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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 20. Fisheries Governance

Around five centuries ago a crew of fishers sailed their small open boat into the Spynie Loch near my present home, from the shores of the Moray Firth. At that time the loch was open to the sea, and boats could sail up to the foot of Spynie Palace, or to the moat around Duffus Castle to the north-west. Silting and the build-up of sand-dunes that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries, along with draining of the loch in the 18th and 19th centuries, closed the access to the sea, and left little more than a ditch and a bog where the great loch had been. But in the middle ages the lagoon-like coastal loch was suitable for shallow draft boats to traverse. Its crystal waters fostered populations of sole, plaice, eel, prawns, crabs, and attracted schools of whiting, haddock, mackerel, sprat and herring in their season. But medieval feudal law gave the harvesting rights, or taxation authority over those living resources, to the local barons and bishops.

The fishers pulled down their ragged sail and rowed the last half-mile to the shore. There they started to unload their modest catch of cod and haddock taken by hand-line. They were poor men, and the few fish they caught would help feed their wives and children, with a small surplus they could sell on the Elgin market, or barter for oatmeal or potatoes. For myself, reading the skeleton account we have, which is almost a by-note in the local annals of the parish, I often wondered what life was like for such serfs. Where did they live ? What kind of clothes did they wear? Did they suffer from malnutrition? Would their damp drafty smokey hovels have encouraged tuberculosis, rheumatism, or infestation by lice or fleas? What was their normal life span? Could they read or write? What kind of world view did they have?

Whatever the life these simple fishers had, on this particular day their activity and movements had been spotted by the greedy eyes of the Bishop and his officers. Apparently the feudal arrangements that gave the king and his barons the right to all the deer and fauna of the forest, also extended (in their view), to the fish of the sea. (They may well had parts of Feudal law support their view, but even the King traditionally claimed only salmon from the rivers and sturgeon from the sea). Whether the fishermen were ignorant of the bishopís claims, we do not know. Certainly there was little apparent attempt to hide their boat or its small catch. But the men were seized and jailed on the orders of the bishop, and their catch confiscated. What happened to them, their boat, and their families, we can but speculate. The ancient record says little beyond their arrest.

Laying claim to the seaís harvests was a regular feature of governments and rulers in centuries past. They did not purchase them or work for them or earn them by their contribution to the welfare of the people. Mostly they were assumed by autocratic rulers and if allocated to their barons or governors, it was done in return for their loyalty or a share of the proceeds obtained.

In 1609 the King of England granted Fernando Georges who founded New Hampshire, the right to the fish on the lucrative grounds offshore, - later named Georges Bank after him. In his case it did not work out as he was simply unable to enforce the monopoly on the stormy open waters of the East Atlantic.

However not all past government interventions if fisheries were punitive or unjust. The importance of herring as a winter food for the population, (and for its soldiers and sailors), led the Dutch government to promote the huge drift net fishery in the North Sea in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the British government to take similar steps in the next two centuries. Harbours were constructed, fishing boats constructed in large numbers, salt-curing stations equipped, quality assurance systems put in place with financial incentives, net manufacture encouraged, and naval protection extended to the fleet at sea. One result of all the developments was that practically all of Europe and Scandinavia was kept afloat on a sea of herring. Salt herring became a major export item and income earner. The commodity assumed strategic importance as a key element in the provisions to maintain the large armies and navies of those times.

Just as the Soviets were to conclude in the later 20th century, the maritime states of Europe reckoned that an ocean-ranging fleet was a military and diplomatic asset to extend their influence to far-away lands. Before Christopher Columbus made his epic voyage to the Americas, he sailed on fishing vessels as far north as the Arctic Circle, and possibly to Jan Mayen Island. The boats he sailed on were live-well line-fishing craft from Bristol and other English ports. Their catch was mainly cod, ling, halibut, and hake. When British boats began to fish around Newfoundland, the navy was there to monitor their operations and to prevent the growth of an indigenous fishery being established in Canada. Each autumn ships of the British navy sailed around the bays and coves of Newfoundland, and burned down the fishermenís summer camps in a less than successful effort to ensure that none of the fishers over-wintered on the island.

All the great maritime nations fostered large ocean ranging fishing fleets. Spain and Portugal were no exception. When I first went to Newfoundland in 1965, the magnificent natural harbour at St. Johnís 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 Captainís Courageous. Kiplingís 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 1960ís and they were a marvellous source of nautical information. They also possessed a wisdom and decency that was typical of their generation, but which is sadly absent among the social climbers and get-rich-quick merchants that modern capitalism has produced in disturbing numbers.

