COLUMN | Who will catch the fish? [Fishing for a Living]

Two crewmembers haul by hand one of several gillnets set a couple of hours earlier near Paknam Chumphon, Thailand. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

I often find myself joining the cause of fishermen around the world lamenting the lack of consultation by government scientists and bureaucrats with legitimate fishermen.

The governing bodies define total allowable catches and negotiate international boundaries or close areas to create marine parks. Sometimes there will be a town hall-style meeting that usually ends with shouting.

But who are these “fishermen” that we all want consulted? Are they the owners of large factory trawlers? Are they crew on those boats? Are they family fishing operations, or a guy in an open boat with long-tail propulsion?

Thirty years ago, I attended meetings in hotel conference rooms in which three or four staff from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, occasionally with the Minister of Fisheries, would sit at the front of the room to explain some new program, to limit entry, propose transferable quotas or some other flavor of the day in fisheries management. These meetings were ostensibly to “get feedback” but usually included a fishermen complaining that the government asked for input but implemented policy without regard to the input.

In recent years, there have been fewer of those meetings but government still maintains that they “consulted industry”. How does that work I wondered, until I realized that the quota systems introduced in many fisheries had allowed the concentration of ownership in a few hands? “Consultation” could be done with a few lobbyists without even leaving the national capital. And the minister could say, “We have consulted with industry.”

“New quotas often neglected the communities and became transferable corporate properties”

So who are these “fishermen”? In many cases today, they have never owned a pair of gumboots. The have degrees in business and economics. They make presentations to bureaucrats who have degrees in management. While there have long been politicians in fisheries and more than one war fought over access to the grounds there were also long term traditions that recognized rights to areas and gear types.

More recently, under the influence of economists, “rights” to fish have been allocated, usually based on history and tradition. However, where traditionally these rights were associated with communities and broader social responsibilities, these new quotas often neglected the communities and became transferable corporate properties.

The quotas were assigned to the vessel owners who, generally, were also the captains. I have never heard of a case where the crew were assigned quota or compensated within the plan. Now, looking back after two or three decades, it seems that in some cases quotas have passed on in the family, but in many more cases have been sold or leased out of the fishing community. Increasingly, this will be to a processor or business investor from outside the coastal community or even outside of the country.

In some cases, particularly with mid-water and bottom trawl quotas, the smaller quotas have been accumulated on larger trawler-processors that fish off shore. These boats are often so efficient that they catch their domestic quota in a few months. But they represent huge capital investments and the banks want payments.

Their owners feel obliged to look to foreign waters to keep their investment working and making their bank payments. So we get highly sophisticated boats, mid-water and bottom-trawlers but also long liners and seiners, looking for fish to justify their owners’ and the bankers’ investments.

The artisanal salmon seiner that Haig-Brown fished on in the 1960s and ‘70s. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

In eastern Canada, we learned a hard lesson when it was learned that the inshore and the offshore cod stocks were one and the same. When the foreign trawlers’ catches began to fall off, the inshore fishery also collapsed. Only when the fishermen’s predictions were demonstrated in total, did the Canadian government take action, by banning all cod fishing, including the inshore guys.

Today one can hear similar dire prophecies from the inshore fishermen of West Africa, and some South Pacific Island states.

“Widespread corruption and a continuing lack of resources for enforcement mean huge foreign trawlers often venture into areas near the coast that are reserved exclusively for artisanal fishermen, allowing them to drag off tons of catch and putting at risk the livelihoods of millions of local people,” said Richard Valdmanis and Simon Akam in a Reuters piece in 2012.

Such accounts are numerous. Many of the Somali pirates claim to have turned to that career after large trawlers clean out their coastline. When I was a young man, I crewed on my father-in-law’s purse seiner. My mother-in-law was a cook deckhand and my teenage brothers-in-law rounded out the crew.

I didn’t make a lot of money but it was enough because we also went crabbing or jigged for cod while waiting for the tide and, in the early morning, the captain would occasionally shoot a deer that came down the beach to lick salt.

“Shouldn’t we start managing to the needs of the nation’s fishermen”

A few months ago, my wife and I visited friends in Paknam Chumphon, Thailand. The man had a new ten-meter open long tail boat that he and his son had built. The son was fishing his dad’s old boat. I went out to gillnet with him and we were suppose to be out over night but catch in the first set was low so by midnight we were back in.

As on my father-in-law’s salmon boat in Canada back in the 1960s, there was no large bank loan forcing us to stay out scratching up a few fish to cover interest payments. The young man from Chumphon went home to sleep in his own bed.

These two examples are my attempt to give definition to the term “artisanal fishery”. While the salmon seiner used a modern diesel, hydraulics and radar, it was, like the Thai long tail, family owned and operated. It involved relatively little capital cost. Both fished within restricted zones with regulated gear.

In the 1970s, about the time that I left seining, the government introduced a limited entry plan. The boat that I fished on was replaced with a beamy modern boat that was owned by a vertically integrated seafood company that could take advantage of the huge initial capital cost. Other licenses could be “stacked” on it to increase catches without increasing crew pay. The boat fished much harder.

The Thai boat continued to land its catch on the beach where the owner’s wife purchased it along with those of neighbours. She then brokered those fish to local seafood restaurants and markets. Only in times of high catches did she ship some fish up the coast to a large processor.

But the owners, and others in the area, were already lamenting the pressures of larger off shore trawlers, using technology introduced decades before, to catch a mixed bag of fish including juveniles of those that they would want to catch as adults for the local restaurant trade.

Economists, interested in the economies of scale, are causing us to manage to the wrong end. Shouldn’t we start managing to the needs of the nation’s fishermen and only permit offshore boats if and when it can be proven that those stocks are separate and unrelated to those fished by the artisanal fishermen?

See all the other content from this month’s Fishing and Aquaculture Week right here, including reviews, features, opinions and news.

Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.