Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Leaving of Scotland

I spent the past week - my last in Scotland - in Edinburgh, and it was fabulous. Maybe it's the Scottish sentiment rubbing off on me, but I wish I was staying in Scotland rather than heading south to England. But onward I must go: I'll be in London for the next week, and then heading back to Norway through the first week in April to see the inshore cod fishery in the Lofoten Islands and some of the coast heading down to Bergen before coming back across the Atlantic to spend the final three months of my Watson year in Newfoundland. This far into traveling, a few months doesn't seem very long, and leaving Scotland is making me feel a wee bit sad - another leg of my journey coming to an end.

I still have more to write here about Scottish fishing, particularly about the time I spent on the west coast - a very different style of fishing and cultural attitude than in the northeast - but for now I just want to gush a little bit about my week in Edinburgh...not much to see about fishing, but it just didn't seem right to spend two and a half months in Scotland without stopping for more than a day in Edinburgh. And I'm glad I decided to go, because I had a fabulous time.

I stayed right on the Royal Mile, the famous street that runs through the old town of Edinburgh from Castle Rock at the top to Holyrood Palace, the Queen's main palace in Scotland (and right across the street from the seat of the devolved Scottish parliament).
The Royal Mile consists of a number of streets that run into each other along its length (a few hundred yards over a mile), all of which are paved on cobblestones and lined by old buildings hawking ridiculously touristy souvenirs and playing tinny recorded bagpipe music.

Despite being touristy, though, it was a good place to find things like a woman demonstrating the traditional style of spinning wool into yarn,
and there was usually a man outside the Saint Giles Cathedral (technically a High Kirk, since Scotland doesn't have bishops) playing the bagpipes...although my favorite piper was inside the kirk: a little cherubic angel piping away on the woodwork in the Thistle Chapel.
I also was a proper fangirl and went to The Elephant House, the cafe where J. K. Rowling wrote much of the first few Harry Potter books.
It was a good cafe in its own right, and doesn't seem to have been overwhelmed by crazy fan was really just a nice place to sit and have a cup of tea and look out the window over Greyfriars Kirkyard and the Castle.
And of course, I walked through the Edinburgh Castle. It's a fortress on top of a basalt plug from a 340 million year old volcano that has protected the city in various iterations for the past 900 years, and saw the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny, among the most evocative symbols of Scottish nationalism (largely because it was a hard fight to get them back from the English).

Look, pictures of me at the castle! These courtesy of my friend Anne, who I've known since I was eight years old, who just happened to be visiting Edinburgh for her spring break while I was there.

It also happened to be my 21st birthday while I was in Edinburgh and Anne was visiting, so even though a 21st birthday outside the States is slightly momentous, I got to spend it with an old friend. (Interestingly, we both realized that though I've known her longer than nearly any of my other friends, we had never before consumed alcohol together...which I guess made the 21st-birthdayness slightly more momentous.) We did not do anything wild and exciting, but we did have a nice dinner. Scottish people don't go out for Scottish food, so a nice dinner was Indian and Thai, but I did also get a chance to sample some of the ultimate in Scottish fusion foods: , a vegetarian haggis samosa and a fried Mars bar.

Anne was very excited about the chippy where I got the fried Mars bar - here she is on the street waxing eloquent about her chips.
To do the birthday thing properly, we also went out to a proper Scottish pub on the Grassmarket, today known for having good pubs but formerly known for being the site of the town gallows. This particular pub, The Last Drop, remembers both the grizzly last drop into the noose for over 300 people throughout the city's history and also the final request of many of those hanged...a last drop of proper Scottish whiskey.Among it's neat little quirks, the pub had chalkboards on the back of the doors in the bathroom. Can you find the message Anne left for me? (My response includes a sheep, to make it a bit more Scottish.)
And here is the obligatory "look, it's a picture of us in a pub!" though frankly we could be anywhere.
We had a good time, but I must admit that this was not my favorite pub in Edinburgh. We also went to the University of Edinburgh's Library Bar, a very academic-looking pub inside the oldest Student Union in the world with a balcony up a spiral staircase from the bar and walls lined with wooden cabinets filled with books, which was pretty cool. My favorite, though, was the Royal Oak, Edinburgh's main folk and traditional music pub.

