Fisherfolk

Author

Fishing has a fair claim to being humankind's most widespread and varied pursuit. From Lapland to Tierra del Fuego and Indonesia to Africa, in marshes, paddies, streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, estuaries, lagoons and the open sea itself, people use traps, spears, baskets, poisons, hooks, weirs, nets and their bare hands to catch everything from single basking sharks to masses of wriggling spawn - not to mention sea-mammals, amphibians and a vast smorgasbord of invertebrates. People "farm" fish or hunt them; fish individually or in groups; walk to a favorite spot or cross oceans in search of new favorite spot or cross oceans in search of new grounds; make their own gear or buy it; eat their catch or sell it; use or discard such things as bones, skins and swordfish "swords"; consume the meat raw or cooked; and preserve it by drying, salting, fermenting, smoking, freezing or canning. Their operations maybe technologically simply or rely on the most advanced sonar and telecommunications gear; fishing craft range from a log or two to immense floating factories of steel; and fishermen's understanding of the ecosystems they exploit may be rudimentary or sophisticated.

Despite this variety, one may discern several persistent themes in the lives of fisherfolk. A few of them are worth outlining in advance. For as well as lending coherence to this collection, they suggest the dimensions of a complex and increasingly pressing problem: the continuing viability of small-scale fisheries and the multiplicity of cultures they support.

For those of us who occasionally drop a sporting line in the water, the most notable things about fishing are probably catching a fish and eating it afterwards. It is perhaps more instructive to consider the whole process by which an aquatic animal - a fish, let us say - gets from the water into a human stomach. Much of a fishing community's life is structured around the half-dozen stages of this process.

At first, a fish is part of a natural ecosystem. Then someone catches it, making it part of a haul that is distributed among, for example, a crew of fishermen. The fish may be eaten right away; but more likely it is destined for later consumption, locally or perhaps many miles away. Fish, being highly perishable, must be processed. Then it will be marketed and eventually consumed. In passing through these stages, a fish moves from a natural state to a cultural one - and even, if it passes outside the community, from one culture to another. It likewise passes through a series of more or less distinct social and economic systems, within and the often outside the community.

Let us first ask a series of simple questions about the circumstances surrounding the fish at each stage of this process. Then we may ask a couple of more complicated questions about the process as a whole. How is it integrated? Where, and to what effect, do pressures for change impinge?

* Our first questions are both ecological and ethnoecological. That is, we are as much concerned with how fishermen themselves understand the natural system from which they draw a living as with "scientific" knowledge. Ethnoecology is perhaps more important, because what fishermen hold true provides the operative connection between their source of livelihood and their culture as a whole.

I am thinking of a fishing village where I did fieldwork, on the West Indian island of Dominica. Its fishermen exploit a tremendously complex marine ecosystem of whose workings they have considerable detailed knowledge. Insofar as their knowledge is systematized, it is a branch of applied theology. They believe that the sea is unowned and unownable. It belongs to God, and part of "God's work" is to provide an essentially inexhaustible supply of fish, to which an individual lays claim by deploying his gear. Men's freedom to cost a net when and where they choose is thus an application of very general theological axioms. Several articles in this issue of the Quarterly stress the crucial role played by fundamental beliefs about the order of the universe in mediating between ecology and economic activity. Fishing and cosmology are linked among people as different as the islanders of the Torres Straight described by John Cordell and Judith Fitzpatrick and the Tukano of the Upper Amazon basin, described by Janet Chernela. Chernela suggests that the linkage is particularly critical where the ecosystem is fragile.

* The most obvious questions about catching fish are technological. What kind of gear do men use? (Fisherwomen are rare). Like most technological questions, this one is deceptively simple. Looking back toward the ecological end of things, for example, it leads us to wonder how is a given technique suited to the natural conditions in which it is employed. Is the fishermen's gear home-made, or bought or traded for? How do fishermen acquire the knowledge and expertise needed to use it?

We must ask as well what patterns of cooperation its use requires. Are crews large or small; their personnel specialized; their tasks skilled or unskilled? How are crews formed? Do crewmen tend to be kinsmen, for example - and if so, what sort of kin are they? Finally, we observe that fishing is an uncertain business, and that fishermen are notoriously "superstitious." The two facts are related, for as Malinowski pointed out many years ago, people turn to magical techniques when physical ones do not regularly produce a desired result. Since fishing allows a great elaboration of such "impractical" practices, they are often a critical point of articulation between fishermen's work, and culture. To get a feel for these matters - and, indeed, to sense the lure of working between a heaving sea and a lowering sky - the reader may turn to the remarkable testimony, recorded by Timothy Knowles, of the Kenyan fisherman Mohaamad Yassir Banadi.

