Saturday, April 12, 2008

Nine Months Out

From where I left off in the Lofoten Islands, one of the most gorgeous places I have been this year,

I took a long and scenic trip south on "Hurtigruten," the coastal steamer ("the world's most beautiful voyage),

a train-bus-boat trip from Bergen to Oslo through Norway's longest and most famous fjord and on two of the most famous and impressive railway lines,

and a long and not-so-scenic airplane journey from Oslo via London (Heathrow's new terminal 5) and Newark,

I have finally arrived in St. John's, Newfoundland for the final segment of this year of travel. I must say, it's a little weird to be back on this side of the Atlantic. In any case, here I give you my third official quarterly report for the Watson Foundation as a bit of a wrap-up of what I've been up to these past few months before I plunge ahead into the last leg of my trip.

I left off at the end of my last report saying that having spent most of my first six months learning about policy and science but seeing the fishing itself mostly from the outside, I planned to focus this stage of my project on getting to know the views of fishermen and their communities. I can say now, having had the chance to visit small, fishery-dependent communities and spend time with fishermen and their families in Scotland and Norway, getting to know these people and places has been the highlight of my past three months. I saw inshore crab fishing with creels – one of the few fisheries still left largely unregulated – in the Orkney Islands; I met a northern Irish skipper waiting for a replacement part for his engine in Lerwick harbor in the Shetland Islands, not only a major fishing area but also an important port for fishing boats in the North Sea that run into bad weather or technical problems; I went to a meeting of prawn (Norway lobster, or Nephrops) fishermen in Fraserburgh in northeast Scotland discussing how to modify their nets to reduce cod bycatch with scientists from Fisheries Research Services in Aberdeen; I spent a week in Peterhead, the largest whitefish port in Britain, staying with a skipper and his wife and getting to know their family and town; I talked with fishermen from small west coast prawn trawlers as they mended their nets on the docks when the bad weather kept them in port; I shared a traditional Lofoten Islands Easter dinner of boknafisk (made from cod that has been hung to dry for two weeks, the beginning of the process of preparing stockfish) with the family of a coastal gill net fishermen in Ballstad in northern Norway.

Although I was still an outsider looking in on the fishery, I did get to see the places and meet the people who live in and on the fishery and they were tremendously welcoming and generous in sharing their time and knowledge. Their stories about how their towns and fishing fleets have been forced to adapt to changes in both fish stocks and management policies, their passion for where they live and what they do, and their broader view of fisheries not as a separate entity to be studied but as something woven into the pattern of their lives, was the reminder I needed of why I wanted to study cod in the first place and why I care in the first place about the bureaucratic tangle of rules trying to keep fishing sustainable.

During my week in Peterhead, the closest I have felt to any of the communities I have visited, I was struck by their sense of history and tradition in their towns and in the larger fishing industry. I spent the morning after I arrived in town at the Deep Sea Fishermen’s Mission talking with retired fishermen over tea about their days in herring boats following the fish from Lerwick up in Shetland down to Great Yarmouth in England, and then returned to the Mission in the evening for the Ladies Meeting to sing hymns with nautical themes and hear the older women’s stories about their younger days as herring girls following the boats along the coast to gut and pack the fish. The skipper and his wife I stayed with showed me the video of the launch of their boat, the Budding Rose – an event they described as equally important to a wedding in the life of a fisherman – with footage of the whole family and their friends in their best clothes and the boat being blessed and let down the ramp into the water to the playing of a lone piper. This skipper’s twin brother took me along to a local elementary school where he taught a lesson about the fishing industry complete with muster drills and practice net-mending, one of the many ways he has stayed active in maintaining the fishing traditions of his family and community even after retiring from fishing. And so even though the business of fishing was certainly an important aspect of life in Peterhead, when I talked with the fishermen about the effects of the policies that have drastically reduced the fleet, they didn’t talk about money but about the people are leaving and the loss of families with over a century of fishing history. And this experience is representative of the passion I have found for fisheries in so many of the communities I have visited: the stories I heard, whether in Peterhead or in the Gaelic-speaking Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland or in the villages of the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, told of fishing as a way of life, not just as a way of making a living.

