Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of Our Oceans

Fishing Lessons: Artisanal Fisheries and the Future of Our Oceans

by Kevin M. Bailey


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Fish bones in the caves of East Timor reveal that humans have systematically fished the seas for at least 42,000 years. But in recent centuries, our ancient, vital relationship with the oceans has changed faster than the tides. As boats and fishing technology have evolved, traditional fishermen have been challenged both at sea and in the marketplace by large-scale fishing companies whose lower overhead and greater efficiency guarantee lower prices. In Fishing Lessons, Kevin M. Bailey captains a voyage through the deep history and present course of this sea change—a change that has seen species depleted, ecosystems devastated, and artisanal fisheries transformed into a global industry afloat with hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

Bailey knows these waters, the artisanal fisheries, and their relationship with larger ocean ecology intimately. In a series of place-based portraits, he shares stories of decline and success as told by those at the ends of the long lines and hand lines, channeling us through the changing dynamics of small-scale fisheries and the sustainability issues they face—both fiscal and ecological. We encounter Paolo Vespoli and his tiny boat, the Giovanni Padre,in the Gulf of Naples; Wenche, a sea Sámi, one of the indigenous fisherwomen of Norway; and many more. From salmon to abalone, the Bay of Fundy to Monterey and the Amazon, Bailey’s catch is no fish tale. It is a global story, casting a net across waters as vast and distinct as Puget Sound and the Chilean coast. Sailing across the world, Bailey explores the fast-shifting current of how we gather food from the sea, what we gain and what we lose with these shifts, and potential solutions for the murky passage ahead.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226307459
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,207,336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kevin M. Bailey is the founding director of the Man & Sea Institute, affiliate professor at the University of Washington, and was formerly a senior scientist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He is the author of Billion-Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock and The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries, both also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


The Giovanni Padre

The Sun Sets on Small-Scale Fisheries in the Gulf of Naples

It was early morning when an autumn breeze rose off the Mediterranean Sea and pushed the curtains into the stillness of my room. Outside, lights blinked on the horizon from small boats that were returning from pulling their nets. A storm rumbled in the distance as layers of thunderheads clashed in the sky. Backlit by lightning flashes, the clouds looked like boxing Javanese shadow puppets. I watched as the boats drew close and deftly weaved their way into the channel. Later, down at the dock, fishermen handpicked the catch from their nets into white buckets. Then they dumped the contents onto a marble countertop in the public market area. A few chefs from local restaurants and several housewives gathered around the display of fish and exchanged friendly banter. The fish were sold individually for the larger species like the rare small tuna, or by the handful in small boxes for the tiny anchovies.

This is the rhythm of Lacco Ameno's harbor on the island of Ischia. The ebb and flow of the fishermen, the passing of storms, changing seasons, advancing years. But this ancient way of life is disappearing. Most of the fishermen of Ischia are gray-haired now, in their sixties or even older. A generation of young fishermen — apprenticing to learn the way of the sea and how to catch the fish — finally to replace the old men is lacking. They are rare at the dockside; the lure of safer and more lucrative professions has pulled them away. They've become tourist guides and taxi drivers on the island, or left for the promise of riches to be found in Naples, Rome, or maybe America.

In 2011, I traveled to Ischia and learned about problems that traditional small-scale fishermen face: depleted fish stocks, mostly from overfishing; increasing competition from larger, more modern vessels; constricted areas where they can set their nets; an aging population of practitioners; government programs to grant fishing rights to a privileged few; and the struggle against the political power of big industry. These changes are happening not only in the Mediterranean, but all over the planet: Norway, Chile, Africa, the United States of America — you name it.

Ischia lies in the Gulf of Naples and is the largest of the Phlegraean Islands. Greek legend tells us that Zeus had mythic battles with his monstrous enemy Tifeo (Typhon) near here. Tifeo had some mean seeds sprouting from his loins. He fathered a pride of nasty offspring, including Cerberus, the three-headed hound guarding the passageway to the underworld; the eagle of Prometheus, the Chimera, the Sphinx, the dragon of Colchis, and the Hydra of Lerna, among many others. When Zeus finally killed Tifeo, he buried him in chains at the foot of Pithecusae, now known as Ischia. The rumblings from Tifeo's grave are blamed for the many earthquakes that shake Ischia's residents.

