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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 8. Fishing Cultures and Fishery Dangers

Only those who have been brought up in a coastal fishing community can truly appreciate the ‘esprit de corps’ that exists, - or used to exist. It inspires the young men in particular, as sea tales ever have, - witness the painting of the Boyhood of Raliegh by Sir John Everett Millais which depicts a young Sir Walter Raleigh paying rapt attention to a ragged sailor’s animated tale of voyages of danger and adventure. As young boys, we drank in the accounts of older men, describing storms at sea, wrecks or near-wrecks, and the times of plenty as well as long periods of hardship and poor returns. That the fishing sector had the highest loss of life of any profession in the country, (including mining, the second highest), - was no discouragement to us or to our desire for such a life and such a career. What other profession could offer that degree of adventure, excitement, challenge, opportunities to excel, and prospects of rewards. That fishing town atmosphere is well described in Peter Buchan’s depiction of herring fishermen and their families at work in an old net loft :

When snow lies deep, in cosy loft
a-mending of our nets we will recall
the days of joy, the nights of disappointment,
each silver shimmer, and each weary haul.

And children sitting, chin-in-hand, will listen,
forsaking for the moment every toy,
for there’s a deep and wond’rous fascination,
in sea-tales, for the heart of every boy.

And we, all-wise, forbidding them the sea life,
will see them smile when we have had our say,
full well we know the extent of their obedience,
for are we not the boys of yesterday.

Peter Buchan the fisherman poet, was a dear, respected friend of mine. I was instrumental in getting at least one of his volumes of poetry published. He had been brought up during the drifter era of fishing, in the port of Peterhead, where he was a member of the renowned and extended fisher clan of “Buchans”. He wrote chiefly in the Doric dialect, but also in English. I will spare readers the Doric poems, but they are similar in humour, metre, and rural insights to the Hamewith poems of Charles Murray. Hamewith describes Aberdeenshire farming communities as Peter’s Mount Pleasant describes the fishing towns. Sir William Duthie the Banffshire MP who was a fisherman’s son himself, said that Peter had done for the Buchan fisher towns what Charles Murray did for the farming communities.

Peter was a shrewd judge of character, and his poetic portrayals of the fishermen and women of his home town are still a great source of amusement for local readers today. He used to tell me with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, of people in the neighbourhood who were offended at what they thought was an unfair picture of themselves, when in fact he had a totally different person in mind when he penned the offending verse. But many readers far beyond the north-east of Scotland enjoyed his work. I gave a copy to a fine English Master Mariner colleague who went on to serve in the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. The Academy was then run by a semi-retired US Admiral who sadly contracted terminal cancer. To comfort him in hospital, Geoff passed on the copy of Peter’s poems. The Admiral loved them, and the book was by his bedside when he died. Geoff asked me for another copy as he did not have the heart to ask the Admiral’s widow to return the book.

I mention all this because as a fisherman himself, and understanding the nature and pressures of a fisherman’s life, Peter could write of the hunter instinct and excessive ambition that sometimes afflicted the best of our seafarers, but he wrote of it in a way that had those skippers even laughing at themselves. Of a particularly energetically ambitious fisherman friend, he wrote that while others like himself were content with a modest living, “Davit sought the golden fleece, where the distant fields loomed greener, with the glamour o’ the name, …

Nivver aff the sea was Davit, - gross the aim and fame the goad,
Sleepin’, wore his boots and cravat, - Sabbath days were in his road.”

Most fishermen can smile at the portrait of a skipper so committed to his work that all other things take second place, - family, faith, leisure time, and even health. It is a caricature, but one that tells a story and contains a word of caution to the thoroughly committed and enthusiastic pioneer of the sea. What critics forget is that the very qualities demanded of a successful skipper, are ones that over-exuberance can feed on. Like the pioneers of the Yukon described by Robert Service below, the kind of man to succeed at sea has to have steel in his character, fire in his belly, and bravery in his spirit. The fishing is no place for faint-hearts or lay-a-beds, or get-rich-quick-opportunists.

Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway,
And I wait for men who will win me, - and I will not be won in a day.
And I will not be won by weaklings, subtle, suave and mild,
But by men with the hearts of Vikings, and the simple faith of a child.

The fishers who sacrificed and saved and risked their lives and worked hours no landlubber would accept, to build and operate boats and explore new grounds and develop better gear and techniques, - they had no wish or intention to deplete the sea of its resources. They were focused on battling with the elements and facing danger and hardship to provide food and income for their people. Some took the competitive spirit rather far, but that was their calling.

When I first went to Newfoundland in 1965, the magnificent natural harbour at St. John’s was home to many of the majestic fleet of sailing schooners that fished for cod off Labrador during the summer months. Each schooner carried dozens of sailing dories that operated with one or two men who hand-lined for cod up to several miles from the mother-ship, much as Rudyard Kipling described in Captain’s Courageous. Kipling’s story, popularized in the film that starred Spencer Tracy, described the similar operations of north American cod schooners from Boston and New Bedford. While the Portuguese schooners were square-rigged vessels, the American ships were faster, more slender boats, built for speed, and the ability to sail close to the wind. One of the most famous, the Bluenose, is still preserved in working order in Nova Scotia. Some schooner captains well still around in Newfoundland when I served there in the 1960’s and they were a marvellous source of nautical information.

Two former schooner skippers I was privileged to work with in Newfoundland were Captain Williams and Captain Burden. Williams had skippered Canadian fishing schooners on the Grand Banks, and sailed them to and from Portugal and the Massachusetts fishing ports. Captain Burden in contrast, had commanded trading schooners that plied to ports as far away as the Caribbean. Williams ran the seamanship section of the college of Fisheries. It was a veritable treasure trove of ropes, wires and canvas, and every kind of spice and knot imaginable. Having worked in or supervised nautical and fisheries colleges in over ten states, I can say with confidence, there never was a better seamanship laboratory than the one set up and maintained by Captain Williams. It is tragic that such maritime skills are being lost as these great seamen pass on. His magnificent seamanship laboratory was scrapped and its store of marlinspike treasures lost to posterity.