Right now in Scotland, the future is looking hopeful for most of the fishermen who have kept their boats and quotas and stayed in the industry. The Scottish fishing fleet has been particularly hard-hit over the past decade, with about 60% of the boats being “decommissioned” – sold for scrap and removed from the fleet as part of a government program to reduce the size of the fishing fleet and readjust the overall fishing capacity of the industry to match the reduced quotas available as the EU attempts to rebuild the North Sea’s cod stocks. For the boats that are left, though, this has meant less competition for the fish available, and with the decline in illegal or “black” fishing that had been paying the bills for fishermen who didn’t have enough quota to pay their expenses, fish prices have risen considerably and enabled the boats to get more profit from their catches. Now that the situation seems to have stabilized, the industry has been working to improve its image among the public, from voluntary programs such as a Responsible Skipper’s Scheme where the boats pledge to comply with health, safety, and environmental regulations, applying for Marine Stewardship Council certification for North Sea haddock and Scottish prawn (Nephrops) fisheries, and even showing British television-viewers just what it takes to get fish on the table as a few fishing crews have become minor celebrities as part of the popular BBC series Trawlermen (rather like a British version of Deadliest Catch). Scotland has also been proactive among European states responding to the tightened regulations around cod, putting in place real-time closures where any area found to have a high proportion of juvenile cod is immediately closed for fishing and a conservation credits scheme that encourages skippers to try new net plans and fishing strategies that reduce their cod catches and discard rates by rewarding them with extra days at sea for fishing. Unlike a few years ago, when most fishermen say their outlook was mostly gloom and doom, they see that the decommissioning is over and the fish stocks are recovering and are optimistic that they can continue to make a living from fishing.

The worry, however, is that with the ability to buy and sell quotas, the next few years could see a continued decrease in the number of boats fishing as large companies buy up more and more of the quota, reducing the size of the fleet and putting many small ports out of business. The boatyard owner in Mallaig, on the west coast of Scotland, told me he had been discouraging his son from getting a job in boatbuilding because he doesn’t see it as an industry that will last throughout his son’s lifetime. In larger ports like Peterhead, plans for future expansion rely on the large pelagic boats and oil tenders rather than on the smaller skipper-owned whitefish vessels. Many middle-aged fishermen today are the last in a line of fishing heritage that stretches back more than a century. Already, skippers have found fewer and fewer young people in Scottish fishing towns deciding to get jobs in fishing, and nearly all the boats I saw all around the coast of Scotland had hired at least one Filipino crew member to fill the gap.

For some of the kids growing up in fishing towns today, it is simply the lure of more reliable pay in the oil industry or a land-based job that keeps them from fishing. A more intractable deterrent for young people, however, is that high quota prices – literally the price of the right to fish – have made it nearly impossible for a young man could start out as a crewman and eventually save up enough to buy and skipper his own boat. When most of the current skippers began fishing, all they needed was a boat and a fishing license, and when the quota system was introduced, they were given a quota for free based on their “historical” fishing patterns. With the additional startup cost today with the quota system in place, only young people coming from a fishing family with a chance to inherit a boat and quota have the chance to make it to the position of skipper within their lifetimes. With so few opportunities for the next generation of fishermen, a west coast Scottish skipper predicted that as the current generation of skippers retires, they will sell off their quotas to those few families who have stayed in the industry until all the fish is being caught by “five millionaires.”

In Norway, rural fishing communities are also losing their young people to jobs on land and in larger towns. It is not so obvious as in Scotland, since the Norwegian coastal fleet has been able to maintain better wages for the crew than in Scotland, helped both because the Barents Sea cod stock that comes to spawn around the Lofoten Islands is doing well and because small boats going out for daytrips have lower expenses for fuel and maintenance than the Scottish trawlers. So far the coastal boats in northern Norway don’t seem to have had trouble finding Norwegian crew members (although on the large boats in the southwest, this may not be the case – I met a Polish fisherman in Bergen looking for work on a long-liner who had found many large companies looking for crew). With only four months of experience, the young man fishing as the only crewmember with the skipper on the Iversen Jr told me that he was making plenty of money and saw fishing as a good job. And even while still in school, young people are encouraged to see the fishing industry as a lucrative line of work, as the job of cutting the tongues off the fish heads before they are hung up to dry is traditionally kept for children, who can make up to two hundred kroner (about $38) an hour.