Lots of Scottish music, both old and new, and a really nice crowd of people who just like to get together and play folk music. For my last night in Edinburgh, and my last night in Scotland, I saw in the lounge downstairs with a bunch of guys and guitars singing everything from Bob Dylan to Rabbie Burns. One friendly older man, upon hearing that I was studying fisheries, sang Farewell Tae the Haven for me, the best Scottish song I've heard about troubles with the fishing industry and a fairly accurate representation of what I heard out in the fishing ports about the decommissioning. For those of who who know my penchant to sing sea chanties in the shower, you'll also be amused to hear that they also convinced me to sing one myself (I did Paddy on the Railway as a proper American tune but also appropriate for the weekend of St. Patrick's Day). And I got to end my time in Scotland singing the Mingulay Boat Song and Barrett's Privateers and Leave Her Johnny with the guys who run this folk music show. It doesn't get any better.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Marketing Fish for the Future

One of the ideal benefits of quota-based fisheries management is that focus will shift from trying to catch the most fish to trying to make the most off of the limited number of fish you’re allowed to catch. This has had some obviously detrimental consequences – namely that it encourages fishermen to throw back low-value fish and only bring to market the top-value fish, usually the largest and freshest from a trip. If this practice of discarding, known as high-grading, can be minimized, however, the quotas do then encourage fishermen to aim for top market value for each individual fish. Although it’s much more complicated in practice, this can theoretically serve as a conservation tool by allowing fishermen to focus on quality and market demand to get the best possible prices for the fish they land rather than having to catch increasing numbers of fish to make a profit.

While I was in Peterhead, I had the chance to both see the daily fish market and talk with some of the fishermen and the fish buyers about how the market has changed over recent years as decommissioning and tighter quota regulations. The Peterhead fish market is the largest in Scotland, and fishing boats from all over will chose to land there (or, in some cases, have their catches trucked in from other ports) to be sold at the morning auction in Peterhead. To me, it seems like a large market – able to hold over three thousand boxes of fish.

But the old market across the harbor that this new one replaced was far larger, and often would be filled with twelve thousand boxes – whereas today, one quarter of that number is considered a big day in the market. Most people told me this with an air of regret, associating the decline in the amount of fish landed with the decline in the number of boats fishing and the overall place of the industry in town. But though most fishermen would like to see more fish being landed – particularly when they know that they are discarding marketable fish at sea (one told me it was like “throwing ten pound notes over the side”) – the more limited market has increased prices. Crews packing fish at sea also focus on keeping the catch in top quality by not squashing the fish in the boxes and presenting them so they look nice on the market rather than the older strategy of trying to simply fit as many fish as possible into the boxes.

A box of large cod – today, only three cod this size are put in each box, but ten years ago, they would have filled the box with six of them.

A box of haddocks, nicely arranged to look as attractive as possible on the market.

Though fluctuations in supply and demand to create the greatest variations in market price, fishermen and buyers alike agree that quality is an important factor in determining price – when Peter first took me through the market, he pointed out which fish were in the best condition, easily evident to anyone with even a bit of experience with fish; while bidding, the buyers would explain to me which fish would get the most prices, and which boats were known for consistently landing the best quality fish and getting the highest prices.

Here are the buyers bidding on the fish at auction, often selecting box by box which ones they want based on the size and quality of the fish.

Fish prices are more complicated than simple quality and freshness, however – as public concern about the environment and sustainability has increased, the market has begun to demand fish from known, legal, sustainable sources. “Black” fish – landed illegally and sold without being officially declared or counted in the quota, and “grey” fish – usually scarce, highly-regulated fish such as cod landed as a different species with excess quota available, has been considered one of the main problems with enforcement of the quota system in Europe. Scottish fishermen are quick to acknowledge that the practice of landing black used to be widespread – they say that once it became commonplace it became impossible to get by just by landing legally, but with the required registration of buyers and sellers that has come into effect over the past few years they say that black landings here have become all but nonexistent. Skippers are required to keep records of the fish they are landing and where they were caught on official EU logsheets and submit them to the Fisheries Office (officially called the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency) for verification that they have not exceeded their quota and that their records of landings match the records of the amount purchased by the fish buyers.

At the pier in the town of Portree on the Isle of Skye, fishermen can turn in their logsheets in a box mounted next to the lifeboat station.

There are also Fisheries Officers stationed in fishing ports all over the country, who often come out in person to check the fish being landed and ensure that the fish actually being landed match the paper records.

In addition to avoiding the problems of circumventing regulations designed to protect fish stocks, keeping fish landings legal has increased prices both by reducing the fish supply (black fish was often sold at low prices, since fishermen afraid of getting caught would sell the fish for low prices to get it off their hands, making it hard to get a reasonable price for legally-landed fish) and, more significantly, allowing Scottish fish to be marketed as legally-caught.