Clarence Williams skippered his first fishing schooner, the Lillian M Richards, at the age of 20 in 1918. This command was followed by the Pauline C Winters and the General Byng. It was in the General Byng in 1926 he carried a cargo of salt cod across the Atlantic to Portugal. On the return voyage they encountered stormy weather and contrary winds. 700 miles south of Cape Race he was injured while handling the 196 ton vessel in heavy seas. His leg was broken in two places, but without any proper medical attention he maintained command and eventually reached St Johns harbour. Following 3 months hospitalization, Captain Williams was back at work again. Altogether he captained fourteen sailing vessels and a number of steam trawlers and motor boats. He was such a skilled mariner, he once took a schooner from Sable Island near Newfoundland to Halifax Nova Scotia, with a broken rudder. He did this steering the vessel solely by skilful handling of the sails.

The most famous schooner Clarence Williams commanded was the L A Dunton, which at one time raced the great Bluenose. Built in America, she measured 124 feet in length by 25 in beam and 11foot six inches in draft. Her first voyage under Clarence Williams was in 1935 when he took the schooner from Gloucester Massachusetts to the port of Grand Bank in Newfoundland. From there they sailed to the grand banks offshore commence fishing operations with a crew of 21 men and a boy. Later he made repeated voyages to Oporto, Portugal with cod they had caught and salted and dried. The L A Dunton proved to be a finer sea boat than the General Byng, scarcely taking any water on deck during the Atlantic crossings. A worse winter storm with freezing spray was encountered sixty miles west of St Pierre Island. Two other schooners were lost with all hands in that storm, the Arthur D Story, and the Alsation, but 3 weeks later the Dunton made it safely back to Grand Bank, Newfoundland, with a full hold of codfish.

After its days of active sea service were over, Clarence’s schooner was wisely overhauled and restored. The restoration took place over 40 years after her launch, and just two short years before I arrived in Canada to work in the College of Fisheries, Newfoundland. After moving to the USA, I had the opportunity to inspect and stand on the deck of the fine old lady of sail, where it is preserved now in the magnificent seaport museum at Mystic, Connecticut, USA. It is one of the largest and most authentic of maritime museums in the world.

Williams had been made a member of the Royal Commission on Fisheries in Canada in 1951, under the late Sir Albert Walsh. Then in 1964 he was appointed to the College of Fisheries and Navigation, established by Newfoundland’s dynamic Premier Joey Smallwood. I was appointed to the Department of Nautical Science in the same college the following year. It was a great source of pride and appreciation to me and all who had worked with Clarence, when the Province’s Memorial University awarded him an honorary degree in May 1975. So this redoubtable schooner skipper and remarkable mariner, with limited formal education, became Captain Clarence Williams, Doctor of Laws (honoris causa). I was delighted this formidable old sea salt who had faced the worst of Atlantic seas was so recognised.

Fishers attitudes to the perils of the sea and the fierce storms they face, are significant in the fostering of the virtues of courage, strength of character, and appreciation of danger that can be observed in most seafaring communities. Today, television has brought the wild storms of the north Atlantic and north Pacific into our living rooms, in the documentary programmes of the crab fishers of Alaska, and the trawlermen of Scotland. Even my own daughters have expressed their awe at the working conditions of fishers at sea having watched these televised accounts, and now refer to my own nine years of sea-time with some respect.

Having been at sea in times of bad weather, severe gales, and storm force winds, I am sometimes asked about the element of fear. The truth is, it rarely is a factor. For me, the exception would be when sailing close to rocks or reefs in strong tides, heavy swells, or poor visibility from rain, snow, fog, or darkness. Then, one has every reason to be extremely alert, and a natural fear is a healthy step in that direction. But to observe a storm at sea, from a reasonably stout vessel, however small, is an aesthetic experience rather like climbing a steep mountain, I guess. One feels something like an inner thrill, - strong feelings of awe, and wonder, and amazement.

This is precisely what was said by that amazingly tough, courageous and intrepid lassie, Ellen MacArthur, of her single-handed sail voyage around the world, and her encounter with the storms south of Cape Horn. “This is nature!”, she exclaimed. “This is the sea, in all its power and grandeur”! And I cannot but agree with her, though the storms I knew were much inferior to what she endured. Over the years, I have witnessed the many moods of our seas and oceans, from the calm, but occasionally turbulent tropics, to the northern and southern latitudes with their breezes and active weather patterns, to the Arctic waters, sometimes frozen over, or carrying huge icebergs. The sea reflects our global climate and environment, perhaps better than any land mass or vegetation. It can be incredibly beautiful, remarkably pristine, and it can be dark and foreboding, or wild and untamed. Yet it is the source and sustainer of most of earth’s life forms, and without its benign influence, our planet would die.

The picture of my father’s boat ploughing through heavy seas in a north-west gale in the Atlantic ocean off the Donegal coast, gives an indication of the conditions we sometimes faced. But I find that few photographs or even films, really convey the reality. Holywood doctored sea storm scenes as in the film The Perfect Storm, though powerful and quite impressive, still have an air of unreality about them. I guess the sea must be experienced to be really appreciated, and it is best experienced from a relatively small vessel, -not a ship.

A description of a marine painting and comments by the late Dr. L.D. Weatherhead, seem appropriate. The canvas was of sea and sky, but with little colour, giving an impression of gloomy mist, grey water, and bleak discomfort. The nose of a weather beaten boat and part of a forlorn pier, landing stage, and a lamp on a high pole, appeared at the lower corners, somehow expressing man’s pathetic symbols of safety. The scene told of our need for comfort, for the familiar, for security, - in comparison with the infinite ocean in the background, - so vast, a symbol of the eternity so close to us; and all that the sea suggests of distressing immensities before which man can only bow the head and acknowledge unfathomable mystery and overwhelming power. For anyone with a marine background, the painting thrust upon them what could not really be shut out, - the misty loneliness, the desolation, the void of infinitude, and the immemorial pain of man.