Despite this, however, the overall demographics of Norway’s fishing population show a dramatic dropoff in the number of young people going into fishing as a career. Like in Scotland, this is the first new generation that will face the additional cost of purchasing quotas if they want to skipper their own boats, making fishing less attractive as a career than as a short-term job. (While technically the quotas are attached to vessels and have to be re-approved by the government if the vessel is sold, leading the Norwegian government to claim that they have not privatized the fishery, vessels are advertised on the market with and without fishing quota and people pay a lot of money for the quotas. The fisherman in Ballstad in the Lofoten Islands who took me out on his coastal gill netting boat, the Iversen Jr, told me that about 90% of what he paid for the boat was for the fishing quota, not the value of the boat itself.) Of course, decreased interest in fishing careers is not necessarily the fault of fishing policies – many people I talked to point instead to a globalized world where children grow up with television and internet that introduces them to allure of big cities that are not available in rural fishing communities, others point to a more education-focused culture that sends young people away from home to finish school and prepares them for white-collar jobs rather than for fishing. Whatever the reason, however, fishing communities – whether in Norway or Scotland or indeed any of the places I have visited – are in for drastic changes if retiring fishermen end up selling their fishing quotas not to younger fishermen in the local area following traditional fishing methods but to larger fishing companies in other parts of the country, literally selling away the community’s rights to fish.

And this brings me to what has remained the nagging problem in the back of my mind in thinking about the quota-based management systems that I have seen so far this year (and though each country runs the system a little differently and only Iceland has openly named the system one of individual transferable quotas, Denmark, Scotland, and Norway in addition to Iceland all have systems that allow fishermen to buy and sell the right to fish). Should these countries really be giving the right to catch fish – to use a public natural resource – to private individuals, to be bought and sold on the market like any other commodity? (Of course, most countries – and particularly those like Norway and Iceland with a strong legal and cultural tradition of considering fish a free resource for the entire public – argue that rights have not in fact been given away, just temporarily granted. But when selling a quota is providing the money to buy a new house or car, when people cannot afford to purchase the quota necessary to fish, it seems clear to me that whether the rights are temporary or permanent on paper, they have closed public access to fishing for all of those who were left out of the initial allocation of fishing rights determined based on “historical” fishing during a short reference period – which of course left out all future generations who were not yet around to be fishing – unless those who were left out of the initial allocation have the money to purchase for themselves the right to fish.)

In Iceland, the representatives of large fishing companies holding large proportions of the quotas argued that private individuals or companies with a large share in the quotas have a stronger stake in maintaining the resource, contributing to conservation goals as a means of maximizing profit from the national fish resources. But this model assumes that money – the net profit to be made from a nation’s fish stocks, the maximum price received by fishing at the level of the “maximum sustainable yield” – is the end goal of a nation’s fishing policy. But is that necessarily the only desirable goal? Fish is not just money (despite the Norwegian saying as the fish dry in Lofoten that you can smell the money in the air) – it is also food, nature, culture, tradition. Having had the privilege to meet many of the people in fishing communities in the eastern North Atlantic, when I think of the value of fish I think of the families who have shown incredible kindness by inviting me into their homes, the skippers who have taken the time to show me their boats and fishing methods, the scientists working alongside the fishermen to develop better fishing gear technology, the fish buyers who arrive at the markets every morning to purchase the day’s catch at auction, the “Mission Men” providing moral and financial support for those who deal with the day-to-day risks of bringing fish to the table. With whole communities centered around fish resources, decisions should not be left up to a select group of people as a small “special interest” issue but considered by the whole of the public, all of whom have a stake in determining how we value and use natural resources.

