A future for fishing?

By Carole White

Intergenerational perspectives on social (im)mobilities, fishing identities, Brexit and the Sustainable development Goals, at the People and the Sea Conference

Questions over the future of the fishing industry and associated communities around the British Isles have come to the fore in the national media over the past couple of years as the UK prepares to exit the European Union. In the lead up to the referendum, pro-leave campaigners claimed that the UK would get its waters back and bring life back into the fishing industry, which has declined drastically over the past decades. Once prosperous, lively ports with dynamic communities are now some of the most deprived and marginalised in the UK. However, despite the hopes and opportunities the road ahead will be challenging. Even if the UK regained full and exclusive sovereignty over its seas, it is far from clear with what capacity the fishing industry would be able to make use of any additional resources. What is immediately apparent when visiting any fishing community in the UK, or in much of the Global North are their aging national fishing fleets due to difficulties in attracting a new generation of fishermen. In many ways these trends reflect broader, social, economic, demographic and political change, which have resulted in a marginalisation of rural economies and communities – some of the most vocal for leaving the EU. Asking questions about the continuity and sustainability of the fishing industry requires understanding its role in the community life and social identity. If the future of the fishing industry is a case study for and against Brexit, then exploring this from an intergenerational perspective might also offer a better understanding into these ‘left behind communities’ and insights into their future.

The UN’s fourteenth Sustainable Development Goal ‘Life Below Water’, includes improving “access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets”. However, aside from this the focus is very much – as its title suggests – on the sustainability of the underwater world. Although this and other elements of the SDGs point to reducing inequality in rural, coastal and fishing communities around the world, the divorce between environmental and social sustainability still dominates. At the biannual People and the Sea Conference in Amsterdam last June, I organised a panel with Dr Gustavsson titled “A future for fishing? Intergenerational perspectives on social (im)mobilities and fishing identities“ which brought together researchers from the UK, Norway, Iceland and Newfoundland, Canada – where much experience exists on the social impacts of fisheries collapses on structuring coastal communities.

We kicked off with two presentations from the UK, which had strong parallels. I presented my work on fishermen in a small-scale fishery in the East of England where reducing crew to save costs and increased social mobility means that the future of this fishery is uncertain. In the Llŷn peninsula, north Wales, Dr Gustavsson found that fishermen’s needs and motivations change with age and across their lives, for instance with parenthood and in older age. These intergenerational and demographic perspectives have important implications for implementing any policies aimed at sustaining fishing communities. Unfortunately funded courses, apprenticeships and other policy interventions have so far been trialled with limited success precisely because they do not consider the broader social and cultural context within which employment in fisheries occurs. In fact policies have, Dr Foley stated, presenting on behalf of Professor Barbara Neis, and Dr Power, often failed to recognise that successful intergenerational recruitment in the harvesting sector underpins the sustainability of small-scale fisheries. They argue that the dominant discourses that put forward the view that “They just have better things to do right now”, ignores changes to the organisation of and access to fisheries work. Drawing on research from two projects: Community-University for Recovery Research Alliance (CURRA) and ‘On the Move’ Partnership, he explained how this has clear implications for policy aimed at recruiting young people into fisheries work which must focus on the barriers to recruitment rather than assuming a generational difference and disinterest with youth.

Meanwhile Dr Sønvisen, presented work from Norway with Jahn Petter where policy goals to secure sustainable fisheries in the 1990s led restructuring the fleet to fewer and larger boats. These changes are blamed for negative impacts on communities even though outmigration of women and youth started in the 1970s. Today, official statistics shows that the proportion of female fishing license owners is increasing representing at least 10% of the large-scale purse seine fleet. Women have taken on the role of ‘modern’ rather than ‘traditional’ fishers reflecting societal changes and a new management regime where alternative recruitment strategies have been trialled including an annual lottery of licenses and collective quotas. Dr Sønvisen concluded that fisheries recruitment needs to look forward and embrace change in coastal communities and the fishing fleet. In contrast, Dr Kokorsch asked “Where have all the people gone?” while discussing the limits of resilience in two Icelandic coastal communities where major socio-economic and demographic challenges have followed the privatisation of fisheries in 1990. One community is undergoing a successful transition towards a non-fisheries-based community, transforming disused fishing facilities into work-spaces for young talented artists. However, another nearby town seems to have reached the limits of resilience, and its community struggles to adjust after losing land-based jobs in fisheries, raising important questions around when to end resilience-building efforts.

Clearly, the sustainability of marine industries, livelihoods and coastal communities is deeply tied not just to ‘Life Below Water’ but also to what goes on ‘Above the Water’ and ‘On Land’. As many in the UK will soon face impacts from Brexit, attention needs to be paid in a holistic and multi-dimensional sense to the sustainability of fisheries. There are lessons to draw on from other maritime nations, which have previously undergone crises and restructuring in their coastal communities. Similarly, countries in the Global South going through outmigration and overfishing are starting to face similar issues around recruitment in fisheries. The Sustainable Development Goals, which apply across the world, may offer opportunities for shared lessons and experiences to countries as they rebuild their fisheries and coastal communities.

Carole White is Senior Research Associate at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia.

Carole White was supported by The Sociological Review Early Career Researchers Conference funding 2017.

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