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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 26. Writers and Thinkers who have influenced fisheries

Our understanding of the oceans, the natural world, and human ecology has been greatly enhanced by three outstanding thinkers and writers who were active around the middle of the 20th century. They each had a tremendous impact on the way we view and treat the natural world around us, and how we develop non-violent, sustainable links with nature and its resources. The three were born and died within a few years of each other. The group, two men and a woman, were a scientist, a naturalist and an economist, from the USA, UK (Scotland), and from Germany, respectively. They were Rachel Carson, Frank Fraser Darling, and Ernst Fritz Schumacher.

Not having been blessed with much tertiary education, (though I have taught and lectured in universities), it has been a privilege for me to benefit from the first class scholarship and research of such writers who combined immense and sharp intellects and inquiring minds, with a deep empathy for all life forms on our planet, and for the happiness and long term good of humanity. Their books and papers have been invaluable guide and reference for me, so I owe them a great debt, along with the other visionaries, thinkers, and pioneers mentioned in this section.

Rachel Carson

Possible the most attractive characteristic in the person, life and writing of Rachel Louise Carson, was her sense of wonder which she communicated so well. In my own experience there have been two distinct types of scientist and academic, I have worked alongside, - those who were prosaic, unimaginative, and pedantic, - and those who would approach each new experience and investigation, with an open mind and a spirit of expectation. As my good friend Roger Mullin wrote in his Strategic Planning Manual for development consultants, - “we have to be prepared to be surprised”. Rachel Carson even wrote an article for parents, titled “Help your child to wonder”. It was from her own mother that Carson inherited her life-long love of nature and the whole living world.

A gifted writer, ecologist, and scientist, she was hired initially by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all U.S. Fish and Wildlife publications. But it was her books that were to have enormous impact on marine ecology, and our attitudes to the chemical wastes that had begun to poison our seas. She published Under the Sea Wind in 1941; The Sea Around Us in 1952; and The Edge of the Sea in 1955. Then in 1962, two years before her death, she published Silent Spring, which challenged the practices of agriculture scientists and government farm policies and treatment of soil and water. Opposed by some administrators and scientists in government, and criticised as alarmist by the chemical industry, Rachel Carson came to be regarded as the most prescient and influential observer of the natural world in her time.

Fundamental to Carson’s view of the world, was the idea that as human beings we are an integral part of nature, but we have the dreadful power to alter natural environments, and to do so irreversibly in some cases. She was extremely disturbed by the profligate use of chemical pesticides after WW2. The long-term effects of mis-use or over-application of pesticides could damage our whole eco-system, and ultimately reduce nature’s ability to maintain our life-support system. Her message was to be taken up by a whole new generation of ecologists and concerned thinkers, including E. F. Schumacher who we mention below.

Carson wrote : “We still talk in terms of conquest of nature. We haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude to nature is critically important because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Over 45 years ago she pointed out that : “Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognised partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world – the very nature of life. Since the mid-1940’s, over 200 basic chemicals have been created for killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described as pests. These chemicals are sold under thousands of different brand names. The sprays, dusts and aerosols now applied universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes have the power to kill every insect, the good and the bad, to still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in streams, - to coat leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on (as a poison) in soil, though they were only intended to target a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth, without making it unfit for all kinds of life ? They should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides’.

My own amateur observations on the Scottish coast confirmed Carson’s theories. As a young boy I had the immense privilege of spending childhood years on the seaside of the Moray Firth which was then replete with aquatic and marine life. We had salmon and trout in our rivers and lochs, and an abundance of fish and crustaceans in the rocky pools and inlets along the shore. Near the lighthouse, just over a mile from the edge of town, there was a small stretch of ponds we called ‘the lighthouse lochs’. They were just shallow water bodies, - but fascinating to a young lad as they contained stickleback, frogs, tadpoles, caddis fly larvae in their self-made houses of tiny twigs and stalks, and many other life forms like dragon flies, pond skaters and water beetles that would carry bubbles of air down to hidden nests. Many a summer hour was spent in fascinated observation of these creatures. But the lighthouse lochs are long since gone completely, - bulldozed over to create a caravan park.

Along the beach and the rocky pools there were even more life forms. Sand eels, small plaice, saithe, gurnards, conger eels, gobies, hermit crabs, common crabs, and lobsters abounded, while just offshore were schools of sprat, mackerel, and herring, feasted upon by seagulls and gannets, seals and dolphin. That was the situation until a mere 40 or 50 years ago. Today the coast is largely sterile and bereft of life except for a few hardy limpets, mussels and crabs. The same is true all around Scotland’s shores. Many hitherto productive coastal waters yield only crabs and prawns. Some sprat and mackerel are returning seasonally, but coastal marine life has largely died. My observations were confirmed by the late Jim Slater, former head of the pelagic fishermen’s association in Scotland. He told me how one day after his retirement he thought he would take his grandchildren down the seashore where he played as a boy, and show them some of the marine life there. He was astonished to find the area had lost almost all of the marine life forms he knew as a boy. He could show his grandchildren nothing of biological interest.

How did that happen ? What has caused the demise of such profusion of life in a few decades ? My guess is pollution. We have had an enormous increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, and the run-off from our fields and farms has been accumulating in the inshore waters, together with huge quantities of plastic and industrial waste. Every housewife today uses an array of cleaning fluids and powerful detergents that are also poured into our seas through each urban sewage system. Mother nature can accommodate and deal with a surprising amount of poisonous pollutants, but eventually its tolerance margins are exceeded and life begins to die. That process is taking place all over the world. We do well then to heed the warnings of Rachel Carson from 50 years ago.

