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:
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
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
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
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
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
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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