What is a fisherman? A Question of Skill
1. A person who fishes, whether for profit or for pleasure
Fishing as a livelihood was long moribund in the village where I grew up but I always felt that something resonated in the broken wooden lobster pots and discarded nets that had once trapped fish. In the pub pictures of fishermen still hang on the wall. The photos are yellow with age and show strong looking men in the village heyday of the 1950s.
There are only a few men left with boats, bringing tourists out for chartered fishing and visits to the islands. About ten years ago I visited Killybegs, in Donegal, the largest fishing port in Ireland. I was horrified by the size of the boats and the stench of the fish from the factory. There was not a single fish shop from which to buy fresh fish.
The cultural archetype I had absorbed as a child was a strong one. It reflected a certain understanding of what it was to be a fisherman. The representation I had been afforded told of men who were brave and skilful. Fishing for these men was somehow a ‘way of life’. The modern, commercial fisherman whom I came across in Killybegs did not conform to this ideal . At the helm of a 120 foot trawler he seemed distanced from his activity; in the control tower he doesn’t feel the sea or the wind and his eyes attend to the monitors rather than the world around him. The intensity with which he extracts fish from the oceans is destructive. It is not a skilful activity, instrumental of an industry which has become so rationalised that many fishermen are surplus to requirements.
This idealised opposition between the cultural fisherman and the economic fisherman has a long history. In 1653 Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler was published with the telling subtitle The Contemplative’s Man’s Recreation. John Buchan wrote in the introduction to the 1901 edition: ‘the angler is the man who sees nature through the glass of culture, the townsman and the gentleman’, not just a sportsman but one ‘who loves the country with a more intimate affection.’ The book was not just a practical handbook for anglers it was the defence of an ideal of England . This ideal centred upon a vision of tranquillity and order; the life of contemplation over the life of action. Fishing was regarded as the epitome of this life. A pursuit suited to the quietude, as Walton writes in Chapter 1, of Clergymen who, following the example of the apostles, embraced the ‘art’ of angling. For Walton fishing offered an expression of a particular ethic, a ‘way of life’.
There was however a marked difference between the plebeian task of fishing in Galilee and the activity Walton espoused. Angling was composed of all manner of deception. The skilful angler was the one who could mimic nature so precisely that the fish would perceive it as real. For Walton, and for others, fishing was artistry, a means of cultivating certain skills. From this understanding of fishing grew an entire aesthetic surrounding the true fisherman. He was an independent gentleman, a philosopher, someone who “must have all his Passions at his command” , someone who appreciated nature by leaving it as it was found. Most of all the fisherman could not be a ‘man of business’, because if he left his counting house to go fishing he “makes the Sport become a Vice in his Morals; his Angling is a Crime”.
This way of behaving on the river amounted to an ethical code, augmented as the years went by .
In chapter II of The Compleat Angler, after an otter and its young have been hunted and killed, Walton declares: “I am glad these Otters were killed, and I am sorry there are no more Otter-killers,” he goes on to recount how it is the otters and “the greedy Fisher-men” who “by wires and unlawful gins” destroy fish in their thousands and threaten the future of England’s rivers…taking Fish in Spawning time may be said to be against nature…a sin so against nature, that Almighty God hath in the Levitical law made a law against it.” Walton hyphenates ‘fishermen’ when referring to the ‘destructive’ poacher, distinguishing them from ‘true’ fishermen, that is anglers. The otter and poacher are banded together with “the Cormorant, the Bittern, the Osprey, the Sea-gull, the Hern, the Kingfisher, the Gorrara, the Puet, the Swan, Goose, Ducks, and the Craber” as ‘greedy and destructive’, ‘unnatural’ enemies of the fish “against all which any honest man may make a just quarrel.”
Significantly, in an earlier passage, he instructs a hunter to keep one of the five young otters so that he may bring it to ‘a friend in Leicester-shire who can tame it and train it to catch fish and do many other things of much pleasure’ . There is a clear demarcation between the otter in a state of nature, as ‘destructive’, and the otter as a skilled adjunct of the angler. The otter through training becomes enrolled into the art of fishing, which is sport, and so ceases to be an economic Fisher. Skilfulness is equated with culture.