And so, I have come to realize over the past months that that the “big picture” is much bigger than just fisheries. Protecting cod isn’t just about a funny-looking species of groundfish – because if that was the only reason to care about cod, it would long ago have gone the way of all the non-cute-and-fuzzy species under pressure from human activities. Although having spent four years learning to think like a geologist did not teach me much about fisheries, my tendency to think about broad questions of “the environment” in a geologic time scale informs how I see humanity’s relationship with natural resources: in the scheme of things, the world will go on if we depopulate the fish stocks that humans eat for food – new species will take their place, the ecosystem will evolve…and anyway, most of these species wouldn’t outlast the creation of the next supercontinent just a few tens of millions of years down the road. On a human timescale, however, depopulation of fish stocks means the loss of a piece of nature upon which many people and cultures depend. Sustainable fishing is about sustaining things people value that have grown up around cod: it’s about maintaining an ecosystem that can support fisheries-dependent economies, allow coastal communities to maintain their culture and traditions, and provide healthy food for the world’s growing population. Thinking about the wider contexts in which people value fisheries has made me consider much larger issues: what sort of food sources should we use to feed the world’s growing population? What is the place of traditional rural cultures in a globalized, technically-advanced world? How should a nation allocate finite natural resources among its population?

My experience so far this year has been richest when I find myself thinking about these larger questions and looking at what I am seeing and doing as broadly as possible. With all the technical complexity of trying to decipher fisheries regulations, not to mention the frequent day-to-day slog of trying to figure out the logistics of what I’m doing and where I’m going next, I sometimes find myself getting bogged down in the minutiae of my project. But for me, the real beauty of the Watson Fellowship is that I don’t have to sort out all the details or limit my scope to questions I can neatly answer, and that there is no separation between things that are and are not relevant to this year’s experience – everything can relate back to what I am learning, both about fisheries and the larger questions they inform. I find lessons about the reasons people value fishing and connections to larger questions about the place of fishing in today’s society in all manner of surprising places: an example of people’s strong ties to rural communities and the importance of a sustainable food supply in meeting a couple who moved back to the wife’s childhood home in the Lofoten Islands to start an organic farm, or insight into the importance of fishing heritage in Scottish culture listening to a ballad about the end of the steam drifter era in an Edinburgh folk music pub, or an illustration of the personal significance of cod in Norway in the embroidered cod on the dress of the woman sitting behind me at the church service on Easter Sunday. Learning about fisheries not just as something I am studying but as part of an overall experience, I also see the big picture questions of how and why people value fish – their overall experience of fisheries – as the place to start any discussion of how to ensure that fisheries management continues to sustain not only the fish resources at their base but the reasons that people care about fish in the first place. It’s not an answer to solve the problems of the cod fisheries in the north Atlantic (which, surprise surprise, is not something I could do in a year), but taking the time to think about these questions in a larger context does frame my perspective in thinking about how to manage natural resources – and I still have the rest of my life to spend looking for answers.

Monday, April 7, 2008

From Sea to Stockfish: Lofoten’s Coastal Cod Fishery

Every year, for as long as people have lived in northern Norway, the winter has been a time for fishing. In January, the Barents Sea cod stock swims south from the coast of Finnmark to spawn along the coast of the Lofoten Islands, just north of the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian coast. From January through April, coastal fishermen from Lofoten – and many visiting fishermen from all along the Norwegian coast (and increasingly also foreign sports fishermen, attracted by the lure of catching a record-breaking cod, perhaps as part of the World Cod Fishing Championships, described very nicely here) – set out in small day boats to catch the spawning cod as they come close to shore. Many people I met over the past six months had recommended that I go see the Lofoten fishery and I was curious to see the traditional inshore fishing fleet for myself, so even though I hadn’t initially included it is my plans for the year, I headed to Ballstad, a fishing village of just under a thousand people in the southern end of the Lofoten Islands, for a week in the middle of the peak cod fishing season in the end of March.

I arrived on the ferry the night before Easter, in the middle of Lofoten’s biggest snowstorm and coldest night of the year so far, to discover that – being the night before Easter – there were no buses running and no shops open for the next two days. Luckily, Mary Ann and Børge, the couple who own the rorbu (fishermen’s cabin – initially built around Lofoten to house fishermen visiting for the winter cod season, now mostly run as tourist accommodation for the summer months) I was staying in took pity on me and my poor planning (somehow I had just brought a jar of peanut butter as food) by inviting me for Easter dinner with their family. They made a Lofoten specialty called boknafisk, made from cod left out to dry on the fish drying racks for fourteen days, served along with potatoes and peas and a bacon and butter sauce. It was wonderful to have the chance to share a holiday meal with a local fishing family (in addition to running the rorbuer, Børge is a commercial fisherman on a coastal gill netter), and very tasty fish too.