Frank Fraser Darling

Possibly the finest example of a British naturalist who was also concerned about human ecology, is the late Sir Frank Fraser Darling who like most true prophets, had his work and advice ignored by the powers that be in his lifetime, yet was honoured later as if they had really listened to what he had said. Interestingly, he came from lowly origins, being born in the loft of a stable to a single mother. After leaving school at fifteen, and before entering agriculture college, he worked as a farm labourer. His wonderful and determined mother, supported and encouraged him, and gave him an initial love of nature, much of it fostered during dawn walks through the great wood near their home. Ultimately, Darling’s analysis of the inter-dependent relationship between man, his native landscape, and the wildlife of his locality, was to be a hallmark of his ecological surveys.

His vision and ideas impacted on much of the world, as he traveled to north and south America, and much of Africa. The United States government invited him to apply his principles of human ecology to its management of natural resources. But for me, and most admirers, F. F. Darling’s epic work was his natural history of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, which sadly was treated with disdain by successive Labour and Tory governments, though he did receive a knighthood in 1970. He was a true visionary and a very practical environmentalist

The bare hills, rugged peaks and lonely lochs of Scotland that are pictured on our calendars, and give much of the impression of the country to both locals and visitors, do not represent pristine unspoiled nature as some imagine. It is largely a despoiled landscape. At one time, the hills were covered by the forest of Caledon, and in prehistoric times, mammoths, elk, wolves, musk ox, bears, wild boar and other hardy mammals, populated the wild countryside. Climate changes and hunting gradually eliminated most of the mammals, and the needs of rapacious kings for timber to build naval ships, wiped out the once magnificent forest. Then came ethnic cleansing or the ‘Clearances’ that removed tenant farmers to make way for sheep and later deer.

Both the sheep and the deer further despoiled the landscape, and without a farming people to till the soil, it degenerated into what we see today. All is not lost, but it could take 100 years to restore the environment. The redoubtable highland environmentalists, Ron Greer and Derek Pretchell say of the future, “left alone, it will become like Iceland. With the proper long-term investment, it could be like Norway”.

But Scotland has not been blest with rulers of much vision or long-term commitment. Poor Ramsay MacDonald, facing the depression with an ideological Chancellor, Philip Snowden, who clung tenaciously to the gold standard, thus ensuring that the recession continued, had only one minister in his cabinet with any inspiration for putting the unemployed to work and investing in the land and its fauna. A proposal was made to have the out-of-work plant trees all over the country, including the Highlands of Scotland. But the suggestion was rejected, and its proponent left to join the fascists. He was Sir Oswald Mosley.

After WW2 the Attlee Government appointed as Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston, a man of immense ability and broad understanding, who set up the Scottish Hydro-Board to provide rural electricity by harnessing the many streams and fast rivers in the country. Concerned about the lack of development in the Highland region, and its clearances legacy, he asked an outstanding naturalist to study the “highland problem”, and advise on what could be done to improve the region, its natural resources, its crofting communities, and its economy. The naturalist was Frank Fraser Darling.

He had been studying flora and fauna and undertaking genetic research at Edinburgh University while living in the Highlands at Dundonnell on Little Loch Broom, and later at Tanera Mor on the Summer Isles off Achiltibuie. His work centred initially on blackface sheep and from that led to the relationship between the Highland people and the red deer and the sheep introduced in large numbers after the Clearances. He also studied the behavioural patterns of grey seals and sea-birds. During WW2 he returned to farming for a while, reclaiming derelict land and putting it into agricultural production, on Tanera Mor.

My long-time friend, international aqualturist Dr James Muir, who was born and brought up in Achiltibuie, has a number of family memories of Fraser Darling. F.D.’s first wife Bobbie, was a very close personal friend of James’ grandmother who often had the Darling family stay overnight at her Badentarbet house while they were waiting to cross by ferry to the island during times of bad weather. James’ great uncle, a farmer who had tilled the soil in places as far off as Australia and Rhodesia, helped Darling develop his “island farm” at Tanera. Recalling his great uncle’s formidable and argumentative character, James reckons that he and Fraser Darling must have had constant robust exchanges over the design and operation of the farm ! But no doubt that was all for the good. If the family had a criticism of Darling, it was one that might apply to all rural visionaries or idealists, namely that at times he lost sight of the real hardships of life for people in the Highlands, and tended to romanticize the tough climatic conditions they endured.

Darling’s two best known works are, Natural History in the Highlands and Islands, 1947, and West Highland Survey, 1955. Other books and papers by Fraser Darling include, Wild Country. A Highland Naturalist’s Notes and Pictures, 1938; The Seasons and the Farmer. A Book for Children, 1939; A Naturalist on Rona: essays of a biologist in isolation, 1939; Island Years, 1940; The seasons and the Fisherman, 1941; The Story of Scotland, 1942; Wildlife of Britain, 1943; Island Farm, 1943; The Care of Farm Animals, 1943; Crofting Agriculture, 1945; Pelican in the Wilderness, a naturalist’s odyssey in North America, 1956; Wild Life in an African Territory, 1960; Impacts of Man on the Biosphere, 1969; Wilderness and Plenty, (the Reith lectures), 1970; and A Conversation on Population, Environment, and Human Well-Being, 1971.

