Religion, academics, and fisheries policy

I once explained to a non-Dutch economist how religion affects Dutch fisheries policy and she could hardly believe me. Here is a post from a fisherman from Urk, The Netherlands’ biggest fishing community, that perfectly illustrates how deep this impact goes, and how it complicates fisheries policy.

If you can’t read Dutch, let me translate the gist of the piece (hyperlinks added for clarification):

Last Monday we were fishing on the East side of the Cleaver Bank. This is one of the areas our green friends of Greenpeace claim is an important nature reserve, making their point by dumping a bunch of stones. Catches were great until the wind turned and our catch suddenly reduced to about half of what we were catching. I’ve seen this happening before, and I used to ask older fishers: “The fish has to be somewhere, right? It can’t just disappear, can it?” And all they could answer was that they just did not know. It makes you wonder who we think we are to think we can exert any influence on the fish. You won’t convince me that we, with our small boats, are capable of destroying the entire sea bottom as so many folks say we do.

Nature is so great, it does not care about what we do, it goes its own way and the way planned by its Creator. Man’s activities could change that a bit on the short term but it will not establish real change. There is fish, or there is no fish, but where it comes from or where it goes nobody knows. There have been bad times and there have been good times. You can’t express it in some graph that needs to be interpreted so that some policy can be implemented. You can’t confine Nature in little boxes such as the Plaice Box. It is impossible to understand Nature, and more difficult to predict than the weather.

We can do our job every week in that Creation, to enjoy its diversity, to which we sometimes pay too little attention. Our sights are obscured by our everyday financial troubles but all the while we can enjoy the greatest masterpiece of all times, God’s Nature.

We can run all the models we like, do all the estimations we like, but any attempt to limit catch or fishing effort will at best be grudgingly accepted by somebody with this world view.

So who’s right? I’m tempted to side with the biologists and to say they should try better at convincing the fishers, but I won’t, for two reasons. First, I find that a paternalist approach that can only antagonize people, and one of things most lacking in fisheries policy is mutual trust. Second, even the biologists themselves admit they don’t know everything so I think a two-way communication would be much more helpful. Yes, we might learn a thing or two from the fishers.

Fisheries policy has all the ingredients of a policy maker’s nightmare. Like climate policy, fisheries management is dazzlingly complex, with a lot of unknowns. The Plaice Box was established to protect juvenile plaice, thereby improving the entire flatfish fisheries. The fishers hated it and did not expect any good from it. Ever since its establishment, its stocks of juvenile plaice have declined! The biologists are still in the dark why, but the fishers feel vindicated.

Moreover, there is a huge gap in world view and education between the sector (religious, vocational training) and the researchers (secular, PhD). I know of nobody who ever crossed that rift. In Wageningen you meet many academics who come from a non-academic background: many of my colleagues and students were born and raised on a farm, and I myself was born right above my father’s butchery. I think a lot of agricultural policy would not have been possible without people who knew both worlds. But I have never met any student in, say, animal husbandry, biology, or marine resource management whose father went out on a fishing vessel every week.

Lastly, there are institutional problems, and history has not been helpful here. Fish stocks have been a free-for-all for centuries, with all the known commons problems, but also establishing a sense of entitlement among fishers. It is their fish, it is their fishing area. Sadly, the moral entitlement has not been joined by a legal one: a farmer may own land, but a fisher has no legal tenure over any area in the North Sea. So legally the government can designate huge no-take zones without having to compensate anybody, but doing that on land involves huge costs in buying land or compensating people.

Man, I love my job (had a nice raw herring with onions yesterday).

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