Questions of Size, Economy, and Sustainability

In my own public statements about fishing pressure, I usually refrain from mention of fishers responsibility for some cases of over-fishing, and avoid pointing the finger at some skippers who behaved with excessive greed or ruthlessness. I do so for these reasons: First, the fishermen have had a bad press at times, and critics have failed to understand the competitive nature of their profession, or the hunter instinct that all skippers must have to survive, and which led them to accept most of the technical improvements which came along.

Second, the government and fishery administrations have created structural injustices with their quota systems, discard rules, and myriad, mindless, penalizing regulations. These structural injustices oblige fishers to conform to a pattern of operations they resent or feel are basically immoral. In the words of many of my fisher friends, the rules “made criminals of honest men”. And third, the real greed exhibited in fishing all over the world, has mostly been by opportunist capitalists and big business, cashing in on fishing after the rules were changed in their favour. Most of the resource depletion has been the result of their ruthless operation of huge trawlers and purse seiners, in national and international waters, and in the fishing grounds of poor countries whose corrupt politicians sold the access rights against the wishes of their own indigenous fishing fraternity. There are only a handful of fish stocks that were seriously depleted by small scale fishers (like sea urchin for instance). But huge stocks of herring, anchovy, and pilchard, from Europe to Peru to South Africa, have been damaged by the power of excessive fishing effort, mostly owned and operated by big business.

But to begin at home, some of us in the fishing fleet, allowed our zeal and hunter instinct to lead us to intensive fishing to the detriment of the smaller and less powerful boats. Let me give some examples. Down in Cornwall, the local fleets could catch and market mackerel profitably with their small inshore line boats. But when the huge Scots midwater pair trawlers and purse seiners began to fish on their grounds, the impact on the local coastal fleet was severe. Both government and fishermen failed to address the potential conflict in advance by sitting down together to work out arrangements that might have permitted both fleets to operate, but in separate areas, with the big vessels working offshore, and the inshore grounds reserved for the local fleet.

Up in Scotland, until about 1970, our Scottish fishing boats (the family-owned boats, not the company trawlers), would not sail or fish on Sunday. That meant that the fishing grounds, and the crews were rested over each weekend. Monday, in consequence, was invariably a good day for fishing. But a few skippers thought they would grab an advantage over the others by leaving port earlier on the Sunday. As soon as that practice started, others joined in, and soon Sunday was just an ordinary working day like the rest of the week. In consequence, there was no weekend respite for the fish, and stocks suffered.

Then take the Firth of Clyde whose local fishermen wanted to limit boat sizes to a maximum of 50 feet. This was a sensible measure. One can catch white fish, herring, mackerel and prawns with boats of that size. The sheltered Firth waters did not need larger boats. But fishing fleets from elsewhere protested since they operated 60, 70 and 80 foot vessels. However, these large boats could fish anywhere, the small Clyde boats did not have the power or seaworthiness to operate off St Kilda or in the North Sea during winter. They had to content themselves with local fishing. The question for all fishermen was – why not leave these sheltered waters for the benefit of the local small-scale fleets which can fish them very well with their limited power and gear?

A similar question arose in the North and South Minches between the Scottish West coast and the Hebrides. The local small scale fleet could fish adequately for cod, haddock, herring and prawns, out of the ports of Oban, Mallaig, Stornoway, Lochinver, and other surrounding harbours. The larger East coast port boats were mostly of a size and power that enabled them to fish beyond the Minch, north and west of the Butt of Lewis. But what happened during the herring and mackerel bonanza years of the 70’s and 80’s was that powerful versatile mid-water trawlers and purse seiners took advantage of the schools of fish inside the Minch, and could harvest whole boatloads in a short time, occasionally taking cod or haddock in herring trawls. The end result was the impoverishment of the Minches which became bereft of fish stocks apart from prawns.

As fishers and fishing community members, during the 1950’s and 1960’s we were excited at the technological improvements in fishing, but did not really give enough serious thought to their social and environmental impacts. A fisherman’s son and Member of Parliament, Sir William Duthie OBE of Buckie, who was often in our house, was a guest speaker at many fishermen’s annual dinners. At one such he surprised the audience (and annoyed some), by talking about the dangers of greed, while also congratulating the men on their diligence and perseverance. But Sir William was correct and courageous in highlighting the danger which was later to escalate, when quota trading pitched fishers, fishing ports, and fleet owners against each other in a dog-eat-dog struggle for resources and access to fishing grounds.

Jack Gault, a schoolmate of mine, whose father and uncles were respected fish salesmen and fish buyers, had his heart set on fishing off the west coast of Scotland where his mother hailed from. He had a 28 foot, 28 hp boat built to his specifications in Shetland, with financial help from HIDB (the Highlands and Islands Development Board), and began to fish with creels for prawns in the North and South Minch around Skye and the outer Hebrides when weather permitted. This was one of the first attempts to capture nephrops prawns (Norway lobster) by creel instead of prawn trawl. Jack was able to pay off the Silver Fjord in 2 years, and to buy a larger vessel, as he found with the small boat, too many fishing days were lost during periods of bad weather. So he then obtained a 40 foot 88 hp multi-purpose boat from Tarbert in Loch Fyne. With this vessel he could alternate between prawn creeling and white fish trawling, and to operate in more severe weather. But the engine proved to be too light for pulling a net on 80 fathoms depth, and he had to obtain a stronger craft.

So Jack bought a 50 foot steel boat, the Stella Marie, which he operated farther from his port of Lochinver until the pressure of total fishing effort reduced the catches and the returns from his own operations. He found that he could not trust his young crewmen to take watches at night or in bad weather, and so had to remain on his feet most of the time during the 2, 3, and 4 day trips. The resource depletion also required him to work longer hours for smaller catches. What had happened was that the whole Scottish fleet was experiencing “technology creep” – a gradual increase in power and effectiveness of each unit so that the average boat was taking much more fish than its predecessor of 10, 20, or 30 years before. The story illustrates well the pressures under which each fishing boat skipper must operate, and why there has been a relentless increase in the size and power of fishing craft all over the globe.

