Fishing Values: It’s About Much More Than Money

By Hannah Fennell


Hannah Fennell is a researcher at Orkney Fisheries Association. She is currently working on a two-year project funded by the Scottish Government and the European Maritime Fisheries Fund looking at the economic, social, and cultural impact of fishing to the Orkney Islands, Scotland.

Stromness fishing boats Hannah FennellFor many fishermen, fishing is much more than a job- it is a way of life, providing fishers with a sense of satisfaction, a connection to the environment and, ultimately, with an identity and a community that spans across the globe.The Orkney Islands is a small archipelago located off the north coast of Scotland, with an inshore fishing fleet of over 100 boats, the majority of which are under 10m in length. Lobsters and brown and velvet crabs are the most valuable species to the fishery, and this is reflected in the presence of two crab-processing factories on the islands.

My work with Orkney’s fishing community is grounded largely in assessing the value of the industry to the communities. While I originally began exploring the values of the industry through an economic lens, it was through interviewing and speaking to fishermen and their families I found that the values of the industry extend far beyond the price per kilo of a crab. Recently, there has been an increased understanding within fisheries management that when we speak of ‘value’, we must do so in a holistic manner. Derek Johnson (2017), in his book, The Value of Small Scale Fisheries, argues against the traditional method of viewing the values of the fishing industry solely through an economic lens. He states: “it is important to think of value in the plural, as values. Value…. is not reducible to a single monetary metric…. [values] should be seen as partial and very imperfect reductions of a much richer symbolic reality”.

Building on these ideas, my work began to focus more on unquantifiable values- the values of identity, of community, and of relationships. Identity and community are concepts that influence how we interact with the world and have been described by Ruth Williams (2008) as being a ‘prerequisite for social interaction’. She has explored how the identity of a fishermen is grounded in the concepts of manual labour, risk, physical effort, and stoicism. Fishermen that leave the industry, either through retirement or by taking up other employment, are at risk of losing this sense of identity and feeling isolated from their community, as they are suddenly cut off from the social network which they were a part of for so long.

Within Orkney’s inshore fishing industry, retired fishermen can retain their identity as fishermen through informal, working relationships with active fishermen. These relationships benefit both: the retiree can continue to be an active member within the industry, although in a new role that is less physically intensive (due to its informal, part-time nature) and has little to no financial risk, while the active skipper benefits from the retiree’s environmental and technical knowledge, allowing them to access new fishing grounds and improve their catch. The relationships between active and retired fishermen are complex, and are often influenced by geographical closeness between individuals, as well as existing relationships within fishing communities.

These relationships within the inshore industry are significant both from an economic and a sociological perspective. Despite this, it is often overlooked and there is little in the literature about it. I spoke to one fisherman who has benefited from the knowledge of a retired skipper, who goes out on his boat with him on calmer days during the summer months. Their relationship has allowed the younger fisherman to access new fishing grounds that the retired skipper had traditionally fished. He describes their relationship:

“…I’ve got an old fella that came out with me, old fisherman, who was at it all his life, and he showed me all his holes that’s in the bottom, and [I] drop [my creels] there. And they do very well….”

These relationships can also be seen as being more than their sum parts: the knowledge gained by the active fisher, and the ability of the older fisher to remain a part of the community and retain their sense of identity comes together in the fulfilment they both get from the sense of continuity in the industry. In a time where fewer and fewer young men are entering the industry, because of an increase in alternative and better-paid employment opportunities the inshore fishing community faces an uncertain future. Fishing is a traditional activity in the Orkney Islands, and the techniques, skills and knowledge of the industry have been handed down verbally over centuries. Such relationships as the ones I have described give both the retired and active skipper a sense of hope, which in today’s world is the most valuable thing of all.

Stromness fishing boats Hannah FennellReferences:

Johnson, D., 2017,  “The Values of Small Scale Fisheries.” Social Wellbeing and the Values of Small-Scale Fisheries. Mare Publication Series Vol. 17. Springer. ISBN: 978-3-319-60750-4

Williams, R (2008) Changing Constructions of Identity: Fisher Households and Industry Restructuring, Newcastle University, PhD Thesis


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