Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Go fish

Larrikin's End Pilchard Catch by Pants

For days I've been thinking 'must write something on the blog'. And then, this morning, I woke up with a notion to write about fish - a subject about which I know nothing. That's okay because no one else in Australia does either.

In the last twenty-four breathless hours, our government has conjured a hasty plan to prevent a newly arrived super-trawler formerly known as the Margiris from operating in our waters for up to two years. If successful, the moratorium will, presumably, give everyone time to get a firm fix on the bleedin' obvious, i.e. that it's not a terribly good idea to invite the world to dinner if you haven't done a stocktake on the larder yet. At the time of writing, the matter is still being squabbled over in Parliament.

The Margiris has now been renamed the Abel Tasman after one of our venerable explorers, presumably to make it sound like it's giving rather than taking. This giant Dyson of the seas, which set a course for our fisheries some seven years ago, suddenly appeared as if via apparition, and was greeted with the sort of warmth we normally reserve for asylum-seekers. We specialise in panic politics in this country.

As always with these things, it's not easy to get a fix on the governing 'science' so I'm not going to bother. There's a reasonable round-up of the various opinions here. Instead, I'm going to talk about my own town of Larrikin's End which is, as luck would ordain, a fishing town.

The Larrikin's End fleet operates as a co-operative with around a hundred boats fishing Bass Strait. Our area is part of the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery, a constituency that covers roughly a third of Australia's coastline. The new super-trawler would be operating in these waters too. The Co-op itself has around 80 full and part-time employees and runs a processing plant, fishing supply and equipment business, (which includes the sale of fuel), as well as a fresh fish market and takeaway chippie. I would guess that the fishing industry supports ten per cent or more of local jobs, depending on the season. Most of the catch is exported but there is still a plentiful supply of cheap seafood for restaurants, residents and tourists.

Local gossip has it that the Co-op is not particularly well run. For reasons that have never made any sense to me, the usual reaction to a community-owned business that is 'not particularly well run' is to replace it with an offshore, multinational Godzilla rather than call in a management consultant or TV programme to help it sort out its 'issues'. Not that I'm saying that such action has ever been on the cards here, mind, but it does seem obvious that if a giant floating fish factory shows up, it would tend to raise the question of whether or not there are enough fish in the sea, so to speak, to support both industry models. You can imagine the sort of scenario that might play out, given a fair wind and the usual menu of worn clich├ęs if push came to shove.

Australians are obsessed with the concept of 'food security' which, given that we waste roughly half of the food we buy, is something of an irony. Even more peculiar is that our paranoia is much more likely to be focused on land-based production, (which we can obviously control), rather than offshore capacity, which is clearly vulnerable to covert exploitation. Bordering on the absurd, is the argument that the perceived solution to this imagined 'food security problem' is more likely to involve the participation of an agri-leviathan than it is small, locally owned and run community businesses. Despite the Government's rushed proposal bearing the hallmark of a panic attack, legislation to prevent the possibility that the oceans might be emptied by stealth while everyone is watching a football final one Saturday afternoon seems like a reasonably good idea.

Here in Larrikin's End, food security isn't something we talk about a lot. It is probably the most food-secure place on the planet. In addition to our varied fish stocks, we are surrounded by dairy and beef cattle, sheep and poultry farms, fruit and vegetable growers and, crucially, wineries. Most of these are co-operatives and/or family-owned enterprises. Even Seat of Pants has a credible vegetable patch. But do you hear about these successes? You do not. You hear only that we will all starve without bio-monsters to feed us. Oh, and we also have a very visible population of the kind of cuddly marine mammals that often end up in super-trawler nets along with the charmless creatures destined for a future as fish fingers, i.e. dolphins and seals. To us, a super-trawler is about as welcome as a vegan at a barbecue.

Another of our national obsessions is something we call 'stainabiliddy'. We do not know what it is but, by crikey, we are scared of it, or the loss of it, or whatever. Now, I cannot advise on who one should believe when it comes to information about whether or not our fish stocks are 'stainable'. It's clearly difficult to verify because fish are a bit hard to count. I do, however,  know that it is quite easy to tell when there are none left. By then, of course, it's too late to do anything about it. One can hardly start protesting while a super-trawler steams away with its giant belly bulging, leaving us with only a semaphore message reading, 'so long and thanks for all the fish'.

For purely practical reasons, I would suggest that local fishers are always a more reliable source of accurate information. They and their antecedents have been fishing their waters for generations and have the means and motivation to compare fish numbers from year to year. Their vested interest lies in leaving some fish in the ocean for future catch. The owners of a super-trawler have no such incentive. If they deplete fish stocks, (as the Margiris apparently has done in northern waters according to Greenpeace), they can simply up anchor and move on to another piece of ocean without the bother of having to explain to their neighbours why and how they have managed to fuck the forseeable future.

At the moment, all is conjecture but it seems to me absurd to be living in a country where officials are constantly banging on about 'maintaining biodiversity' and 'protecting fragile ecosystems' and thinking that only means safeguarding platypus habitats and encouraging people to grow kangaroo paw in their gardens instead of English roses. Here in Larrikin's End, we do have a 'stainable' fishery with many inter-related industries, all built on local expertise and tradition. This town's identity and strength is fish and fishing and it supports a wide web of professional and recreational activity. And it's owned and controlled by local people with local knowledge and local interests. 

I'm not concluding that the future of our town is necessarily threatened by the presence of one super-trawler in our hemisphere. I'm merely suggesting that an understanding of the value of accumulated local knowledge and expertise and the basic human desire for autonomy and co-operation doesn't seem to be factored in to the cost/benefit analyses that appear to be influencing our politicians when it comes to helping us to work out how to live. I agree that it's terribly important that world leaders concern themselves with making sure that there is enough food for everyone. The solution, I venture, lies in tackling what is not working rather than fucking up what is...