* After a fish is landed, it becomes more closely enmeshed in a complex socioeconomic system. What is the system for sharing the catch - what categories of people get how much?

We should also ask, how much of the catch is destined for local consumption, and how much is to be sold or traded away. That is, to what extent is this fishery a subsistence or commercial one? Sometimes fishing is one of a number of possible subsistence pursuits, as the University of New Mexico Kalahari Project reports for several groups of Basarwa, in Botswana. More common, perhaps, is a pattern neatly summarized by a fisherman on the West Indian island of St. Lucia: "When I catch a lot, I sell; when I catch a little, I eat". These relatively simple patterns have been disturbed by, respectively, competition from herders and the construction of a supertanker port. Peter Knutson describes a similar but more complicated situation on the shores of Puget Sound. A well-intentioned federal attempt to preserve tribal integrity, founded on the assumption that salmon have been a ceremonial as well as economic foundation of local Native American cultures, has actually spawned "a wealthy class of capital-intensive treaty-tribe fishermen," who interrupt much of the salmon run before it reaches traditional estuarine and riverine fishing grounds.

* Some of the catch will be consumed at once. Even this portion must probably be gutted and scaled, and the rest will need further processing. What processing technique is used? Are non-local resources required -firewood, salt, electricity? How are they acquired?

Also interesting is the matter of who does the processing, for it is at this stage that non-fishermen typically begin to play decisive roles. Women, for example, are often the primary processors (and later marketers) of the catch. The relationship between processing agents and fishermen may prove especially important if processors are not members of the fisherman's society, since their behavior is less constrained by local norms and informal sanctions.

* As a rule non-fishermen are even more important in marketing the catch than in processing it. Who are the marketing agents? Are they local or non-local? What is their relationship to fishermen? Where is the catch marketed, and how is it taken there. Amy Blitz reports, for example, that with the rise of a capital-intensive fishermen in the Philippines, the owner of a boat is often able to buy his crew's catch at a price he himself sets, and to sell it later. The situation not only invites exploitation of the crew, but also forces a grim choice on increasingly marginalized independent fishermen. As one fisherman explained to the author during a meal of vegetables and fried bananas, "I can't afford to eat what I catch."

* At last the fish is consumed. Our questions are as much cultural as economic, particularly if the consuming society is not the fisherman's own. Where does fish fit into the consumer's diet? Is it a seasonal delicacy or a year-round staple? These questions are in part ecological. Fish is a valuable source of protein, but alone it cannot support human life. Fisherfolk must therefore have access to supplementary foodstuffs and in this respect they resemble hunting peoples. Fisherfolk are generally settled, however, and either exchange their surpluses for those of agricultural communities or are part-time peasants. In a sense, fisherfolk have the worst of both worlds. Like hunters, their territorial claims are precarious. Like peasants, they are often politically subordinate to the society that consume their products.

These themes come together in Charles Zerner's colorful description of flying-fish fishermen in the Straits of Makassar tells now flying-fish roe previously a locally consumed by-product was found to command fantastic prices as a delicacy in Japan and elsewhere. The sudden growth of this lucrative market has entailed technological innovation, commercialization, the creation of new processing and marketing agents, a readjustment of relations with the sea and the supernatural, and the degradation of the very resource upon which the fishery depends.

A final more general set of questions concerns fisherfolk's response to externally generated pressures for socioeconomic change. How, then, can fisherfolk maintain their cultural integrity. Every stage in the process of moving a fish from the water to a human stomach is vulnerable to pressures. However, the culture of a fishing people is a matter not just of what happens at each stage, but also of how the stages are fitted together. Moreover, even in the best of times, fishermen find themselves awkwardly poised between the resources from which they draw a living and the consumers whom they serve. At what stage, or stages, do outside pressures impinge? How do they effect the whole sequence of stages? Do outside pressures promote or inhibit collective response consonant with the existing culture of the community?

Fisheries then, are threatened by resource degradation, by disregard (not always malicious) of both ecology and ethnoecology, by a shifting balance between subsistence and commercial enterprise, by conflicts between local and non-local marketing agents, and by the changing tastes of faraway consumers. The results can be explosive. The Lebanese civil war was set off by a dispute about fishing rights similar to many described in this issue of the Quarterly. Even in less extreme cases, the general theme, however, is all too plain. Everywhere, small-scale fisheries and the cultures they support find their survival threatened.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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