Legislation to protect the rivers from poachers had been in place in Britain since 1285. By the seventeenth century a steady flow of new statutes culminated in the 1671 Game Laws. This legislation protected the migration of certain fish up and down the waterways by instituting closed seasons and preventing the use of “fire, handguns, crossbows, oils, ointments, powders and pellets” and “all sorts of nets and such, as our devourers of fish, as bow nets, casting nets, small trammels, shove nets and draft nets” . These various methods were considered destructive and, importantly, unskilful with many of the laws prefaced with long lamentations about the degradation of the fishery because of such ‘unnatural’, commercial activities . Walton writes: “That which is every bodies business, is no bodies business” , promising the rivers of England to all, but not to those who abused them. Commercial use of the commons was an abuse which threatened the Arcadian ideal. Even those who sympathised with poachers only did so if the fish was ‘for the pot’ rather than the market place. In Walton’s ordering of the world those who fished for sport were considered ‘natural’ by exhibiting the art of angling. Those who fished for profit were ‘unnatural’ because, like the wild otter, they fished without the temperance of skill.
While this illustration of Walton’s famous treatise is perhaps distant from the concerns of modern industrial fishing it holds at its core a crucial distinction between economic and cultural activity which arose, two hundred years later, in the New World. The use of pound nets, purse-seines and fish traps on the Eastern seaboard of American in the late nineteenth century led to a confrontation over whether such ‘unnatural’ means should be allowed to catch fish around the New England coast . Hugo Grotius’ charter ‘Mare Liberum’ (published in the same century as Walton’s Compleat Angler) had declared the oceans open to all. This maxim was now being challenged by, at first, the local communities of fishermen who had traditionally fished for scup, tautog, black-fish and menhaden with hook and line, and then, into the twentieth century by the sportsmen who came to the New England sea side villages for holidays from New Jersey and New York.
The ‘Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries’, New England, 1871, gathered the witness reports of a large number of individuals associated with the fishery. A familiar argument which emerged was that the traps were not an honest way to fish. Some considered it an attack on the local community in that the traps were perceived to be the initiative of absentee businessmen who employed others to harvest the fish for them. Once again the role of the fisherman was brought to the fore. The hook and line fishermen considered themselves a traditional profession for whom fishing was a ‘way of life’ under threat. “Years ago old gentlemen used to go and sit on the wharf, and in a short time catch a basketful; but one may sit there now from morning till night and not get one” . The point was that the pound nets cost $6000 and the smaller fishermen couldn’t take out such an investment. In such a situation the ‘freedom of the seas’ was no longer desirable because, as one witness said, ‘a common resource with no fish in it was as good as no common resource at all’.
Those who supported the pound nets argued that “[t]o attempt to stop the trapping would not be useful in the end, as the traps gather great quantities of fish in a short time.” New markets, better transport, more capital meant a changing fishing industry. The argument was not about the traps per se. It was about how the relation between the fisherman and his environment was being changed through the employment of the new technology. For those who men lived by the sea and drew their livelihood from it the marine environment meant more than ‘quantities of fish’. Far from a neutral development the pound net challenged an existing set of relations and values.
In the early twentieth century commercial fishing in the area came to be completely restricted after arguments were put forward by the sports fishing organisations. For the anglers the common resource of the sea was being ruined by the fishermen who were destroying fish stocks for their own profit. The issue here was again one of value: what, how and who was the marine resource valuable for. Restrictions were brought in. Hook and line fishing won as the tourism industry boomed, though, as in England in the 17th century, an alternative economy also grew up. Commerce co-existed with sport as illegal poaching of fish, conducted by organised cooperatives, lasted until the 1970s when pollution from New York effectively killed the industry.
Driven by no affectation or pursuit of material accumulation the fisherman aspires, Mark Kurlansky argues, “to what drove cabinet makers and silversmiths, a sense of unique place in society, a pride in bearing the title fisherman, a desire to be great fishermen.” Central to this perception is that fishing is a type of craft with an array of accompanying skills. In the cultural imagining the fisherman’s life is intimately involved with the sea. His skills and knowledge are drawn from it: his perceptual system is aligned with the syntax of his environment, reading the winds, the movements of the birds, the many signs ‘afforded’ by his physical surroundings. This corresponds with his handling of his tools. He is adept at moving the boat through the water, at shooting the nets, at fixing the nets. When new forms of fishing accrue and the ‘old ways’ become redundant fishermen are seen to lose these skills and become less attuned to their environment. The fisherman becomes a producer rather than a fisher. He is distanced from his environment by a whole system of dehumanising technology.
