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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 7. The Lore of the Sea

Part 2. Maritime Cultures, Dangers, and Protests

The coasts of the New England states where I served for two years, are a veritable treasure trove of maritime history and relics of fishery activities from the time of the Mayflower landing to the present day. From Cape Cod north to the romantic harbours and creeks of Maine, and west past Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, to the wonderful living museum of Mystic Connecticut, the whole region has preserved its marine tradition in an enormous variety of ways. On my first visit to Maine, I enjoyed a New England clam-bake, with lobsters and clams and cobs of corn, cooked in the way the native Red Indians taught the Pilgrim Fathers, - in a hot stone pit, or over an open fire, and covered with seaweed. Our Rhode Island friends entertained us occasionally with tasty swordfish barbecues and chowder dinners.

Just east of Rhode Island at New Bedford you can still sense the former whale fishery atmosphere, and go into the tiny Seamen’s Bethel church where Father Mapple preached his fearful sermon before Ahab’s fateful voyage, recorded for us in Moby Dick. The prow-shaped pulpit accessed by a replica ship’s ladder, is a later addition to strengthen the Herman Melville link, but it is still impressive. On the wall behind, as if in illustration of fierce sermon, was a painting of a gallant ship beating against a terrible storm off a lee coast of black rocks and snowy breakers. Outside of the chapel you can see some fine Quaker houses and walk by the location of the negro church where Ishmael met the wild Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg. And every town around that coast has marvellous book stores where you can find all sorts of nautical books, pictures, and memorabilia. The lore of the sea is preserved for posterity in ship models, paintings, nautical instruments, well-maintained museum exhibits, music, and in the printed page.

What does it matter if we hold on to the annals of the past, and the collected experience or wisdom of past generations and their way of life ? Why should communities put so much effort and time and investment into the relics of our forebears existence ? Well, those records portray our roots, and the soil from which we sprung. Whether we are aware of it or not, our lives and world-views have developed out of the experiences of our ancestors. So they are important and they are relevant. Those who worship modernity might think it does not matter. Past traditional knowledge can be replaced by technology. The computer can substitute for the wisdom of the ages. But I suspect, deep down, most of us feel uncomfortable with such crass indifference or utilitarianism. There is a romance and a beauty and meaning for us in our heritage, if we have the sense of wonder, and humility and appreciation to value it.

There are parts of the world where centuries of maritime history appear to be forgotten or just ignored, and a wealth of fishery, navigational, and boat construction skills have largely been replaced by the readily accessible products of manufacturing industry from abroad. One of these regions is the vast South Pacific which was traversed by generations of Polynesian sailors whose intricate lattice-stick maps of the stars guided them across the ocean on their outrigger-fitted sailing canoes. There is a marvellous painting of one such in the foyer of the Outrigger Hotel at Waikiki beach, Honolulu, which is well worth a visit.

When I was privileged to travel throughout the south Pacific in the 1990’s for both the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, and the Asian Development Bank, I took with me a copy of the journals of Cook’s voyages. I also took with me Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “In the South Seas”. The Scottish writer and poet ended his days in that part of the world which he visited partly for health reasons. As a young boy RLS spent more than one summer on the lighthouse service vessel operated by his family. Those voyages around the Scottish coast gave him material for the voyage of the brig Covenant in his book Kidnapped.

James Cook’s sea explorations took place in the mid-18th century, and Stevenson’s in the later 19th century. My visits were in the late 20th century, so I had a first-hand picture of the region, complemented by the two historical accounts, one from a hundred years before, and one written over two hundred years earlier. The similarities were surprising, and the contrasts, fascinating. For the most part I was able to relate to both as I viewed the different islands of the region, and came to know the people and understand something of their culture.

But a major disappointment I had in the Pacific was that they had largely lost their traditional boat-building and sailing skills. Instead of beautiful sailing canoes, longboats and schooners, the islanders have gone for fiberglass runabouts and fuel-expensive outboard motors. There are attempts to retain and resurrect the skills involved in the design, construction and operation of the old outrigger boats, but they have been limited in number and scope. Few of the islands now have a genuine coastal fishery, apart from those who harvest the reefs with spear-guns and drive-in gill nets. Too many of them rely on foreign fleets to harvest their offshore tuna stocks. The enormous tourist potential of sports fishing was largely untapped. Fishery schools established from Papua New Guinea to the Marshall Islands, were mostly weak and poorly equipped, and did little to resurrect or maintain maritime skills.