Although I had not considered whether it would be a good idea to spend Easter in small Lofoten town (not normally celebrating Easter myself and all), it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to get to see the normal life of the community – including the place of cod in local culture. Since everything in town was closed for Easter, I did what seemed the normal thing to do – go to Easter services. Since I had never actually been to an Easter service before, I couldn’t tell you the difference between Norwegian and American Easter traditions. But the church – a 102-year-old red and green painted wooden cathedral with lots of stained glass and sunlight – was lovely and the music, hymns accompanied by an organ, trumpet, and choir, was beautiful, and I really enjoyed watching the service unfold (and even could mostly tell what was going on, with the help of explanations and translations by the woman I sat with).

The best part, though, were the families baptizing their babies as part of the service – which there were quite a lot of, since Norwegian families tend to all get together for Easter and so the baptisms wait until the whole family can be back at home. This was exciting first of all because it was fun to see all the babies in their lacy baptism dresses and little hats (I had also never seen a baptism before), but also because I got to see the mothers’ traditional Norwegian dress costumes. I didn’t take any pictures (even though plenty of people brought cameras and took pictures of the baptisms, I’m used to thinking of religious events as technology-free, and anyway it seems disrespectful to me to take pictures during a service, so I left my camera at home). But you can get the idea of what they look like here. The Lofoten costume is a blue floor-length dress and vest-like jumper top embroidered with flowers, worn along with a matching embroidered purse attached on the side and a cape used instead of a regular coat when going outside. My favorite, though, was the design worn by the woman sitting behind me: under an embroidered picture of two Viking ships heading towards the sun was an anatomically-correct cod, and on closer consideration I also noticed that her purse, rather than being embroidered, was decorated by silver charms in the shape of a cod covered over by a piece of green mesh with a silver clasp at the top in the shape of a fishing boat such that the purse looks like the boat has caught a net full of fish. Just in case I was wondering, cod is pretty important to Lofoten.

The next morning, I went out fishing with Børge on his boat, the Iversen Jr, to see how the coastal fishermen in Lofoten catch their cod.

Børge fishes nine months out of the year and catches a quota of 44 tons of fish (mostly cod, and other species such as haddock and saithe, which are measured for small boats like his in terms of cod-equivalents). He fishes with gill nets, which are set on the ocean bottom and “soak” for a day, collecting the fish that and the day I went out with him he was picking up fish from three sets of thirty nets each that he had set the day before. It was a very good day for fishing: by the end of the day we came back with 1,400 kilos of fish, Børge’s best catch so far this season. Obviously, I am good luck.

Here is the boat in the harbor - time to go fishing!

And after just a half-hour steam, we are on the fishing grounds (pretty gorgeous, huh?). This is another small gill-netting boat much like the Iversen Jr fishing alongside us. Note the sail, used not to actually move the boat but to help stabilize it against the wind, and the flag and buoy, marking the beginning of the net they are about to haul.
Børge soon locates the buoy marking his first set of nets and soon is hauling the net back aboard with all the fish that have been caught over the past day. The fish and net are pulled up by an automatic hauler, leaving Børge and his single crewmember free to just work untangling the fish and the net.

As the net comes in, it has to be untangled and stowed in the compartment aft, ready to be set again once all the fish have been removed - as Børge told me, we also need something to do tomorrow.
Both fishermen work to extricate the big fish from the net, using a tool that is both capable of gently untangling and of ripping apart the net to free the fish.

Once freed from the net, they quickly kill the fish by cutting at the gills, using the sharp end of the same tool used for detangling.
Most of the catch are big cod, but there are also occasionally haddock and plaice, which they also keep unless they are juveniles (which they try to free carefully before throwing them back), and crabs like this one, which although edible they mostly do not keep, but bang against the side of the boat to crush and get them out of the nets.

After they have finished removing all the fish from the net, and while it is being set back out for the next day's fishing, they remove the fish heads and guts, leaving just the portion that will be hung up to dry to make stockfish.

