First of all, welcome back to all our readers from summer vacations! Our first post for this season is by Maja Bergren, a student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) that is supervised by Wijnand Boonstra, an SRC researcher that is conducting some fascinating research on power, culture and tradition in driving fishing practices in the Baltic.
Recently, I asked my friends and family what they knew about the Swedish fishing industry. They had all heard alarming reports about declining fish stocks and problems with the marine environment, but not many knew anything about the people that actually do the fishing. Certainly, nobody seemed to be aware that Sweden has a few, but very skilled, large-scale fishers on the west coast who are active in the North Sea as well as the Baltic Sea. With big and technically advanced boats they travel back and forth from their home harbours in Gothenburg to the basins around Bornholm, Öland and Gotland to fish either cod or sprat and herring. Their catches can be several hundreds of tons and the fish is sold within Sweden as well as exported to countries such as France and Japan.
It thus seems like these large-scale Swedish fishers play a quite significant role in the global and Swedish fishing industry, but still we know quite little about them. I got the chance to speak with a couple of them last May, when I was doing interviews for my internship at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Misconceptions and misrepresentations
I am sitting in the kitchen of a 45 meters long and four stories high pelagic trawler – a gigantic ship with the newest facilities and technology. In front of me is the owner of the boat, ready to be interviewed about his life as a large-scale pelagic fisher. He has already told me a lot of things on the way to the boat, and just like the five other fishers I have met he seems eager to share his view of the fishing industry in Sweden today. He comments that the wide media-coverage of the decline of the cod stock in the Baltic Sea in the early 90’s produced many public misconceptions and misrepresentations of large-scale Swedish pelagic fishery. . “I often feel that people have preconceived ideas about us, for example that we are bandits and want to eradicate the fish stocks. But that is not what I am after. I want my kids to be able live of this too in the future”, he says..
For all my interviewees, working as a fisher is something that runs in the family for generations and many would support their sons to become a fisher as well, but on the condition that they get a proper maritime education. However, they all agree that fishing as occupation hasn’t become easier nowadays with strict fishery policies and regulation and the negative responses they often receive from the general public. Most of them believe that improved communication is needed between them, researchers and the wider public to create some mutual understanding. For example, they frequently suggest that there is a need of better cooperation between fishers and the marine ecologists who do the assessments of the fish stocks on which their yearly quota are based. One cod fisher says: “Mostly, the increases and decreases in quotas do not correspond to what we see when we are out fishing, and that makes us lose confidence in research”. The fishers believe regulations are necessary to maintain a sustainable fishery, but at the moment they feel that their voice is not heard by decision makers.
Economy controls everything
Sitting in this big fishing boat makes me aware of the significant changes that has marked Swedish fishery during the last two decades. When I ask the owner why he decided to invest in such a big and expensive ship, he answers that it was the only alternative. “That, or to close down”. This is in line with what the other fishers say. Recent regulatory changes has forced the fishers to either stop fishing and sell their rights, or to rationalise and invest in bigger boats as well as to specialise and focus on only one or a few species. Many of them are happy with this – the working conditions are much better than before and now they can focus only on fishing instead of having alternative jobs. On the other hand, the big investments require constantly high yields and put a lot of pressure to get big catches. As one pelagic fisher puts the issue: “Our decisions of how, when and what to fish are all based on economy. Economy controls everything today”. It is not easy to harmonise their passion for fishing with the constant pressure for a high economic turnover to pay off debt and invest in the newest technology, the increasingly stricter catch regulation, and, not to forget, a family life.
I take a big jump back to the pier. Meeting these fishers has been an eye-opener for me in many ways. My preconception of them as economic-oriented masters of the sea still stands to some extent. However, I also realise now that their economic orientation is precisely why they are all very concerned about the fish stocks and want to fish in a sustainable way. They simply do not want to bite the hand that feeds them, which is also why all of them believe that regulations and quotas are necessary. But they want to be part of the decision-making that leads to regulation to make it correspond better with what they observe at sea. These fishers possess great knowledge and whatever the truth is about the situation of the fish stocks in the Baltic Sea, the work towards a more sustainable fishery would probably gain from cooperating with them.