Although I could easily fill a few pages with anecdotes and philosophical musings about cod fisheries, for a more honest report I have to begin by admitting that I have spent much of the past few months frustrated with myself and how little progress I have felt I have been making on my project. I spent most of my time in Denmark in Hirtshals helping social science researchers at IFM (Innovative Fisheries Management) with a project comparing implementation of total allowable quota management systems in the Faeroe Islands, Norway, Denmark and the overall European Union. Although I had hoped that working on a longer-term project with IFM would help me get “inside” the fishery by making contacts within the fishing community and the fisheries research community based at the North Sea Center in Hirtshals, I had a difficult time actually getting to talk with people in the fishing community and felt more inside social science than inside the fishery itself. The contact with experts on fisheries policy provided necessary background on the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy, which is far too complicated to just pick up as I go along, and an introduction to how EU research and funding is conducted from people who are at the top of the field in fisheries social science. I gained a lot of respect for importance of economic analyses, social impact assessments and social scientific input in addition to scientific assessments in making policy decisions, but I was frustrated that the research I was helping with felt more like academia than seeing the fishery for myself and that I made slow headway in making contacts within the community and the local fishery.
One of my major obstacles thus far is that even when I do get the chance to get “inside” the fishery by going out on boats or to workshops or meetings, I remain very much an outsider. In some settings, such as the ICES annual science conference in Helsinki, I could blend in with young PhD students and my undergraduate science degree and future scientific aspirations gave me an air of credibility as someone who belonged in this context. In most other settings, though, it is not only my complete lack of expertise but even my inherent identity that sets me off as an outsider, recently demonstrated when I went to a seminar for fifty or so fishing skippers and netmakers where the speaker began by addressing “lady and gentlemen.” In a room full of middle-aged men who have been fishing longer than I have been alive, I am spotted as an outsider even before I open my mouth. Which, once I do, demonstrates my position as an outsider even more palpably due to my inability to effectively communicate in any language besides English (and though I am now moving on to English-speaking countries, I expect my American accent will continue to elicit questions in the UK and in Newfoundland).
Fishing has also become so politically and publicly contentious that the frequent confusion I have encountered in trying to explain what I am doing this year has occasionally led to suspicion, since most fishermen assume I am either a biologist or a “green.” Though many fishermen have cooperated closely with both fisheries scientists and environmental organizations, there is still considerable distrust, and I have found myself having to promise the people I talk with that no, I do not work for Greenpeace (practically a dirty word in the fishing industry due to such tactics as protesting fishing by jumping in the water in front of vessels fishing in the North Sea, written up in International Fishing News with the headline “Nutters!” and sinking inactive whaling ships in the Reykjavik harbor – actually done by Sea Shepard, a more radical offshoot of Greenpeace, but attributed to Greenpeace by the sailor who told me about it, a deckhand for Iceland’s Marine Research Institute who used to work processing whale catches at the on-shore whaling station).
There is also a lot of frustration among fishermen that there is much talk about giving them a say in designing fisheries policy, but they have seen few results that prove they are being heard. Some fishermen are then glad to talk to someone new who seems open to their ideas and ready to listen, but others see me as yet another in a long string of people who listen to what they have to say without them ever seeing any beneficial changes as a result of their cooperation and ideas. This general frustration was most pointedly illustrated for me by an Australian former skipper I met in Hirtshals who assumed I held some sort of important position in fisheries management and told me he knew how to fix the problems in fisheries but insisted that he wouldn’t tell me anything unless I could actually do something about it.
Through – and partially even due to – all of this, though, I have begun to get a sense of the major issues facing cod fisheries management in Europe, which are both similar to and much more complicated than the issues I found in Iceland. As in Iceland, the fishing industry in Europe has little faith in scientific assessments of the fish stocks used to set fishing quotas. Cod quotas in the North Sea have been drastically cut as the result of small year-classes of young fish found in the surveys over the past few years, and the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES), the scientific body that provides the EU with official advice on fisheries management, has continued to recommend low cod quotas to allow these young fish to mature and rebuild the spawning stock. What fishermen have seen, however, is that they are catching much more cod than they have ever seen before in their lives – likely a result both of the cod’s recovery and of reductions in the number of vessels fishing. Thus the reduction of quota in the face of rising fish stocks seems, as a Danish fisherman put it at the North Sea Regional Advisory Council Meeting (NSRAC – a representative body for stakeholders in the fisheries to present their advice to the EU fisheries managers) in October, it’s “ridiculous” and “really frustrating to have an advice that says, yes fishermen you’re right there’s cod everywhere but don’t fish it…. How do ICES expect the fishing industry to take it seriously?”
