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.