Friday, February 29, 2008
For me, these are the most telling pieces of the article:
The committee believes that Icelandic authorities violated the 26th article of the UN treaty in this case, which states that discrimination of all kind is prohibited similarly to the 65th article of the Icelandic constitution.
The committee stated that protecting fish species with a quota system is a lawful goal but the Icelandic quota system also favors those who were allocated permanent quota originally and is not based on justice.
I have no way of telling based on this how seriously the UN looked at the setup of the Icelandic quota system or what specifically about it they consider not to be discriminatory or "based on justice," but if they see allocating quota to certain individuals as inherently unjust, then it has essentially ruled against not just the Icelandic system but also every fisheries management system that requires individuals to own or rent quota in order to fish - this includes every country I have been to so far this year (less straightforward than in Iceland, but the essential reality is that to fish in Denmark, Norway or Britain you need to own or rent quota), and many others including New Zealand (often held up as one of the best-managed fisheries in the world, though I know relatively little about it) and parts of the United States.
I have certainly seen for myself that allocating quota rights to private individuals - in most cases based on and individual's fishing records during a fixed reference period - has hurt small communities and small-scale fishermen who cannot afford the costs of bringing more quota into their community or even at times of holding onto the quota they have. In many places, once quota is sold away to a larger company or town, there is little else to do (particularly in remote islands in northern Norway or isolated towns on the Icelandic coastline) and people have no choice but to leave their homes in order to find work. High prices of quota also essentially bar entry into fishing for young people whose families do not already own a quota share, since the price of purchasing a quota (which the previous generation was provided for free) is a prohibitive start-up cost, whereas before quotas were in place it was feasible to earn enough crewing someone else's boat to eventually be able to build your own boat and fish for yourself.
Today I went into a primary school in northeast Scotland, near Peterhead, to see a former fisherman talk with the students about how the fishing works and give them some first-hand experience - putting on oilskins, seeing how to splice ropes and mend nets, watching actual footage of fishing in the North Sea. As part of the activity, each kids got a fishing "job" as a trainee deckhand, engineer, or cook, and they seemed to have a pretty good time with it...but as kids who live inland, none coming directly from fishing families, they would have a hard time working their way past crew positions if they decided to make their living from fishing.
All that said, though, I'm not sure how I feel about the UN ruling against the concept of a quota-based system. On the one hand, I agree that it is unfair to allocate quotas in a way that essentially gives away private rights to a public resource. (Sure, in Iceland they make a point of saying that the fish still belong to the people and that the quotas could be taken back by the government, and nobody technically "owns" their quota share with the same permanency as regular property rights, quotas are traded and rented for hard money just like any other property.) To me, the issue is not so much that the distribution is inequitable but that the distribution itself has denied public access to natural resources. In Norway, I talked with a lawyer who wanted to challenge the Norwegian management system based on a document from the 1100s where local fishing access was given as a gift to the people of northern Norway by the king, a gift to the entire public that this lawyer says has been illegally taken away by allowing some citizens the right to fish (and particularly allowing them to then trade this right to people not from the area) while denying access to others.
But it is a dangerous line of reasoning to say that it is unjust to limit the public's access to natural resources - without some kind of limitation, there is no way to prevent individuals from taking more than their share. And particularly in a case like fisheries, nobody could make a living from fishing without being able to accumulate more fish than the average citizen. Certainly there are ways to distribute limited access to fish other than allocating permanent quotas that might well be more fair in the long-run, but undermining the current quota systems by trying to find a new way to allocate fishing rights risks not only significant economic harm (particularly in a fisheries-dependent economy like Iceland's) since many individuals, companies, and even banks "own" quota and depend on it as a reliable asset, but also environmental harm by destabilizing management systems that have begun to make progress in maintaining sustainable fish stocks.
