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 Monetarism & Fishing Communities


Monetarism is Killing Communities


Fisheries development consultant David Thomson and academic Alastair McIntosh argue that fisheries policy should concentrate on maintaining coastal communities and employment and that government and economists are taking too narrow a view.


Published in Fishing News, 6 November 1998, pp. 16-17.



For other articles with David Thomson on coastal fisheries managment see:


The Herald's Scottish fishing industry feature


Fishing Monthly article on lessons from abroad




In his famous Gaelic poem, “The Herring Girls”, Professor Derick Thomson contrasts the “laughter like a sprinkling of salt” of Scots fisherfotk with the harsh “topsy turvy of history [that] had made them slaves to the short-arsed curers ...“


Today it is the short-sighted bureaucrats and big-industry lobbyists who have stolen the smile from the face of our fishing communities. Current government policy and management of the fishery sector is dictated solely by monetary considerations and neglects social and environmental needs. The more profit for the fewer operators is considered progress no matter how much unemployment is created, or how many small coastal communities die as their basic resource is taken from them.


The idea that only profit matters in resource development has long since been dropped by financial institutions like the World Bank. They have had to come to terms with the needs of developing countries for whom social stability, employment, rural development, and economic empowerment of ordinary people, is vital for future prosperity and national well-being.


Recently, the former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who is no liberal, criticised the International Monetary Fund for ignoring social and socio-economic issues when laying down conditions for economic assistance. The revered Adam Smith, often looked to as the father of modern economics was not as socially blind as today’s monetarists. He saw the community and its well being as the bedrock of any flourishing society.


Treating a fishing industry solely as an investment option, and not as a food production system based on renewable natural resources, or as an employment provider for coastal settlements, results in both social and environmental damage. This is why fisheries policy is a sensitive one in every part of the maritime world.


A local fishing fleet of 30 or 40 boats may look like small beer to a Treasury bureaucrat, and its demise may cause little concern in the corridors of power. But to a small coastal town, the fishing fleet may be the primary backbone of the economy. Such a fleet provides around 200 sea going jobs and possibly 400 shore based jobs. Additionally their purchases support local grocers shops to the tune of £ 500,000 a year. Ship chandlers also receive considerable support. Local businesses like the ice plant, a marine workshop, a slipway, and marine electrical shop, all depend directly on such a fleet, not to mention the fish processing establishments and transport by road, rail, sea, and air.


In other words, as a primary industry, a region’s fishing fleet creates linkages and multiplier effects into secondary sectors of the local economy.


To see what happens to a fishing port when the fleet disappears or is reduced to a rump of its former size, one need only look at Grimsby, Hull, Fleetwood, North Shields, Granton, Arbroath, Buckle, Lossiemouth, Oban, or Ayr. Other ports like Brixham, Lowestoft, Eyemouth, Macduff, Wick, and Ullapool, are showing signs of vulnerability as the coastal fleets shrink and as licenses are amalgamated to construct large offshore trawlers and pursers, all now to land at a few designated ports often far from where the catch was obtained


In Britain and Europe the fishing industry and fishing communities are suffering from the application of monetarist economics. This does not consider the social or environmental damage which results from their application. The more profit concentrated in fewer hand is progress to such economists. Efficiency to a monetarist is the displacement of employees by capital. The ultimate result in the fishery sector is a handful of millionaire vessel owners having all the resource harvesting rights, and employing relatively few crewmen. This is already the situation in our pelagic fishery. Around 30 or 40 millionaires emply a few hundred fishermen, and harvest the country’s entire catch of herrng and mackerel. Contrast that with the 1930’s when 10,000 herring fishermen were employed on over 1,000 vessels, and supported an even greater army of shore processing and transport personnel in scores of fishing ports, and the degree to which a community asset has been hijacked will be clear.


What the Government and the Treasury are closing their eyes to while pursuing this strategy, is the knock on effect of the redundancies, and the loss of basic industry to small coastal communities. Add up such “extemalities” as the costs of unemployment, the loss of income from taxes, the drop in rural economies, and the stagnation and decline of former fishing towns and villages, and the “profitability” of the modern small, efficient industry, begins to look less attractive.


There is also a moral argument against the monetarist approach. Although bureaucrats may claim that “the fishermen do not own the fish” or that the government has the right to give, sell or lease the resource to whoever it pleases, this is not so. The coastal fishing communities of Britain and Ireland, have already paid for their right of access, over and over again, by generations of blood, toil, tears and sweat. There is scarcely a fishing family that has not lost a member at sea, within living memory. The modern technology available today has been developed empirically over the last hundred years by countless numbers of fishermen entrepreneurs who mortgaged their homes and risked their savings to pioneer progress in fishing.


How can a government think of making access to the fishery something to be auctioned to the highest bidder? As a farmer has the right to use of the land, so fishing communities ought to have rights over their maritime resource base.


Today’s fishery administrators, both politicians and bureaucrats, must answer some searching questions. What is gained by this enforced economic rationalisation of the fishing fleet? Not greater incomes, only the same gross income in fewer hands. Not more fish, certainly, for the landings are determined by TACs. Not better conservation, for it is those very powerful ships which are posing the threat, - rather than the hundreds of medium and small sized vessels.


The only answer the managers might give is greater ease of administration, and greater profits in the fewer hands of those with the financial and lobbying muscle. On the debit side are the redundancies. Visit any of the now defunct fishing ports and you can see the human waste - scores of qualified, experienced fishermen and engineers who now walk their dogs and muse over past times in coffee shops and bars. Then there are the vacant premises, the boarded-up shops, and the scores of “to let” and “for sale” signs interspersed with holiday homes on every street near the harbour. How can this be justified in the name of economic progress?


During the 1980’s, fishery development workers with the United Nations and related Agencies began to address the same problem as the impact of mindless development financed by international banks and big business, began to take its toll on developing states. The Table below was drafted for FAQ and ICLARM by the author to illustrate the hidden costs of such development. It was based on the contention by Dr. E. F. Scumacher in his book “Small is Beautiful” that the economics the world needs is “economics as if people matter.


Japan has long sought to provide special long term protection for its coastal fishermen. The United States is now allocating CDQs or community development quotas to fishing communities, in an effort to prevent resource access being lost to these groups through the market dominated ITQ system. Portugal has affirmed its support of national control of national waters so it may protect the livelihoods of its 25,000 coastal fishermen. Despite opposition from the big fishing companies, the new South African government is trying to ensure that fishing communities, formerly denied quotas under apartheid, will now enjoy a modest share of the resource in perpetuity.


The old fish wife used to say it was not just fish, but fishermen’s lives her customers were buying. Today, those who buy up Iicences and quotas from small communities are purchasing the future livelihood and economic well-being of those towns and villages. The FAQ figure below shows how important small and medium scale fisheries are to employment and economic activity both on shore and at sea. It is time our fishery managers and politicians took note. As the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery suggests, the issue at stake is both social cohesion and ecological sustainability. It is a question of getting right our human ecology.



David Thomson is a fishery development consultant who has worked in over 50 countries for the United Nations Agencies, the Development Banks, and bilateral government aid programmes.


Alastair McIntosh is a Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology who has written and lectured widely on sustainable development, land reform, and ecological issues.





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