Fishing in the Anthropocene

By: Joana Sá Couto

Humanity’s impact on planet Earth is undeniable. Despite the creation of a Geological Era called Anthropocene still being a controversial subject among scientists, the term has been used to discuss a period of time when human action becomes an inevitable subject to think about the terrestrial system, or even as written by Crutzen: humans as a great force of nature. But make no mistake. The Anthropocene does not mean the end of nature, but rather a possible turning point: more than ever we realize that humans are part of Nature and our life depends on a harmonious relationship between us and the life around us – we can enjoy the Anthropocene to reflect on this relationship and redefine it.

The concept of Anthropocene has, in fact, led to an ever-greater reflection on the question of the sustainability of everything: we humans are part of Nature and we have to preserve it, even though the political economic model in which we live formats us to search for profit and economic growth, which, even though contradictory, continues to be parallel to the sustainability agenda. Thus, depending on the perspectives and reflection of each author, as well as on their focus, others concepts derived from the notion of Anthropocene have arised, such as Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Carbocene, Manthropocene.

One of these others is Plasticene. Plastic is a synthetic material that has become a landmark of the Anthropocene, due to its distribution in marine and terrestrial environments, becoming a distinctive stratal component. The impact of plastics is varied, and has been increasingly analyzed. However, it is in the marine environment that its presence has been given more attention, as it appears on beaches, in the stomachs of fish and in fishing nets.

Image 1: A message on the sidewalk found in Setúbal. Picture by Joana Sá Couto

Not everything that comes to the net is fish!”, it is said – even written on the sidewalk. But more and more it has become a real problem. Plastic in the sea destroys marine life, but it also gets caught in nets and results in loss of revenue for fisherfolk. But it is not only in fishing nets that plastic has been entangling in fisheries. Plastic has enabled more efficient fisheries, an increase of the fishing area and even a bigger distribution of sold fish through plastic packaging. However, this came at a cost. It can be argued that the Plasticene has had bigger impact in communities than we think. In fisheries, through the increase of market pressures, traditional knowledge of reading the bubbling of the sea has been replaced by GPS and sonars. Oars by engines. Small wooden boats by factory vessels. Cotton fibers by plastic. And ways of reusing the material replaced by new plastic material, since is it cheaper and takes less work.

Image 2. Fishing materials. Picture by Joana Sá Couto.

Fishing has become the most mentioned economic activity when we talk about the problems related to the marine environment and even of plastics – as is indeed noted by the documentary Seaspiracy. Has George Monbiot put it: fishing is the greatest threat to our oceans. But if we dive into the topic, and especially into the communities, we realize the difference between the industrial fishing portrayed in the documentary and small Portuguese coastal fishing and how the first is driven by profits and the markets, and the second struggles to survive.

As an ethnographer, I was able to witness how plastic is a perfect symbol of the perversity of a system that makes things disposable. Existing environmentally damaging behaviors  in fisheries can be understood by the need to pay bills and to make a profit (like anyone on land). The capitalist system and “progress” have disabled the identities of these communities resulting in a departure from nature and the traditional knowledge that this entails. This is a clear result of the lack of protection of these vulnerable communities facing social, economic, and environmental issues of the Anthropocene. Climate change has been affecting fisheries in a variety of ways, adding to their vulnerability, since the market has an increasing demand for certain species of fish and shellfish and it is sold at low prices, benefiting the middle intermediary and not the producer, which can result in overfishing. Also, the Covid-19 pandemic has showed the lack of support for these communities being forced to shut down their activity for a period of time with little funding difficult to access by complex bureaucracy.

In this context, small-scale fishing communities have reached a tipping point: is extinction inevitably being replaced by a dystopic and highly monitored industrial fishing and aquaculture? Will the concept of Anthropocene help us realize that maybe these communities may hold the secret to sustainable fishing through the involvement of fisherfolk in the co-management of the oceans? Can Capitalocene have an end? Can fishers stop fishing in the Plasticene? Can we resolve plastic pollution even with the Covid pandemic? We will see. Until then, Portuguese small-fishing communities will continue fishing in the Antropocene, being held to a moral standard of sustainable conduct even we do not follow. Being integrated in European policies created with no heterogeneity in mind and slipping into the heated discourses that accuses fisheries of destroying our oceans. But, in this International Ocean’s Day let me end with a note: we cannot save our oceans without the knowledge of those who truly devote their lives to it.

Image 3: Making a nylon fishing net. Notice the hand sanitizer and hand soap, omnipresent since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture by Joana Sá Couto

Joana Sá Couto is an anthropologist and a PhD Candidate in the Programme Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies, at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. Her work focuses on environmental issues and how they affect vulnerable communities in their everyday lives, using ethnography as the main approach. She has been doing fieldwork among the fishing community of Setúbal.


One thought on “Fishing in the Anthropocene

  1. Fernando Nunes 9 Junho 2021 / 9:35 pm

    Muito bom, Joana! Parabéns.


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