For better or for worse, UN rulings have little actual effect on national policies (as the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries made sure to point out, it is "not binding"). But perhaps this will help push world opinion towards considering not just how to conserve fish stocks while maximizing the economic value of the "sustainable yield" but also how to make fisheries policies that are fair to those within the fishing industry and take into account the interests of fishing families and communities both of today and of the future.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
My trip to sea last week gave me a chance to see the methods used for the International Bottom Trawl Survey, a huge effort by all the countries that fish the North Sea to collect data about the fish populations that plays a significant part in ICES stock assessments and the resulting scientific recommendations about yearly quota allocations. Although a large amount of information about fish stocks also comes from sampling of commercial fish landings and the data reported by the fishing industry, this had generally been considered insufficient to assess the state of the fish population – first because scientists are also interested in the young fish that are not yet large enough to have become part of the commercial stock, and second because landings information provided by the fishing industry doesn’t always reflect the amount of fish actually taken out of the ocean, either because fish are caught but then discarded at sea (a legal practice in the EU) or are landed illegally. As a way of supplementing the data collected from the fish landed by the commercial fishing industry, most nations have developed fishery-independent surveys to monitor their fish stocks. Unlike in a country like Iceland (where I saw my first bottom trawl survey this summer) that independently controls its own fish stocks, in the North Sea, fish stocks are shared by a large number of countries and thus the responsibility for monitoring the fish stocks is also shared by a large number of countries.
There is a relatively long history of international cooperation to conduct surveys monitoring North Sea fish stocks, stretching back to 1967, when Scotland, England, Germany and the Netherlands began a joint spring survey of the population of juvenile herring to help predict future recruitment to the commercial herring fishery. They soon realized that they were collecting information on a number of other important species in addition to herring, including both cod and haddock, and by 1976 the survey was officially broadened from “The International Young Herring Surveys” to “The International Young Fish Surveys.” As the surveys gained prominence in official stock assessments and quota-based management, more nations began to participate in the surveys and also to develop their own national surveys generally conducted in the late summer or early fall to fill in the gap in annual data left by the international young fish survey. In 1990, ICES (the coordinating scientific body that helps integrate fisheries science throughout the North Atlantic, and in Europe in particular) combined these surveys into the North Sea International Bottom Trawl Survey (IBTS) conducted in February and August. Scotland participates in the North Sea IBTS, and in a similarly-coordinated bottom trawl survey on the west coast of Scotland in March and November, all conducted from the main Scottish research vessel, the FRV Scotia.
Although standardization of trawling gear and methods was phased on only gradually beginning in 1977, today all of the nations participating in the IBTS use the same net and fishing methods, ideally producing standardized results. The North Sea is divided into “ICES Statistical Rectangles” 30 nautical miles on a side,* each of which is sampled twice by vessels from different countries, which is meant to eliminate the statistical effects of differences between the fishing power of different countries’ research vessels. Since the results of the survey play such a significant role in ICES’s assessment of the fish stocks and subsequent recommendations to the European Commission, the methods used in the survey have been heavily debated and often criticized. The standard IBTS method is to trawl for 30 minutes at 4 knots using a net called the GOV (Grande Overture Vertical) trawl designed by the Institut des Peches Maritimes and selected by ICES as the standard net for bottom trawl surveys in 1977. The net uses 120 millimeter meshes at the opening of the net but has very small (20 millimeter) meshes in the cod end where the catch collects so as to catch juvenile fish that have not yet entered the commercially-targeted fish stock.
To account for differences in the exact size of the net’s opening and thus the volume swept in each haul, acoustic sensors are attached to the net providing real-time data on the opening of the trawl doors and wings throughout the survey in addition to accurately recording the trawl speed and the exact time during which the net is actively trawling on the seabed. The crew and scientists on deck attach the bright orange Scanmar acoustic units just before setting the net at the beginning of each trawl and remove them at the end of the trawl as the net is hauled back in.
