|Orkney Fisheries Association | text version | sitemap | log in|
This is a personal history of the boats and the life as I remember it of the the fishermen in Stromness from the 60s onwards.
Whitefish Days of the Haddock KlondykeNorskie Whalers and lost voicesFish theft and vodkaIn at the deep endIndex
Last of the hunter gatherers
by Fiona Matheson - 14:08 on 31 August 2011
Non fishers need to better understand how fishing works. We all assume an affinity with fishermen, its’ part sentimental, mostly out of date and is bundled up with the dubious accolade of fishing being the most dangerous occupation in the world.
To the casual observer the sea appears empty. Few know how it actually looks beneath the surface. Even underwater photography does not provide the sensation of ‘other worldliness’ that putting on a wet suit and oxygen bottles provides. Even the ‘ordinary’ under the water is extra-ordinary. Non-descript brown seaweed strewn on rocks is transformed in the water. The area of harbour bottom below my house is like entering an incredible world of plants and animals, huge starfish and tropical type seaweeds.
TV programmes like ‘Trawlerman’ and ‘Deadliest Catch’ have shown what happens out at sea bringing the unseen deepsea fleet into everyday homes. Still many people fail to understand the nature of how fishing works. It may be clichéd but it is true, fishermen are the last of the hunter gatherers, and in Scotland the last of the big indigenous industries like steel at Ravenscraig and Gartcosh, the massive network of mines that absorbed the male working population, paper mills, shipbuilding…Like a Proclaimers song. Many always knew the folly of ending these ‘mens’ industries but could do little about it in the ruthless economic times that hailed call centres and service industries as the clean new dawn for the UK. As my husband says we can’t all end up driving each other around in taxis, someone somewhere has to be making something. Fishing is that primary source industry that brings something that wasn’t there before ashore and turns it into food and then money. That in itself should secure it as the fundamental part of an economy which underpins other industries and all else that flows from there up to taxis and tourists who want to click photos at quaysides. Holiday snaps of call centre workers just don’t figure!
Our last big man’s industry is fishing and I make no apologies for it being a man’s industry. Political correctness and a desperation for women to do everything men do, can be counter-productive. Fishing is part of male identity and a route for young men to follow that affirms them in many positive male ways. And I say this as a woman who does not recognise glass ceilings and barriers and I have baited strings on a creel boat.
Ley people looking out at the sea view it as empty. They do not see it covered with fishing boats every day, every week. Only those who know how and where to look will pick up a string of creel buoys in the sea. Fish as a wild resource are unfenced and can migrate thousands of miles under the water. We know little about crabs but research taking place in Orkney now shows they can migrage over 100 miles. Lobsters are assumed to be territorial staying around their patch and fiercely defending their lair.
Fishermen have observed and watched the animals in the sea and built up a knowledge of the workings of different species. They know there is no point setting a creel in an area where the bottom does not provide hideaways for lobsters or trying to catch a haddock at the wrong time of day or year…But our collective farmer’s psyche imposes the logic of the farmyard on fisheries. This does not work as fish cannot be corralled, fenced in, or expected to behave like domestic chickens. The sea under the surface, where few humans venture is like a vast prairie where living things roam and devour each other, where species reduce as others dominate. Our attempts to regulate these animals in the sea inevitably has knock-on unforeseen results. A seal is the size of a pig and needs a substantial diet to exist. Yet our human insistence on anthropomorphising wild animals, Disneyfying the uncuddly, is a trait cynically exploited by the green lobby and skews the reality of the fishworld where everything eats everything else.
Fishermen are like the Massai Marai on the hunting plains. They know how their quarry works. They know their behaviour, their individual and collective instincts and they set their catching techniques to outwit their prey. We eat fish and animals because we are cleverer than them.
When a fisherman hauls up a net or a creel he never knows exactly what may be in it. That’s part of the addictive gamble that is fishing and that even a child on an artificially stocked trout loch can recognise. In the current debate on ‘discards’ that has propelled Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to the status of celebrity-politico, the truth is that no fisherman can haul a net and guarantee the type and composition of species of his haul. This is the ultra-complex unresolved problem of the discard debate. Our Scottish mixed fishery will struggle to become a no discard fishery in the strict sense. More fish may be landed ashore, but how ethical is it for unsold or unwanted fish to become fishmeal, animal fodder or go into landfill just to comply with and inflexible edict from an equation worked out by a Brussels bureaucrat?
Our inshore fishermen who catch crab and lobsters do so unseen and unrecognised by the public. You do not see the sea covered in boats everyday like pickers of a vegetable crop. You will not even see the buoys that mark the creel ropes unless you know where and how to look. And yet the fishermen need the entirety of this sea to procure their crop. They operate fluidly, moving between different fishing sites as the season or the weather dictates. They set down their gear, haul it or reset it or move it in our out of shallow water to deep water to protect it from storms. In winter they will seek areas of sea sheltered by land masses, in summer the benign conditions will allow them access to places they would not attempt in winter.
Long ago only lobsters commanded a price, everything else was thrown back. Fish that are expensive today like halibut were used under the keels of traditional Orkney yawls to ease them over the boulder strewn beach at Rackwick. Today, brown crab, velvet crab, green crab, razors, scallops, buckies, winkles, prawns, surf clams even scarry man’s heeds (sea urchin) can be sold some-where in the world. The different types of sea bed in all its different characters, rocky, sandy, flat or mountainous supports sea creatures of all types and means that certainly in Orkney our inshore waters a comprehensively fished.
As the sea harvest does not behave like a field of dairy cows, fishermen cannot simply be expected to move off one area onto another and expect the same abundance of catch, and similarly should not be expected to incrementally give up their areas of fishing prairie piece-meal to other incoming exploiters of the sea. In the last analysis fishermen are the indigenous people of the sea and should not be driven from it into reservations where all they can do is sell beads to tourists.
Add your comment