Fishing is the Most Abhorrent Occupation in the World?

You find yourself and your industry being eroded. Not by fact-based evidence but by the wild ramblings of people who are ideologically driven to persecute those that make a living from a common resource.

– Dr. Magnus Johnson speaking to fishers  

Dr. Magnus Johnson is a lecturer in environmental marine biology at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, and he believes the “pendulum has swung way too far” against the fishing industry. In a blog entry posted today at his Environmental Marine Biology Blog, he wonders, at least rhetorically, whether fishing may have become “the most abhorrent occupation in the world.”

How so?

Johnson argues the fishing industry has been “bombarded with insultingly simplistic hyperbole about [its] impacts,” and this has impacted the middle class’ opinion of commercial fishing. Speaking directly to fishers, Johnson says:

[The “middle classes”] view your job as one for greedy, good for nothing skivers, folk that take something for nothing. These people are more articulate than you, better off, better connected, more numerous and have no economic link to your business. If you fail it has no impact on them. In fact, they earn more money the more despicable they can make you appear. Casting aspersions on your character and industry is a multi-million pound business. Not only that but their success in vilifying you makes them feel smug. These people make such a good job of making you look bad because that is what they are paid to do, they can afford good lawyers and bad politicians.

When I read Johnson’s blog entry, it struck me as summing up much of the public space at the intersection of fishing and policy these days. It gives voice to a sentiment–an “us versus them” mentality–that permeates much of the discussion around fisheries and fisheries management. With the 2013 groundfishing quota reductions kicking-in here in New England this month, there is so much vitriol, so little constructive dialog. There is such distrust.

I was pleased to hear from both Glen Libby of Port Clyde Fresh Catch and Barton Seaver, New England Aquarium Sustainability Fellow in Residence (amongst the many other hats he wears), that the “Managing our Nation’s Fisheries” conference in Washington, D.C. (at which both men spoke) was a place where dissenting opinions on the future of fisheries management generated some productive dialog. I worry, however, that until the dialog on the street and the wharf improves, the words emanating from Pew-sponsored conferences, state houses and the White House will only fuel the divide.

Much of my work as a writer who frequently covers fisheries is centered on that “fact-based” evidence Johnson references in his piece, and herein exists another divide, I think–one which Johnson does not explicitly address in this piece. It is the divide between two competing narratives–two sides of a debate with proponents of both sides capable of affording their own lawyers, politicians and scientists who doggedly support their side’s “interpretation of the facts.”

At what point did we move away from trusting one set of scientific facts? At what point did we lose our belief that we could find a non-politicized solution to which we all could agree if we simply asked the right questions and follow the data? Do we need to deal in “insultingly simplistic hyperbole about [commercial fishing’s] impacts,” or can we roll-up our sleeves and commit to embracing the complexity of the realities?

While erosion of the public perception of the fishing industry has no doubt been accomplished by those who have a stake–whether it be ideological, financial or political–in defaming commercial fishing, it is equally true that perception of commercial fishing has been eroded by the fishing industry lobby marginalizing the “fact-based evidence” of overfishing. In short, it’s not as bad as the extremists on the one side say, nor is it as good as those on the other claim. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the murky middle–a place not easily summed-up in sound-bytes and brief op-ed pieces.

Dr. Johnson is right when he says we are talking about a “common resource”–a resource that belongs to everyone. Managing that resource well takes the opinions, hard work and ingenuity of representatives from all stakeholder groups. By marginalizing (or perpetuating the marginalization of) any one perspective or group, we only fuel a greater divide that becomes more about emotion than reality–more about hubris than fact-based evidence. 

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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