He was ahead of his time in envisioning an integrated approach to the management of natural resources, and its relation to human ecology. Had his advice been taken in 1955, the region would have been put on the road to recovery, and would have avoided the depopulation and economic depression it has experienced since. But Tom Johnston had been replaced by then, and the new regime in Scotland and Westminster was interested only in big industry for the central belt.

The visionary economist, E.F. Schumacher mentioned below, received similar treatment in the 1970’s, by our government, to what Fraser Darling experienced. E. F. used to share his frustration with planners bent on massive industrialization at all costs, with my late friend, Gordon Eddie, then Head of the White Fish Authority Industrial Development Group. While agreeing that major resources like coal and oil had to be utilized, Schumacher believed that their impact on the environment and on human life should temper and guide the direction and nature of their industries. I recall reading a book on economic development in Britain in the 1960’s and 70’s that decried Schumacher’s views, and instead praised a number of development contractors and officials in the north of England who the writer thought had the best ideas for Britain’s development. At least two of those praised were later convicted and jailed for corruption.

I did not have the privilege of meeting Sir Frank, but my Chief Fisheries Officer in (then) Northern Rhodesia, (Zambia), Jim Soulsby did. He and his wife Liz entertained him during his Africa tour 1956 – 1961. For Jim, the encounter with Fraser Darling was one of the most memorable of his life.

Darling was uniquely equipped to pioneer analysis of the complex relationships between man landscape and wildlife, which he did in regions as far apart as west Scotland, north Canada, central America and east Africa. In his search for the principles that underlie the complexity of nature in its widest sense, he combined a remarkable intuition with rigorous scientific investigation, and a gift for lucid writing that informed and inspired scientists and laymen alike.

Writing to Edward Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist, in 1978, a year before he died, Darling made some profound and weighty observations : “… one of your shortcomings is that you are not pessimistic enough and perhaps you are in too much of a hurry. To change man is going to take more time than we have. I have tried to for 40 years – but despite small strugglings, Man goes on his own way. (It) seems to me … God gave Man free will too soon. Having got this gift of God, compassion, we can’t brush off two-thirds of humanity despite earthquakes in Persia and floods in the Indian valley, exacerbated by economic exploration of the Himalayan forests. We continue to fell the Mato Grosso and kill the indigenous Indians, but we subscribe to the notion of “the sanctity of human life”. (The phrase seems to mean less and less when applied to some poor child whose cry we don’t hear). So am I without hope? Not really. We can be learning all the time. May compassion stay with us, despite our apparent human determination to cut it in two.”

Ernst Friedrich (Fritz) Schumacher

A Rhodes scholar who had come to Britain from Germany, with his father who was opposed to the Nazi take-over of his country, young Ernst was recognized as a talented young economist, and was hired to assist in the Bretton Woods Conference, and in the post-war reconstruction of Germany. Following those assignments he was made economic adviser to the British Coal Board, then responsible for the largest nationalized industry in Europe, with a work force of over 800,000. But despite his ability to grapple with huge industrial concerns, young Schumacher’s major interest lay with the millions of unemployed and under-employed persons in poor countries, and particularly in India and Burma (now Myanmar), both of which he visited many times, along with Zambia in Africa. Fritz was also deeply concerned about the exponential growth in the use of finite resources, and the increased pollution of soil, sea and air by heavy industry and chemical pesticides, since the end of WW2. He was an admirer of Mahatma Ghandi’s ideas on non-violence and empowerment of poor people, and this led him to develop his own ‘small is beautiful’ concepts.

At one lecture before the top economists in India, he suggested how all of the population could be put to useful work. The economists said it could not be done. He asked them why they thought that. They replied that their studies proved it was impossible. When he asked for evidence they said that to employ a single person in the 20th century it required the input of so much steel, so much plastic, so much electricity, and so much petroleum. If each of those items were multiplied by India’s population, the total exceeded the country’s resources of the commodities. Dr Schumacher looked at them and responded, “I should not have to point out to you gentlemen that the finest thing India has ever produced – the Taj Mahal, - was built without any steel, or any plastic, or any electricity, or any petroleum.” He was to go on to develop his concept of intermediate technology which he claimed was the answer, rather than a mindless adoption of modern western technology. Schumacher’s ideas were to be enormously helpful to me when I first studied them in the huge and populous land of Indonesia.

There were 90 million people in Java when I arrived in the country, and 130 million in the whole country. Today the population numbers over 200 million. I could not imagine where all of the thousands of kids running around the streets were to get food, clothing, education, jobs, and housing. Many of their fathers were crewing sail-boats or pedaling becaks for a wage of perhaps Rp 6,000 a month, or less ($14). Their mothers may have been working in the rice paddies, the textile factories, or the batik dyeing sheds, for about the same amounts. The basic monthly wage was equivalent to US $ 15 or just above ₤ 9 then. How could they survive on such low incomes ? This was something I wrestled with for a long time, and never ceased to ask those willing to discuss, how the poor people existed. The small scale fishermen numbered 2 million then (and total 3 million now). These fishers were receiving even less than the minimum wage.

It was around that time I read Small is Beautiful for the first time, the main prophetic treatise written by Schumacher. He had founded the Intermediate Technology Group and was a leading member of the Soil Society. For me, struggling to come to terms with the formidable problems of bringing remunerative work and food and a future, to a vast nation like Indonesia, reading Schumacher was like putting on a pair of spectacles and seeing these problems in focus for the first time. When in Africa, I had debated with departmental economists over the direction of the interventions we were making, and whether they were really in the people’s long term interest, but had no answers to the arguments of conventional economics. Now, here was an economist of stature, challenging the very basis of much of modern development theory, and showing us a better way to a sustainable future on planet earth.