The seine net boats of my home town became so effective they depleted the stocks of haddock and whiting in the Moray Firth, and then left it for the west coast where fish were more plentiful. Some of the boats returned to the Firth in January or February when cod congregated to spawn. They would hit the cod schools hard using advanced techniques and nets adapted to come over hard or stony bottom. This obviously had a cumulative effect on the fish, over a period of years. A similar trend was evident in the Minches where white fish and herring became scarce, and the fleet had to go north and west of the Hebrides to more distant grounds. Some fishers with larger vessels moved to the North Sea which they fished from Peterhead port. Most of my fisher friends viewed the increased power and technology as simply steps to greater efficiency of operations. It took time for the truth to become clear, that you cannot continue to increase fishing pressure on a finite natural environment like the sea. Nature will provide for our need but not for our greed. Had the fleet agreed to limitations on power and technology 50 years ago, we could have maintained employment, kept small ports operative, and ensured a sustainable fishery.

The fishermen of the Clyde, then, were wise in their wish to limit the size and fishing power of each unit. Similar arrangements exist in other fisheries abroad from Chesapeake Bay to the Java Sea. These effort limit rules make social and environmental sense. But along came the European Union with its obsession about economic efficiency which it applied ruthlessly to fisheries, thinking that a few large fishing units were more economically efficient than many more smaller units. They were blind to the fact that resource limits meant that there was a natural ceiling on catches whether the trawler was large or small. I have sat in meetings across the table from these EU / EC efficiency experts, and argued that their approach is inefficient from every perspective. The big vessels use more fuel, they employ less crew, they require more capital, and they have a serious negative impact on stocks and grounds. If we want to use less fuel, to employ more people, to spend less capital, to be more gentle on the environment, and to spread profits around communities, and not concentrate them in a few pockets, - then we should use vessels and equipment of modest size and power, with due regard to safety considerations.

As fish stocks have become more scarce, and as the catching power of our largest vessels has increased to a degree unimaginable before, we now see greed and avarice taking over where once there was some restraint and contentment. Perhaps if you have the repayment cost of a ten million pound ship on your shoulders, it focuses your mind more. But the effect on otherwise fine men, can be unpleasant. The Scots drifter men of the early 1900’s were largely God-fearing men of faith and strong principles. They fished well but by today’s standards there catches were modest. A hundred crans of herring were a splendid harvest for them. But that was just twenty tons of fish. Their grandsons or great grandsons today can capture up to 200 tons of mackerel in a single haul from one of their huge midwater trawlers. At the prices available today for top quality mackerel, they can get half a million pounds from a single landing of 500 tons. So such men have become multi-millionaires.

The change in their outlook is marked if you look at their behaviour in the case of the 2010 mackerel ‘war’. The mackerel stocks had moved north to Faroe and Iceland as global warming made the southern part of the North Sea rather warm for the fish. That put the schools of mackerel inside the national 200 mile EEZ’s of Iceland and Faroe. Now what a state does with the fish inside its own EEZ is its responsibility. But the EU and the UK owners of the pelagic ships thought they should still get the lion’s share of the mackerel. They got their MEPs to demand a Europe wide blockade of all Icelandic exports, and they prevented a Faroe vessel from landing its fish, much to its cost. The EU Fisheries Commissioner applauded this illegal act, and the local newspapers had headlines accusing Iceland and Faroe of plunder and high seas piracy ! That is the ugly side of big fishing today.

Yet the greed was mixed with blatant hypocrisy as the same pelagic skippers were guilty of fraud against the UK tax authorities and the EC over tens of millions of pounds of mackerel they landed and sold secretly, and did not report. Fortunately the UK fish processors pointed out that without cod and haddock from Iceland, over ten thousand fish worker jobs could be lost, and firms might have to close.

Resource depletion is largely a consequence of over-exploitation. There are natural factors that cause seasonal and long term fluctuations in the size and health of fish stocks, but these are generally beyond our control. Global warming may be triggering migrations of some species to cooler waters. We can do little about that, except maximize reforestation, and minimize our carbon footprints. Those natural changes apart, we are faced with two severe threats to marine and aquatic resources, and these are fishing pressure and management decisions. Living nature provides us with an abundance of food and produce, and can continue to do so if we do not over-exploit or poison it. But mankind has failed to recognize the limits inherent in nature’s finite environment, and the results have been dreadful, - from dried up lakes and rivers, increased desertification, spreading deforestation, and depletion of once abundant fish stocks. Governments like to blame fishermen, but they carry a lot of responsibility for gross mis-management and badly designed policies. They failed to prevent the escalation of fishing power, and instead they encouraged the growth of powerful offshore fleets despite clear evidence that existing smaller-scale fleets were capable of harvesting all that we should take from the resource in order to maintain a stable and sustainable fishery.

I have shared my concerns with senior marine scientists on both sides of the Atlantic, and found them for the most part to be honest and objective about the difficulties of assessing stocks and determining how much should be harvested. One of Britain’s top fishery biologists shared with me two of his main concerns. The first was the nature of stock assessment which is not a precise science, and the frustration of having politicians and administrators constantly demand precision from the researchers. The second and more troubling concern was the manipulation their figures and judgments to conform to political priorities, and to give politicians a fig leaf for allocation of catch quotas to pressure groups, beyond what the scientists reckoned was prudent.

Where my views differed from many of the fishery environmentalists and conservationists, was that I wanted to conserve both fish stocks and fishing communities, - not to see either one sacrificed for the sake of the other. Today we see either fish stocks depleted to maximize profits for big fishery companies, or at the other extreme we see whole communities die economically because of over zealous application of fishery conservation or management measures. For both to survive and prosper we need to harvest within the limits provided by benign nature, and to have that harvest shared primarily with the fishers and merchants and boat-builders and processors and engineers and support service companies in the coastal communities. Concentration of the financial benefits from the fish industry in a few companies or a few big ports, will not add a single fish to production, but may help to deplete stocks. /it certainly does not make for economic efficiency despite the propaganda to the contrary.

The Irish Fishermen’s Organisation address this point clearly in their statement about what the EC calls “Rights Based Fishing” and ITQs. ‘They give a windfall benefit to those who initially acquire them, usually at no cost, - the transfer of public property to private ownership. (lobbied for by vested interests). They inevitably lead to a concentration of ownership, and are a serious threat to the social, economic and cultural fabric of coastal communities.’

