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.
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.
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).
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.