“One of the best days of my life” – Rene Sperling, Dutch fisher 

What would that be? A passed exam, a wedding, a birth of a child?

Nope. A day of fishing in the GAP2 exchange program.

René (Dutch fisher) said that at the kitchen table of Dale (Canadian fisher) after a day of lobster fishing in the Bay of Fundy. René normally fishes for plaice and sole in the North Sea. The day of lobster fishing and the discussions with Dale had opened his eyes to another way of fishing -of life, in fact- which had inspired him. He confessed at the same kitchen table that he had texted his father that he ‘was born on the wrong side of the ocean’.  The impact of ‘another way of fishing’ would have been much less would he have read an article in a magazine about lobster fishing in Canada. As Xunzi, a Chinese Confucian scholar, so nicely expressed centuries ago:

What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.” 

A fisherman’s perspective

Ghanian fisheries

(c) Marloes Kraan

As a marine anthropologist travelling to other coasts to observe and experience fishing, participate in fishing communities, and talk about fisheries, I (Marloes) am already aware of the fun of discussing similarities and differences. When I was doing my research in Ghana I was asked many questions about Dutch fisheries. And once back in Holland I would show footage of Ghanaian fisheries to Dutch fishermen. On one of these occasions an Urker fishermen said: ‘Look at that, they are fishing with panty-hose!’; expressing disbelief that their smallest legal mesh size was 10 times as big as the one used in the Ghanaian net.

One day I saw a documentary on Flemish television of Belgian fishermen visiting Togolese fishermen to go out fishing with them. Their comments on the Togolese fishing practice were really insightful for me. I had been studying the same fishing technique for more than a year, yet these fishermen questioned, explained and understood many aspects in one week that I had neither questioned nor understood all that time. More or less the same effect if a marine biologist would have visited my research field; (s)he would also have questioned, explained and understood other aspects of the fishery than I would have. We have our own expertise to bring which results in other information being gathered.

Net fixing

A visiting fisherman on exchange fixes a net whilst out on a Dutch boat

The documentary and the experiences of the exchange visits show that while fishermen might not understand the same language, they do speak a common language. When Mario Casson, an Italian fisherman stepped on board of the TH10, he saw one of the crew members fixing something on the gear, and one minute later he was down on his knees mending a tear in the net – no word had to be said yet the same language was spoken.

Similarly, a recent exchange saw a group of Canadian fishermen and scientists set to travel by dinghy to some oyster beds with a Dutch fisherman. When the motor on the dinghy wouldn’t start, the Canadian fishermen jumped right in and started work on fixing it, no questions asked. No one made a fuss over the fact that the Canadians were helping or who was doing what. It’s just what you do when you’re a fisherman out on the water, no matter where you’re from.

These little examples illustrate for us an important lesson: fishers and scientists each have their own expertise from which they perceive the world they encounter. Both give meaning to things they see, and both will focus on other things. Teaming up in research therefore makes a lot of sense.

Zooming out

Another positive effect of exchange programs, both for fishers and for scientists, is the ‘zooming out’ effect. Travelling, moving away from your normal daily life, and experiencing another gives you the opportunity to compare, to reflect. Discussing the similarities and differences can be very inspirational (new stuff); reassuring (life isn’t perfect here either); and helps put issues into perspective (it isn’t all that bad at home).

Propeller fixing

Fishermen work together to fix a broken propeller (c) Kevin Squires

One of the things Johan Baaij and René Sperling realised was that their organisations for young fishermen resonated very positively in Canada and with the Italian fishermen. It made them realise that in other countries the image of ‘the elders’ managing fisheries was the same, and that although getting organised in the Netherlands wasn’t easy, at least they were a step ahead! Some of the Canadians have since taken steps to encourage networking among young fishermen in their own associations. So, exchange visits can expose us to new initiatives and philosophies, giving us ideas to take back and try out at home.

All of the fishermen we have talked to after the exchange visits said that they were intrigued by how recognisable the issues were with which the other fishermen were grappling. Although obviously the historical, cultural and ecological contexts differed enormously, the  topics and sometimes patterns were very much the same: multi-use conflicts, fluctuating fish stocks and market prices, top-down versus co-management, marine protected areas, small-scale fisheries versus large-scale fisheries, modernisation. The stories coming out of the exchanges deal exactly with discussing these similarities and differences; it seems these are intriguing enough to share with the wider community.

We’ve touched on the benefits of interactions among fishermen and between fishermen and researchers; what about the interactions among researchers? Exchange trips bring to light global issues in fisheries, and create a unique environment and opportunity to build relationships for international research collaborations. International researchers can learn much from one another by sharing knowledge, lessons learned and best practices (no need to reinvent the wheel). In working together we have the potential to accomplish more and to do new and different research with broad impact. Together we can chip away at the common issues and challenges faced by fisheries around the world.

Building networks

One of the last observations we’d like to share about the value of exchange programs is that of building networks. Obviously links have been established between research networks like GAP2 and the CFRN, between institutes like ISPRA and IMARES, and among and between the individual researchers and fishermen who have met on the exchanges. And we emphasize here that the relationships formed during exchange programs are more grounded and deeper than the typical interactions you have with people at meetings and conferences. This is especially true when you meet someone you really ‘click’ with – and the exchanges provide more opportunity to explore that potential to ‘click’ through finding common ground or having shared experiences. This reality of deeper relationships is also reflected by the fact that GAP2 has experienced a snowball effect when it comes to exchanges; one led to another, and so on!

There has been quite a lot of team building within the teams – so not only networking ‘out’ but networking ‘in’, too. For the Canadians on the Dutch exchange, it was a significant bonding experience for the entire group that enhanced their relationships and their appreciation for one another, from both a personal and professional perspective. The joint experience of scientists and fishermen (and in some cases others – managers, fishing inspectors, traders, NGOs), the contact out of regular context, talking about stuff beyond the work realm, interacting with each other outside of the regular ‘role’; it all helps in establishing a relationship – and thus building trust. That relationship is brought back to the case studies and is very valuable. As one of the Dutch fisher representatives often says (translating a Dutch expression): ‘Trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback’.

“In the end, I think the best part of exchange visits is the energy one gets from finding that we all share commons problems and common goals, and the energy one returns home with to continue trying to deal with them. The feeling of knowing we are not alone and, in fact, there are people all over the world who are in the same boat (so to speak), is comforting and encouraging” - Kevin Squires, Canadian fisherman