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Fishing and the economics of Jonah and the Whale - personal view by Fiona Matheson

Updated: Jul 1, 2019

We are all economists or should be says Kate Raworth.

(Doughnut economics- seven ways to think like a 21st century ecocnomist


Because leaving economics to others leaves us all at the peril of economists who have got it spectacularly wrong.

For fishing communities this could not be more important. Stating the bleeding’ obvious is becoming a regular paradox for those of us sitting in islands. A ferry cancelled for a day or so through bad weather sends once self-sufficient islanders into panic-buying of sooth baked breed.

A few short decades and today isles-dependency on supermarket supplies is almost complete.

The lamented puzzlement of tourists that you cannae buy fresh fish on an island surrounded by one of the most abundant mixed fisheries in the UK, has become a normalised fact, only illustrating the neutered state of islanders’ access to their natural resources.

Land went a while back. We hardly challenge that for most of us, it belongs to others.

So used are we to having others control our resources that we feel rude even asking about them.

It is even more dark when you consider the herring once caught by Orcadians to provide protein for their oatmeal diet are now illegal for any Orcadian to catch. Vitamin D which is plentiful in herring, is an important dietary replacement for natural Vitamin D from sunlight which ‘Hey presto!’ islanders suffer from as we sit so far up north we don’t get as much sun as folk down south. Lack of Vitamin D has been linked to Multiple Sclerosis.

Orkney holds the questionable top ranking of the highest incidence of MS in the world .

That is 1 in every 170 women.

And to do even more ecological handstands, health and sustainability contortions, those herring that Orcadians can’t legally catch and eat, go to foreign export and even end up as fish meal to feed farmed fish which in turn depend on toxic chematheraputants so they can then be sold disease-free and packaged up in plastic back to herring-less Orcadians shopping for ‘healthy oily fish’.

While this economic maze prevails sea-lice medicines continue to poison wild shellfish and Orcadians troop to a national pharmacy chain to buy vitamin D supplements to stave off SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Economists who blindly measure growth only in terms of monetary grossing, with promises of fantasy jobs, as opposed to unseen pollution of the marine environment, or trumpet trickle down benefits to coastal communities, citing crumbs from the groaning tables of those who own everything from the fish in the sea to the factory and shop, are a big danger to us islanders.

What trickle down economics means for islanders is that your house is so cheap to buy that the person with 5 times your income from another wealthy part of the country can not only keep their own house, but also buy yours (or the one next door) for a bank holiday bolt-hole.

And as the new owners are hardly ever there, they can also let it out on air b and b while your Auntie cleans it every Saturday for the minimum wage and your daughter languishes at 470th on the council waiting list.

But surely there is nothing left to sell off?

Well yes there is.

While politicians fiddle, big business is eyeing up the marine resources of our islands which in fisheries are all the ‘non quota’ species remaining in the sea; crab, lobster, scallops and squid (there's plenty more). With the level of investment which is currently going into new-builds, it would appear we are being hurtled by the ‘main chancers’, maneouvring to create a mega windfall for themselves, into that same vertically integrated fishing industry that side-steps the wee guy’s only recourse to fairplay, democratic government. Yes, yes there’s lots wrong with democracy, its slow, its cumbersome and all that but look at the alternative…

All the while the influential movers are whispering the words of seductive efficiency to the ears of power.

A vertically integrated system (like Iceland and New Zealand ) means the fish, the boats, the crew the, processors are all owned by a single company. Everyone is an employee of the private company, boss and the shareholders. Big business talks to government, big business funds politicians and government does what big business says. A future where you ‘owe your soul to the company store’ as Tennessee Ernie Ford might say.

Coastal communities sit on the brink of the final robbery of their natural resources and the small independent family boat business model is facing the gaping mouth of Jonah.

Vertical integration will disempower communities and empower business over the community's resources.

The free market is another crumbling myth – it doesn’t work for communities. The supply and demand market of fishing licenses is the engine behind the biggest back-door decommissioning scheme ever. As hundreds of boats lie unsold around the country, effectively worthless without a licence, the prices of licenses zooms away from all but the super wealthy.

That’s why we should all be economists.

Impoverishing coastal communities makes no economic sense, be it socially, aspirationally or through removal of their natural raw resources and the tools of work. Instead the economic direction should be enabling communities to access their natural resources, thinking from the bottom up, rather than the top down, enabling people to work and pay tax all year not just seasonally and be positively active contributing to the collective pot that gives us all the benefits of a wider co-operative society, teachers and doctors, home-helps and lollipop persons.

But as ever the wee people will have to do it for themselves because sadly they are always behind the curve when big business is about to gobble them up and spit them out.

cover photo: Brian Sorem - Stock Market Fortune Cookie

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