In coastal communities across the world, young people are no longer deciding to take up fishing as a profession. What is influencing their decision and how can we begin to turn this dynamic around?
Twenty-two year old fisher Simon Glöckner was one of a half-dozen speakers participating in the University of Gastronomic Sciences’ series of discussions organized during Slow Fish. “Fishing as a career is not well known in Germany. When I tell people what I do, they ask me if it’s a real job. Young people aren’t interested in fishing; they are choosing more lucrative jobs and it’s difficult for companies to find apprentices,” he said.
“Young people are choosing almost any profession instead of fishing,” said Jeremy Percy from Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE), a platform representing small-scale fishers. “In the UK we’ve seen two major drops in the number of young people taking up fishing: the first was when the economy was strong and construction work offered a more stable occupation for better money; the second has been the recent increase in costs of quotas and fuel for fishing vessels, which has made it more attractive for owners to employ foreign crews than local young people.”
Furthermore, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in Europe, Percy went on to say, with the highest mortality rate than any other industry, including mining. “It has also lost a lot of its personal touch,” he said. “Any boats over 20 meters is like a floating factory; it’s not the same as the hands-on fishing on a small boat.”
“Fishermen used to be heroes: Fishers were respected and key elements of communities,” he said. “Now with media coverage about overfishing, we’ve gone from heroes to pirates and villains.”
One area that seems impervious to this trend is Thorup Strand in Denmark, where 80% of the fishers are from 17 to 34 years old. “Twenty years ago we formed a guild so that every fisher could share ownership in quotas, making it possible for young fishers to enter fisheries by renting quotas from the guild,” Hardy Jensen from Slow Food Denmark and the Thorupstrand Fishermen’s Guild explained. “This made a huge difference. Otherwise many young fishers couldn’t have afforded to buy a boat… Education is also a new initiative that could be a way to allow people who aren’t part of fishing cultures to be inspired to become fishers.”
Jeremy Percy spoke about LIFE’s work to improve the safety conditions on board, making fishing a less hazardous job. “Fishers tend to not be able to swim. We are encouraging them to wear life jackets and have safety equipment on board.”
Michèle Mesmain, Slow Fish campaign coordinator, talked about a positive initiative taking place in Alaska where an organization of young fishers meets once a year. “They have lots of energy and are very serious about issues such as self training and organizing themselves on a policy level. It gives them the feeling of empowerment, of taking their future into their own hands. This is an important feeling to build upon.”
The hurdles keeping young people from choosing fishing as a career need to be identified and tackled. Occupational safety, earning power and financial accessibility for young people to take up fishing can all help protect and continue traditional fishing activities that are at risk of disappearing around the world. In the past decade, campaigning about local produce and organic agriculture has inspired many young people to go back to farming. With increased awareness and communications, perhaps fishing could be next.
“Fishers are the last hunters; there is an element of this in any fisher,” said Percy. “It’s a spiritual occupation; it’s as primal as you can get. It’s one of the last escapist jobs: When you throw off the ropes and go to sea, it’s just you and the sea. There’s no other job like it in the world.”
Though for some it seems, the calling transcends all hurdles.
Photo credit: Fokke van Saane