In this reasoning the skill of the fisherman is understood as the manifestation of a proximity and intimacy with his environment. This is reflected in his detailed knowledge of the sea and the seamless continuity between his tools and this environment . These tools are justly celebrated and preserved as artifacts of a past ‘naturalistic’ culture. By focussing on the technical skills and the tools of the fisherman , by extracting them from a complicated set of ecological and social relations, the category ‘cultural’ is invoked. What is ignored is that the skills of the fisherman emerge from a particular set of relations which he is part of within his environment. The limited understanding of skill as the operation of tools ignores that the ability to cope within any set of ecological and social relations is also the skill of the fisherman. Skills are not a fixed list of attributes which are handed down from one generation to another. Skills embody a particular orientation to the natural and the social world. The ability to perceive opportunities and obstacles in one’s environment and actively orientate one’s actions towards them is central to skilful behaviour. A skilful footballer must at any moment discern the many possibilities afforded to him on the pitch. This skilful attention to his environment does not come through conscious reflection- indeed such reflection can interrupts the flow which enables him to act decisively- but from an ability to make the action an extension of his body rather than a deliberated intention. The fisherman, like the footballer, is practiced in his activity. Employed in his task he perceives his environment in a skilful way. The constant modification of movement and attention in a non-repetitive, unconscious way directed towards the accomplishment of a task is the performance of skill . This applies to the fisherman in the control room of his trawler just as well as the fisherman in his currach. The difference is that the skills which these two fisherman exhibit have changed over time as different affordances within the environment have arisen.
Changing economic and political systems have successively influenced how the marine environment is valued, requiring the fisherman to adjust his attentions accordingly . After World War II in Ireland, as in the rest of Europe, there was concerted effort to rationalise the resources of the sea. Government investment, incentive policies, a new government fisheries agency contributed to helping fishermen acquire bigger and better boats, and to finding new markets. This enabled them to fish further out at sea for a longer time, with the corresponding ability to catch, store and sell much larger amounts of fish. These changes came about because the marine environment was perceived as a national resource which had been hitherto under-exploited . Driven by an economically streamlined ordering of the environment the skills the fisherman had to acquire were those which accorded with that order . The result was a change of skills: the ‘forgetting’ of some and the emergence of others as different aspects of the environment became ‘valuable’.
As awareness grew of the finiteness of the resource and the competition amongst European countries intensified the economic valuation of the marine environment became consolidated. The Common Fisheries Policy of 1983 divided the seas around Ireland into zones, and quotas were introduced which calculated precisely what the seas were capable of realising in terms of production value. In recent years this economic orientation has been joined by an environmental agenda which considers the marine environment to be valuable in terms of biodiversity and natural beauty. Fishermen are required to readjust their practice, their attentions, as these systems of value shift. it is now ‘good’ practice to leave fish in the sea, where just a generation ago this would have been unthinkable . The introduction of new forms of knowledge can change the way a fisherman practices his environment, changing the relationship between the fisherman and his environment over time .
Fishing skills change as the fisherman becomes attuned to different features of his environment. The knowledge that a certain species of fish has a market will orientate the fisherman to catching that species; a quota will force the fisherman to pay more attention to the quantity and quality of his catch; instead of attending to the changing colours of the water to detect fish the skipper, no less situated and discerning, attends to the changing colours of the sonar screen. Developments in the world environment shift fishing skills in the local environment but do not make the activity any less skilful . While fishermen may use advanced technology and comply with strict regulations they do not relate to these changes in a technological way; they do not mechanically follow an instruction manual. They must still engage in a situated, discerning manner with their environment, adjusting skilfully as changes occurs .
