May 4, 2017

Fish Decks

Seafarers of the North Atlantic
by William McCloskey

This book is about fishermen. Not casual sportsmen but those who ply the ocean for their daily living. It's also partly about the economics of the industry, the history of various regions and how fisheries are managed. Mostly a close, personal look at the men who catch fish for consumers, and what their daily labor is like. It sounds like throughout history, the lot of fishermen has been a hard one, although modern machinery and conveniences have improved a lot of things, they also have a detrimental side...

McCloskey himself really enjoys being on the ocean. He was able to write such detailed, personal depictions of fishermen because he volunteered to go along, pitching his weight with the crew and working alongside them. Thus learning something of the various skills involved (often refrained from, or denied, doing particular tasks aboard that required certain dexterity and practice to avoid spoiling the catch) and earning the respect of the men, who would share stories and explain things to him. He shows the hardships they endure and the freedom they enjoy, and also a bit of local culture, some of which remains unchanged through centuries (in one region the men looked askance at him for eating the skin of his potatoes at meals!)

The areas he visited included New Bedford, Gloucester, the Newfoundland Grand Banks, the coast of Labrador, Chesapeake Bay and Norway. In each region he spent time both among permanent residents of fishing communities (often very isolated) and also transient folk, who were only there during the main season. He went aboard big ocean trawlers that fished in international waters and smaller boats that stayed closer to shore. He helped place seine nets, longlines and dredging equipment. He went tonging for oysters and even accompanied some men on a sealing hunt- one of the few places where the locals met him with deep suspicion- their livelihood seriously threatened by "save the seals" environmentalists who protest the clubbing of seals as being cruel. But McCloskey shows how efficient their methods were, and also the long-reaching impact when sealing was outlawed in many areas- the resulting population boom of seals then impacted fishermen- starving seals tangled their nets far more often than the fish they wanted to catch. There are other parts of the book that show how regulations made by lawmakers often don't work out the way they're supposed to, how fishing methods can be vilified, how the issues of overfishing pressure on the oceans isn't as simple as it seems...

And probably a lot of this has changed in the decades since the book was written. It felt insightful to read it, though. The author writes well, describing places and people vividly, often breaking a laugh from my reading demeanor. Some parts about the fishing rights and international treaties and how catches are measured and so on can be a bit dry, but overall a good read.

Rating: 3/5           307 pages, 1900

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