The island was colonized in the eighth century BC by the Greeks. It has swapped hands like the queen of spades in a game of hearts, having been conquered over the centuries by the Roman Empire, Spain, France, and England. The Ottoman Turks and Barbary pirates — including the infamous Redbeard — raided and pillaged Ischia. Finally, the island was annexed by the government of Naples.

Ischia isn't known for its tradition of fishing. Rather, it is green and agricultural. The island's rich soil grows grapes and tomatoes exuberantly. Cuisine-wise, Ischia is recognized for its wine and rabbits. The sea was used to ship the island's wine to the mainland, and to a lesser extent for subsistence fishing and to feed the local market. More recently, the fishermen of Ischia received a boost as the island became a tourist destination and the visitors wanted seafood on the menus of upscale restaurants.

Neptune's Garden

One of the old men off-loading his catch in Lacco Ameno's harbor had a weatherbeaten face and kind eyes. He wore a faded black cap and a baggy blue sweater, and his trousers were tattered. His name is Paolo Vespoli. He fished alone on his small boat, the Giovanni Padre. (On this island of Ischia, there is a tradition to name your boat after your father.) Paolo dumped and quickly sorted his catch on the community table for waiting buyers: a meager bucket of small silver fishes for a night's labor.

Morning at the harbor smelled of fish and diesel. I tried making small talk with Paolo using a few phrases I'd translated and memorized.

"Lo sono un amico di Lorenzo di America," I said. I am a friend of Lorenzo in America.

"Ah, Lorenzo," Paolo responded with a smile.

"La cattura del pesce è piccolo," I said. The catch is small.

"Sì, piccolo."

My colleague at home, Lorenzo Ciannelli, had told me to look for Paolo. Lorenzo's father had been a fisherman on Ischia. I was trying to talk my way onto Paolo's boat for a fishing trip.

"Is that your boat? Err ... vostra barca?" I asked, realizing that I was running out of Italian words to make small talk.

"Sì, il Giovanni Padre," he answered.

My broken Italian began to crumble. Spanish and English words got tossed into the mix.

"I want to go ... puedo ... andare pesca," I said, panicking.

He looked perplexed and said, "Non capisco" with a shrug, arms raised and palms opened toward me. Gulls chortled and cawed in the harbor.

There was a suggestion of finality in his gestures, making it clear that the conversation was over. I think he knew what I wanted, but maybe I would disrupt his solitude at sea. I would be a bother — after all, I was just a tourist, one of many here, and he was trying to make a living. He turned from me to attend to his business.

Later I learned it was illegal for Paolo to take me on his boat. To do so, we'd have to get permission from the Italian bureaucracy, and by the time it arrived I'd be long gone.

The next time I saw Paolo I had a friend along to interpret, and now he talked freely with me. I asked about his history fishing. Paolo told me that he has always had a passion to fish, even when he was six or seven years old and would fish with his father. One day the seas were rough, and his father left home without him. Paolo remembered how upset he was about being excluded; he never let that happen again.

Paolo said that fishing is different now. There are fewer fish than when he was young. According to him, the ecosystem has changed. Some species that he used to catch are no longer there. Big trawlers and seiners have improved their technology. They have increased the size of the nets they put in the water and are catching more and more fish. In his small boat, Paolo now fished in canyons and rocky reaches where the big trawlers can't go.

According to Paolo, the development of the harbor's shoreline is another reason the fish aren't abundant anymore. Concrete bulkheads armor the shoreline in many areas. Pollution and development have killed the seagrasses that provide a nursery to juvenile fishes. The best harbors for boats also tend to be prime habitat for young fishes.

It wouldn't appear that overfishing should be a problem here; there are few big fishing trawlers harbored in the bays of Ischia. The boats are mostly wooden and small, carrying one or two men. The fishermen lay out a floating wall of fine netting — a type of gillnet called a tramaglio — and the fish swim into them and get caught in the mesh. Then the fishermen haul the nets back by hand or with a small power reel, and laboriously remove each individual fish from the netting. It is tedious work. Some of the boats set and retrieve their nets twice a day.

Ischia is surrounded by a marine nature reserve called Regno di Nettuno, or Neptune's Kingdom. The area of the reserve is only about one hundred square kilometers, or about the size of Nantucket. The activities of fishermen are controlled in the reserve. Since their small boats have a limited range, the men used to fish close to the island. But now that the fish near the island are depleted, some of the small boats are forced to venture longer distances to find fish. The idea of the reserve is to replenish the fish, but it makes life difficult for the local fishermen.