Even as scientists respond to critiques and begin additional research and take fishermen’s ideas seriously, there remains and incredible amount of distrust. The president of a large fishing technology company told me that scientists aren’t interested in fixing problems with their methods because all they care about is earning enough to pay their salaries and don’t want to have to deal with politicians. I met a fisherman in Bornholm who was quite interested in cooperation with scientists; he had just picked up a voluntary logbook where he will record detailed information about his fishing locations and catches for researchers. Even he, however, seemed dubious that the scientist chosen to oversee Baltic fisheries was a young woman who had only been working in the Baltic for a year. He also insisted that the scientists’ math must be wrong to have produced what he sees as wrong estimates of the fish stocks. Even scientists who have done cooperative research with fishermen on new gear technology and measuring fish populations in areas not normally surveyed say that it is difficult to convince fishermen to trust their judgment and follow scientific methods in the research.
Though much of this seems the result of poor communication between people from very different worlds, scientists also seem to pick up much of the blame for management systems with problems that run much deeper than a reliance on imperfect scientific advice. At the NSRAC meeting, much of the outrage at the low quota recommended for the cod fishery was over the ramifications of a low quota under the EU’s fisheries policy, saying “your recommendations won’t solve a single solitary thing,” and “I understand the rationale, but it doesn’t work in the real world. All you will do is increase discards!” Since fishing regulations in the EU only concern the fish brought back to port, they essentially require fishermen to throw back (dead) fish they catch but have little quota to land compared to the amount they are catching even as bycatch while targeting other species – and thus even if the scientific assessment is correct, a low quota will not have the effect of protecting fish but instead of “slaughtering fish” if the fishermen are to be allowed to catch anything at all. At the end of the discussion of ICES advice at the NSRAC meeting, one of the most vocally upset fishermen noted that “we all vented our spleen at the science, but the Commission [of the European Communities – the major bureaucratic institution in charge of changes to the Common Fisheries Policy] should have been here to listen” because the anger expressed should not have been directed at the science.
It is this ongoing debate about not just how many fish are in the sea but how to manage them that I find the most important difference between European and Icelandic fisheries discourse. Though many Danish fishermen share the tendency of the Icelanders to complain that fisheries biologists don’t know anything about fish and are out of touch with the “real world,” they are equally likely to blame their problems on someone sitting in an office in Brussels, a politician who they derisively joke has never seen a fish except on a plate or in a supermarket. Here, people are still questioning not just how many fish should be caught but who should be given the right to catch those fish and who gets to make that decision.
This past year has been a time of change in Danish fisheries, as the fishing industry is still adjusting to a new transferable quota system (called the FKA system - ’FKA’ refers to “fartøjs kvote andele,” which means vessel quota shares) decided upon in the fall of 2005 and first put in place for 2007. Although the system technically does not allow direct purchase of catch quota shares as in Iceland, instead requiring that a fisherman purchase an extra fishing vessel and then inherit that vessel’s quota allocation, it is universally understood that what is being bought and sold is the right to catch fish. As in Iceland in the 1980s and in Norway in the 1990s, Denmark has become part of the trend of managing its fisheries commons through privatization. From a strictly economic viewpoint, this sort of privatization of common resources is highly successful, allowing the market to maximize efficiency and gain the most profit from available fish stock by eliminating the least effective fishing vessels and fishermen – a major goal of most European fisheries policy today, since post-World War II subsidies for new vessels with increasingly effective fishing technology that continued through the 1980s have created a fishing capacity that far outstrips that actual amount of fish available to be caught. The major problem with market-based resource allocation, however, is that it only values fisheries based on economic efficiency rather than less tangible assets such as maintenance of traditional settlement patterns, maintenance of social structures and employment opportunities in coastal communities.
Although the changes have come slowly over the past decades as regulations have become increasingly strict, it seems that the FKA system in Denmark has drastically accelerated the trend towards fewer fishing communities with fewer fishermen. Visiting the island of Bornholm, traditionally highly dependent on the Baltic cod and herring fisheries (although high levels of dioxin have made it illegal for Danish fishermen to catch herring, increasing the industry’s dependence on cod), the only sign that the fishing harbors had ever been full of boats were the pictures from the 1980s in a fishermen’s club in the island’s main fishing town and the stories of locals who could describe how a small harbor now with a single fishing boat in port had been full fifteen years ago.