Indonesia made an excellent start with practical marine and fishery training programmes in the 1970’s, under the visionary leadership of the late Admiral Nizam Zachman. With UN help he established centres in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali, Ambon, and Irian Jaya. These were thoroughly practical schools with well-equipped workshops, and a fleet of training vessels. FAO supplied engineers, processing experts, and fishing captains, from Norway, the USA, Japan, Korea, Iceland, and Denmark, - a fine team I was to lead for five years. Every fishing cadet learned to splice rope and wire, to assemble long lines, and to make and repair, trawls and seines. Every marine engineering student learned to file, drill, cut, and weld steel, and to make spare parts and even small winches and capstans. Classroom instruction on navigation and engine operation, was supplemented with hands-on experience at sea, on the project’s fleet of training vessels. As a result of that thoroughly practical and well-managed program, all foreign officers in Indonesia’s offshore fleet, and all foreign engineers on its vessels and in its fish plants, were replaced by competent national officers within 12 years.

A mobile extension service was established to spread the technical support of the programme to islands and locations beyond the reach of the seven centres. But by then the Admiral had retired, and a former army officer was put in charge of the Fisheries Directorate. A World Bank Mission came to advise the government on reducing its civil service. It informed the Director General that there was no need for a fisheries extension service (after all, - Indonesia had only 2 million fishermen, 500 thousand fishing boats, and a catch of over 2 million tonnes then, plus fish farm yields !). The general carried out the World Bank’s wishes and dismissed all the fishery extension personnel, and closed the technical support centres. Thus fishery sector development work in that vast archipelago, was crippled for years to come. For the next 2 decades there was only a rice farm officer or coconut plantation adviser available to help most of the rural fishers with their technical problems.

There were a number of attempts over the past 50 years to establish practical fishery schools throughout the developing world. The better ones occurred in Japan, the USSR, Korea, Israel, Namibia, and even land-locked Zambia. Other efforts in Africa and south Asia withered due to inadequate support, and (quite often) to appointment of incompetent staff. But fortunately, the fishing communities themselves maintained traditional skills and passed them on to the next generation, without much help from government or aid organisations.

One of the commonest mistakes of training programmes, was to try to jump over the need for basic skills or traditional knowledge, by exposing raw students directly to modern instruments and processes. So you got vessel ‘captains’ who could use radio telephone, radar, and echo-sounder, but who could not tie a knot or splice a rope, or handle a boat in rough seas. Or as I often encountered, ‘fish quality’ officers who sat, armed with a microscope, in an office beside a fish market where there was no water to wash the fish or premises, and no protection from sun or heat, and the catches landed lay there, deteriorating for hours. I used to advise such quality control officers that before they attempted to use a microscope, they should get buckets of water and scrubbing brushes to clean the premises, and devise ways of keeping the fish cool and protected from contamination. But they had never been given practical training in those very basic skills.

Intuitive and traditional fishing skills have survived however, in some coastal communities, handed down from father to son as was the practice since man first pushed a log or a boat out into the sea or river to find fish. The traditional fishers inherited and possessed a wealth of knowledge and competence in the art of finding and catching fish, though they had limited formal education. Britain took a lead between the two wars, in ensuring that experienced fishers were able to study for certificates of competency despite their limited formal education.

Some countries failed to do so however, and this led to an unusual arrangement on ocean ranging vessels in the period after WW2. I recall a Japanese officer describing for us how when they rebuilt their deep sea fishing fleet, they trained officers in ocean navigation. But these new Captains had little knowledge and no experience of fishing operations. They could take a ship to the fishing grounds and back, but they were unable to catch fish. So for some years, the fishing companies employed two captains on each deep sea vessel, - a navigating captain and a fishing skipper. Later, when the next generation of fishers had sufficient education to study navigation and seamanship to the professional standard required, the two jobs were merged in one as is the practice in most countries.