After hauling up the fish from all the nets and setting them back in the water to catch the next day's fish, we head back to harbor to land the fish to the small fish factory that will dry the fish to make Lofoten's signature product - stockfish. Known as tørrfisk in Norwegian, and sold as "bacalao de Noruega," mostly to Italy, this transformation of the cod is what makes Lofoten's cod fishery world-renowned.

At the factory, they use a crane to haul the fish off the boat.
In the factory, any fish that the crews didn't get a chance to head and gut on the boat are prepared onshore. Note that rather than discarding all the offal, the roe - the female's pouches full of pink eggs - and the livers are saved to eat. Another choice piece used in Lofoten cooking, the cod's tongue is cut from the heads by a young boy - this is traditionally a job saved for young people as their first introduction to the fishing industry.From the factory, the fish are put into fish boxes and onto tractors and taken out the fish racks to be hung to dry.There were crews out hanging fish all the time while I was in Ballstad, and I stopped to watch on group hang up a batch of fish.
Along, as it so happened, with an English television film crew producing a short spot on the Lofoten fishery. Yet another testament to the world-wide reputation of the Lofoten cod fishery.The men were working in pairs: one man on the tractor picks up the fish (bound together as a pair), and then hands up to another up near the top of the racks who hangs it over a wooden pole.As this worker explained to us, each rack can hold tens of thousands of fish, and hanging the entire catch to dry is a full time job during the winter fishing season - they work all hours of the day, from early in the morning when the boats are heading out until ten and eleven at night. They also keep busy the rest of the year, since after the fish is done drying in June it needs to be taken back down, sorted based on its quality, and then prepared for export.
The drying racks are found in seemingly every bit of free space on the islands part of the incredibly picturesque scenery of Lofoten.
Most people even had a few fish hanging to dry on the side of their houses, providing their own supply of stockfish for the coming year.
Here's what the drying fish looks like up close.
And the heads, also dried, and mostly sold to Africa (some are also bought by the Norwegian government and given to the poor in developing countries as government aid).
I thought it was pretty cool to be able to walk around and watch the fish drying. So much fish!
And, to finish off the experience and see the process from start to finish, I also had the chance to taste some proper Norwegian cod. In addition to the boknafisk I had with Mary Ann and Børge's family on Easter, they also invited me the night I went out fishing on the boat to eat some of the fresh fish catch prepared in classic Norwegian style - boiled fish and roe served with potatoes, carrots, butter and liver sauce. An excellent end to a fantastic chance to see Lofoten's coastal cod fishery, a continuation of centuries of fishing tradition that will hopefully last for centuries to come.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A sea of prawns

Even though my travels have left Scotland behind, I would be negligent not to write something about the Scottish west coast, both as a distinct part of the Scottish fishing industry and as one of the most beautiful places I have seen this year. Traveling from Aberdeen on the east coast across to Inverness in the heart of the Highlands and then on across to the Isle of Skye, the “jewel of the Hebridean crown,” the largest of the islands in the inner Hebrides, the rolling landscape rose up into the Cuillin Mountains and a rugged sheep-dotted coastline.

Even though the Scottish fishing industry is regulated as one entity, and has increasingly called for separate consideration from both EU and overall British fisheries as a single entity, anyone will tell you that the east and west coast fisheries are highly distinct. Most of the boats on the west coast are much smaller, many smaller boats only fishing close to shore and returning to port every night and even the larger boats rarely staying away longer than a week.

In Portree, a small port on the Isle of Skye, the fishing boats on the pier seem as much a part of the picturesque landscape as an industry.

As with fishing towns all across the northern Atlantic and in particular in the wake of the decommissioning in Scotland, decreases in the number of boats fishing have led the town to diversify, and Portree is fairly typical of much of the west coast in having come to rely largely on tourism – by far the main industry in town – and to a lesser extent on salmon aquaculture.

These are salmon pens in the water between the islands, complete with a little floating building that seems to serve as a sort of storage facility and office.