The catch from each haul is then emptied into a laboratory known as the “fish house” where the scientific crew sorts and measures the catch. Everything from the fish to the hermit crabs to the squid are sorted by species and counted and measured and the commercially important fish species – sprat, herring, mackerel, cod, haddock, whiting, Norway pout and saithe – are further sampled to determine weight, sexual maturity, and age, determined by removing an ear bone called the otolith which forms annual rings and can be read to determine age. It’s an incredible amount of data to collect, and all onto a series of multicolored forms (a yellow version for haddock and whiting, an orange one for cod, etc. allowing you to quickly find the one you’re looking for without rummaging through the stack) filled in for each trawl.
Scientists stand on each side of each of the fish bins fed by the conveyor belt, first sorting the fish by species into the orange baskets on the floor and for less numerous species into the smaller bins stacked at the end of the table. As each crew finishes sorting their portion of the catch, the single-species baskets are then combined, weighed (information for a master white sheet), and given to smaller teams to count and sample further (filling in the multicolored sheets) in what was described to me as an organized chaos. It seemed particularly chaotic while I was there since I was the third visitor in the fish house in addition to the usual six scientific staff, once I got a sense of what was going on I could see that everyone had a sense of what needed to be done and took on whatever task was needed to keep the system going smoothly.
Although there were already plenty of hands working in the fish house and I was by far the least knowledgeable or experienced in fisheries biology, I was able to help sort the fish by species and got to know a few new species I hadn’t seen before including mackerel (which I hadn’t actually seen up close before but are a really gorgeous blue with black stripes), Norway pout (tricky to tell from a similar species called poor cod), a number of flatfishes including saithe (easy to tell from the other flatfishes by its bright orange spots, which I am embarrassed to admit I had thought were artificial when I first saw them in an aquarium), and my first live monkfish. There were also lots and lots of haddock and whiting, which I hadn’t seen much of during the shrimp survey in Iceland, and relatively few cod – though the cod we did catch were often very big, one nearly a meter long and over nine kilos.
When I wasn’t sorting fish, I mostly helped by recording data for the measurements of the demersal species – cod, haddock and whiting. In addition to measuring all the fish, one fish from each length (by centimeter) from each trawl was further sampled by weighing the fish, opening its belly to determine sexual maturity, and removing the otolith, providing the information to assess the age distribution and contributions to the spawning stock within the overall fish stock.
In some ways the process of writing everything on paper forms before entering it into the official database seemed old-fashioned, particularly after having seen the process in Iceland, where everything is entered directly into an electronic database in the scales that is then uploaded to their database. But the IBTS process is much more people-intensive (with six or more people working at once rather than three) and even more of the analysis is conducted aboard the ship, since one of the scientists also read the ages of all the demersal fish species during the trip, so it might be too complicated to put it all in one centralized database from the start rather than having a paper backup. Plus, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and this system seems to work pretty well. Any sampling process that gathers so much data in such a short time is liable to have some gaps, and I did hear from one of the other visitors on the ship who works with IBTS data to model haddock populations that she has indeed come across some inexplicable problems with the data either from information that was improperly entered in the system or recorded inaccurately, but it seems that it works as well as I imagine anything could in this type of high-intensity sampling environment.
At the end of the survey, the data from all of the ships collecting data for the IBTS is worked up and the results are compiled at an ICES working group meeting to produce a picture of fish distributions in the North Sea, something like this one for cod.
The difficulty, of course, is in figuring out what exactly a figure like this means about the actual fish in the sea - translating the statistics generated from the IBTS into an actual understanding of fish populations. This is a tricky process that requires making assumptions not only about the data generated by the IBTS but also about commercial fish catches and natural mortality of fish in the environment. Although a lot of criticisms are leveled at the science, including one accusation from a fisherman I met in Denmark who was convinced that the scientists at ICES were in collusion to only produce results that said what the politicians in Brussels want them to say, I think the real issue lies in the assumption of what can be concluded from the data, the other assumptions that scientists have to make even without accurate data, and how the scientific assessments are then used to make fisheries management policies.
