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We’re saying there’s more out there and the scientists are saying “well there isn’t – look at the graph”. You do have a problem. And again it’s all to do with an audit trail, and I go back to that every time. It’s making figures work by somebody that’s driving a desk, not someone who’s living or working with the natural environment, which provides at times actually oodles and plenty and at other times, will starve you.
Robin’s account supports the impression I got that many fishermen were, like Jonathan Fletcher, not anti-regulation, anti-science or anti-government. In a study of Chesapeake Bay Fisheries, Paolisso (2007) also found that ‘watermen’ were not antiregulation but were against mechanisms depending on the scientific assessment of stocks, believing that this interfered in the relationship of providence between God, man and nature. Robin’s account supports the kinds of objections to the quota system that were at issue in the Newlyn court case: that quotas (in their current form) are difficult to apply in a mixed fishery; that quotas are not adapted to local contexts;
that stock levels on which quotas are set are measured according to the flawed system of measuring only landings (which are themselves influenced by the quotas);
and that one of the consequences of quotas is the production of waste i.e. discards (fish that must be thrown back into the sea dead). However what this account also does is to naturalise conditions that are actually the result of a way of life and a form of production developed within a particular socio-economic and historical context.
For example, it is apparent that fishing (in industrial forms at least) produces waste, even without the constraints of quotas – grading for higher value fish being a common practice (Alverson et al. 1994) and by Robin’s own admission, trawling (over the course of an average year) can result in catches of up to fifty nonmarketable species beyond the twenty to twenty-five marketable species, and presumably these non-marketable fish are discarded at sea. Robin is keen to negotiate a system of regulation that takes account of, and helps to solve, issues relating to by-catch and discards, but his account shifts the burden of responsibility onto the quota system (or the government) to adapt to what he portrays as natural conditions, rather than placing the responsibility on fish producers to modify their production strategies. And this issue of waste also highlights the fact that fish producers seem to make a distinction between waste of fish that has no or very low market value, and waste of fish that does have a potential profitable return. Once again, as in Jonathan’s narrative, this suggests, that fish producers see value in natural entities as arising only from the combined outcome of their endeavour and the market. As I described in Chapter Three, the Newlyn Fish Industry Forum officer Tony Williams painted the image of fishermen hauling in the catch and seeing only bank-notes where others would see fish. I think that fishermen’s perceptions of value and of nature are more complex and nuanced than that, but it is a provocative image which recalls the common conflict in environment debates between conservationists who attempt to argue for an idea of some intrinsic value to nature and producers who are concerned with sustaining nature as a resource.
The particular relationship that has evolved between fishing communities, markets, and environments and technologies (including high fuel dependence) does however pose several challenges for fishermen and places constraints on their production strategies. At the very least, this means that forms of fishing (like trawling) have become distinct ways of life, within the more general way of life of fishing, and entail many acquired skills, traditions and values that are often transmitted down through generations. The case of the father and son fishing enterprise that Mike and Paul operate on the Newlyn trawler Sapphire is sufficient to illustrate the issues for the purpose of this chapter.
‘We don’t need to tell lies. The bigger boats do’ I headed down to the harbour for a 9.30 appointment aboard the Sapphire. It was a bright, blue, breezy day but not one for fishing. The harbour was chock-a-block with boats. It had been a stormy night. It was still cold and fresh, and the weather forecast predicted worse to come. On board I learnt that Paul is the boat’s mechanic and one of three crewmembers with father Mike and deckhand Martin. Paul had been fishing since the late 1980s, and has crewed on the Sapphire ever since his father brought it from Holland in 1991. It is the oldest beamer in the harbour and probably only the second oldest trawler after the Stevenson’s wooden vessel, he told me. Nevertheless it has probably the best and most up to date electronic systems on board, including a 3D ground discriminator and an A.I.S system 60. Their fishing grounds normally begin about 40 to 50 miles south-south-west. Where they go from there, he couldn’t say; it varies. I asked him what factors might influence their movements from there.
(P): Quotas, tides, currents, what the other boats are catching. Also you have to consider your fuel expenses. It takes 1800 litres of fuel per your average trip of 6 to 7 days, about £10,000 average fuel costs per trip, plus an average of £3000 in expenses.
The combined pressures of quotas and high fuel prices mean that you have to always maximise your returns. It used to be that you could pretty much go anywhere you like, take risks, try out different spots. Now however you can’t take that risk of steaming somewhere new and not finding anything. When you find fish, you stick to that ground. The bigger boats are under even more pressure, because they have high expenses and the get the same quota. The CFPO do a pretty good job of dividing the quota equally.
(TM): How has the job changed during your time?
(P): You have to maximise everything you do. The social life has changed, in the 80s you would work 4-5 days and earn £1500 pounds. It was good money and you had the time to enjoy it. The pubs here in Newlyn used to be packed; now you can fire a gun in those pubs and not hit anybody. Some boats are landing up in Plymouth now but it’s not something we’ve been doing. We tend to try and target megrim and monk for which there are good quotas and there is not much of a market for those up in Plymouth. The quotas for sole and cod are tighter.
I then asked about the issue of fishermen catching over-quota fish and dumping them overboard.
(P): In a mixed fishery it’s not entirely avoidable. However throwing back is a practice I don’t agree with. We move areas to ensure we only fish up to our quota.
Discards pollute the sea with dead fish. Initially, there is an increase in fish in that area, where they are feeding on the dead fish. However over time, the dead fish suppress growth. So it’s a case of short-term gain and long-term loss. We witnessed the other day, a Dutchman or Scotchman, throwing back hundreds of tons of fish.
(TM): Have you had scientists on board at all?