Sharing the wealth of the sea, and the responsibility for its conservation, with the communities which have depended on it for generations, can ensure a stable and beneficial fishery sector for centuries to come. One reason is that these communities lack the greed for ever greater profits that characterizes corporations. Another is that they are generally content to operate smaller scale low-impact vessels, and to vary their operations so that no particular stock suffers from too much pressure.

The later 20th century saw a rush to increase capitalization of the offshore fishing industry and fish farming, Much of it was motivated by a desire to compete with the global Soviet fleet. It was unwise from the start and happened just as the soviets were beginning to realize that their global fleet was basically uneconomic and was becoming a major drain on subsidised fuel supplies. It was the USSR’s decision to start basing domestic fuel prices on the global dollar price that finally resulted in the tie-up of most of the Soviet fleet.

America had long resisted the global move to extending national maritime claims out to 200 miles, enclosing an ‘exclusive economic zone’ or EEZ. The reluctance on America’s part was due to pressure from the tuna lobby which wanted access to the waters off Mexico and the South American states. The policy changed with the Fishery Management Conservation Act of 1976, later called the Magnuson Act which extended U.S. jurisdiction from 3 to 200 miles, and created eight regional councils to regulate fishing in US coastal waters. Those councils were ultimately a beneficial measure for the different fleets around the country, but some of them were to make enormous misjudgments in the early stages.

But 5 years before the passing of the Fishery Conservation Act, a major financing and construction of excessive deep sea fishing capacity was triggered by The United States Stratton Report of 1969. Fish stocks from Alaska to George’s Bank were to suffer in consequence. This report Our Nation and the Sea, by the Commission on Marine Science, Engineering and Resources, claimed with confidence that the world’s oceans could yield 500 million tons of fish and other living products, each year. This was five times the existing harvest, (then and now), which most scientists and fishermen felt was already too high. The Commission’s assertion was regarded as lunatic by experienced skippers and biologists alike, but the US Government approved it, and supported the enormous expansion in effort that followed.

My friend Paul Molyneaux challenged Dr Milton Schaeffer, one of the leading biologists on the Stratton commission, about its conclusion. He claimed that the grossly exaggerated figure of ocean potential was inserted before publication by one Wib Chapman, a friend of the Chairman Julius Stratton. Thus millions of dollars were wasted, huge stocks of fish were decimated, and a severe blow dealt to the traditional conservative part of the industry, - all on the basis of a last minute whim by a friend of the chairman. So often this kind of stupidity by learned men causes havoc, in fisheries and in other fields.

But the damage was by then underway. The capacity of the Seattle-based pollock fleet had grown to be 2 to 3 times the total allowable catch for that fishery. This expansion was financed by $ 1.6 billion of public and private funds. A similar situation arose in the north-east Atlantic where the New England Fishery council, and the Canadian Federal Government allowed the offshore trawler fleet to escalate in number and power of vessels, despite warnings of diminishing resources from coastal trap and line fishermen in Newfoundland who had operated a low-impact, stable fishery for 100 years. By 1990 the folly of promoting the large trawlers at the expense of coastal fleets was all too apparent in cod stock decimation off Greenland, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. In 1992 the Federal Government halted all cod fishing by Canadian boats. The inshore fleet was severely impacted by the ban although they were victims rather than culprits. Large quota allocations and trading of ITQs also contributed to the excess and imbalanced effort, but we will discuss that element elsewhere.

In New England, by 1990, the government-promoted over-fishing was estimated to have cost the region $ 350 million in lost income, and over 14,000 jobs in the fishery sector. Fish stocks had fallen by 60 % in the ten years from 1983 to 1993. cod landings had declined by 60 % and haddock landings by an alarming 94 %. In subsequent years, taxpayers had to bear the cost of $ 62 million in federal aid and $ 25 million for a vessel buy-back programme.

Governments are fond of blaming fishermen for over-fishing and stock reduction, but rarely admit their own role in bringing that about by favouring powerful corporate fleets over the traditional low-impact coastal vessels. They often claim expert scientific and economic bases for their policies, but the examples above in the USA, Canada, and Europe, show that claim to be quite fraudulent. Having worked side by side with biologists and economists for over 40 years, I know that many of them are competent and sensible. But a surprising number in those professions have extremely narrow vision and are only too susceptible to pressure from their paymasters. And many of them are simply human, and prone to make mistakes as the story below indicates.

When working in West Africa with Dr James Scullion we discovered that years of stock assessment reports and studies of the Gulf of Guinea were grossly inaccurate, - all because of a mis-print in an earlier UN report. A zero had been omitted, changing the total stock estimate by a factor of ten ! But till Jim picked up the mistake, the error was allowed to stand without question and to be quoted verbatim in umpteen subsequent reports.

In case readers think that could happen in West Africa and not in Britain or Europe, I might mention the statistics on certain species like monkfish, over the past 20 years. Fishing licenses and quotas for monkfish were allocated separately for Scotland’s east and west coasts, either side of the 4 degree west line of Longitude. By some quirk of management in the EC Fishery Directorate, they ignored the large stock west of 4 degrees and gave more quota to the east side. The only way east coast boats (and foreign trawlers) could fill their monkfish quota was by fishing on the west side. But these catches were reported to be from the east side. The combined effect of false reports of increased catches on the east side, led to higher quota for that area and less for the other. So West coast boats whose grounds had abundant monkfish stocks were forbidden to catch them while East coast fleets could catch a lot but only by fishing illegally on the western grounds. Now, before some say that was a fisher fault, not a government failure, let me point out that the fishery authorities and biologists were fully aware of the discrepancy, but it was allowed to continue for years since the EC CFP (and the UK fishery authorities) did not want to lose face over the issue!