One of the major criticisms leveled at bottom trawl surveys, both the surveys done in Iceland and the IBTS survey, is that the gear used is out of date and very different from the gear used by commercial fishermen. This is, of course, entirely true – no fisherman could stay competitive using the same net design for thirty years. This means that what the IBTS finds is often very different from what the fishermen are seeing in their own catches, and not just because the IBTS uses smaller meshes but also because of the design of the GOV trawl. Studies of the fish escaping from the GOV trawl indicate that up to 75% of the cod swept by the net escape through the ground gear. At a first glance, this seems an obvious problem – the scientific survey is not measuring everything that is actually out there to be caught. However, this does not necessarily lead to flawed results, because the IBTS does not claim to accurately measure everything in the ocean, but rather to assess trends over time in the fluctuations of fish stocks. So, if the IBTS finds more fish this year than last year, they can conclude that the fish stocks are improving – an assessment that requires a time series using the same methods over a large time span to allow for accurate comparisons between past and present fish stocks.
It is possible, however, (albeit with considerable expense) to trial a new trawl net along with the old GOV trawl to determine how two sets of methods fit together and allow a continuation of the time series even with an update in the methods. This has been considered as a possibility within the scientific community partly as a way of more closely aligning the IBTS methods with current commercial fishing methods but also, more importantly, because the GOV net is not easy to work with because it has a tendency to tear very easily. Our first day out of Lerwick, we went to a particularly rough ground where the lead scientist says the trawl had torn nearly every year and had to be particularly careful to avoid a tear in the net – both getting advice from skippers in Lerwick and running an acoustic scan over the ground before actually trawling. A few days after successfully avoiding the expected tear, though, the net tore on the second trawl of the morning right as the net was shot, meaning that we couldn’t use that haul and then it took a few hours for the crew to repair the tear, all the way from the wing to the cod end.
In addition to the inconvenience of having to spend a few hours repairing the net rather than working, the scientist overseeing all the operations on deck also pointed out that this increases the variability between different countries performing the survey because the repaired net will never be exactly to specifications. And since the GOV tears so frequently, it means most of the IBTS is conducted by trawls not quite to official standards.
Even more important than a net not being quite to specifications, I think an even more important question is whether it is actually valid to assume that trawling the same area each year with the same gear will catch the same proportion of the total fish population in the area. A number of fishermen have observed that the fish’s behavior has changed over time, probably the result of both environmental changes (especially changes in ocean temperature) and changes in behavior as the overall fish population fluctuates and thus the density of fish in the area changes. A cooperative study between the Danish fisheries research institute in Hirtshals and local fishermen looked at the populations of cod on rocky ground where the IBTS can’t survey and found much higher fish populations than on the smoother ground where trawling is possible, indicating that a trawl survey is inherently biased by the type of area it is able to include in the survey. If, as fishermen have observed and this study’s preliminary results suggest, cod prefer the rocky ground, a decrease in population might seem much more drastic in the survey results because the largest signs of a decline in population would probably be found on the least favorable grounds – the ones surveyed – even if the population is maintained on the rougher ground.
Of course, there isn’t enough data available to tell whether this is truly a problem or not, but it does indicate what I see as a larger issue with any attempts to determine fish populations: we just don’t know enough to say for sure what’s actually going on in the sea. And it’s not that scientists don’t realize this is an issue – most fisheries scientists I’ve met have openly told me that what they do is like taking a “stab in the dark,” because no matter how much information you collect and how precise your methods, it is impossible to completely describe a complex ecological system. From seeing the IBTS for myself, I am certainly impressed by the amount of data collected and the amount of work by nations all around the North Sea that goes into conducting the survey – and that just one piece of the scientific data that goes into stock estimates along with samplings of commercial landings, observer programs aboard commercial fishing vessels, and a slew of other studies designed to better confine the assumptions that go into making the final stock estimates. No matter how good the science, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the limitations of predictive scientific models and thus the limitations of a management system relying on predictive scientific stock assessments. It’s too big an issue for me to tackle right now, but my thoughts coming out of spending a week observing the IBTS are both that there is an immense amount of data being collected on the North Sea fish stocks – it is likely the best-studied piece of ocean anywhere in the world – but I still don’t think it’s enough to tell us what exactly is going on for the fish in the North Sea.