The neighboring island of Procida is better known for its fishing tradition. This island is small and barren. The sea has provided for the people living there. Since Procida is just a few minutes from Naples by boat, a ready market of seafood-loving Italians waits nearby. Fishermen of Procida have invested in bigger and better ships in order to catch more fish and satisfy the market's demand. Instead of fishing with the small, passive tramaglio used on Ischia, the fishermen from Procida use their more powerful ships to drag bigger nets through the water, trawling the fish from the bottom of the sea. But the bigger boats are more expensive, they cost more to operate, and their owners have to take out larger loans. They have to catch more fish to pay their bills. It is a vicious cycle.

Fishermen like Paolo on Ischia say that the big trawlers from Procida have overfished the seas surrounding the islands. They also say that sometimes the fishermen from both islands may engage in illegal fishing to make ends meet. The Procida boats are faster, their range greater. At night they may sneak into the marine reserve where fish are plentiful, or by day they set their nets on the edges of it. The fish don't recognize the park boundaries and stray into the danger zone, where they get scooped up. There is conflict with the small-scale traditional fishermen when the fish are in low supply because the trawlers can outcompete the small boats for the harvest. Then, just as in other parts of the world, politicians enter the fray and enact policy based on the muscle of money and influence. This result is really no different in Italy than it is in Alaska or Chile, just on a smaller scale.

The struggle for survival of the small traditional fishermen of Ischia is symbolic of the global battle between the large industrial fishing companies and traditional fishermen.

Industrial fishing grew rapidly after World War II. Global fish catches more than doubled over the following two decades, fueled by government subsidies to reconstruct ships that had been destroyed by enemy bombs and torpedoes. After the fleets were rebuilt, subsidies continued (now for fuel and marketing), giving the big companies a competitive advantage in the global marketplace. The rebuilt Russian and Japanese fleets roamed the world's oceans in search of more and more supply. They were joined by the Spanish, Americans, Norwegians, Cubans, Chinese, Koreans, Germans, Poles, and others.

After thousands of years of small-scale traditional fishing, the wave of industrial change began to wash over and suffocate the small-scale fishermen. Then, in 1953, the Birds Eye division of General Foods announced the production of frozen fish sticks. A little later came frozen fish fillets. At this point the fast food industry synchronized with the fishing industry, and they all moved into high gear. The harvest of fish from the sea accelerated like it was an industry on steroids.

Dinner at Dada's

At the harbor of Lacco Ameno, a man shopping the day's catch was Vincenzo Caputo, the owner of a private restaurant in the little village of Casamicciola, just up the road. He chatted with the fishermen as he looked over the catch, and picked out some calamari and lampuga (Coryphaena hippurus; the same species known as mahi-mahi or dolphinfish in the United States). He bought some anchovies from Paolo. Vincenzo is about fifty years old, svelte, very tanned, with thick blond hair. His smile is large and easy, and his white teeth stand out. This day he wore a crisp white shirt unbuttoned far enough down to reveal a gold chain and the lack of a tan line.

Vincenzo's restaurant, called Dada's, serves food only by appointment to a collection of friends (and their friends) on the island. My friend Maria, a marine biologist living on Ischia, arranged for my dinner there. The restaurant occupies the bottom floor of a former warehouse, with several rooms. Entering the restaurant, I walked by an open kitchen where Vincenzo presided over dinner like a conductor at the podium. From there he sees and greets everyone in his audience. Vincenzo danced across the floor of his kitchen in constant movement. He waved utensils and bunches of basil in the air as he prepped for dinner, chattering enthusiastically in Italian about what he was doing. There were platters of butterflied anchovies, calamari, basil, and tomatoes. He prepared them as if he were fine-tuning an orchestra.

The anchovies were headed, gutted, and stripped of their bones with skill. Vincenzo marinated them in fresh-squeezed lemon juice for twenty minutes. Then he drained them, drenched with extra-virgin olive oil, and mixed the fillets with diced garlic, peperoncino (also known as diavolicchio — a word that's best released from the tongue along with a flamboyant gesture of the hands), and parsley. They were served as the antipasto, the hors d'oeuvre.