The sub-title of the book is Economics as if People Mattered. It painted a lucid, if alarming, picture, of the phenomenal growth of pollution and industrial production in the post-war world, of the escalating consumption of irreplaceable fossil fuels, mainly petroleum, and of modern industry and technology’s treatment of human beings and their aspirations as if they just did not matter. It also challenged the sustainability of growth and market systems based on human greed, and the impact of globalism on poor societies. Here are a few notable statements edited and paraphrased in places, (the insertions in brackets are mine), from different chapters of Small is Beautiful :

The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. This is based on a failure to distinguish between income and capital where the distinction matters most : namely the earth’s irreplaceable capital which we have not made, but simply found, and without which we can do nothing. A businessman would not consider his firm to be viable if it was rapidly consuming its capital. But we overlook that vital fact when it comes to the biggest firm of all, - the economy of spaceship earth. (Along with the minerals we use, oil is a capital asset. Once it is gone it will be gone for ever. Solar, wind, wave, tide, hydro and geo-thermal energy sources are renewable, as are biomass fuels). (The Problem of Production)

Creatures on the land are looked upon by some economists as nothing but ‘factors of production’. That may be their secondary function, but it is not their primary nature. Animals are really ‘ends in themselves’. They have a life and a function beyond mere economic considerations. They are in a certain sense ‘sacred’. Man has not made them, and once he has spoilt them, he cannot recreate them. If I have a car, I may neglect its maintenance, and simply run it into ruin. I may calculate that to be more economical than go through the cost of regular maintenance and repair. If my calculation is correct, no-one can fault me for treating it so. There is nothing sacred about a car, a man-made thing. But if I have an animal – be it only a calf or a hen – a living sensitive creature, - am I allowed to treat it as nothing but a utility ? Am I allowed to run it to ruin ? …

A callous attitude to the land and the animals thereon, is symptomatic of a fanatic fascination with technical, organizational, chemical, and biological novelties, which insists on their application long before their long-term consequences are even remotely understood. Our entire way of life is involved in the simple question of how we treat the land (and the sea). If we could truly recognize its higher value, our landscapes would become healthy and beautiful again. Human beings would regain the dignity of man, knowing themselves to be higher than the animals, but never forgetting that “noblesse oblige”. (The Proper Use of Land)

We must study the economics of permanence, a central concept of wisdom. Nothing makes economic sense unless it is sustainable in the long term. There can be ‘growth’ towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited endless growth. Our life-style should be designed for permanence. Traditional agriculture sought to achieve this. We should follow that example, developing and improving methods that are biologically sound, build up soil fertility, and produce health and beauty. In industry we should evolve non-violent technologies, small-scale technologies, technologies with a human face. Modern agriculture relies on applying to soil, plants and animals, ever-increasing quantities of chemical products. Modern industry tends towards giantism. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction. Both industry and agriculture should follow directions leading back to the real needs of man, and that includes to the actual size of man. Man is small and therefore, small is beautiful. (Technology with a Human Face)

Job opportunities for the poor in most so-called ‘developing’ countries, are so restricted, they cannot work their way out of misery. They are under-employed or totally unemployed. If they have work, their productivity is exceedingly low. Some have land, but often too little. Most have no land, and no prospect of ever acquiring any. With little hope in the rural areas they drift to the big cities. But there is little work and no housing or decent sanitation for them there. … What the poor need most of all is simple things, - clean water, food, building materials, clothing, household goods, tools, - and a better return for their produce. They also urgently need trees, water, and vital health and education services. Most would benefit enormously if they could do some elementary processing of their farm or fishery yields. Modern technology is of little help. It is expensive, energy-consuming, and more suited to urban environments. An intermediate technology, however, could be very appropriate. Not a going back to primitive tools and systems, but a combination of traditional skills with a small-scale application of the accumulated practical know-how of hands-on mechanics, engineers, tradesmen, technicians, and artisans. Such technology can greatly improve the production and earning power of the poor. It can be related to the cost of each workplace. In a modern western farm, factory or fishing boat, the capital cost of each worker’s job place is in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. A poor man may have tools that cost only a few hundred dollars (a plough, an ox, a boat, a loom). We cannot burden him with a $10,000 technology but he could benefit well from a $ 1,000 or $ 2,000 technology. (Social and Economic Problems Calling for the Development of Intermediate Technology)

In my own fisheries work, I was constantly coming up against World Bank economists who were incapable of considering any other technologies than those used by the modern American, European, and Japanese agriculture and fishery industries. There was not the slightest concern about what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of farmers and fishers who would be put out of work by mass mechanization, or about its immense capital and operating costs. Human beings were expendable in their view. Profit, and profit in fewer hands, was all that they really cared about (though they would rarely admit it or even dare to face such issues). What they regarded as inefficient artisanal farming and fishing had to be replaced by capital-intensive fuel-guzzling systems from the industrial countries. The small traditional fishing fleets and farms had to “wither on the vine” in the words of one of their proponents (who actually got appointed as an Assistant Director of Fisheries in FAO, but was fortunately sacked after 3 years of embarrassing promotion of his idea to have the rich country fleets harvest the resources in the seas around poor countries).