Mallaig, one of the main fishing towns on the west coast, just south of the Isle of Skye, which came to prominence as a fishing port in 1901 when the railway to Fort William (the same railway line used for filming the Hogwarts Express scenes in the Harry Potter movies) was completed and created a transportation link for fish landed in Mallaig to be taken to market, has maintained a much larger fisheries infrastructure, including a boatyard and processing plants both for the prawns being caught by local boats and for farmed salmon. But the loss of vessels has also hit Mallaig hard – perhaps even harder than on the Isle of Skye, which has been more successful in attracting tourists.

Although there are still many boats in the Mallaig harbor, it was certainly not full when I sailed in on the ferry from Skye,

a very different picture than the harbor even thirty years ago.

Most of these boats, whether the smaller day-boats in Skye or the larger boats out of Mallaig, are trawlers, some fishing with a single trawl net and most of the larger boats pulling two trawl nets (prawns are most likely to be caught at the edges of a net, so larger boats find that they catch more by pulling two smaller nets than one larger net). Unlike the east coast fisheries, where whitefish is dominant and even in the Fraserburgh-based prawn fishery whitefish is an essential part of the catch for an industry that relies on its mixed fishery, the fishing boats on the east coast are catching almost exclusively prawns – the common term for the Norway lobster, Nephrops.

Nearly all the west coast fishermen aim for a catch of clean prawns by using large square mesh panels in the top of their nets that allow the fish to escape, a decision driven largely by the expense of acquiring whitefish quota and the many regulatory difficulties of catching cod under the Cod Recovery Plan.

A net laid out on the Mallaig dock for maintenance on a stormy day. This is a pretty good way to see the net design: note the main part of the net with rockhoppers on the bottom (the black pieces on the left side of the picture) and floats at the top of the net opening, and the two wings out on the side that are attached to the trawl doors and hold the net open. You can also see the orange square mesh panel near the back of the net where the prawns collect (the cod end).

A more close-up view of the square mesh panel. This one has 110mm meshes.

Most fishermen I talked with think the square mesh panels are helpful in keeping from catching small fish, citing both scientific tests of the nets that demonstrated their effectiveness and reductions they have found in the amounts of small fish they have had to discard since putting the panels in their nets.

The other reason, though, that the west coast boats don’t catch fish along with their prawns is because the fish just aren’t there. As the large herring shoals that built up towns like Mallaig and provided the mainstay of the Scottish fisheries in the beginning of the twentieth century disappeared in the late 1960s and 1970s, seine- and trawl-caught whitefish became increasingly important on the west coast. But the fishermen I talked to said that even before the restrictive conservation measures of recent times were put in place, the whitefish was becoming more and more scarce and the smaller boats that did not venture as far offshore were no longer finding fish. So as the herring fishery ended (a combination of the loss of the stocks and a change in regulatory structure such that now all pelagic fish are caught by large boats and there is no quota or processing capacity available for the herring that has returned to the inshore areas of the west coast) and whitefish became hard to find, the boats switched over to catching shellfish – mostly prawns. Even as many people I talked with question the wisdom of the Cod Recovery Plan, which has forced reductions in the size of the fishing industry as on the east coast, they are quick to acknowledge that the whitefish are gone from the area as a result of overfishing. It was only after the fish – a top predator – disappeared, they say, that the prawns began doing so well. It has worked out well for them now, but worry that it probably isn’t so good for the long term.

For now, though, the fishermen are still out catching prawns. The catch has a very short shelf life and, other than the small tails which are breaded and sold as scampi in Britain, most of the prawns are exported to Spain and France for a high-end market that pays top prices for top quality seafood. Thus the west coast fishing industry, even on small boats fishing out of ports with only a few hundred residents, has developed a well-coordinated system of getting prawns from a Scottish boat to a consumer in southern Europe within a week. The smaller day-boats that I saw in Portree come back to port every night but usually land their catch once every two days, and even the larger boats usually don’t stay out longer than five days, meaning that the catch is still very fresh when the prawns are landed.

The boats come in and tie up at the pier just as it is getting dark.

Like the way whitefish boats sort their catches, the prawners sort their catch by size while still aboard the boats. They remove the heads from the small prawns destined to become British scampi; all the rest are landed whole.