Vincenzo skinned the calamari under water and cut the flesh into rings. He heated the shellfish for a minute to sweat them of water. When the meat was white, he poured off the excess liquid. Then he added the squid to hot olive oil with peperoncino, garlic, basil, and parsley, and fried it. He salted to taste and then added some white wine. The mix was further cooked for ten minutes. At the rear of the stove the pasta was boiling, setting a gurgling rhythm. A plume of steam rose from it. Freshly crushed tomatoes were added to the saucepan, then simmered for another ten minutes with some of the starchy water from the pasta. Finally the calamari was added to the drained pasta with black olives and capers, twirled on a fork against a large spoon to make a ball, and set on the plate as the primi piatti. Some extra calamari mix was spooned on top. The squid was soft and succulent. Delizioso.

The plan was to fry the lampuga with laurel leaves, but at the last minute Vincenzo changed his mind. The meal would be too heavy — more like a requiem than a cantata. Instead, he filleted and skinned the fish, cut the fillets into very thin strips, and marinated them in lemon juice for five minutes. Then, after squeezing the lemon juice out, he drizzled the lampuga with extra-virgin olive oil and served it over a bed of arugula (rucola).

The wood-fired stove was stoked and ready for the pizza. Vincenzo constructed a simple Margherita pizza of fresh basil and crushed tomatoes, topped with a mixture of mozzarella di bufala (water buffalo), some more cheese that he had smoked himself, and of course peperoncino.

The courses were linked together by a free-flowing glissando of local white table wine, and capped with homemade limoncello. Having overeaten, we finished off the evening with a stroll on the cobblestone road along the waterfront — seemingly accompanied by all of Casamicciola — and finally with an espresso at a beachfront café.

Some of the guests that night were members of a local marine conservation organization, and there were several marine biologists, including Maria. They talked of the artisanal fisheries and noted with irony that the "slow food movement," or the practice of using locally caught or grown food, is a traditional lifestyle affordable only to the relatively affluent. Artisanal producers and fishermen get a good price for their organic and local food, but it is grown and caught in limited amounts. The artisanal fishers can hardly afford to eat what they catch and sell. It's cheaper to buy frozen fish sticks made from pollock that are caught in the Bering Sea and processed in China. So oftentimes they sell their fish and buy industrial fast food for less, keeping some money in their pocket. Given the global marketplace and increasing human population, fresh fish are getting harder to find and more expensive, even for the relatively affluent.

With the rise of industrial fishing, restaurants started buying frozen fish; even in Italy, many of the larger tourist restaurants now use frozen fish. For one thing, it is a lot of work to go to the market every morning and buy the day's catch. Then it has to be cleaned and scaled, or cut and filleted. Many customers expect the fillet to be deboned. When you serve many customers — say, more than fifty mouths — to do all those tasks is just too much work. Besides, the small local artisanal fishermen don't catch enough of any one species, nor do they provide a dependable and continuous supply. Diners on holiday don't like to be told that their selection from the menu is not available: "How about a nice fillet of farm-raised Chilean Atlantic salmon instead?" Never mind that Chile's coast isn't on the Atlantic Ocean and the salmon are raised on three kilograms of industrial-caught "forage" fish to make one kilogram of salmon. The anchovies and sardines that Paolo caught and Vincenzo served are fed in greater quantity to the salmon. It's the global marketplace at work.


Excerpted from "Fishing Lessons"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Kevin M. Bailey.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Fouled Fish

1. The Giovanni Padre: The Sun Sets on Small-Scale Fisheries in the Gulf of Naples
2. The King Is Dead: The Collapse and Resurrection of Vosso Salmon
3. Ode to the Sea: Chile’s Troubled Fisheries

Loss and Recovery of Indigenous Fisheries

4. The First Fish: The Coast Salish Salmon Fishery
5. Northern Lights: The Sea Sámi Fishery in Norway

Return to Artisanal

6. A Clean and Green Fishery: Legoe Bay Reefnets
7. Crimson Tide: The Bay of Fundy Weir Fishery and a Conflict with Green Power
8. A Dying Fishery? Puget Sound Keta Salmon

Striking a Balance in Aqua Farming

9. Mother of Pearl: Ocean Farming Red Abalone in Monterey Bay
10. King of the Amazon: Culture and Harvest of Arapaima
11. Evolving Solutions


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