The significance of external developments to local communities is how new skills come to be learnt and applied, and how these change the way people come to perceive their environment. How does the application of external knowledge, whether in the form of technology, marine biology, regulations, come to be appropriated, used, practiced by fishermen in their activity? The fisherman must adapt to the new ways of framing the activity but this change must occur within a local context and retain certain elements of continuity. Such an understanding can help to explain why a mussel farmer in West Cork considers himself a fifth generation fisherman though his predecessors may have rowed currachs and fished with hook and line. The continuity of certain skills rests on the fact that skills, on one level, are transparent. The ability to constantly discern what an environment affords is executed at the unconscious level of habitual, embodied practice. These ready movements reflect at their origin a particular orientation to the world. Knowledge of the environment has at its starting point personal experience, a way of being which Merleau-Ponty terms ‘pre-objective’. To be a fisherman is to exhibit a range of skills in a range of different situations which “have as their principle not a set of conscious, constant rules, but practical schemes, opaque to their possessors, varying according to the logic of the situation, the almost invariably partial viewpoint which it imposes.” Such skilfulness is not a cultural artefact precisely because it exists in real-time, and, as an extension of a way of understanding in a natural and social environment, it is not absent from modern commercial fishing. As long as a fisherman makes a livelihood from the sea he is a fisherman and by extension skilled as a fisherman, ‘wholly immersed in the relational nexus of his instrumental ‘coping’ in the world.’ These skills are not always explicit: to be skilled is to be unaware of one’s acting skilfully, for the actions to be transparent and ‘of the moment’. Walton’s ideal of the fisherman embodying a certain type of ethical practice is not then entirely wrong. It is important to consider however that all men engaged in fishing activity embody certain skills which amount to an ethical orientation to the world. In modern society fishermen are incorporated into systems of the known-environment which influence, but do not necessarily replace, this orientation, opening up new values within their practiced-environment. In this regard it is important to be aware of how fishermen and the marine environment are valorised at any given time, to ask what features of the environment are appropriated and transformed into cultural and economic realities.
In the early 1880s an Irish newspaper commented: “An oil painting of the Claddagh fishermen at home on their native strand may be a very pretty and picturesque sight, but we prefer to see the Claddagh and other fishermen manning large, well-built, and fully-equipped boats, and fleets constantly going out and returning with the rich harvests of the seam, which are inexhaustible.” The harvest is no longer considered inexhaustible but the cultural fisherman ‘on his native strand’ is alive and well. Currently the process of ‘environmental recalibration’ sees the surfacing of the cultural fisherman as the marine environment becomes a means, in the words of the EU, of ‘connecting people to a shared history’. The Irish government, in response to this EU green paper on the Maritime, agrees: “Traditional skills and crafts are kept alive through island communities that retain historical maritime knowledge and folklore. More can be done to protect this rich heritage through the establishment of maritime archives and the use of modern technology to support innovative means of presentation and dissemination, as well as developing appropriate planning and development mitigation measures to manage and protect our maritime heritage.” Ireland’s position of encouraging Maritime culture reflects the EU policy which states that “the traditional culture of fisheries can be linked to the expansion of tourism.” Meanwhile the Irish fishing industry is on its knees as the government seeks to expand a decommissioning scheme which will take much of the white-fishing fleet out of the water. Many boats are tied up because of quotas. The regulations have led to a situation where illegal, ‘underground’ fishing has become seen as the norm. Only in the last few years has the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency clamped down (as in England in the 17th century and America in the 20th century) with fishermen now facing criminal charges for offences . While the fishing industry faces into a bleak future, fishing as culture looks set to expand . The cultural ideal fostered by marine heritage is not the reality of a living community but a particular vision of the hermetically sealed past. Existing fishing communities are forgotten in this hierarchy as they become part of the problem in the bio-economic model.
The efforts to protect and support fishing heritage and wildlife and the policies which are choking the fishing industry can be regarded as a modern manifestation of the culture/economy divide , the fragmentation of the existential reality of the fisherman into manageable categories.
An approach which understands the fishermen, as an embodied subject, to be persistently engaged in a skilful way with his environment must ask what these skills are orientated towards and why. Current conservation policy, as other policies before them, conceives of the marine environment in a particular, idealised way. This disembodied appraisal cannot account for the embodied fisherman who remains as cultural and as skilful as his politically acceptable predecessor. Having been ‘enrolled’ into one system which fostered an economic valuation of the marine environment fishermen are now being faced with a different appropriation of their environment, one which, using the same economic model, values heritage and bio-diversity. How do these nature-constructs accord or discord with the experience of the fisherman? How do they change the relationship which the fisherman has with his environment through their demand for different skills? How do fishermen enrol these nature-constructs into their everyday, ongoing practice of their environment?
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