In Hirtshals, one of the major North Sea harbors in Denmark, many of the boats in the harbor are simply sitting idle and unmaintained, having been sold for a quota now being fished on another vessel. The two small-boat cod fishermen I got to know in Hirtshals seem representative of the trend: one had recently sold his boat and quota and taken a job dredging gravel off the coast of Spain that comes with more predictable work hours and wages; the other says he has only resisted the frequent offers from other fishermen to buy out his quota because he enjoys fishing and isn’t quite ready to retire, but if he had a young family or mortgages to pay he wouldn’t be able to make a living from fishing anymore.
This decrease in the number of fishermen is not just a problem of nostalgia: fishermen depend on discussing the weather and the fishing grounds with each other, sharing information that increases the overall fleet’s knowledge and efficiency, in addition to shore-based infrastructures such as fish processing plants and auctions that help to keep jobs in the local community and help fishermen gain the best prices for their catches. In Hirtshals, where the daily auction is the main tool that allows small fishermen to reliably sell their catches at good prices, the chairman of the local fisheries association worries that if too many boats are sold and fishermen take more reliable jobs in other industries, the auction will not be able to remain in the town. In Bornholm, the many former fish processing plants along the harbors are now empty and most local fishermen now land their catches abroad. Each of the local fisheries association chairmen I talked with see their most important priority as keeping as much quota as possible in their town, because they know that otherwise they will be in danger of losing the critical mass of fishermen necessary to maintain the local fishing industry.
Many of the successful fishing towns in Denmark have used the switch to the FKA system as an opportunity to strengthen their fishing industry. Most fishermen recognize that something needed to happen to reduce the number of fishermen and fishing boats to fit the amount of fish available, and those who have stayed in fishing seem cautiously optimistic that it will be more profitable under the new system. Pretty much every local fisheries association in Denmark has developed a quota pool where fishermen can rent their quotas easily between members of the community – the fisheries chairman in Hirtshals showed me their online trading system, which he says makes it so quick and easy that if you’re out fishing and pull up a net full of haddock you don’t have enough quota for (which, according to EU regulations, you have to throw back even though it’s already dead), you can get out the laptop and pay for the necessary quota while the fish is still in the net. These community pools also help keep quota in the area, since all members of the pool have to see whether anyone in the community is willing to buy their quota and keep it in the pool before they are allowed to sell it to someone in another part of the country.
In other towns, however, the amount of fishing has dropped drastically and the towns have been forced to change rapidly to maintain their own existence. With fewer fishing and fish processing jobs to keep people in small fishing towns, the local communities have had to find other sources of employment, largely in growing tourist industries, to stem the tide of people moving to the cities from rural coastal areas. I had already seen this in Iceland, where on the island of Vestmannaeyjar, the number of cruise ships that had come to the island over the season and the town’s advertising efforts in the rest of the country was an important topic of discussion among local women, many of whom worked in local hotels or sold souvenirs for tourists as an important supplement to their families’ incomes, and the cut in this year’s cod quota had increased the town’s resolve to apply for funding to build a new research center on the island, which would provide jobs for people who could no longer find jobs fishing. In Bornholm, I was told that the now-empty fishing harbors fill up in the summer when recreational boats bring tourists for a short, intense season that provides the majority of the year’s income for many families and leaves many of the towns nearly deserted in winter. In these places, fishing has at least remained a major part of the islands’ identities even as it becomes a less central part of the economy, but other fishing towns have not fared so well: a former fisherman from Hals, a town on the Limfjord in Jutland that has largely changed from a fishing town to a gentrified suburb for commuters working in the city of Aalborg, tells me that in the 1970s, anyone in town could tell you who were the top fishermen in town based on their recent catches, but today many would be hard-pressed to name a fisherman at all.
With such a difficult situation in many fishing communities, understanding what people within these communities see as most important to protect the fishery along with the fish seems increasingly central to my project, and so I am going to begin my time in the UK by traveling in small coastal communities in Scotland. I know that by traveling as a definite outsider and only being able to spend a relatively short time in each place, I may only have short windows into the fishery, but I can at least appreciate the knowledge of those truly inside the fishery and just how much I don’t know – a lesson in humility and perspective that extends far beyond fisheries.
Over the past few months, loss of confidence in myself and my project as a result both of my difficulties in meeting my expectations of finding my way inside the fishery and of the difficulties of being far away from any community where I have a place inside became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since bouts of anxiety and dissatisfaction with myself are not conducive to success in seeking out new opportunities. Changing this has been slow, but the process of reevaluating how to change my approach and expectations so that I can make more of the connections I seek in my project and maintain my self-confidence even when I am alone and feel intractably stuck has been a valuable, if difficult, experience. Although I have still been learning about cod and fisheries, the most important lessons have been about how much I don’t know, not just about cod but about myself.