Fieldwork diaries volume 3: learning what fisheries are really about

Well I did it! After almost 5 months of fieldwork I have finally finished. The last interview has been written up and transcribed and now there is just the small task of analysing all of this awesome information. I can honestly say that this fieldwork has been the best thing I’ve done in my PhD. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard work and I’ve been pretty anxious about it at times, but I have learnt SO much and have met truly lovely people. From the fishermen to vessel owners, the fish ‘n’ chip shop owners to the boat managers, all have been enthusiastic, passionate and brilliantly honest. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

Looking back, when I set out doing this fieldwork I hadn’t really got a full understanding of fisheries and their importance. Sure I’d met a few fishermen and been out on their boats, and I’ve visited fishing villages around the UK on various summer holidays and watched the boats as I’ve eaten an ice cream. I’ve also read textbooks about fisheries, studied them during my undergraduate and masters degrees, and now actively do research on them. But I didn’t really know what fisheries were truly about until I started this fieldwork, and really I’ve only just scratched the surface. It’s so much more than fish. It’s communities, livelihoods, family, friendship. It’s the waking up at silly o’clock to set out on a fishing trip, risking life and limb to try and catch enough fish to pay your wages to support your family. It’s persistence, determination, sheer doggedness at going day after day, week after week, often on your own and sometimes with little financial return. I remember someone saying that Brixham fishermen were tenacious, gritty hunter gatherers of the sea. I think they were right.

It’s this community and heritage that I have most enjoyed getting to know these past months. Brixham is built upon fishing; the industry is woven into its history and way of being. Anyone you speak to or come across in Brixham has some connection to the sea and its fishermen; an anecdote about their grandfathers’ adventures on the old Brixham sailing trawlers, tales of bountiful fishing trips with baskets full of black gold, a eulogy of a loved one sadly lost at sea. Fishing is in many ways the lifeblood of Brixham. Without it it would be a very different place.

This sense of community has been wonderful to witness and be a small part of. From the early morning jokes and teasing in the fish market to the chitchat in cafes throughout the day, the group discussions and conversations at the quayside to debates in the pub. Everyone knows everyone here, whether that be a good or bad thing! There is a big sense of camaraderie, people are willing to help each other out, and they are proud and passionate about what they do. People want a sustainable industry, they hope for a new fishing generation to get involved, and wish for good times ahead.

This passion is infectious. It gives me optimism. I think we too often receive negative stories about the industry, of stocks overfished beyond their means. Whilst this is true for many, there are positive stories to be told and many of these fishermen are actively working to be more sustainable. I’ve been told about initiatives such as Project 50%, Discardless and Fishing for Litter. Causes for some #oceanoptimism I’d say. People have confided in me their hopes and fears for the future of fishing. They want a sustainable industry with thriving fish stocks and happy fishermen. So do I. There is still the need it appears, despite age-old lamenting, for scientists, fishermen and managers to talk and work together on issues to achieve these aims, putting biases aside. Easier said than done I know, but this issue of communication came up time and time again throughout my time here.

You’re probably reading this and thinking that I am romanticising this industry and my time spent in Brixham. Maybe I am a bit. But, sometimes I think we need to. Being a scientist working on fisheries, we can get caught up in the quotas and fish and money and sectors. Whilst obviously important, there’s more to it than that. Fisheries are about people and heritage, community and friendships, and people’s interconnectedness with the sea and Mother Nature that few are lucky enough to have. I hope that I can continue to be involved with the fishing industry throughout my research and beyond – I am hooked.

So. To finish. All I can really say is a thank you to everyone that I met and who helped me with this work. Thank you for welcoming me, for your honesty and showing me what it means to be part of a fishing community. To put it simply, it has been a wonderful time. Now it’s time to persuade some people to let me on their boats…

Finally, here are some snaps of my final few weeks in Brixham and a trip out cuttlefishing (thanks Gary!)

Finishing off fieldwork with a well deserved glass of wine and some grilled mackerel!

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