12 / 1997
In the 1980s, while they struggled to ban shrimp trawling during the fish breeding season, artisanal fishworkers in Kerala, India used to ask rhetorically: "What is the most politically vexing question in Kerala during the monsoon?" The answer was another question: "Where do the fishes lay their eggs?" The scientific community maintained a stoic silence on this question, for fear of stirring up a major confrontation between the militant artisanal fishworker unions and the trawler owner lobby. This provoked the artisanal fishworkers to demonstrate before the country’s largest state-supported fisheries research institution with the chant:You white-elephant scientists and researchersYou servants of capitalismThe research you conduct:Is it to save the workersOr to serve the capitalists?Chorus:We are the children of the seaWe know the secrets of the sea. We don’t need to be taught by anyoneAnother country, another culture, another time. Yet Finlayson’s book is about a similar context and similar confrontation set in Canada. It is a complex story of the role of science in the decline of the Northern cod stocks. The main claim of this brilliant work of `forensic sociology’ is that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is influenced by social processes making `truth’ an elusive concept.In eight dense but readable chapters, the author examines how presumably objective observations about the marine biomass are mediated by what he calls `interpretative flexibility’ -the possibility of reading different but, a priori, equally plausible conclusions into a single data set-because of the degree of uncertainty about the estimates of physical reality. Through a wide range of searching questions during interviews, the author is able to get almost a collective confession from fishery scientists that social and political compulsions played a big role in their interpretations. The author points out that one important reason for this is that big science is paid for by the state. The chapter I liked most is titled `Is There a Place for Fishermen in Fisheries Science?’ Here the author explains how the Canadian scientists totally disregarded the views of the inshore fishermen about the state of the fish stocks because they felt that "the inshore fishermen has very little to contribute to the solutions of the fundamental problems of stock assessment". The author says that this attitude is not because the individual scientists wanted to "wilfully disregard" the views of the inshore fishermen. It was rather because the very cognitive structure of their modern science did not permit them to incorporate such knowledge into their framework. With the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery in 1992, the warnings and predictions of the inshore fishermen have come true, validating their more holistic understanding of the ecosystem. For scientists, this current impasse is more a "crisis of their own expectations (of their science), not a crisis in the state of the stocks." Finlayson’s methodology of research and, more importantly, the way the material collected has been written up also deserve a special word of praise. Finlayson has very ably used lengthy quotations from the persons he interviewed during his study. Particularly noteworthy is the adroit manner in which he has incorporated the words of fishery scientist Jake Rice, who provided an extensive and challenging critique of Finlayson in defence of the work and motivations of the Canadian fishery scientists. By appropriately reproducing transcripts of interviews, Finlayson preserves the context, flavour and nuances of arguments. Finlayson brings out at an important point at the conclusion of his study. He feels that for a complex social structure such as a fishery to function effectively, there must either be coercive authority or substantial agreement among its members about both the policy and parameters within which issues will be resolved. Neither of these situations exists in most of the crisis- and conflict-ridden fisheries in the world today. Moving towards a context of consensus should be the aim.
It will not be necessary to recommend this book as essential reading for fishworkers. They have said all this in their own language several times over in coastal communities worldwide-in Canada, Senegal, Norway, India and the Philippines, to name a few countries. But every fishery scientist would do well to read this book because it does not debunk fisheries science but emphasises the need to place it within its social context. The book emphasises that fisheries management can not be based on biological sciences alone and should be acknowledged as a social process, where the essential problems are sociological and political. Such an understanding will go miles in creating the basis for an essential and renewed co-operation between those who labour to catch the fish and those who make a living studying the fruits of this labour.
Articles and files
KURIEN, John, Beyond scientific gospels in. Samudra Report, 1996/07, 15; - Alan Christopher Finlayson, FISHING FOR TRUTH: A Sociological Analysis of Northern Cod Stock Assessments from 1977-1990; Institute of Social and Economic Research Publications, Newfoundland, 1994.- Pages 186.