Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to make a shrimp trawl: nets and networks in a global world of fishing

My first introduction to the Newfoundland fishing industry in this year’s journey was actually at the Hampiðjan workshop in Hirtshals, Denmark in December. David Kelly, a Newfoundland netmaker (as was his father, who still works making nets and is apparently so well-known for his nets that there’s a style still known as a “Bob Kelly” net), runs a netloft that is part of the worldwide group of Hampiðjan companies, and thus was one of the many netmakers and fishermen from around the world who came to the flume tank to see some of Hampiðjan’s trawl nets in action. After we met in Denmark, Dave offered that when I got to Newfoundland I could come see how the nets are made and try my hand at netmaking. And so, a couple weeks ago (I know, I’m constantly behind on this blog) I took a few days and went along on his daily trip from St. John’s to the netloft in Spaniard’s Bay.

As one of relatively few netmakers in the region, the netloft provides all sorts of products – from providing the netting for local soccer goals a few years back to making mesh covers to protect trash bags from gulls to selling rope to local women for a clothesline – but most of the netloft’s business is in making shrimp trawl nets. Since the closure of the cod fishery in 1992, crab (caught with traps, which the netloft also makes but, Dave says, not so much for profit as to help keep customers) and shrimp (caught with trawls) have become the most important species for the fishing industry. I’d been in a netloft before while I was in Scotland, but it was only after seeing firsthand how the trawl nets are made that I feel like I can actually appreciate how much work goes into each one. A trawl net of the type I’ve seen on the stern of many boats this year more than fills the entire floor of this room.

Although the mesh material for each piece of the net comes from a factory in Lithuania, all of the pieces that go together to make the net have to be measured, cut and then hand-sewn together. Each step in the process has its own particular methods for how to tie the knots, splice the ropes, and piece together all the mesh, twine, and rope to make a functional net.

Even just the most basic of tasks, lacing together two pieces of mesh, was slow going for me even after I got the hang of the method – although it was kind of exciting to see palpable progress as I worked my way down the room.

It takes this group of experienced netmakers about three days to put together a full trawl net – which seems fast to me given how slowly I work without any experience – but still uses about 120 hours worth of work. The labor-intensity of the process, combined with the huge amount of physical material that goes into making a full trawl net explains why one of these nets ends up costing about $20,000. That’s expensive for a net, but in the scheme of things for a large fishing enterprise, this is just one of many pieces of the extensive capital investment (buying and maintaining a boat, fuel, nets, etc.) that have to be put in before there’s any chance to catch something and hope to make a profit. The fisheries union, the Fish, Food, and Allied Workers (FFAW), writes that, “As the shellfish-driven fishery of the late 1990s and early 2000s drove existing fishing fleets farther from shore, there was a massive overall capital investment - to the tune of $100s of millions - in vessels more suited to the greater distances from shore and the changing nature of the fishery.” And in most of the world’s fishing industries these days, this has become commonplace.

Yet even as the nature of the fishery is changing to require this sort of capital investment, many Newfoundlanders seem hesitant to trade the small-scale inshore fishery for fewer, larger, more capital-intensive enterprises. One of the most interesting things about seeing how trawl nets are made here in Newfoundland is that, unlike other places I’ve been like Iceland and Scotland where nearly everyone is fishing with trawl nets, trawling is a relatively small part of the province’s fishing industry. Even though there are about 13,000 people in Newfoundland employed as fish harvesters, there are fewer than four hundred shrimp licenses in the province, meaning that it’s actually only a fairly small proportion of the industry – the largest, most capital-intensive enterprises – that fishes with this sort of trawl net.

Among the old-time, inshore fishermen, many are dubious of trawling, particularly after many felt that offshore trawling caused the decline of the cod stocks, and even among the families of fishermen who had invested in the larger boats and gone shrimp trawling who I met on Fogo Island, many wondered whether they actually made any more money at the end of the day because of the bigger boat. At the same time, though, this sort of modernization, using new technology to be able to target new species in new ways and increasing size to improve economic efficiency, seems to be the dominant trend in the world’s most profitable fishing industries, and a trend the province can’t afford to ignore since marine resources remain a central pillar of the economy. So for me, a trip to the Hampiðjan Canada netloft in Spaniard’s Bay was a prime illustration of Newfoundland’s balancing act in today’s fishing industry: we drove through small outports with fishermen who still know how to make their own wooden punts and maintain old put-put engines to get to a netloft that has evolved in the hands of a local family to partner with a worldwide company and uses materials from as far away as Lithuania and Iceland to build trawls for the largest, most capital-intensive fleet fishing out of Newfoundland’s outports. It’s an odd juxtaposition between the old traditional ways and modern innovation born of globalization. One that Newfoundlanders (and I) are still trying to work out.

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