Most of what Schumacher proclaimed is now accepted as sane and sensible by the United Nations and the majority of development agencies, if not by the governments of the USA and the UK, and the major global industrial corporations. But in the early 1970’s it was considered very new and radical, even though Schumacher had accurately predicted an oil crisis 12 years before OPEC engineered it. I began to debate the issues with World Bank economists, and to write some papers based on the application of Schumacher’s theories and principles in my own work. I found that most economists had never really thought out the social and environmental implications of their policies. To them an efficient business or economic system was one that used the fewest number of human beings, and made the greatest profit for the owner, regardless of how much capital it required, or how much energy it consumed, and with scant attention to the environmental problems it created..

To give some practical illustrations, - they could not understand that sail power might be quite appropriate for fishermen in poor countries. After all it was used for centuries by our fore-fathers, and surprisingly is still used by some American fishers in the Pacific, and by some tunny (tuna) trollers in the Atlantic. The banks promoted USA manufactured outboard engines which are short-life and consume much fuel. Asian fishers in contrast, took simple diesel or petrol utility motors, and ‘marinised’ them by attaching a propeller shaft and a steering pole. Today there are hundreds of thousands of these locally fabricated “power-poles” in operation, which if not elegant, demonstrate what appropriate technology can achieve. In farming, as my writer friend Paul Molyneaux observes, few of the economists and technocrats are aware that a buffalo is a “solar-powered tractor”, needing neither diesel nor spare parts !

Some of my ideas were accepted surprisingly by the Asian Development Bank, and somewhat more understandably by developing country governments. Dr Shei, the head of the Agriculture Department of ADB, was remarkably sympathetic. At my suggestion, and following a meeting with his senior staff, He financed a regional workshop and conference on the application of alternative and renewable energy systems to the fisheries of the Asia-Pacific region. The task of running the workshop was offered to FAO which refused to participate, being suspicious of the novel approach, and not yet aware of the impact of the OPEC oil crisis on small fishers who were paying much more for their fuel than motorists in the cities. However, with the enthusiastic support of a visionary American research officer, the late Dr Ian Smith of ICLARM (now WorldFish), we were able to organize the international event. But when I wrote a paper for FAO, for the Indo-Pacific Fishery Council meeting in Kyoto, Japan in 1979, it was banned from circulation within FAO Rome, and remained so for two years. My IPFC paper, however, was read with great interest by fishery officials in Mexico, as a result of which I was invited by the Mexican Government to address a large Fisheries Symposium for Latin America, held near Cancun in December 1979. My FAO employers refused to agree to my attendance or participation in that conference, but by taking leave for the period, I was able to undertake the assignment. As it happened, the Mexico paper was unanimously adopted by the Latin American representatives, led by the chair country, Peru, and was opposed only by observers from the UK and French governments.

But fortunately, times change, and even a dinosaur can turn. Wiser heads have replaced some of the closed minds of thirty years ago. I was encouraged recently to be informed that both FAO and World Bank had agreed to support research to build upon and update my 1979 thesis and its accompanying tables in recognition of their useful perspective on global fishery development issues.

Alastair McIntosh
An Eloquent and Prophetic Voice on behalf of coastal and island people

A leading writer, academic, broadcaster, and social activist leads the fight for social justice and economic opportunity for small coastal and island communities in Scotland, based on historical experience and principles common to fishers and farmers in all parts of the world.

Alastair McIntosh, Head of the Department of Human Ecology, Glasgow University, is a respected academic and writer, and also a visionary and poet, who combines a strong social conscience with practical application of his ideas and concerns, to the situations facing coastal and island communities on Scotland’s west coast and its Hebridean islands. His ideas and philosophy were developed during his upbringing in the Hebrides, and subsequent experience in the Pacific, where he served in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomons.

Alastair McIntosh grew up in an island that reflected the impact of what was called, “the Highland Clearances”. He confesses to have been unaware of the history as a young boy, but was privileged to experience life in an island village where cows were hand milked, where looms driven by foot filled the air with their clackety-clack, and the atmosphere itself was perfumed with the dusky reek of peat fires. The produce of the soil had to be supplemented by Harris Tweed weaving, commercial fishing, local part-time jobs or working away.

He reflects that Hebridean society then was based upon an economy of mutuality, reciprocity and exchange. These qualities mattered to the people at least as much as cash transactions did. This was a way of life that was learned, effortlessly, through the culture. They shared fish and eggs and home made butter, not from a sense of obligation, because we were mutually part of the community. The village economy was centred around seeing that everybody had sufficient. In this system sufficiency was the measure of prosperity. Surplus was for sharing before trading, and the joy was in the giving, not the accumulating. Our ‘poverty’, if it was that, was a dignified frugality, says Alastair, not the degrading destitution of economies where an elite harbours all the resources to profit from artificially maintained scarcities.

Alastair gradually came to a deep awareness of the origins of the social and economic injustices around him. He said that if the 19th century saw Clearances from the land was the first major blow, the 20th century has nailed the coffin lid to maritime communities. It has done so with a sophisticated but ruthless application of monetarism, central management, and pressures to adopt commercial practices and permit destructive modern technologies. But it was when serving over 4 years in the Pacific islands that he came to see that the problems and issues were global, and not just confined to his homeland. He started to make the connections between what had disrupted the Hebridean fisheries, and similar conditions on the other side of the world.

He had completed a financial MBA at Edinburgh University and had learned the workings of moneyed power from the inside out. Now he was to play a lead role in developing the Pacific Regional Sustainable Forestry Programme which helped village people in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Isles and Vanuatu (the New Hebrides) to regain control over their own rainforests. It enabled them to develop an economically viable alternative to large-scale corporate logging practices. The key was to use small-scale, low-impact portable sawmills within a sustainable management plan to produce certified ‘eco-timber’.