The mid-19th to mid-20th centuries were the days of the great trade in salt cod, the fish being split and dried in the sun and wind on shore. They were packed in salt in the Portuguese ships which made longer voyages than the U.S. and Canadian boats. The salt cod trade, still very buoyant and profitable in Spain and Portugal, was killed by a foolish measure a few years prior to my arrival in Newfoundland. A short-sighted fisheries minister abolished the quality cull that had grouped the produce into prime, medium, and poor quality selections. Instead of improving quality, all of the Canadian fish deteriorated into poor quality, and eventually became unfit for even the low-price markets of West Africa and the Caribbean. Today you will still find salt cod being sold in both those regions, but none of it comes from Canada.

Canadaís great cod fishery which was exploited sustainably by generations of fishermen like old Captain Williams, was to be destroyed in a few short years from 1970 to 1990 after the Federal Department of Fisheries yielded to the monetarist attitudes that treated fisheries as if they were an industrial sector like car manufacture or house construction. Increased effort in the form of powerful stern trawlers and purse seiners, was encouraged, and the concentration of fishing rights and fish harvesting in their hands, made possible by ITQs, tradable fish quotas, that facilitated the buying and selling of access to fish stocks which were placed on the market like sacrificial lambs. Within 20 years, the cod stock collapsed and the inshore fishery was wiped off the map. The companies that owned the stern trawlers could organize legal ways to reduce their losses. They could shift to another more profitable sector to invest in. But as has happened in so many parts of the world, the indigenous coastal fishers paid the heaviest price. What Oliver Goldsmith wrote of the Deserted Village, could apply to the deserted out-ports and islands of the Maritimes.

Next to cod, hake has traditionally been the most prized of the white fish, on the Spanish markets. Both Spain and Portugal developed pareja or paranzella pair trawlers to fish for hake in deep water in the north-east Atlantic. The European hake (merlucias species) are quite different from west Atlantic hake. They are high-swimming bottom fish, usually found above sandy or muddy sea-bed, in depths up to several hundreds of fathoms. By using two boats the Spaniards were able to trawl without otter boards, and to use a large well-floated net with a high mouth-opening. They also used long warps to herd the schools of hake towards the net. For many years these pair trawlers operated off the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland. I used to watch them with great interest when spending a summer as a cabin boy on my own fatherís vessel fishing off the west of Ireland. In those days the Spanish fishermen were poor, - their clothes well patched, - and their boats also showed the signs of minimal maintenance. Many were powered by steam engines then.

Today most of Spainís hake comes from Namibia. The fish are vital as raw material, and to maintain employment in the fish processing sector in Spain where there are 800 companies and 22,500 employees. Spanish boats fished off South-West Africa until it gained independence as Namibia. Then the European Union tried to force the fledgling SWAPO government to permit continued access to Namibian grounds for the huge EU fleet. The government was threatened with loss of aid from Europe if it resisted. (I know this well having been present at the negotiations in Windhoek). But Minister Helmut Angula stood firm, and only ships under Namibian registration were permitted. The Spanish authorities then saw reason, and the largest company, Pescanova, set up a joint venture with a local fishing company. They built a large factory in Luderitz and had the fleet that serviced it put under Namibian flag and registration. On behalf of the Ministry of Fisheries, Namibia, I helped to organize the training scheme for national crews and officers to help man the fleet and the processing plant.

Together, the fishing fleet and fish processing sector of Namibia, grew to become the industrial sector with the largest employment in the country, and overtook mining which till then had been the major employer. Fish exports also became the countryís major source of foreign currency.

The over-capitalisation of fishing fleets that occurred in the later 20th century, required serious attention, but governments in the northern hemisphere tended to protect the guilty and punish the innocent. Those countries which built their fish allocation policies on ITQs or tradable quotas, rewarded the companies which had added most tonnage and power to over-capacity, and let the low-impact small scale fleets pay the price for further concentration of fishery access and fishing rights in the hands of the rich and powerful. Canada, Iceland and New Zealand, led the way in this regard. In Icelandís case the government were taken to the court of human rights by coastal fishermen who had been disadvantaged.

But the worst example of bad governance in fisheries must surely be the EU, the European Union and its CFP or Common Fisheries Policy which attempted to manage the fishing grounds and fishing fleets of all its members, from the eastern Mediterranean, to the North Sea, 200 miles west and north of Ireland and the Shetland Isles. The results, over the past 30 years, have been disastrous by any measure one cares to use. Instead of conserving resources, the CFP caused the destruction of up to 600,000 tonnes a year by its doctrinaire application of single species quotas in a multi-species fishery, coupled to an insistence on dumping or discarding all fish caught excess to that species quota, for each boat involved. The British government went along with this despite strong protests from its fishers, and even agreed to scrap the minimum sizes for fish landed for human consumption.

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