to get into;
the devaluation of that particular part of it has led to a social stigma almost where we get everybody that gets off the train-line at Penzance thinks that they can find themselves a job in fishing. Consequently we have a cosmopolitan society here that we didn’t have a few years ago. And unfortunately quite a lot of those people do not work. And it causes us quite a lot of problems, socially. So yes we have changed. But I don’t think we’re alone in that.
Right from the start of our discussion Robin identified certain ecological patterns he believed were predictable and regular in character and which were evident to him via empirical observation over time. And I found this level of observation and interest in how oceans worked as systems could be often found amongst fishers I encountered or heard about, especially the more innovative ones, who would be keen in their observations of factors like water temperature and fish feeding habits. This attitude invariably co-exists with recognition of mystery in the workings of the ocean, and acceptance of the limits of what we know but also openness to discovery.
Having long standing family roots in the fishing industry of Newlyn, Robin also had interesting responses to my questions about history. The great flux of nature which for fishers has played out as regular periods of dearth and plenty has had different consequences in different periods. In earlier periods, there was a much greater chance of going really hungry, but there was also greater employment mobility in terms of a pluralistic and more seasonal division of labour. In addition to seeing a loss of the rounded function of the traditional fishing village, as evoked by Jonathan, there is also a sense in Robin’s narrative that there has emerged more of a race as a consequence of the greater dependence on fishing as a full-time, year round occupation, alongside greater market pressures. In other words, it is an example of a kind of time-space compression (Harvey 1996), in which there are greater demands on human and natural time and resources, which calls for more to be produced in a given amount of time and more consistently over the seasonal round – a trend not to be mistaken for increased efficiency, given the concomitant production of waste (Alverson et al. 1994). The imperatives created by the time-space rule of the ‘first to the fishing grounds and the first one back’ are incorporated into the broader timespace constraints of an increasingly demanding economic situation. In Robin’s view this scenario has primarily been created by the bulk produce world food market which is currently exerting greater pressure due to declining fossil fuel supplies. Like many other fish merchant firms, J.H. Turner and Co. export fish from Newlyn all over the UK and Europe – Spain, Belgium, France, and Italy. Robin described ‘a fragile state of affairs’ where the economics of the fishing industry were finely balanced with the economics of transport. The day of our interview, the firm was unable to export anything due to strikes over fuel prices blockading French ports. A large perishable cargo was at risk.
I think everybody’s got to wake up to the fact that we’re going back probably, one hundred and fifty years, out of ‘world food’ probably back into more seasonal, local food – sustaining ourselves, because of the hard price levels of transport.
The picture that emerges from Robin’s narrative is of a dynamic between the determining influences of nature and markets – a dynamic that shapes the price of fish (an outcome of both the nature of fish as a quickly perishable commodity and an outcome of the supply and demand ratio which, which when combined drives fishing competiveness) and a dynamic between fuel as a finite natural resource input and as a market commodity (again predicted by rules of supply and demand amongst other factors). Then there is a third dynamic, between the local variability of the natural resource and the rigidity of a government (rather than a market) imposed ordering of time-space. The conditions that Robin articulates as being primarily part of the natural environment (species diversification, stock predictability) rather than being an outcome of social organisation or technology (e.g. non-selective trawling gear) are identified as being as basic a factor as markets. Quotas on the other hand, although in practice interacting inseparably from these other concerns, are as we shall see conceived as subordinate, or secondary, to influences conceived as originating in nature or the markets. I had asked Robin whether he could explain the way things worked in Newlyn from the fish getting caught at sea, to being sold on the Newlyn market and then their onward journeys.
It began, he replied, with fishermen waiting for the opportunity (that nature would provide) to go to sea and fish, ‘when the tide’s not too strong or too busy to get out there and fish with a net and the guys go to sea’. The boats go to specific areas in the ‘Western approaches’ 59 where they have fished habitually for years. He gave the example of one beam trawling family that had fished the same three areas of sea for twenty-five years. In his view, this demonstrated the sustainability of the fishery.
Rather what was at question in its viability was the cost of fuel over the price of fish The term ‘Western Approaches’ refers to an area of Atlantic ocean off the western coast of Great Britain and is most commonly used in the context of naval warfare, especially relating to the First and Second World Wars. In the context used here however, Robin Turner may be using it as a colloquial term specifically for a smaller area of ocean off the South West coast of Britain, otherwise known as the ‘Celtic Sea’.
they are landing: ‘That will dictate their future’. There is a high species diversification in the catch – twenty to twenty-five marketable species per trip.
Species caught but then discarded because they are not marketable amount to another ten to fifteen. The high diversification is a result of five currents meeting off Lands End – the North Atlantic current, the Gulf Stream, the Irish Sea, the English Channel and the Bristol Channel.
...They all bring in different feed fish, at different times and with different predators.
Therefore when they all meet off Lands End they all live together. So, rarely could you say that we can catch one fish and one fish alone when we go fishing. We can target a fish, but very rare are they found to be on their own swimming, especially if you’re trawling. If you’re trawling you’re likely to get over twenty mixed species, as an average. If your hook and lining for mackerel you’ll probably get one, maybe two species, because that’s very, very species specific. If you shoot a net over the side to catch pollock you’ll probably get another six or seven species alongside it. So, you know even something as simple as crab potting, you’ll probably get spider crabs, swimming crab, brown crab, you’ll probably get lobster, you maybe get a crawfish.
You can also get conger eel, in the pot. So already, even with something as simple as a pot you’ve got seven species of fish. So you know, it’s a very rich fishing area and very diverse in species base – that’s a strength.
Robin reiterated that the biggest threat to the industry was ‘the economic situation’. Shrinkage of the industry over the last fifteen years has otherwise guaranteed the industry’s future by reducing overfishing. Other than the influence of fuel and fish prices on profit margins, he envisaged a ‘sustainable’ future for the industry where it will not exceed a ‘workable quota’. However he argued that a workable quota has to be averaged over a number of years and adapted to local contexts, in order to take account of the level of diversification and fluctuations in fish stocks, saying that ‘A fish does not understand twelve months, a fish does not understand two years. A fish does what it does’. Like Jonathan, Robin presented the view that fish producers in Cornwall were more proactive then reactive in regard to regulation and that it is the government that is slow to respond. An example he gave was Trevose Box, an area of 3600 square miles, seasonally closed each year to protect an important spawning ground off Trevose Head in Cornwall.
We’ve been shouting about for thirty years. It took government twenty six of those years to react to it. The industry itself has wanted to shut that area for over thirty years... We’re very proactive... The ideas that we have however to put into practice are sometimes limited by a short-sighted approach from Whitehall, or non-adherence to their audit trail. Now adherence to an audit trail is bloody great when you’re a mathematician. It’s bloody great if you are an accountant. But an audit trail does not apply to the natural world. I have never seen an audit trail be applied to mother-nature and be right – whether it be prediction, whether it be comparing reality to what someone thought might happen. I often find that it’s so different that, you know, it’s so totally out of kilter, it does not marry up.
Robin said that fishermen in Cornwall were keen to report their level of discards, provided a reporting system was set up that would not further penalise them. This would give a true picture he believed of the local stocks, allowing them to negotiate a higher quota aggregated over a number of years.
What we’re not getting at the moment, we’re not getting any trends because we’re catching up to a quota, finishing, catching up to a quota, finishing. So we’ve got a straight line graph. And you’re arguing about a straight line. Now that doesn’t work.