Eventually, most discussions I’ve had about sustainability in fishing come around to the supermarkets. Because, while government has the ability to enforce policies aimed at creating a sustainable fishery, the market has also begun to influence fishing practices by demanding environmentally-friendly fish. So as a result, the fishing industry has been taking its own steps, independent of government-imposed regulations, to prove to the public – both the end-line consumers and the retailers (particularly large supermarket chains who are increasingly trying to “green” their image) that the fish they are catching meet various criteria of sustainable fishing. Although many environmental organizations have attempted to provide consumers with information about which fish are best to purchase – the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, one of the most widely-cited such consumer guidelines in the US, advertises itself as promoting seafood that is “good for you and good for the oceans” – these are often criticized within the fishing industry for broad generalities, including rejecting most trawl-caught fish or all fisheries for a particular species that might only have problems in some areas, that don’t take into account the detailed realities of how fish get from the sea to the market.

The alternative that has gained the most ground within the fishing industry is a scheme by an independent non-profit organization called the Marine Stewardship Council of that independently assesses fisheries based on the condition of the fish stocks, the impact of the fishing method on the ecosystem, and the fishery management system. The industry itself decides to apply for certification, and if it passes, can then label its fish with the MSC blue eco-label, currently the only independent assessment of fisheries and thus an important factor for both retailers and consumers looking for environmentally-friendly seafood.

The Scottish haddock and nephrops (prawn) fisheries are both currently being assessed for MSC certification, but in the mean time, many Scottish skippers have taken it upon themselves to independently prove that they are fishing sustainably. Peter Bruce was the first to tell me about the Responsible Fishing Scheme, a program that currently has 167 participating vessels in Britain who have been audited by Seafish to show that they meet a set of criteria about fishing responsibly and safely – everything from making sure that the crew have the proper safety training to collecting all the litter caught while trawling rather than throwing it back into the sea.

Walking around the harbor in Peterhead, it was easy to spot participating vessels – here’s a fishing for litter bag aboard Favonious, one of the seventeen vessels in Peterhead who have signed onto this program (slightly less than half of the port’s fishing fleet).

It was equally evident in the market, where fish from participating vessels are labeled with a note indicating to the buyer that it came from a vessel fishing responsibly.

Some skippers have taken the task of marketing their catch and their local industry even further, making direct connections with restaurants and consumers to explain their fishing methods and the efforts they take to fish sustainably. Fishing has gotten a lot of bad press in recent years due to concerns about overfishing and black landings, and from the perspective of fishermen attempting to follow the rules and fish responsibly, the industry now faces a significant task of proving to the public that fishermen are not criminals out to ravage the environment. While I was in Peterhead, Peter went to London for the launch of the Scottish Skipper’s Scheme, which focuses on getting top-quality fish and having a direct connection between the restaurant-goer with a fish on their plate and the fishermen out in the North Sea catching the fish. To me, it seems like one of the best ways of ensuring that the fish you eat is caught in a responsible manner – actually take the time to meet the person who goes out to catch it. Peter said that most of the people he met down in London hadn’t heard about many of Scotland’s efforts to conserve fish, including a new system of real time closures where fishermen avoid aggregations of spawning cod and a conservation credits scheme, which provides incentives for fishermen to use more selective gear and abide by the real time closure restrictions, and were surprised at the efforts taken to truly fish responsibly.

Another member of the Scottish Skipper’s Scheme, Jimmy Buchan of the Amity II, has become one of the best-known faces of the Scottish fishing industry and a bit of a celebrity as one of the stars of the BBC series Trawlermen, which is currently filming its third series showing the day-to-day realities of fishing (the British response to Deadliest Catch, if you will).

I initially met him at a meeting in Fraserburgh as part of a Science-Industry Partnership between the Fisheries Research Services in Aberdeen and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation to “review recent development work on gear designs and to identify options for selectivity related technical measures for Scottish mixed species fisheries,” but didn’t realize he was a celebrity until I met him again after watching some of the Trawlermen series. Jimmy has in many ways taken on the role of showing the public what is really going on in the fishing industry, including writing for a blog on the Seafish website.