(P): Yeah we’ve had some, but on the whole they are a waste of time (TM): Because of what they’re trying to do, or how they’re going about it?
(P): No what they’re trying to do is assess fish stocks, I respect that. It’s their methods I have a problem with. It’s no good surveying one or two vessels. You have to survey every vessel. Either that or they have to start taking a measure of discards.
A 3D ground discriminator generates information about the lay-out of the seabed and water depths and an A.I.S. System gives skippers information about the location of other vessels We went up to the wheel-house and Paul showed me a bewildering array of electronic equipment including several different screens. One of these screens showed a map of the surrounding area with the depths indicated by different colours – reds, oranges, greens and purples. This was the ground discriminator. Another screen showed a map of the waters around the Southwest and evidently a huge amount of information indicated by clusters of shapes and lines. The lines represent a record of the tow paths the vessel has made. Paul explained that they try not to tow up-hill as it uses more fuel (‘uphill’ meaning dragging the gear up a rising gradient on the sea-bed). He also explained that the map represents different fishing areas, which have different allocations of quota. Some trawlers, if they have caught their quota in one area, will steam to another area with a catch of fish so they can claim it under their quota allocation for that area [boats are satellite tracked by Defra 61]. Paul tells me that this practice is known as ‘taking the fish for a ride’. However, Paul assured me, their own operation was honest, explaining that, ‘We don’t need to tell lies. The bigger boats do need to tell lies’.
Paul illustrated to me how quotas as a constraint interacted with the more pressing concerns of fuel and market prices. Trawler operators, it seemed, rather than changing their predominant strategies were in fact digging in. The combined pressures of fuel and quotas meant, especially with the larger scale technologies (the bigger boats), meant that skippers – in Paul’s words – ‘need to tell lies’. In other words they are acting conservatively and not taking exploratory risks. Robin had already suggested that some trawler skippers habitually fished the same grounds and that this might become part of family fishing knowledge, tradition and access rights.
Under the pressure of fuel prices, trawler operators are now stopping as soon as they find shoals of fish and exploiting them to the maximum. If they reach their quota, rather than moving on to new areas, many (by Paul’s account) are merely passing through other areas afterwards so they can claim the additional fish was sourced in that area rather than risking the additional expenses of fuel and time in exploring for fish in those other areas. In terms of their own priorities and constraints these Quotas are allocated for different areas of the sea. These areas have been determined by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Defra satellite tracks all UK vessels over 10 metres so they can compare a vessel’s movements with their log-sheet declarations and also ensure vessels do not enter areas closed to fishing vessels.
trawlermen are acting efficiently and rationally, but they are not acting within the particular model of efficiency and rationality on which the quota system is based (the idea being that limits on fishing and the creation of property rights would lead to fishers either making changes to production that would sustain fish stocks over a longer period of time or be forced out leaving only more ‘efficient’ producers). The latter eventuality may well be occurring to some extent, but it does not allow for a hardcore of operators who are clinging to a way of life as best as they know how. On the other hand, my interview with Paul and Mike also showed that even within the constraints of the trawler system of fishing, there is the flexibility for different approaches. Their account of their own strategies challenges the notion that in trawling, dependence on conditions regarded as natural, which is incompatible with, say, targeting fish species to conform to regulations, is by far a foregone conclusion, and depends as much on learning processes such as inter-generational transmission as it does on either nature or technology.
‘They weren’t caught, they changed their ways’ From the perspective of an outsider to the fishing industry, as I have been throughout the course of my fieldwork, it was significant that I gradually learnt that fishermen do not have a one dimensional view of the sea which stops at the surface of the water, under which murky depths conceal their quarry that they can only hope to capture by some kind of mystical intuition or by sheer luck. In fact fishermen have a very rich and complex view of the underwater world through which they know and can visualise all kinds of creatures, their habits and the physical features of the underwater landscape. Trawlerman David Stevens described the trawling method he uses and the habitats they work in great detail and he disputed the common conception of trawling as being highly destructive of the sea bed and marine life such as coral. They especially target areas of soft sand and will alter their gear for areas of rocky ground but at all times try to have as little contact with the bottom as possible and avoid damage to the nets. The main causes of damage to the nets he said are man-made obstructions such as telephone cables and lost cargo containers, although sometimes damage is due to fishing in stony areas where glacial melt created river beds underneath what is now the English Channel. Reporting being able to see the traces of the glacial rivers through ‘biometrics’ and sonar readings, this fisherman provided yet another example of how technological aids to vision mediate knowledge – go-betweens of vernacular, tacit knowledge embedded in practice and more abstract modes of regulatory, cartographic and scientific systems (Marchand 2007).
Fishermen’s knowledges and perceptions of the oceans are determined by their economic strategies, their methods and technologies. It is also clear that the knowledge and perceptions they have, which are contingent on production, are elaborated into a wider moral and ecological view. Whilst fishermen may not always recognise the contingency and limits of their own views, this is also a concern that fishermen have about scientists. Robin, Jonathan and Paul all expressed a view that the scientists’ views of the oceans were limited by their methods, such as statistical analysis, and a broader distinction was made between the epistemologies generated through the different forms of work that fishing and science constitute (the former conceived as the practical, ‘on the job’ knowledge of the lay person working with nature and the latter conceived as the academic knowledge of the expert working from a desk or a laboratory). This perception was also very clear in my interview with Peter Pearman, a retired inshore fisherman who had an unusually rich knowledge of the underwater seascape as a result of his earlier experience as a diver.
Like Robin Turner, he particularly placed emphasis on the tendency of fishes to ‘change their ways’ or periodically move in and out of visibility and range. This was one of several reasons why he felt fishermen needed to be consulted and listened to.