Fishers under siege

Issue: 157

Sarah Ensor

A review of Penny McCall Howard, Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea: “Working the Ground” in Scotland (Manchester University Press, 2017), £75.

In the 21st century, 27 million people around the world catch fish for a living which is worth at least £116 billion annually year. This substantial section of the working class has enormous potential industrial power yet most of it receives a tiny proportion of the value of their work. This fascinating, accessible work of Marxist anthropology is a valuable contribution to understanding why this happens and how fishers can change their situation. The book examines the working lives of fishers in Scotland struggling in a system of shrinking fisheries damaged by neoliberalism. Its focus is the people who created the crab and prawn—or langoustine—fisheries on the west coast of Scotland from the late 1960s to the present and shows that we cannot understand how such areas became fishing grounds “without the active and attentive labour of fishermen”.

Howard learnt to fish on trawlers and creel boats with many of her ­interviewees—jobs she was able to get because she proved that she is a good sailor. The result is a sympathetic but realistic examination of hard lives and rivalries but also the camaraderie and physical pleasure of working the sea for a living. It also becomes clear why so many people die in incidents that would be preventable if fishers didn’t have to push themselves beyond safety.

Howard describes these workers feeling that they live under “a state of siege”. When Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 he could have been describing these fishers’ lives. He wrote “They are exposed to the most exciting changes of mental condition, the most violent vibrations between hope and fear; they are hunted like game, and not permitted to attain peace of mind and quiet enjoyment of life”.

As fishers and fish farmers they are blamed for overfishing, pollution and loss of biodiversity—if it isn’t taking too many prawns, dredging for scallops or trawling then it is the masses of algae suffocating the seabed under the salmon farms. They see their livelihoods under attack as the proposed solutions to maintain fish stocks are ever shrinking quotas and “no-take” conservation zones.

Crews have little active union organisation to represent their interests and because wages are tied to catches and markets those wages only seem to get worse. The owners of smaller boats working with few crew or alone are hemmed in by margins so tight they may not be able to make essential repairs. Squeezed between the bank and the market, they tend to be the vessels working in the worst weather as the rest of the fleet heads home—and sometimes these boats don’t come back at all. The men—in this instance—hired to captain larger boats find owners will skimp on maintenance, pay and conditions to maximize profit. Stress and anxiety levels are high, so young people leave for other opportunities and crew places are filled by migrant workers on half or less of the wages Scottish fishers get. Howard emphasises that the problem is the global fisheries system driven by profit and isn’t just about unscrupulous employers. But she also shows how fishers have sided with their fellow crew—including low paid migrant workers against the owners they grew up with. She quotes one young crew member, “When I arrived at the boat, the first thing the skipper told me was not to tell the two other crew what I was making. It was two Romanian guys I was working with. So the first thing I did when I met them was to tell them.”

Fishers are not scavengers; it takes skill and thoughtful engagement to catch any marine species. But many of us have little understanding of how fish is caught and how fisheries are worked and developed. One of the most important aspects of this book is the detailed examination of how different fisheries are created. Under capitalism a person can only make a living from work if there is a market for the products of that work that can be accessed. In the last 50 years different sorts of marine species have become valuable as markets have been created and tastes changed by advertising to promote them. Howard describes how in the 1970s a Spanish wholesaler told a Scottish fisherman that he would buy whatever velvet crabs could be caught. With a potential market, it still took the fisher’s work—his experimenting with adapted equipment to suit what he knew of the species’ behaviour to catch enough of the crabs for export. Another fisher developed the technology to transport large whole prawns live to be sold for high prices in France and Spain.

But fishers around the world do not create and develop fisheries in circumstances of their own choosing. They are at the sharp end of a global biodiversity crisis and the effects of climate change. Fishers are part of a system that destroys fish stocks and can degrade the environment but not because they necessarily choose to or have any choice about how they work.

Howard cites Jane Nadel-Klein’s observation that “capitalism can create and dismiss a way of life” and how this process can be seen all round the coasts of Scotland. So fishing villages have slowly dissolved as capital became consolidated into multi-million pound trawlers for “efficiency” that was really about the privatisation of fisheries. When the EU poured money into decommissioning older, less efficient boats, it was larger companies that were able to take advantage of the available grants. The owners of small boats still face “decommissioning by bankruptcy”.

It is frustrating that this book is so expensive because it highlights the whole problem of fishing under capitalism and our dialectical relationship to the oceans that sustain us. People working in trawlers or much smaller boats can destroy fish stocks but they can also create fishing techniques that develop and enrich biodiversity. And they can fight to improve their conditions and protect fish stocks. Earlier this year, thousands of Icelandic fishers struck for better wages winning a partial victory and in May fishers from the Netherlands protested against an EU fisheries policy designed to avoid by-catch but which they argue destroys fish stocks. These fishers argued that the small fish caught in their shallow fishing grounds can be safely returned to the water as in their experience they will mostly survive to grow and breed. To land them is just to destroy the next generation. Fishers, with their skills and economic muscle are a major part of the solution to the global crisis of fishing and the state of the oceans. But our ability to achieve long lasting reforms that protect fisheries is limited under capitalism. As Howard makes clear capital and its drive to profit must be challenged—this book is a weapon in that fight.

Sarah Ensor researches the history of the working class in Iceland and worked for six years in Iceland’s fishing industry. Her blog is at