During my second year at the University of Rhode Island, I wrote a piece for the Maritime journal, on the contrast between scientific and intuitive approaches to fishing. It followed an international conference at which we had looked at the application to fishing of some of the marvels of modern technology. But as my friend Mary Burke of the College of Fisheries, Newfoundland had said to me, when old schooner Captain Williams’ seamanship laboratory was replaced by a computer programme analysis lab, - “Somebody still has to go out there, on the ocean, in all weathers, and actually catch the fish. No computer programme is going to do that for him.” Not to disparage the advantages of electronic instruments for navigation and fish finding, I felt sympathy for Mrs Burke’s view, and still believe that you cannot substitute traditional knowledge wholly with technology. In putting out my ideas on the value of intuitive fishing and experience in the Maritimes article, I quoted from old John Bunyan :

You see the ways the fisherman doth take
To catch the fish, - what engines he doth make.
Behold, how he engageth all his wits,
Also his snares, lines, angles, hooks and nets;
Yet, fish there be that neither snare nor net
nor angle can make thine
They must be groped for, and be tickled too
Or they will not be catch’d whate’er you do.

Back home, on the south shore of the inner Moray Firth, we often notice how the computer generated weather images from BBC, ITN, Sky, and CNN, many times fail to present an accurate picture of the conditions in our corner of the North Sea. Generally speaking we enjoy much better weather than the satellites predict. It is not that the satellite images are wrong, but just that they cannot represent all of the local variations in the weather patterns. Similar problems occurred to a greater degree when scientists tried to predict fish movements and locations by readings from outer space. Some useful oceanographic data were obtained, but as far as helping fishing fleets find the schools they sought, the efforts were fruitless. (I was not an ignorant outside observer of these programmes, having been actively involved in UN projects plotting sea bed variations and fishing grounds from satellite imagery.)

A fisherman at home recently told a friend of his father’s skill in predicting weather changes. “Your Dad could fairly read the sky”, he said, “and by that alone he could give a far more accurate forecast than we had from the BBC”. Such former weather prophets were shrewd observers of wind, sky, sea conditions, temperature, and the phases of the moon. They had also stored up memories of the weather patterns experienced in their lifetimes.

Few people now pay serious attention to barometers or weather glasses, which tend to be a nice ornament to have in one’s porch or veranda. But for generations in my home port, old fishers would study the air pressure readings every day, and by comparing them with wind and cloud, temperature and time of year, could come up with amazingly accurate forecasts. Changes in wind direction, and their relationship to the phases of the moon, and the tides, were also included in the observations of the old salts. But today, you would be hard pressed to find a single elderly mariner in any of our coastal towns, who possesses that precious lore.

There are other aspects of the accumulated wisdom of our forefathers that I think we neglect at our peril. We are seeing today in stark economic and financial terms, the folly of thinking that we can borrow unlimited amounts and live for ever on credit. Our grandparents never believed in that approach. Stay out of debt; live within your means; always save to have a reserve for rainy days ahead; - these were the nuggets of advice we all received, but few of us paid too much attention to. Now their truth is painfully apparent to us all. As this book is concerned with the coastal fishing communities of the world, we will limit discussion to them, but that discussion must take place against the global background of excessive borrowing, financial mismanagement, and environmental damage caused mainly by big business.

Governments have sucked coastal communities into the trend to borrow and to exploit the resources beyond their sustainable level by the introduction of ITQs and the creation of structural injustices like designated landing ports, enforced discarding, and penalising costs that put the fishers in perpetual debt to the banks. None of that was needful or sensible. Our grandfathers would have thought such scenarios could never be possible in sane, civilised, democratic society. At the root of it all is the cultivation of greed and fierce competition, and the justification of behaviour our predecessors would have seen as downright immoral.

Where can we find communities that still live by the wisdom and values of the stalwarts who built up our seashore villages, coastal ports and fisher communities ? Let me give a few simple examples of the behaviour of current and former generations of seafarers who would never have countenanced enriching themselves at the expense of others. The old schooner Captain, Clarence Williams, mentioned elsewhere, was one such character. Tough, determined, resolute, yet with that strong streak of common decency and integrity that typified so many old salts of his time. I never saw him perform at sea, and only learned his reputation from others. But even in his behaviour as a retired seaman, his qualities shone through.

One snowy winter day he was travelling in a friend’s car towards St John’s on the Newfoundland part of the Trans-Canada Highway. They passed a car that had obviously slid off the highway into a drift and whose occupants were struggling to get it back on to the road. Capt. Williams companion just drove on as if it was a matter of no concern. The former schooner skipper just looked at him in astonishment. “You’re not going to leave those folks in that predicament ?” He asked of his colleague. “You can’t do that to people in difficulty”. No doubt, embarrassed and challenged, his friend stopped, turned the car around and drove back to the place where together they pulled the other vehicle back on to the road. That simple incident shows the clear difference between modern selfishness and traditional cooperation. This shone through much of the fishing community in the old days.