*For those of you confused as to why these are rectangles rather than squares, I am assuming that this is taking into account the fact that a nautical mile is not a fixed length but changes at different latitudes.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
The survey I'm going out on is part of the IBTS (international bottom trawl survey) of the North Sea, a cooperative venture between most of the countries who fish the area to conduct a standardized survey of the fish populations as one of the main ways of collecting data about the state of the fish stocks. This is then used by ICES to assess how the stocks are doing and provide scientific advice which is used by the EU to set annual quotas. So because there are fairly significant implications of this survey, I've heard a lot about it (both critiques and explanations of the methods in response to the critiques) and am looking forward to seeing for myself how it really works. Hopefully when I come back I'll have lots more to say about it.
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Even though this is ostensibly a celebration of the Viking era, the festival itself is a relatively recent development. The official Up Helly A’ program suggests that the tradition can be traced at earliest back to period following the Napoleonic wars, “when soldiers and sailors came home with rowdy habits and a taste for firearms” which they made use of in initiating festivities in town during the darkest days of the year around Christmas and New Year’s. These festivities seem to have gradually developed from a general raucous mayhem – “blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting” on Christmas eve in 1824 – to include the more elaborate and dangerous custom of setting fire to tar barrels and conveying them through the streets by a “motley mob, wearing masks for the most part.” As the town became more crowded and the fiery Yuletide festivities more dangerous, citizens not actively participating in the festivities began to complain, and the town eventually banned tar barreling in the early 1870s.
The town was not about to do away with its revelry, however, and so around 1870 a group of young men began to shape the proceedings into a more structured festival, including coining the term Up Helly A’, introducing more elaborate costumes (disguises – which make those who dress up “guizers”), and establishing the torchlight procession. The Viking themes entered the festival gradually, with the first Viking longship introduced in the 1880s, the first chief guizer or “Guizer Jarl” in 1906, and his accompanying squad of Vikings – the “Guizer Jarl’s Squad” becoming a regular feature after World War I.
There are many similar fire festivals throughout the Shetlands, but none so large or so formal as the Up-Helly-A’ celebration that has become one of the central moments of the year in Lerwick. Today the traditions are well-established and involve an intense schedule of events throughout the day in which nearly everyone in town participates. On the morning of the last Tuesday in January, the Guizer Jarl’s Squad rises early and marches through the town with their galley, stopping at the Market Cross in the center of town to put up the Bill, a decorated, ten-foot high proclamation with local humor and gossip.
This year’s proclamation. Some of the references I could pick up – the red lettering at the beginning refers to this year’s Guizer Jarl, Roy Leask, who runs a construction company called DITT; and there has been local controversy over a new organic cod farm in the Shetlands called “No Catch” which advertises its product as superior to wild-caught cod but has had some recent financial difficulties, hence “No money, no fish, no future – No Catch?” But, as I had been told by most of the locals, most of the content is completely incomprehensible unless you know the local gossip.
The Guizer Jarl’s squad then continues on to the harbor, where the galley – which had been kept completely secret while being built and has not been seen before by any of the public not involved in the Jarl Squad or the process of building the ship – is placed on display throughout the day. This year’s galley was very attractive, I thought – too bad it only gets one day of glory before being set on fire.
The squad is then whisked off to make the “rounds,” appearing at local hospitals and schools and generally being the center of attention throughout the town. I caught up with them at Lerwick’s new museum, where they mingled with the crowd (one guizer even let me try on his helmet), posed for photographs, and sang the traditional Up Helly A’ song.
If you want to sing along, here are the lyrics to the chorus:
Grand old Vikings ruled upon the ocean vast,
Their brave battle-songs still thunder on the blast;
Their wild war-cry comes a-ringing from the past;
We answer it “A-oi”!
