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The seldom-heard stories of the people who put the fish on your plate

Ocean Calls. Season 3. Episode 5.
Ocean Calls. Season 3. Episode 5. Copyright Euronews
Copyright Euronews
By Saskia O'DonoghueNaira Davlashyan & Jeremy WIlks
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In this episode of Ocean Calls, we hear from the people behind the fish on your plate. They are often overlooked, but play a crucial role in Europe's fishing industry.


At Ocean Calls, we often focus on how improving fisheries policies and sustainable aquaculture can help us take better care of the ocean.

However, how often do you think about the men and women whose working lives are interwoven with the tides and waves of the sea?

Across Europe, you’ll often see small boats of less than 12 metres in length.

Onboard, you’ll find the owners of these vessels, many of them at the helm of their own small-scale fishing operations.

In a world where overfishing is seen as far too prevalent, some experts say these small boats could hold the key to that issue.

While they currently represent 80% of the fishing fleet in Europe, the sector is in danger of disappearing, replaced by industrial vessels.

“I can understand why from a government, from an administrative perspective, it's much easier to deal with a smaller number of people in suits and ties who speak the same language.... rather than the sort of disorderly, very numerous bunch of noisy, opinionated fishermen,” Jeremy Percy says, "but they deserve to be heard".

Percy is the Executive Director at Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE).

Created in 2012, it now combines dozens of grassroots organisations from 15 European countries.

Percy and his fellow LIFE workers often hear stories from these small fisheries.

One of the main systemic issues they highlight is the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Adopted back in the 1980s, it established rules for the management of marine resources in the EU.

It encouraged investments and increased employment in the sector - but, on the flip side, saw industrial fleets ravage fish stocks.

In 2014, the CFP took that damage on board and was reformed.

A decade ago, it added rules for sustainability and fairer distribution of resources.

LIFE does admit that many of the new rules are an improvement, they ultimately believe the organisation believes that the reform failed to deliver.

“The Common Fisheries Policy has generally failed,” Percy says.

What are the issues facing small-scale fisheries and their workers?

Overfishing and climate change are two of the - perhaps obvious - reasons there is tension within these small-scale fisheries, but there’s something else behind it too: where they are able to fish.


Small boats tend only to be able to travel to inshore waters, which tend to be shallower, and these days, home to fewer fish. Big boats, in contrast, can go further out to sea and catch a variety of maritime creatures.

That issue, as well as hard working conditions and low wages are increasingly driving young people away from their family businesses - a trend LIFE wants to reverse.

“So much of the knowledge and skills that small scale inshore fishermen possess are being lost,” Percy explains, “you shouldn't underestimate just how long it takes to learn these. And once you've lost them, it's extremely difficult to get them back.”

That extends not just to people but boat building too.

How does boat building build Denmark's coastal fishing communities?

Thomas Hojrup is a Danish ethnologist who is actively working to restore the art of building traditonal fishing vessels.


He’s an expert in the creation of traditional Danish clinker-built boats, a style adapted to the harsh sailing conditions of Denmark’s northern coast, where the currents are so strong that they are constantly reshaping the sea bed and the shoreline - meaning ports and havens are few and far between. Boats there are often forced to land directly on the sand.

“It's a very special kind of boat and it also has to be able to surf on a wave. When you are landing, you find a big wave and then you can surf on it, until you reach the land. So it demands that you have a very special shape in the hull,” Hojrup explains.

The reason behind the increased building of these boats? Small-scale fisheries in the Nordic nation are nearing extinction.

Denmark is a large seafood producer and exporter, with the industry contributing hundreds of millions of euros to the economy.

However, most of the fish is caught by large pelagic vessels, excluding small family businesses.


To combat this - and encourage young people to become fishers in a rapidly changing world - Hojrup took action.

As the head of the Thorupstrand Guild, an organisation which represents the fishing community in Thorupstrand, in northern Jutland, he was determined to support the dying industry.

Thorupstrand is one of the few examples of small-scale fishing still surviving after Denmark privatised fishing quotas a decade ago.

There, he recruited two boat builders in their 50s and 60s to teach the Guild’s 400 members how to build the clinkers.

Thorupstrand may have found a way to save their small-scale fisheries and attract young people into the industry - but many of Europe’s coastal communities still struggle.


The average age of fishermen in Europe is increasing. Only 10% of them are younger than 35.

In France, for example, around half of the fishing workforce is over 50 years old.

Across the continent, the overwhelming majority of these small-scale fisheries are family businesses - meaning it’s notoriously hard to get into from the outside.

That’s especially true for women.

Why is the European fishing industry a difficult one for women to work in?

Anna Carlson is the Fishery Officer for Livelihoods at the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.


Data estimates that women represent about 28% of the workforce in European fisheries.

Most of them work on the shore, with many doing accounting for their fisher husbands.

Only 3% of women actually work on board vessels.

One of Carlson’s aims is to study the role of women in fisheries and advise on improving their working conditions.

“Even if we we tend to think of fisheries as a male dominated sector, you find women in all facets of the fishing sector, from helping to prepare boats and preparing nets to actually fishing themselves, going on board, vessels of all sizes to then also the post-harvest sector cleaning, catches, selling catches and processing catches,” she explains.


Women are, Carlson believes, victims of the stereotype that fishing is a sector exclusively for men. Frequently, they are excluded due to arbitrary issues, like sorting tables on boats being too high.

In less equal parts of Europe, too, women are likely to be less financially independent than their male counterparts, as well as being settled into ‘traditional’ roles within the home.

“Maybe a woman fisher cannot travel to attend training,” Carlson says. However, she has a solution.

“I'm bringing training to a location that is more convenient to them or more compatible with their household duties - and I’m also working on financial inclusion for women.”

Making women in the fisheries visible is crucial for the sector, Carlson says, although “it's not necessarily an issue of trying to ensure that 50% of the workforce in fisheries are women. It's a question of trying to ensure that if women want to participate in the sector, they have equal opportunities and are given the opportunities to be able to engage.”


Regardless of gender imbalance or other restrictions, small-scale fisheries across the board can all struggle.

Percy, though, believes that the only way to improve the situation is to make sure the fishers are heard.

“We're facing an uphill struggle, but it is absolutely vital that the public get behind us and maintain the sort of the benefits that bring social and economic and environmental [prosperity] to coastal communities,” he explains.

If you want to learn more about the hidden faces of the fishing industry, listen to the full episode of Ocean Calls in the player above.

In this episode of Ocean Calls, we're exploring the lives of some of these small-scale fishers.


We’ll learn about the importance of these often family-run businesses from Jeremy Percy, the Executive Director at Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE), as well as the role of women in the industry from Anna Carlson is the Fishery Officer for Livelihoods at the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions of the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

We’ll also hear from Thomas Hojrup, a Danish ethnologist, who’s battling to save small-scale fisheries in the Nordic nation from extinction - via the medium of traditional boat building.

At the end of this episode, you’ll learn about Jasmine Harrison’s experience who made an unusual friend while swimming the full length of the British isles from Lands End to John o’Groats in 2022. She’s a British adventurer with a couple of world records on her mantlepiece who, somehow, managed to befriend a whale.

Ocean Calls is produced in partnership with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

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