Perhaps the worst example in recent times of how not to manage a fishery is the European Union’s CFP or Common Fisheries Policy which attempted to control all of the fisheries of France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, Denmark, and later also those of Spain, Portugal, Sweden, the Baltic States, and the later East European members, - all from a central fishery directorate in Brussels. As with the Common Agricultural Policy, the EC adopted a ‘one size fits all attitude’, with predictable consequences. One of the most damaging measures was to apply single species quotas to the mixed species demersal fishery. That is the bottom fishery for cod, haddock, whiting, hake, pollock, ling, monkfish, skate, dogfish, plaice, lemon sole, black sole, witch, megrim, prawns, and other minor species. All these fish swim together on or near the sea-bed in varying numbers and concentrations, depending on season and location. The application of the single species quotas meant that each fishing boat could catch only so many kilos or boxes of each, - and all the quantities were different. Now, the bureaucrats in Brussels were obviously unaware that the trawl net had not yet been invented that could catch different species according to a ratio determined in the Fishery directorate in Brussels!

The result was the discarding or dumping of up to 600,000 tons of marketable, edible fish each year, back into the sea, dead or dying, and lost for ever to both stock and market. Over the last 30 years this enforced discarding has destroyed up to 15 million tons of food fish, - far more damage than has been caused by excess fishing effort, bad as that is. Some estimates of the amount of discards are much higher. I have taken the more conservative ICES scientists figure. While fishers have been fined and penalized severely for breaches in regulations, the guilty bureaucrats who effectively destroyed 15 million tons of North Sea fish resource, have been rewarded by continued employment, generous pensions, and promotions in some cases.

To give an example, - one of many hundreds, of what these rules meant for ordinary fishermen, take the fishing boat Defiant of Shetland. During one trip to the Pogie Bank in 1999. Its net caught 180 boxes of Pollock that were excess to the quota for that species. All of the excess fish was dumped back into the sea in compliance with the rules. The market value of the fish at that time would have been £ 3,240 and would have represented an additional £ 200 to each crewman that trip. But all was lost, - lost to the stock, to the market, and to the men and their families. Since then several Scottish vessels have encountered big schools of cod and had to let them go (few cod survive after being hauled up to the surface inside a net) because they had no cod quota. The EU and ICES had concluded that cod stocks were at dangerously low levels, and groups like WWF had claimed the fish were close to extinction.

These incidents are typical of thousands of others that have occurred to the North Sea fleet under that pernicious rule. The House of Commons was told, on 15 December 1998, “What was represented … as a policy of conservation has proved to be a conservation disaster. The policy was based on the ludicrous proposition that fish stocks can be conserved by throwing dead fish back into the sea”. The House of Lords concluded in a report on fish stock conservation and management in 1996 that CFP single species quotas enforced discarding, “was an almost unimaginable waste of food potential”.

Fortunately, there are major fishing countries which see the folly of discarding and shich apply a “no-dumping” rule to all their fleets. These countries include Norway and Namibia. I was with Minister Angula and his fine fishery adviser, Les Clark of New Zealand, when the no-dumping rules were put into effect in Namibia. Together with an experienced Italian officer, Captain Sinatra, I was involved in the training of teams of on-board fishery inspectors who made sure the rule was complied with. But to ensure that the vessels and their crews did not lose income as a result, there was a provision that all fish caught should be landed and sold, whether excess to quota or not. A levy was applied to the excess catch, and this was set at a level that ensured the boat did not lose money by keeping it on board, but at the same time did not make a profit on the fish that were excess to quota. At the end of each year when the total amounts of each species landed was compared with the quota figure for that species, the difference was negligible. This shows that there are simple, effective ways to prevent over-fishing, and that the EU discarding arrangement is one of the least helpful, and most damaging of measures.

A second result of the enforced discarding has been a built-in encouragement to fishers to engage in high-grading of catches. This is a phenomena that occurs in every fishery where demersal species quota limits apply, and is another reason for the belief that fish quota systems bring with them all sorts of inequities and damaging side-effects. Let us take a fishing boat that catches its quota of cod and haddock in the first half of the trip, but continues to fish to make up its quota of whiting, hake, pollock, monkfish, and whatever. But if during the second half of the trip the boat gets some large haddock and large cod among the other species, the temptation is to dump the earlier, smaller, haddock and cod, and to replace them with the larger and higher-priced fish. Our bureaucrats have no solution to the practice, other than further more restrictive and illogical measures. It is a classic case of bad legislation bringing the law into disrepute, and requiring more and more “sticking plaster” additions to address the numerous flaws that become apparent.

A further crime against sustainable fish stocks was the rule permitting the landing of immature, undersized fish. The British government had wisely introduced this measure after the war, to prevent the capture or sale of fish that had not yet grown to a size at which they could spawn and replenish the resource. For many years, fishers who were found to have landed for sale, fish that were just under the stated minimum size, were rightly fined and admonished. This rule applied to hake, sea bream, grey mullet, conger, eel, plaice, turbot, brill, lemon sole, dab, flounder, witch, and shad. Now there are no penalties for marketing these fish before they have reached maturity. British and Danish fishermen opposed the scrapping of the regulation, but fishers and merchants in France and Spain wanted it abolished and the EC listened to their lobbyists above all.

For fifty years, Britain, and for much of its existence, the EU also, permitted the capture of thousands of tons of herring, sprat and mackerel for conversion to meal and oil, chiefly to provide food for pigs, cows, poultry, and farmed fish like salmon. The practice is referred to as ‘industrial’ fishing as opposed to the capture of fish for human consumption. Nearly a third of the world’s fish catch of some 100 million tonnes, is used in this way. Readers can think of the benefits of reducing this waste. We could increase the amount of food fish on the market by halting the harvest of vast quantities of otherwise edible fish to turn them into animal feed and oil. There is an enormous loss in the protein involved in the reduction industry when fish are so processed. It takes around 3 tonnes of wild fish, converted to meal to produce one tonne of fish from a salmon farm.

Many scientists reckon that the decline in numbers of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) around our coasts, may be due to the over-harvesting of pelagic fish like herring. Certainly, another victim of industrial fishing has been the seabird population, many of which feed on sprat and sand eels. There was a period when trawlers targeted sand-eels as a major species with which to supply the fish meal factories. But lowly fish like sand eels are near the bottom of the marine food chain, and if depleted, leave the higher and larger species without a major part of their fish food.