Roll their glory down the ages,
Sons of warriors and sages,
When the fight for Freedom rages,
Be bold and strong as they!
I wasn’t sure exactly where the idea to sing this next song came from, but it was certainly a wonderful day – great weather, and as I heard the Guizer Jarl telling a reporter, it was the best day of his life. Make sure you listen to this one, and then just take a minute to think about the ridiculousness of a bunch of men singing this while dressed in chain mail and helmets and carrying battle axes.
I missed the initial procession of the Jarl Squad in the morning, but a few hours later got to see a sort-of repeat performance: the procession of the Junior Jarl Squad. Since the 1950s, there has been a parallel version of Up Helly A’ for young school-age boys, who pick a Guizer Jarl to head a squad of boys dressed as Vikings, build their own junior galley, and hold their own procession on the day of Up Helly A.’
This is a clip of their procession through town, led by the Lerwick and Kirkwall pipe bands ahead of the galley and the mini-Vikings.
They had rather impressive costumes, given that they all had to be entirely made and financed by the boys’ families, and seemed duly happy to have been given this position of honor.
As they marched through the town, marshaled by their teachers and the police and followed by a flock of admiring family and friends, they raised their axes and cheered – everything from “three cheers for my mom!” to “three cheers for not being in school!” It must be pretty exciting to be a kid in Lerwick on Up Helly A,’ way better than the kind of fun I had in school dressing up for Halloween, though I also would have been incredibly jealous of the boys, since even in the junior squads, they follow the tradition of only allowing male participation. (I could complain about the gender bias, for which the arguments supporting it as “tradition” seem rather out of date, but it’s not my town or festival, so that’s the business of the women of Lerwick. But I must admit, I’d like to see a group of women form a squad and stir up the “traditionalists” by trying to participate.)
The real highlight of the day, though, was the torchlight parade. I went with the two lovely women who graciously hosted me while I was in Lerwick, who found us a good spot up on a wall overlooking the path of the parade and the site where they burned the galley. People filled the streets all along the parade route, and just as everyone finished collecting, all the streetlights went out. Meanwhile, across town, the Jarl’s squad of Vikings and forty-five other squads of men with all assortment of themed costumes, comprising a total of 941 men – collected their torches and arranged themselves to begin the parade.
It’s hard to show in a picture quite how it looks to watch the streets filled with nearly a thousand men with torches, but it was impressive. I can see how an approaching hoard of torch-bearing Vikings would have struck fear in anyone’s heart. (Though, after sitting outside waiting for the parade to start, we were looking forward to having all those torches march past us.)
And as they passed us, I got to see the costumes that each of the squads had chosen. Other than the Guizer Jarl’s squad, they had nothing to do with Vikings – it looked more like Mardi Gras or Halloween. Apparently, so many men take advantage of this opportunity to dress up as women that Up Helly A’ has gained the informal nickname of Transvestite Tuesday.
At the end of the parade, all the guizers assembled around the galley at the burning site in the center of town. The Guizer Jarl got in the boat, surrounded by men with torches (I think this must be why they pick someone well-liked in the town – otherwise, I think he’d be a little nervous getting in a wooden boat surrounded by men about to set it on fire), thanked everyone who had helped put the festival together, finishing by calling for three cheers for Up Helly A’.
As the galley burned, the guizers all set off for a night of visiting halls around the town to perform skits in stages of progressive inebriation and degenerating understandability until the early hours of Wednesday morning (an official public holiday, since nobody is fit for work).It’s certainly strange – that men dress as women and sheep carrying torches and singing about Viking heritage, that they spend a year building a boat for the express purpose of burning it, that the Jarl Squad members spend all year growing their beards so they can look like proper Vikings – but I think that’s what I liked about it. It may not be an “authentic” Viking celebration, but it’s certainly an authentic Lerwick tradition in all its oddities.