Life on the Water is Changing in Today’s World

Photo by Chris Davis on Unsplash

Fishing is a hard life, and the narratives that have emerged about it as an occupation have checked off numerous points as far as compelling stories are concerned. The sheer physicality of it, and the dangers that accompany venturing into dangerous waters, can make for a thrilling account – it’s not for nothing that the documentary series “Deadliest Catch” has been on the air since 2005. And it’s an occupation that lends itself to larger-than-life figures: sea captains have been at the center of stories that humanity has told itself for thousands of years.

But the act of going to the sea and returning with a hold full of fish isn’t simply a timeless story that brings familiar comforts. The daily lives of fishermen around the world are affected by the current state of the environment – including the effects of climate change and the shifting population of fish in the world’s oceans. It’s a condition that’s made contemporary tales of fishing resonate in new and unpredictable ways – and one that’s put its own spin on the most theoretically timeless tales out there.

Earlier this year, an article on detailed the plight of a group of fishermen living and working in central New Jersey. Narratively speaking, it covers a lot of ground, from the economic anxieties of small business owners to the question of whether governmental policies are adversely affecting business. The article makes a convincing argument regarding the latter point, which is to say, “they’re not,” but it also notes that the real danger to the fishing industry is something very different. Specifically, it’s a lack of fish: “fish stocks remain near historic lows, said John Bullard, who oversees NOAA’s fisheries service from Maine to North Carolina.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the same thing is true. Anna Badkhen’s book Fishermans Blues: A West African Community At Sea tells the story of the lives of numerous men working on fishing boats off the coast of Senegal. Badkhen largely focuses on the quotidian aspects of life in a coastal community, detailing the familial connections of some of the small businesses, the different jobs one can hold on a boat, the way that gender plays into the economy of fishing, and the everyday struggles of the men who go out each day in search of fish. It’s a textured, detail-heavy book: Badkhen summons up a part of the world for readers who might never visit, and the end result is evocative.

Here, too, fishing has been affected by larger environmental conditions. For the first two-thirds of the book, Badkhen largely utilizes a naturalistic approach, giving a sense of the daily routines and the seasonal ebbs and flows of fishing. Then she deftly provides a much grander view, showing how this one community is affected by the larger state of the world.

“Of the hundred and forty-seven species of marine creatures fished off Senegal’s coast, fifty-one are threatened. In the last fifty years, a fifth of all fish stocks have become overexploited. Half of the fish stocks have collapsed.”

It’s a harrowing testament to the fragility of the way of life so intricately described in her book–and it strikes an elegiac chord, suggesting that the survival of the fishing industry she describes so well here may be out of the control of those who have dedicated their lives to it.

Numerous activists and writers have been warning about the dangers of overfishing for years now. It’s been over a decade since Charles Clover’s The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat was published, for example. (A documentary based on the book was released earlier this decade, and had an impact on raising awareness of environmentally unsound fishing practices.) Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and The Last Fish Tale addressed questions of overfishing–and he subsequently wrote a book for younger readers, World Without Fish, that examined the myriad reasons (including industrial and environmental issues) that fish populations worldwide have been decimated.

In a 2010 piece about several recent books on overfishing for The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert – whose books, such as Field Notes From a Catastrophe, have explored the interconnectedness between dwindling populations of animals and environmental catastrophes – addressed some of these issues. But by the end, she notes that the best solutions to the question of overfishing may not be enough to counteract the methods of fishing currently in place. That, too, is a question that comes to mind when reading generational stories of fishing: is there a way to maintain an environmental balance that won’t put numerous people out of work? These questions hover above the narratives we read, with no certain answers.