In addition to the use of food fish as animal feed, there is another major loss to the world supply of fish protein, in the millions of tons of discards that result from the shrimp and prawn fisheries of the world. We have mentioned above the insane EC enforced discarding of up to 600,000 tonnes of good fish each year in the North Sea. But in the shrimp fisheries of the Southern USA and South America, West Africa, and the Far East, many millions of tons of fish are discarded and lost to the stocks of fin fish in those areas. The problem arose with the disparity in price between shrimp and fish like snapper, bream, sole, grouper, and jacks. A shrimp trawler is outfitted to freeze and store shrimp and only shrimp. There is no space in its hold for fish, and its freezers are not suitable for freezing fish. So any fish caught is dumped, - and there are usually 3 times as much fish as shrimp in each haul. As one Gulf of Mexico shrimper told me in labama, - “We long ago gave up the fish business to get into the dollar business”. This attitude has led to the global destruction of millions of tons of fish each year.

Other fisheries are also guilty of discarding, Tuna long liners catch a fair amount of shark which they discard after removing the fins. White fish trawlers used to dump a lot of the dogfish they caught. But the shrimp trawlers hold the record. Fishery technologists have tried to solve the problem by designing nets with escape tunnels for fish, but as many shrimp are lost in the process, few trawlers will use them. I have also suggested alternative ways to save the fish, mainly suggesting that the excess fish be passed on to local small scale fishers who would be glad to have them and would use all for human consumption. This idea I have put in different forms to fishery administrations as far apart as Indonesia and Nigeria. But the governments are reluctant to take a tough line with the shrimpers, and the trawler owners would only cooperate if the small fishers paid them for the waste fish.

Damaged fisheries in the tropics

My life’s work and travels have taken me to strange parts of this planet I never suspected I might set eyes on, - places like Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes Mountains, the Coral Sea between Papua New Guinea and Australia, and the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. I was also to work in several of the Pacific island states. One of these was the Marshall Islands which were the focus of attention by the USA, Japan, and Australia / New Zealand, during the war years, and some of them suffered considerably in consequence. Apart from the fighting that took place on many islands, there were the tests of nuclear weapons that contaminated some atolls for a generation and more. The American military exploded 66 nuclear bombs and missiles in the Marshall Islands, - 43 at Eniwetok and 23 at Bikini. In the Gilbert and Ellis Islands (now the state of Kiribati), 24 were detonated in the vicinity of Christmas Island. Johnson Island, a U.S. possession west of Hawaii saw the test of 12 nuclear weapons, and, some say, though I have not seen it corroborated production of germ warfare material. The French also undertook a number of nuclear tests in the Pacific, off Tahiti and other French territories. They said these posed no threat to the people or the environment, but of course, they would not have dared to test them in the Bay of Biscay.

Ocean swimming tunas are the most plentiful fish in the Pacific. Yellowfin tuna, albacore and skipjack are the ones mostly used in canning. They are caught by pole and line, or by purse seine, - the latter method being much controlled now as dolphins were often captured in the nets as they tended to swim near schools of yellowfin. Bluefin tuna are the most expensive, and are highly prized in Japan where the flesh is eaten raw as sashimi. The fish must be very fresh and of excellent quality, but if so, they can command market prices per kilo, higher than quality shrimp. Fleets of medium sized long liners fish for the bluefin all over the Pacific. The fish are packed in dry ice and flown to Tokyo for sale in the immense Japanese market.

Apart from tuna, the Pacific has an abundance of reef fish, and mollusks ranging from conical trochus valued for their shells, to oysters, to giant clams. Those wonderful large filter feeders, are colourful and harmless, and not at all like the man-trapping caricature we used to see in Tarzan films. One of our fishery extension officers in the Marshall Islands had raised three marvelous giant clam specimens in an atoll island, as future spawners. While he went off to Majuro, the capital, on business, a local senator arrived and asked his assistant to show him the huge shellfish. The assistant dutifully did, and the Senator then said – “Good, - I’m having a barbecue at my house with friends this week-end. Send them over”. The fishery officer returned to the island the following week quite aghast to find that his carefully cultivated specimens had been cooked and eaten!

Other edible creatures include sea urchins and beche de mer, a kind of sea slug that when boiled and dried, is a valued commodity in Chinese markets. The Australian government is arresting scores of Indonesian fishermen, often jailing them and confiscating their boats, for taking beche de mer in northern Australian waters, although few local fishers there bother with the species. Sadly, in the Philippines and parts of Indo-China, the use of dynamite and trawls are surround nets, has destroyed many coral reefs is reducing the habitat for many of these fascinating forms of marine life. There is also a growing trade in small aquarium fish that can be harvested from around coral reefs. Most governments in the South Pacific are placing controls on that trade which threatens to reduce stocks of the multi-coloured fish.

I spent 15 months in the Marshall Islands, and so had opportunity to assess the effects of the atomic tests there. Former residents of the northern islands of Bikini and Eniwetok, kept hoping for a safe return to their island home, and for freedom to the fish and fruit there, but as year succeeded year, the prospect became dim. Even worse, since the nuclear tests islands had so reduced the possibility of a contamination-free future, some politicians even spoke of making the best of a bad situation by permitting the dumping of more industrial or military waste on the radio-active atolls. Fortunately wiser minds prevailed, and to date that has not happened. Pacific islands and their coral reefs are a most fragile environment, and any thought of making them radio-active for generations, is downright criminal. It is hard to believe, but there are agents for those seeking to dispose of the colossal amounts of sludge and contaminated waste generated by American industry and American cities, who ply the Pacific offering millions of dollars to any who can persuade a small island country to accept the stuff ! This is not hearsay. I have met those agents, and have been offered such sums more than once, if I would use my position to persuade a naïve government to let their small pristine territories become a dumping ground.

My point is that today, - over 50 years after the nuclear bomb testing at Eniwetok and Bikini, the sea, the sea-bed, and the soil of those once pristine isles, is at last recovering and may soon be able to be used again for human habitation and food production. It has taken half a century, but benign nature is healing the wounds of man’s brutal destruction and pollution of our life support system.