Alastair observed other resource situations in the Solomon Islands that related more to fisheries. It was 1989. He was investigating the logging of tropical rainforests and travelled all day by canoe through the South Pacific Ocean, off Malaita Island. A baited line trailed out behind. By evening, it had hooked just one little garfish. That night they ate canned tuna. It came from the Taiwanese trawlers whose lights glittered prettily out at sea. Polycarp, his local fisherman guide, explained how the coastal fisheries had collapsed. The Taiwanese had started coming in to net just off the coral reefs. They were after baitfish for commercial tuna operations. A few politicians in Honolulu got rich on the licensing backhanders. But for village people it had meant a shift from catching their own food to having to buy it. Only out of habit did they still navigate their canoes with a lured line hanging out the back.

Today, in both the Hebrides and the Solomon Islands, few of the fish consumed are caught by local people. Most is purchased. Local processing factories often have to import fish from far way in the mainland! Fish from local waters, caught by long-distance fleets may be landed in distant foreign ports Vigo. And yet, in terms of our Gross National Product (GNP), Alastair points out, we are said to be better off. In the days when people caught enough for the pot, we were classed as poor because so little went through the cash economy. Now says Alastair, it is different. We buy fish, and it counts as economic activity. We buy fuel oil for the boats instead of using our muscles to row, and again, it measures as economic activity. Meanwhile, young people get drunk, inject drugs, fight, smash windows and otherwise create some sort of rite of passage, no matter how perverse. This too adds to GNP. Repairs to vandalised shop fronts also count as ‘wealth’ in national accounting. So do the hospital casualty services, and the alcohol consumed, and the policing and court time.

Alastair contends that sensible, sensitive and productive resource-management policies could so easily be put in place, both in Scotland, and in the Pacific. The coastal waters could be reserved for the use of the local villages. Granted the necessary resource access and ownership rights, the communities could quite easily manage the fisheries with central government confined to overall policy. In Scotland, harvesting methods that have a detrimental effect could be controlled or banned. In shallow waters only traditional methods might be permitted, such as scooping scallops up with a long pole after spotting them through a glass-bottomed bucket. This would restore harvesting opportunities to the old men and the children. Diving for clams could be restricted to deeper waters, and dredging, in Alastair’s opinion, should be banned outright. That way, the habitat of worms and other creatures could recover and, because these help to feed fish, the catches would improve. Both the Solomons and NW Scotland have suffered serious depletion of their ancient natural forests. Had Scotland listened to the great environmentalist and human ecologist, Fraser Darling who studied the Highlands and Islands 50 years ago, the region would be covered by quality forests by now.

Reclaiming a place for indigenous people

Alastair McIntosh was heavily involved in two major efforts in support of island people to redress the evils of landlessness and environmental degradation. The first concerned a successful attempt to help an island community obtain possession of their land, and the second one, equally successful was to put a halt to attempts by a mining company to devastate a beautiful and historical mountain by turning it into a quarry to produce raw material for the construction industry.

Isle of Eigg Trust

The Isle of Eigg, a mere 3 miles long by 2 miles wide, was a 7500-acre ‘jewel in the heart of the Hebrides’. A 1966 sales brochure had described it as ‘a perfectly secluded island of the Old World, the very beautiful island of Eigg’. The world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, visited the island and eulogised Scotland’s traditional musicians of which Eigg had more than its share, as ‘those who will give our civilisation voice, spirit and shape’. Its population of around 50 hardy crofter families, had seen their island bought and sold on the market by a series of landlords and speculators who did little for its people or its economy. Alastair describes the island’s beauty and location thus :

The high Sgurr rises up immediately behind to the north. Eagles sortie, undaunted as they work, in and out of their eyries. Beyond the Sgurr lies the Loch of the Big Women, and further on yet there are stunning views of the jagged Cuillins on Skye. Eastwards, over snow-tipped waves, is Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. To the west, far beyond the islands of Rum and Canna, lie the Outer Hebridean liturgy of Mingulay, Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, North Uist, Berneray, Pabbay, Killegray, Ensay, Taransay, Scalpay, Scarp, Bernera, Harris and, of course, Lewis. To the south is the massive volcanic landmass of Mull; the dark island largely empty since the Duke of Argyll did his worst, but beaming off its westernmost point is the spiritual lighthouse of Iona.

Inspired and challenged by a leading crofter from the island, Tom Forsyth, Alastair responded by stepping into the breach of and becoming a founding member of the Isle of Eigg Trust. Affter many meetings, discussions, confrontations, public appeals, and appearances at the High Court in Glasgow, the people of Eigg finally achieved what all crofter communities had dared to hope for, - legal ownership of their island home. Today this simple small community stands as a shining example of what the poor and powerless can do given vision, commitment, and a determination never to give up.

The super-quarry battle

Around the same time as the Eigg campaign was taking off, Alastair heard about plans to construct a ‘superquarry’ on Mount Roineabhal on the Isle of Harris. Ian Wilson, a Scottish businessman, had procured the mineral rights at some half-dozen key deep-water locations where ocean meets mountain. These were either in designated National Scenic Areas like south Harris, or other Scottish locations recognised as being of outstanding natural beauty.

