12 / 1997
On the night of 22 February 1993, several hundreds of French fishers and their families stormed the Rungis wholesale fish market, just south of Paris. In the ensuing mêlèe, 800 tonnes of fish valued at over US$ 4 million were destroyed. Many of the demonstrators had come from the Breton ports of Le Guilvinec, Douarnenez and Concarneau where, earlier in the day, more than 9,000 people had participated in demonstrations against changes in the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy that would cut quotas, force a reduction in the French fishing fleet by as much as 20 per cent, and liberalise regulations governing the importation of non-EU fish.
The anger and strength of this protest, as well as of others similar to this one, underlines the extent of the crisis rocking the French fishing industry. The EU proposals came at a time when French fishers were already reeling under the impact of falling profit margins. While production had been falling significantly in the early 1990s, initially, the drop in production was offset by continued increases in fish prices. However, later, as a result of changes in the structure of the international market and currency fluctuations, the prices of fish plummeted leading to the social protests that swept across Brittany in 1993 and 1994.
The direct impact of this crisis on the fishing fleet is reflected in the day-to-day operations of boats in three very specific fashions: reductions in crew-size; reductions in expenditures on maintenance of vessels; and an increase in fishing time.
The difficulties being experienced by the Breton fishing communities during the past few years are the product of a series of inter-related processes: technological developments, stock depletion, government attempts at regulation, and the internationalisation of the market.
The post-Second World War modernisation of the French fishing fleet, subsidised extensively by the government, resulted in a threefold expansion in the volume of fish landed. As a consequence of such policies the catching capacity of the present-day capital-intensive and efficient fishing fleet greatly exceeds the reproductive capacity of the fish stocks. Significantly, while in the years immediately following the war, fishing provided jobs and much-needed food, in more recent years the state-led modernisation of the fleet has expanded catching capacity, while simultaneously destroying jobs. The number of active fishermen in the Breton fishing industry has plummeted from 25,000 to 8,000.
The crisis that local fishing communities are facing in France is part of a global fishing crisis. The amount of fish caught from the world’s oceans peaked in the 1980s and has been declining ever since. FAO has determined that of 17 world fisheries, four are in a state of commercial depletion and nine more are in serious decline. However, under the pressure of the market economy, fishing effort has only continued to increase.
Two particular aspects of the linkage between artisanal fishing industries and the logic of the market economy are important to note. Firstly, the logic of the market economy propels fishing technologies to develop to a point where catching capacity exceeds the ability of fish stocks to successfully reproduce. This is clearly demonstrated in several examples worldwide, the most recent being the complete closure of the northern cod fishery of Newfoundland, that has thrown close to 50,000 people out of work.
Secondly, the epicentre of economic growth in fisheries is located not in the areas where fishing is based, but rather in metropolitan centres far removed from the lives and communities of fisherfolk. The unrelenting movement toward liberalised trade and the globalisation of the market is making it increasingly difficult for communities to retain any real control over local development.
In a world that is more and more becoming a global village, fishermen must be careful not to ghettoize themselves. Fishing communities need to reach beyond their narrow regional or nationalist boundaries and form effective linkages that can intervene at a global level.
Fishing communities the world over are finding their livelihood and way of life jeopardised by processes beyond their control. Both fish and fishing communities are under threat, largely as a consequence of the rapid industrialisation of the fishery sector in the last few decades. For the situation to change fishworkers must have a say in fisheries management and in the development of fisheries policies at the regional, national and international level. This is imperative for the long-term survival and well being of fishing communities, and for the sustainable management of fish resources. Fishworkers must organise and form linkages to influence fishery policy- a challenge indeed in a world where so far fisheries management schemes have not been oriented toward the social well being of the fishing communities, but rather towards profits. Conservation effort have only been rearguard actions designed to maintain reasonable profits for the medium term.
Articles and files
MENZES, Charles R., Neither fisher nor fish in. Samudra Report, 1995/10, 13