The same is occurring in places where coral is being protected. Marine coral is an amazing undersea complex of colonies of marvelous creatures that filter sea water and absorb sunlight to produce marine gardens of wonderful colour and beauty. These gardens are home to a rich variety of creatures, and to schools of reef fish and ornamental species which in turn attract the bigger oceanic fish.

The poet expressed it beautifully :

In the free element beneath me swam,
Floundered and dived, in play, in chase, in battle,
Fishes of every colour, form, and kind;
Which language cannot paint, and mariner
Had never seen, from dread Leviathan
To insect millions peopling every wave:
Gather’d in shoals immense, like floating islands,
Led by mysterious instincts through that waste
And trackless region, …

James Montgomery, World before the flood

The modern enemies of coral are undersea mining for building materials, use of heavy anchors by visiting boats, and of large multi-sinker nets which break up the coral beds. And worse still is dynamite, - that legacy from WW1 and WW2 which is used all over S.E. Asia and Africa. When an explosion takes place underwater, hundreds of fish are killed or stunned, and can be scooped up from the surface. But other fish farther away are also injured. They escape but die shortly after. Dynamite fishing kills more fish than those actually harvested after the explosions. Often some fish swim away from the scene, but their inner organs are damaged, and the die shortly after.

Dynamite explosions also kill coral reefs. West of the huge island of Sumatra, around the Mentawai islands are enormous coral beds. But most of them are dead. The grey lifeless calcium corals, like a graveyard of strangely-shaped tombstones, are testimony to the murderous effect of repeated dynamite use. Once the coral dies, all other life deserts the colonies. What were once underwater gardens of profuse life, are desolate sterile rockeries. Similar dead coral beds are found around the Philippine archipelago where both dynamite and use of large ‘bouki-ami’ nets with hundreds of heavy weights suspended from the groundrope, smash the fragile coral spines.

The coral can recover. Where sanctuaries have been established, the process can begin. But mother nature needs many years of recovery to bring life back to these areas. Huge volumes of ocean currents with their nutrients, and long periods of sunshine, wind and wave, have to re-cultivate the devastated area until new buds of life once more appear and start to propagate. Artificial reefs can help. They are not a panacea, but properly designed and well maintained and monitored, they can attract marine life and provide a sanctuary for fresh colonies of aquatic plants and animals.

However, in addition to creation of and protection of sanctuaries, we have to put an end to the wanton destruction, and that includes the testing of nuclear weapons and the dumping of radio-active waste in the sea. For many years after WW2 the USA, UK, France, and the USSR, dumped hundreds of canisters of strontium 90 and other radio active waste into the ocean. These canisters are still there, slowly corroding and leaking their deadly poisons into the base of the food chains of the oceans. In addition to radio-active materials, modern industry emits cocktails of extremely poisonous substances which if not disposed of in safe manner, can cause serious damage and mortality to marine and terrestrial life.

We are being hypocritical if we tell poor fishermen to stop using sticks of dynamite or anchors for nets or boats on the coral beds, if we do not also cease to pollute the sea or devastate the sea-bed with more powerful instruments of destruction we have created. The sea is so large, we have not seen pollution’s impact fully there yet, - except in the shallow inshore areas and beaches. But we can see what industrial and agricultural pollution is doing to lakes and rivers.

Fresh water lakes and rivers in the tropics suffer from pollution through the run-off of pesticides and chemicals used in agriculture. This comes from both large and small-scale farms. Poor farmers seeking to maximize production are easy prey for the chemical salesmen. One of my projects spent three years promoting safe agriculture among the fisher / forest / farming peoples of the Tonle Sap basin and its great lake in Indo-China, now a UN recognized bio-sphere reserve. The 3.5 million residents of the valley, most of them descendents of those who survived the dreadful Khmer Rouge era, were rebuilding their lives and their production systems. What surprised us in their reactions to extension advice, was their remarkable faith in the power of chemicals, and their lack of awareness of the dangers.

When offered technical assistance and grant-aid to establish medium scale vegetable farms, most of those approached wanted to know if the project would also provide them with large quantities of chemicals. When they were told this would not happen, the aid was refused. They were convinced that without application of chemicals in large quantities, the yields would be inadequate. Yet much of the soil around them was already contaminated, and the water was undrinkable with many children suffering from intestinal infections and diseases. The main buyers of fresh produce, the urban restaurants and hotels, insisted on a high quality standard, and on organically grown items if possible. The last thing they wanted on salad produce was chemical contamination. Since the small producers dealt only with middle men, the message from the ultimate buyers had not got through to them. However, for the most part the local small farmers were uneducated peasant people with limited awareness of environmental threats to health and well-being. Processed fish, dried or pickled, were also sometimes treated with insect repellents that could be bad for the final consumers.

Our project was able by degrees to convince the people that only safe chemicals should be applied to their soil, and harmful ones should be avoided at all costs. Together with the lakeside communities we established organic gardens, both in soil and in water (hydroponic), and nurseries to supply new trees to augment the flooded forest, as well as fruit and flower trees. Then to introduce hygienic systems of fish processing, we helped women’s cooperatives to set up solar dryer units to process local shrimp, and to establish a small high quality plant to make naim, a pickled fish sausage much in demand in the region. But possibly the most encouraging and far-reaching initiative came from the 178 community fishery organisations, each of which designated, demarcated, and managed, a fish sanctuary within their approved areas. This showed grass roots commitment to conservation and sustainability, and it was displayed in the face of pressure from interloping illegal fishers, and threats of land and water grabbing by wealthy or powerful groups in the respective provinces.

Given authority to manage their own local fish stocks and grounds, fishing communities have proven time and time again that they can work out harvesting arrangements that provide a fair share and equal opportunity to their own fishers, and that are in accord with the environment and the natural limits imposed by mother nature. But in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ situation which so often results from government imposed competition, these restraints break down and cause the fishers to be poisoned by the pressures to beat the competitors and make more profit. As many fishermen said of the EU CFP, - “it has made criminals of us all”.

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