In June 1991 the businessman concerned came to see Alastair and the other staff at the Centre for Human Ecology. He said the quarry would represent ‘sustainable development’. It could continue for hundreds of years by gradually working its way back through the mountains of south Harris. Thirty-six tons of powerful explosive each week would slowly reduce the place to rubble. That would be acceptable because Harris was so rocky that ‘it already looks like a moonscape’. The aggregate would be exported by ship to south-east England, continental Europe and perhaps as far away as America. When the quarry reached full production, 10 or even 20 million tons of stone would be extracted each year. This would serve the needs of road-building and erection of coastal defences if predictions that the sea level would rise due to global warming proved correct. What Wilson was proposing was fifty times bigger than any other quarry in Britain. The hole left behind, he said, would possibly be the largest in the world with an area of some 3 square miles. And yes, he said in reply to Alastair’s disarmingly innocent question, it could be used for dumping waste into afterwards – but that was not in the initial planning application and it would be imprudent to discuss it at such an early stage.

The mountain would be gouged out from just under its 1500-foot (500-metre) summit down to far below sea level. A natural rock wall would be left in place to hold back the water during the quarry’s working life. At the end of sixty years this would then be blasted and flooded by way of environmental restoration. A new sea loch would thereby be created – a ‘man-made marina for passing yachts’ (provided, of course, that they had 300-foot anchor ropes with which to reach the bottom!). Tourists would come to view the feat of technology; they would make up for the ones who might otherwise have come to walk the hills. Mountaineers could practise on the artificial crags rising to six times the height of the White Cliffs of Dover.

The CHE decided to inform the people to be affected. Not surprisingly both the developer and government had hidden the more unpalatable aspects of the project from the locals. Once the people were informed they responded with an overwhelming vote against the proposal. But some in government and those close to the business tried to overcome their opposition in a variety of ways. Alastair led the community fight against the destruction of their scenic mountain. The struggle was long and often bitter, but in the end, as with the Eigg trust, they succeeded, and the mountain remains.

Global Warming

In 2008 Alastair published a highly acclaimed book on global warming. The book is neither alarmist nor complacent. It presents the evidence and addresses the implications with realism and eloquence, yet ends with an inspiring vision of hope and a call never to give up, but to set in place the preconditions that might reconstitute life. . The full title is Hell and High Water; climate change, hope, and the human condition. With his poet’s gifts of expression, and his analytical mind, Alastair brings us back to first principles of life on earth and how this planet came to be the wonderful way it is :

What made it possible at all for advanced life to develop on this planet ? The answer is green leaves – along with a few other organisms like algae and phytoplankton. These are the photo-synthesizers that bio-chemically capture the sun’s energy, producing sugar. It led to the pioneering Scots botanist and human ecologist, Professor Patrick Geddes to coin the expression, ‘by leaves we live’, because our entire food chain is so driven. Peer into a pond on a sunny day and it can be watched happening. Tiny strings of bubbles will be seen rising from the leaves of water plants. It’s beautiful to observe. Here we see the very air we breathe being replenished in its goodness.” (Edited quote from chapter 1)

Alastair also brings powerfully to our attention the spiritual or meta-physical qualities and attitudes that we have lost sight of, but which are essential if we are to treat the earth and living nature with the respect due to our very life-support system. “At the end of the day, when the glitter of the shops has worn off, the packaging transmogrified into garbage, and the credit card bill slips through the door, the world of consumerism is sad and tawdry. Except where economic growth serves the fundamental needs of the poor, it measures little more than the rate at which natural beauty and human effort is trashed. A right relationship with nature makes us whole. It salves our neurosis. I am convinced we all need an elemental education to be able fully to appreciate reality. We need contact with nature, and to learn about matter and energy, cosmology, the atmosphere and its weather, the soils and the rocks, and the rivers, lakes and seas, and their flora and fauna.”

Professor McIntosh goes on to discuss the webs of untruth and delusion, and the need to recover consciousness, to achieve ‘soul retrieval’, and rediscover the qualities of kindness and gratitude, grace and truth. Our failure to understand what has been going on all around us is due in part to the lies of the contemporary world, and the ’disappearance of the very criterion of truth’. He quotes the American environmental educator, David Orr who regarded gratitude as the most important quality we need to address the problems of climate change, and to free us from the loveless illusion of independence. “As civilisation advances, the sense of wonder almost necessarily declines … humankind will not perish from want of information; but only from want of appreciation. “In our universities we teach a thousand ways to criticise, analyse, dissect and deconstruct, but we offer very little guidance on the cultivation of gratitude – simply saying ‘Thank you’. (Edited quotes from chapter 9)

Defending coastal fishers

Alastair McIntosh has also been active in defending the rights and livelihoods of coastal fisheries around Scotland. The arguments he uses are globally relevant. What he observed happening in the inshore fisheries in the 1970s was a culture change. As a consequence of government treating the fishing industry solely as an investment option, and not as a food production system based on renewable natural resources, or as an employment provider for coastal settlements, a train of events commenced that resulted in serious social and environmental damage.

To walk around Stornoway harbour was to view a fishing-technology theme park. The old skills, and with them, the time-inculcated sense of responsibility towards place, were losing sway. Boats were increasingly crewed by young men who took their bearings not from tradition, but from technology. For many, fishing was a way to service both the bank loan and the fancy new car or house. Fewer and fewer people still saw it as a way of life to be honoured. If fish could be found close inshore and if you’re only living for today, why not go after them? Skippers reckoned they might as well grab all the fish they could before the big free-for-all began with the entry of fleets from Europe. The incentive to respect nature was disappearing and the ecology of place was therefore unravelling.

Some observers blamed the greed of a few ambitious fishers, but that greed was given license by government countenanced systems and regulations such those that applied quotas to every species and every boat, and then permitted these quotas and vessel licenses, to be bought and sold on an open market. This inevitably led to the decline and loss of fishing boats and access to fish stocks, by numerous small coastal communities.

