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(TM): What’s been your experience in all this time of the government and their attitudes, policies and interventions?
(PP): Again we come back to this, I’m a fish scientist (whether I’ve just come out of university, or whether I’ve been one for thirty years), and I think, I don’t know, “look at the landings, [whistles] they’re going down, they’re going down, we better restrict this”. They haven’t gone to a fisherman and said, “Why are these landings dropping”, and he says, “Well we’re not fishing for them anymore because these ones are worth more money”... “We’re not fishing for them anymore because they haven’t come to us this year; you know there haven’t been any”. But nobody will listen.
From a fisherman’s point of view, I’m not going to fish for it, if nobody wants it. And if I’m fishing for them and the stocks go down to such a level, I can’t catch enough, I stop fishing for them and go and fish for them. That in fact rests this lot and this lot pick up again. I think the scientists have a place but they got to get the information from somewhere else, other than their statistics, and landings, 'cause landings don’t show you anything.
(TM): From what you’re saying, science and government haven’t actually had a big impact on what fishermen actually do. Fishermen will just continue to chase whatever’s profitable.
(PP): No, no. You fish for what comes to you. You fish for what’s in fashion.
Conclusions It is evident from considering fisher representations of their work and the way they perceive ecology and socio-economic influences such as quotas and markets, that there is a great degree of complexity at both the level of ecosystem and producer. One could say there is a kind of synergy between markets, the environment and inherited or life history based patterns. A greater degree of complexity needs to be allowed for in systems of fisheries management. Amongst Cornish fishers there seems to be a recognition that some form of regulation is necessary, but faced with uncertainty, disempowerment and demoralising, ineffective policies they may revert to the kind of laissez-faire, bio-economic theory predominant in the attitudes of nineteenth century scientists and lawmakers. It is clear that fishers are not the kind of wise ecological stewards that ecology-minded romantics critical of the state may envisage. However neither are they the one dimensional, rational, economic being that neoliberal models of resource economics may assume. Fisher’s ecological perceptions and conceptions of value derive from their often uncritical use of certain technologies that may be highly intensive and from their dependence on markets. However that reality only serves to strengthen the argument that fishing is driven by complex cultural influences. Undoubtedly there is a tendency amongst fishers to think only about fish in terms of their ability to provide food and livelihoods, a kind of physiocratic approach applied to the perceived wealth of the oceans. However this is an important and pragmatic approach in light of national and world food needs and the local circumstances of living in a region where communities depend on the sea for a living and where there are few other opportunities. Fishers cannot be depended on to provide all the answers to the problems of fisheries management and neither can scientists and policymakers.
The former (fishers) operate very much with the view that oceans are a source of danger as well as utility (and a realm that invokes wonder and respect), whilst the latter (scientists and policymakers) are commonly working within a modernist agenda and an illusion of omnipotent managerialism. The discourse of ‘sustainability’ continues to anthropomorphise the ocean environment as consistent with the perceived holism of the interests of fish, fish producers and consumers. This maybe rooted in the kind of farming metaphors and managed conception of nature that has predominated fisheries management for the last century.
In recent years marine ecologists and other scientists have increasingly voiced the idea of recovering former ‘pristine’ ecosystems informed by building datasets about the past e.g. (Pitcher 2001). One building block of such an approach is the concept of ‘ecosystem based fisheries management’ (EBFM) which has filtered down to become part of mainstream fisheries policy. This is progressive in some ways but also a manifestation of the notion that the oceans can be fully tamed and domesticated – a view that is not common amongst fishers. Alan Longhurst (2006), an oceanographer, has cautioned against the concept of sustainability that is part of the ‘EBFM mantra’. The EBFM philosophy informs contemporary fisheries management and its proscriptions including quota, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and integrated marine spatial planning. Critics such as Longhurst remain wary of the idea that simply reducing effort and placing total protection on large areas of target species range can revert ecosystems back to near pristine states. His case rests on
(I.) Common ‘reference to the 400 years of apparently sustainable cod and other fisheries in the NW Atlantic’ are incorrect and misrepresent history. Newly arrived European fishermen were astounded by the wealth of the resources and compared them to the residual resources of the European shelves. Over the next four hundred years they then decimated populations of large species of marine mammals as well as the halibut fishery and also had a heavy impact on the cod stocks. He argues that the entire history of fisheries has been one of depletion and moving on;
(II.) Any fishery will truncate the age-structure of the target stock. This has long been acknowledged by fisheries science and assumed that such modification increases density-dependent productivity. However scientists are becoming aware of other consequences of the truncation of the age-structure and a fishery may ‘impose new values for each life history parameter: longevity, age at maturity, fecundity etc’ (p.109) – in other words, rapid genetic changes with unpredictable consequences for the stock and the ecosystem;
(III.) Given such modifications, no level of stability can be assumed in the internal, between species-dynamics of the ecosystem, especially given the range of other variables.
We are like farmers Larkin points out, except that the marine ecosystem cannot be managed in the same way as a farmer manages his fields: we cannot select the species mix that grows there, and we cannot manage the rate and distribution of fertilizers, which in the sea depend on the oceanographic processors that force the highly variable production of plankton and benthos (p.2006).