Although consumer demand is notoriously fickle and has certainly made fishing a much more complicated business, I think that overall, this move towards demand of sustainably-caught fish will be a good thing for the consumer, industry, and environment. This is still a fairly early stage in a much larger movement towards consumers wanting to know where their food comes from and how it was produced, and as such there are many mixed messages about which types of fish and fishing methods are really the best choices. But by allowing consumers to get to know the fishermen and their stories both about what it takes to get fish on the table and about their own histories and communities, and convincing fishermen that it is in their own interest from a marketing perspective to stick to responsible methods, I think the market has a chance of both encouraging environmentally-friendly fishing and in turn rewarding responsible fishermen with better prices.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Peterhead: Inside a fishing community

I’ve spent the past week in Peterhead, the largest whitefish port in Scotland and one of the major fishing ports in Europe, talking to people about the fishing industry here and trying to see for myself how the policies put in place to try to conserve fish stocks here have affected the industry and the larger community. Over the past eight months of my travels, I have become increasingly interested in how fisheries management policies designed to conserve fish stocks and create a “sustainable” fishery have affected actual fishing communities. Most quota systems in place today function on a principle based on “maximum sustainable yield” – usually aiming to catch the most fish possible without depleting the fish stocks, and to do so with the highest net economic gain. At face value, this is a laudable goal…except it pays no attention to how that net economic gain is distributed or how that distribution affects people who have traditionally made their living from the sea, whether through pure economics or by changing the community in ways not normally accounted for in economic analyses. Peterhead, a community steeped in fishing all the way back to its beginnings as a whaling port in the late eighteenth century, with many families’ fishing histories stretching all the way back to whaling days, is an ideal place to see how fishing policy has affected not just the fish but also a community that has long depended on fishing.

While in Peterhead, I had the privilege of staying with Peter Bruce, skipper of the Budding Rose PD 418, and his wife Catherine, who helped me to get a view into the life of a fishing family and the local fishing community.

The Budding Rose in Peterhead harbor last week:

Peter comes from a long line of fishermen, stretching all the way back to his great-great grandfather, who sailed on a whaling ship out of Peterhead in the mid-nineteenth century at a time when Peterhead was Britain’s busiest whaling port.

Although it may not be entirely accurate, I can’t resist including here a picture of the only surviving whaling ship of that era – the Charles W. Morgan, to be found today at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

The whaling industry declined by the end of the nineteenth century as the whale population was depleted and increasingly difficult and dangerous to hunt, but Peterhead turned to herring fishing. Each generation of Peter’s family, from the early whalers all the way through to today have stayed in fishing even as the industry has shifted – catching herring through the mid-twentieth century before switching mostly to whitefish, and following the shifts in technology from the sail-powered Fifies of the early twentieth century through steam power to the current engine-powered steel boat Peter fishes from today.

Although the Bruce family is one of seemingly only a few who have taken the time to research and write about their family fishing heritage – you can read all about their family’s involvement in fishing, written up by Peter’s twin brother Steven – this kind of extensive family fishing history is fairly common among Peterhead fishing families.

Yet today, Peter is likely the last fisherman in his family – he and his cousin are the only two still fishing, and none of the boys of the next generation seem inclined to make their living from fishing. This too is fairly representative of what has happened over the past years in Peterhead. The size of the fishing fleet has been drastically cut – most people around the harbor today remember times when there would be 400 to 500 boats in the harbor, so many that it was sometimes hard to find a berth, whereas today there are usually no more than a hundred boats docked and only forty fishing boats are registered in Peterhead.

A full harbor in the mid-twentieth century,

compared to the harbor today - still with boats, but not nearly so full as before.

Although there is no fixed date when the size of the fishing industry began to decline – some of the older ex-fishermen I met traced the decline all the way back to the beginning of the European Common Fisheries Policy (many saying the UK never should have joined the EU) and others look even farther back, saying the fishing hasn’t been the same since World War II – it seems that most people see the recent changes in Scotland’s fishing fleet beginning with the Cod Recovery Plan in 2001. With scientific assessments showing that cod populations were declining in the North Sea and TACs for all European countries fishing the North Sea decreasing, Britain determined that the size of the fishing fleet was too large for the amount of fish available and set up a decommissioning program to reduce the number of fishing vessels. In two rounds of decommissioning, in 2001 and 2003, the government offered payment to fishing vessel owners who agreed to scrap their boats and leave the fishing industry. Some skippers saw this as their chance to get out of an industry that was becoming less and less profitable with increasingly tight regulations; others were forced to decommission by banks they were indebted to, ending a career in fishing by simply paying off their debt and breaking even. By the end, about 60% of the fleet had been removed, most sailed across the North Sea to a shipbreaking yard in Grenaa in northern Denmark and broken down for parts. You can see pictures of many of the decommissioned boats here – and also note the comments on many lamenting that boats with many more years of working service (and many likely built with government subsidies) were scrapped rather than being traded with an older fishing vessel or at least kept for some other use.