My great grandfather and his fellows would have understood Captain Williams attitudes fully. They operated sailboats with herring drift nets and white fish long lines, and often worked away from home for months on end. The distant grounds they fished were off Yarmouth, and Shetland, the Hebrides and Ireland. They were not wealthy men, but within the context of their own fisher communities they were successful despite the normal cyclical variations in the fishing. At the end of each fishery, when they settled up and distributed the proceeds of the season, they would have a serious discussion about any other boats in the fleet that had suffered loss or had struggled to make ends meet. Sanny Caccie as he was nick-named, and his fellow skippers would then decide to contribute some of their earnings for the relief of the less fortunate men and their families. This was done simply and without fanfare and the only quid pro quo requested was that those who were helped would do likewise when things went better for them and they were in a position to help others. I guess such behaviour would be regarded as naïve or do-good-ish by our modern financial wizards, but perhaps all of us would do well to reflect on how different the world would be if we followed that example.

I’m sure my great grandfather was no plaster-cast saint, but the story is true and I believe his reputation was enhanced in consequence. When my father was a young cabin boy on the motor boat Prestige, in 1925, they called in at the little island of Barra in the South Minch. My Dad walked up the little road from the pier to the village and met the harbour master, old Captain MacKinnon coming striding down to inspect the visiting boat. The harbour master stopped the young cabin boy and enquired of him whether “there were any relatives of Sanny Caccie aboard that boat”. My father responded in the affirmative and added that he was a grandson of the man in question. The old Captain looked admiringly at him, threw his arms wide open, and said in a loud voice, - “Then you’re welcome to Barra, and all that’s in it” !

I am glad to say that the altruistic behaviour of the old fishers did not die out completely with their generation. Despite the cutthroat nature of modern fishing, and the high cost of running a large vessel, some skippers and crews continue the tradition of mutual help and assistance. In the port of Peterhead, one of the biggest fishing centres in Europe, there are some colossal ships that are the last word in power and efficiency. But some of the families that own such craft, try to retain a degree of fellow-feeling and consideration for less fortunate fishers. One such family is the Buchans who operate large pelagic seiners and trawlers. They will not like me mentioning this, but the story was told me by a fish salesman and a fisherman’s mission officer who were fully aware of the incident. The large herring boat had enjoyed a very successful few trips and its crew was receiving big shares. But there was another boat in the fleet that had endured a series of setbacks and was now in financial difficulty. The big boat skipper handed the salesman a substantial sum and asked that it be quietly passed on to the boat and the crew concerned.

In the fishing villages of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific I have witnessed similar attitudes. These communities operate like large extended families. When one family has to build or move a house, all others assist. When one family has a wedding, all others contribute. When one farmer has a field to harvest, the others lend a hand. When one fishing boat lands a big catch, the rest of the village share in unloading and distributing the fish. That is how they are. Now there may be an element of superstition or self-interest in the behaviour as in those villages it is not considered wise to be too prominent or too rich. Some believe that the devil will attack an individual who stands out in such a way. So all the houses look similar. But nevertheless those values and that traditional way of doing things is surely far preferable to the commercialisation of all of society that we see in the west and the north.

I worked for three years among the poor villages of the Tonle Sap valley in Cambodia. The villagers survive at a low level with little cash income, and just enough rice and prohoc, or fermented fish paste, to feed them and their children for the year. They are the children of the Killing Fields whose parents suffered under the horrific Khmer Rouge atrocities. So they know all about mankind’s capacity for ruthless cruelty. Yet when we went to the villagers to offer them modest assistance to expand their livelihood base and improve their health and quality of life, invariably they in turn asked us, “Do you have anything for the widows, orphans, and elderly in our commune”? “Is there something that can be done for them”? That attitude impressed me greatly. Yes, there was also some selfishness and petty corruption among them, but given their many disadvantages and their poverty compared to us, they showed much more concern for the unfortunate and disadvantaged in their communities than we show to those in our own society.

So from the lore of the sea and the wisdom of our seafaring predecessors, there is much to learn, and we do well to examine it in depth and to see where it might be applied to our much vaunted modern society and its management. And perhaps in no area is their wisdom more needed than in our personal and corporate obligations to the victims of misfortune or injustice.

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