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“Do you know an island in the world without fishermen?” – An interview about sustainable fishing and traditional fishermen on Menorca

For her Master’s thesis research, Annya Crane delved into the daily lives of local fishermen on Menorca for four months, in collaboration with our partner Marilles Foundation. Not only did her respect for these hard workers increase, she also discovered why the decline of family businesses is a major hurdle to sustainable fishing. This article describes her findings, based on quotes from her conversations with small-scale and artisanal fishermen.

“Do you know an island in the world without fishermen?”

Annya: “This quote is from a conversation I had with several traditional fishermen, when we were discussing the future of fishing. We were talking about the capability of the sea to regenerate, yet under certain conditions. Most traditional fishermen believe that if we monitor the way we fish, diversifying catches and fishing grounds, then sustainable fishing could be achieved. Most fishermen cannot imagine a future without professional fishermen in Menorca, yet they are unsure of what that future will look like and how many fishing families will remain.
What stuck with me during my research is how hard-working fishers are and that, despite having days when they have few catches and therefore make little money, they do not give up. Fishing is a way of life, it requires constant work, long days, unusual working hours and accepting the uncertainty of working in an environment that is fragile and uncontrollable. Yet most fishers will describe fishing as the best job in the world.”

“The sea giveth and it taketh away. When it gets angry, you can die. If you respect it, love it, and want to live honorably, the sea has never ever denied me anything when I needed it. I thank the sea for that. Did I have to work hard? Of course! But if you go in with the mindset of always wanting to get a little more… it usually won’t go well for you. If you act calmly, responsibly, with good faith, the sea has always given me what I needed for my family. I love her because I have lived the sea, and I have lived it every day, for generations. The sea will get rid of you if it wants to or tell you to stay.”
Pere (55)

Annya: “Most fishers have a deep knowledge of the sea, acquired thanks to numerous hours spent working in this environment. Becoming a fisher not only means learning how to use fishing gear effectively and steering a boat. It also involves observing the sea, knowing how to deal with different currents, good fishing locations, and adapting fishing gear to changes in fish behavior. Fishers in Menorca change their gear depending on the season, allowing species to recover, which contributes to sustainable fishing practices. This knowledge, which can at times be considered “secret knowledge”, is shared from one generation of fishing families to the next and now faces the risk of disappearing altogether since fewer fishermen’s relatives are taking over the family businesses. This unique ability to observe changes in the sea and to be guardians of the sea may contribute to conservation models and sustainable fisheries. It is therefore important to safeguard this knowledge and to ensure future fishermen develop this close respectful relationship with the waters they work in.”

“It is society which sets the price”
A 28-year-old fisher’s son

Annya: “Modernization in the fishing sector has been promoted over the past 30 years, mainly with EU subventions. Boats have grown bigger and faster, and have become more efficient in their catches. Fishers now pay the price of these unsustainable measures taken by politicians. However, sustainable fishing not only means changing fishing practices or fishing gear. Consumers also have a role to play. It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to rethink our consumption behavior, especially in the Mediterranean, where several kilos of fish are imported for every kilo fished. We also need to be more aware of where the fish we consume comes from and how it has been caught. Diversifying the species we consume could also contribute to sustainable fishing. As several fishermen have told me: ‘We can’t all eat the same five species all year round when considering that there are many species out there that could be consumed, but which are considered bycatch’.”

“After all these years, I’ve realized that this is a very selfish sector, or at least has become so. When you decide to join the board at the cofradia (fishing guilds in Spain which act as a link between fishermen and the administration), other people are very uncomprehensive, not collaborative. Human relations don’t exist in fishing anymore. In the past, when you needed to get a boat out of the water, you had to do it by hand. You used to call everyone in town to give you a hand, and people would come. Of course, there were quarrels; it’s a sector where there have always been 50 secrets. But there was more fellowship. Now it sucks to say it loud and clear!”
Alfons (67)

Annya: “The lack of social cohesion amongst fishers in Menorca inhibits the development of joint initiatives that could support sustainable development. Fishers often complain that they have little influence on regulations and decision-making processes that concern them. Policies and norms are often developed with a top-down approach and do not take into account that traditional and coastal fishing is very particular to an area. What is fished in one area of the Mediterranean is not necessarily what is fished in another area. This leads to frustration, tiredness, and lack of trust in the government. To address this, fishers should work together and promote co-management systems where their voices can be heard and their local knowledge taken into account in decision-making processes. But for this to happen, the social cohesion issue needs to be addressed. Fishers are often only interested in what takes place in their own, family-owned, boat. The goal should be to encourage competitors to cooperate and convince them that together they are stronger. Once this happens then sustainability issues can be addressed.”

Finally: which quote in your research stands out for you and why?

Annya (on picture above): “It is hard to pick one quote! I really enjoyed learning about fishers’ unique relation with the sea. They respect the sea, because they know that nature will always be stronger than us, and that if you try to go against nature, things will usually end badly. Most fishers, especially traditional fishers, respect the sea and want to see a future for generations to come. We need to cooperate with those who want to do things differently, and support them.”

Marilles Foundation and sustainable fisheries

Aniol Esteban, director of our partner Marilles Foundation, comments on the research: “The only way Marilles will succeed at improving the state of the Balearic Sea is by establishing a constructive relationship with fishermen. Fishing is both the main threat to the Balearic Sea and part of the solution. As regards the Balearics, in 2030 we want to see a thriving fishing sector, which is a role model of sustainable fisheries management across the Mediterranean and beyond. Fishermen across the Balearics have taken the lead in declaring marine protected areas, pioneered local certification schemes, and have voluntarily reduced fishing efforts, thereby demonstrating that you can fish less and still earn the same, if not more. Marilles works closely with the fishing sector to encourage them to become the most sustainable fishing fleet in the Mediterranean. We have a close relationship with many of them and also work in partnership with key players, such as the Low Impact Fishers of Europe and the Cofradía de Pescadores de Ibiza (fishing guild).”

About the Balearics

Apart from climate change, fisheries continue to be the main threat to the marine environment in the Balearics, an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea, east of the Spanish mainland. Working constructively with fishermen and talking to them is essential for progress in marine conservation. For her Master’s thesis, Annya Crane interviewed and worked closely with many of them on Menorca to better understand their views and concerns in relation to their livelihoods. The findings will help Marilles Foundation advance its program for sustainable fisheries in the Balearics. This interview provides an overview of the different opinions and views expressed by Menorca fishermen. Whilst the fishing sector in the Balearics has pioneered some inspirational solutions, there are still many challenges ahead. More work is needed on transparency, compliance with regulation, and cooperation among fishermen to achieve low-impact sustainable fisheries.

26/07/2021
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