At the time, almost nobody in the community was in favor of decommissioning. Although most of the skippers and crewmembers who had to leave fishing were able to get jobs in the oil industry, it was a blow to the fabric of the community to lose so many fishing jobs so fast. Land-based businesses supporting the fishing industry – everyone involved in processing and selling the fish, building and servicing the boats, running the harbors, etc. – were also hard-hit by the decommissioning (some estimates suggest that more than 25% of local employment in Peterhead before the decommissioning was in the fisheries sector, and more than 50% in Fraserburgh just to the north).

The fishing industry both employs and depends on business such as the netmakers,

the ship repair facility (both covered repair hall and open Syncrolift facility, which can accommodate the UK's largest whitefish boats),

fuel suppliers (here fueling a Faeroese crab-fishing boat),

the fish market to sell the fish landed through an auction,

and many more besides.

Many community members tried to fight back against the quota restrictions under the CFP that had led to the decommissioning, including two fishermen’s wives from Fraserburgh who dubbed themselves the Cod Crusaders and organized a petition to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair opposing a closure of the cod fishery in the North Sea and an organization called “Save Britain’s Fish” that argued that Britain pull out of the CFP altogether. Peter and his family, even those no longer fishing themselves, were also very strongly opposed to the decommissioning (this you can probably tell if you read the website – it was written a few years, while the decommissioning was ongoing), mostly because of worries about the future of the community.

Today, most fishermen and other people in the industry I talked to around the harbor look on the decommissioning as unfortunate, but perhaps something that had to happen – most say that before the decommissioning there was too much competition on the fishing grounds and probably too much fish being caught, and that between the low quotas, low prices, and amount of fish available to be caught many boats would have ended up going bankrupt without the decommissioning. It is a smaller, leaner industry than ten years ago, but most people I talked to were fairly optimistic about the future of the industry. From what I saw over the past week, I’m also optimistic about the future of the industry here – those who opted not to decommission seem committed to making things work, and the town has retained enough infrastructure to maintain the fishery. It was also lucky, however, that Peterhead was able to maintain much of the community through people going to the oil industry, both providing jobs for former fishermen and extra work for people in the harbor or repairing boats whose can also get work from oil, keeping people from leaving town whereas in places like the islands of western Scotland or northern Norway there would have been no other option.

I worry also that as the fishing community gets smaller and more centralized, there will be less community support for those who are still fishing. Fishing is easier with a family support structure built around having everyone in the same area, which I saw some of through staying with the Bruces, who have a large extended family living in Peterhead - Peter’s mom gives him a good luck present before every trip to sea, when the washing machine breaks, Catherine’s sister-in-law can come to try to help fix it, and Peter checks up on where his cousin is fishing and calls his uncle to find out how his fishing is going. Beyond the family, however, the fishing community also needs to have a certain size to maintain meeting places down at the harbor like the Dolphin Café next to the fish market, where the fish buyers, auctioneers, fishermen, and other people who just happen to be in the area mingle and catch up with each other.

Another major institution in the fishing community is the Fishermen’s Mission, which provides services (from spiritual to financial) to support fishermen and their families.

Although built around religion (and Peterhead is a very religious town, although less so than it used to be), the Mission provides its services to people of all faiths (and no faith) in the fishing community. George, the Mission Man in Peterhead for the past six years, described to me a dizzying array of everyday tasks supporting people in the community both here and in other places where he was stationed before coming here – everything from delivering Christmas parcels to 350 families throughout town to organizing fundraisers (the Mission has to raise all its funds itself – there is no endowment or government support) to planning an outing for retired fishermen in the summer to walking the harbor in the morning just to say hello to those in port to the more serious task of being there in case of an accident at sea to break the news to the family. The Mission itself is a central place in the community, as a gathering place for retired fishermen, who meet at the tea room to have a cup of tea and talk about their old sailing days, a place for meetings and prayer, and a place to find a friendly and understanding face in the Mission Man, a confidential resource for anyone in the fishing community.

These are not the sorts of things taken into account when deciding on how to make the fishing industry as efficient as possible, but I would say that these community structures are just as vital to the industry – and certainly the quality of life for fishermen – as the more tangible economic factors taken into account in making fisheries policy. From spending a week in Peterhead, I think the optimism that the fishing industry will remain stable in the future is well-placed and there had indeed been a need for a cut-back in the size of the industry to match the amount of fish available, but I also understand the sense of loss that the industry and its role in the overall community is much smaller than it once was. I have no great ideas for how to help communities such as Peterhead go through this kind of transition, but I think it is key to remember that sustainability is not just about the fish stocks – it’s also about creating and maintaining communities that support the people who make their living from the sea.