A local fishing fleet of 30 or 40 boats may seem unimportant to a Treasury bureaucrat, and its demise may cause little concern in the corridors of power. But to a small coastal town, the fishing fleet may be the primary backbone of the economy. Such a fleet in UK provides around 200 sea going jobs and possibly 400 shore based jobs. Additionally their purchases support local grocers shops to the tune of £ 500,000 a year. Ship chandlers also receive considerable support. Local businesses like the ice plant, a marine workshop, a slipway, and marine electrical shop, all depend directly on such a fleet, not to mention the fish processing establishments and transport by road, rail, sea, and air. As a primary industry, a region’s fishing fleet creates linkages and multiplier effects into many secondary sectors of the local economy.

Short-sighted bureaucrats and big-industry lobbyists were stealing the future from the fishing communities when government policy and fishery management was dictated by monetary considerations and neglected social and environmental needs. More profit for the fewer operators was thought of as progress no matter how much unemployment was created, or how many small coastal communities died as their basic resource was taken from them.

There are plenty examples around the coast of Britain that demonstrate the folly and short-sightedness of these policies. One need only look at Grimsby, Hull, Fleetwood, North Shields, Granton, Arbroath, Buckle, Lossiemouth, Oban, or Ayr to see once flourishing fishing centres reduced to dereliction and decay. Other ports like Brixham, Lowestoft, Eyemouth, Macduff, Wick, and Ullapool, are showing signs of vulnerability as coastal fleets shrink and as licenses are amalgamated to construct large offshore trawlers and pursers, which land their catches at a few designated ports often far from where the catch was obtained.

Alastair McIntosh argues that what the Government and the Treasury are closing their eyes to while pursuing this strategy, is the knock-on effect of the fisher job-losses and the demise of basic industry in small coastal communities. Add up such “extemalities” as the costs of unemployment, the loss of income from taxes, the drop in rural economies, and the stagnation and decline of former fishing towns and villages, and the “profitability” of the modern, capital-intensive, and technologically efficient industry, begins to look less attractive.

There is also a moral argument used by Alastair against a monetarist approach. Bureaucrats may claim that “the fishermen do not own the fish” or that the government has the right to give, sell or lease the resource to whoever it pleases. But coastal fishing communities all over the world have already paid for their right of access, over and over again, by generations of blood, toil, tears and sweat. There is scarcely a fishing family that has not lost a member at sea, within living memory. The modern technology available today was developed empirically over the last hundred years by countless numbers of fishermen entrepreneurs who mortgaged their homes and risked their savings to pioneer progress in fishing.

How can a government think of making access to the fishery something to be auctioned to the highest bidder? As a farmer has the right to use of the land, so fishing communities ought to have rights over their maritime resource base.

Today’s fishery administrators, both politicians and bureaucrats, must answer some searching questions. What is gained by enforced economic rationalisation of the fishing fleet? Not greater incomes, only the same gross income in fewer hands. Not more fish, certainly, for the landings are determined by TACs. Not better conservation, for it is those very powerful ships which are posing the threat, - rather than the hundreds of medium and small sized vessels.

The only answer the managers might give is greater ease of administration, and greater profits in the fewer hands of those with the financial and lobbying muscle. On the debit side are the redundancies. Visit any of the now defunct fishing ports and you can see the human waste - scores of qualified, experienced fishermen and engineers who now walk their dogs and muse over past times in coffee shops and bars. Then there are the vacant premises, the boarded-up shops, and the scores of “to let” and “for sale” signs interspersed with holiday homes on every street near the harbour. How can this be justified in the name of economic progress? What has happened is that centralised government and big-business control have sacrificed social and environmental considerations at the altar of narrowly conceived monetary objectives. Fisher communities that were once proud and self-reliant are then reduced to dependency cultures, obliged to go cap in hand to government and donors for help to develop other livelihoods.

Alastair McIntosh believes that there is a viable future for inshore fisheries, but only if vibrant, sustainable and self-reliant coastal communities become the main policy objective. For this fisheries management should aim to optimise economic and community linkages, multipliers and resource conservation.

He says that two serious facts have to be recognised. First, if the market was allowed to dictate development, then millions of small scale fishers would be displaced by fleets of large powerful vessels built by those with access to finance. This is madness to poor countries with large populations. Indonesia, China, and India could not afford to have their millions of coastal fishermen lose their livelihoods and then descend as squatters on the capital cities. This would only bring an increase in crime and social or political instability.

Second, if open access to fishing grounds was to remain in place, then there would be no incentive for fishermen to conserve stocks (the tragedy of the commons). However, if fisherfolk had ownership rights and management control over the fish resource adjacent to their villages, then they could together begin to apply long term management measures. Where appropriate, traditional management systems can be revived or maintained, and given recognition under national fishery management regimes.”

There are a number of ways in which fishing communities can be empowered and strengthened. The least best approach is probably the creation of oligarchies and plutocracies as practiced by the EU and its CFP. Power has to be delegated to the lowest practical level, but that requires moral courage and political will. To achieve and maintain coastal community cohesion, and to put people’s participation above control by corporate power, the nation has to embrace genuine democracy and ensure justice at grass roots level. Fishing communities all over the globe are in an alarming predicament. But with courage and vision they could sail out of the shallows and miseries they have been put in by greed and mismanagement, and launch into the deep for a draught of fishes from a renewed resource.”

(from ‘Change and Continuity in Scotland’s Fishing Communities’, March 2008 conference)

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