We know also that climate change is affecting ocean systems and that species lower down on the food chain – feed fish like anchovies and sardines (which are being put under heavy pressure in order to produce protein-meal for aquaculture) – are particularly sensitive to changes in the environment. Whilst the idea of ‘turning back the clock’ through restoration ecology seems to smack of the kind of high modernist engineering Scott (1998) is critical of, ecosystem-minded regulatory mechanisms such as Marine Protected Areas may have greater appeal to fishers than crude numerical mechanisms such as quota. As Acheson and Wilson (1996) argue, the nature of oceans as chaotic, complex systems, as fishermen well know, calls for parametric systems of fisheries management (such as spatial measures) that can allow for such complexity and the unpredictability of multiple variables interacting in unknown ways. As with the Trevose Box example in South-West England, fishermen have in the past supported these kinds of measures.
An alternative management system that fully involves fishers, or some form of self-governance, may not only encourage responsibility amongst producers for longterm resource viability issues but also will be a source of more reliable knowledge about local conditions. Palsson has highlighted how skippers’ knowledge is the result of many ‘years of practical enskillment, the collective product of a community of practice’ (1996: 83). He also argues that skippers’ accounts of their productive strategies emphasize dynamism and holism, ‘allowing for flexibility in time and space’ (84). As Peter Pearman said to me, ‘There is this division between the fisherfolk and the ministry, or the scientists, and unless one or the other becomes one or the other, you’re never gonna get the answer’. Some development of fisheries-based ‘barefoot ecologists’ (Prince 2003) may well be the answer. Skippers’ knowledge may enable management systems to cope with ecosystem fluctuation, contingency and complexity. However I have also shown how fishers can be constrained by markets, reliance on certain forms of technology and inputs and inherited and/or habitual patterns. All these things can also be the source of innovative production strategies. It is not enough therefore only to understand the science better but also we need to understand fishermen’s specific social practices and tacit ideas and to recognise the ways these have emerged out of histories that are shared, and distinct, from those of fisheries science and management. Many fishermen are forward thinking, but if fisheries are to be viable and innovative, something of the fishing way of life must also be maintained. When fishermen evoke a bygone era of unfettered competition, it can to some extent at least be seen as an expression of the way current regulatory systems undermine the freedom they feel is required to participate constructively in their own futures.
7 FISHING LIVES AND LIVELIHOODS
The concept of ‘livelihood’ entails notions of ‘making a living’ as well as ‘a way of life’. In its common usage in development studies this encompasses the skills, tools, resources and capital employed by actors in the process of material production.
The term implies a perspective that goes beyond a more narrowly defined work situation typical of wage-labour, but extends to include aspects of home and other social life. This view is especially relevant to subsistence-orientated and ‘occupational community’ contexts – hunter-gatherers, peasants, farmers, miners, fishers, and crafts-people – and indeed to any situation where workers have a significant degree of autonomous control over the production process. However because livelihood is also about ‘a way of life’, and not only ‘making a living’, it also has symbolic aspects. Gudeman (1986) for example has described ‘models of livelihood’ as ‘cultural constructions’, involving ‘social metaphors’ and particular views on how human intentionality shapes material practices – and, I would add – environments.
In this chapter I explore in further depth the subject of fishing livelihoods and ties between knowledge/skills, place, personhood and economic organisation. In Chapter Four I highlighted some of the issues related to inequality and concentration in resources. In addition to these issues Keith Dickson, the Mission Superintendent, also has described to me a sense of rupture – boats unable to go to sea because of the price of fuel, or because they haven’t got the crew, or a combination of both. The underlying causes were not clear. Robin Turner, a Newlyn fish merchant, also pointed out that when fishing boat owners had not been able to employ locally they were employing Eastern European labour. Now that living standards were rising in Eastern Europe relative to the UK, he believed that many of these migrant fishermen were returning to their home countries and taking their skills with them. Both Keith and Robin highlighted a sense of rupture in the local transmission of skills. Keith acknowledged that the popularity of TV shows like Deadliest Catch and Trawlermen do bring in some young men who get a certain impression and want to try their hand at it, but they’re joining it as a ‘job’ rather than a ‘career’: ‘You know, a career is long-term; a job is something you just do to get the money at the time’ Keith stated.
These new recruits don’t tend to last in the job very long, in his experience, and this is partly because the money is no longer there, which is also affecting the retention of experienced fishermen.
KD: Over the last seven to eight years, we’ve lost those who are less competent, less capable. But with the real downturn in the last eight months, particularly, caused by the rising cost of diesel, what you’re losing now are not your bottom 5%; you’re losing your top 5%’... We’re losing a lot of very good guys. A lot of guys I’ve really gotten to know well were skippers and suchlike who are really competent, very, very, good guys, and they’ve gone to take on other jobs.
In the face of low and unpredictable incomes, he reported, fishermen are leaving the industry to work in the North Sea energy industry for a decent regular wage and the more predictable rhythm of 'one month ‘on’, one month ‘off’. They tend to work on the standby vessels that provide North Sea operations with supplies, transport, medical and rescue aid etc.
KD: We’ve been losing that kind of skill base. And it’s a skill base that’s very difficult to get back if it’s all gone, because….fishing is as much an art as it is a science. A lot of people, they learn…they fish by the use of GPS, the sat-nav, and all this, to find fish. But there’s a few people here that know how to find fish…and that’s learned through, because generally, they’ve been here for generations. You know, you grew up with a father, and they learned the art of fishing rather than the science of fishing. And they’re the good fishermen. And once you lose that kind of…they are getting closer to retirement, you know, all those guys. But [new recruits] they’re joining it as a science, you know, they’re going to this college and it’s quite basic at Southport. And they’re being taught how to fish; they’re being taught fire fighting, sea survival, navigation…which are great things. And they’re good skills, but the art of being a fisherman, what it is to be a fisherman, to go to sea; they’re not getting the experience.