Unlike most whitefish boats, however, prawns are usually not sold on auction but directly to buyers who truck the catch straight to the processors. (This is mostly because the market price of prawns is much more stable than for whitefish.)

Boxes full of prawns are taken up out of the hold by crane and then transferred onto the dock. Larger boats like this one have a largely-automated system for doing this, but some of the smaller boats I saw in Portree still use old-fashioned manual labor to haul up their catches.

Trucks come to meet the boats as they land their catch, and after the catch is weighed – in a larger port like Mallaig in an established indoor sorting area and scale, but in a smaller port like Portree the truck carries its own portable scale in the back.

Prawns landed in Portree can make it all the way across Scotland to Fraserburgh in one night – one truck makes the rounds of all the small ports of the Isle of Skye and drives to Inverness, where it meets another truck that makes the rest of the journey to the processing plants in Fraserburgh. (Because processing plants rely on a steady input of prawns to keep regular employment for their workers and hold their reputation as regular suppliers in overseas markets, the prawns go long distances from where they are landed even before they are packaged for export so as to balance out the supply across Scotland and keep the processing plants running.) Most Mallaig prawns are processed closer to home, just a 90 minute drive down the road in Fort William. In both cases, though, the prawns arrive as the processing plant the morning after they are landed and within a few days are shipped out of the country and off to the seafood markets in Spain where Norway lobsters are in high demand.

Despite the reliance on a sophisticated international market to provide an income from the prawns, the west coast fishery still sees itself as a traditional lifestyle-oriented fishery as opposed to the more business-oriented fishery on the east coast, generally moving slower to adopt new technologies or expand their fishing operations. Most fishermen have found that they are making a decent living just catching prawns, and don’t see the appeal in the additional investment and longer trips away from home necessary to catch whitefish or bring back larger catches and larger profits (when I asked one skipper of a small boat in Portree how long he stays out, he laughed and said he didn’t fancy “night fishing,” and even the younger skippers who stay out for a week nearly always return every Sunday, as religious traditions still hold sway here). West coast fishermen are proud of this: one man told me that the difference between the east and west coast fisheries in Scotland is that they are greedy in the east, that they all are living in mansions and getting rich by towing big nets that are catching too many fish, while in the east they just want to make a decent living. It’s a hard argument to buy – the fishermen in met in Peterhead lived comfortably but not lavishly, and the living as a fisherman on both the east and west coast has become so unattractive for young Scots that most skippers have started hiring Filipino crews. But the sentiment is instructive – while fishermen throughout Scotland are interested both in maintaining their communities and making a living, the east coast is generally more business-oriented and open to change while the west coast is more focused on tradition and maintaining their ability to make a living from fishing in areas with few other industries to turn to if the fishing fails.

Even among the larger of the west coast boats fishing out of Mallaig, many are wooden boats with the wheelhouse located aft (a holdover from the days of sail), showing their preference to keep to old tried-and-true fishing styles.

My favorite of these Mallaig boats was the Reul A Chuain, which means Star of the Ocean in Scottish Gaelic (not the same as Irish Gaelic). The skipper is one of the growing number of west coast Scots who speak fluent Gaelic (now taught in schools and found on street signs throughout the Highlands and Hebrides). During decommissioning, he sold his old boat and took the chance to go back to school at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye, where he learned Gaelic culture and language – to catch up with what his daughters were learning in school, he told me – and also studied North Atlantic fishing, including taking a trip to the Faeroe Islands. When he bought a new boat and went back to fishing he wanted a proper Gaelic name for his boat (even though, like many who worry about the future of fishing, he would like to get a job doing something else, he said there wasn’t really anything else he could see himself doing). He also said he tried to pick a name that would be easy to pronounce, but I think he might have overestimated the abilities of the general public…I must admit, he laughed a little when I tried.

This skipper, I think, is what I will remember most of the west coast Scottish fishery: a man who is tied to his heritage and his home and has been fishing all his life, and indeed can’t think of anything else he would want to do, but still worries that with stricter regulations and reductions in the number of vessels fishing and an ecosystem that has been radically changed even in his lifetime, there may not be much of a future in fishing. He is proud that his children can speak Gaelic, but glad that none of them want to be fishermen.