Fishing and Natural Beauty

Conservationists often assume that nature is obviously beautiful. Or, at the very least, obviously inspiring and therefore worthy of respect. These assumptions are not at all as widespread as one might think, or want them, to be. And getting to terms with this fact is, as far as I’m concerned, key to how we will design nature policy in the future. Let me illustrate with an extended example.

I have written before about the Danube Delta. In stale tourism leaflets it is often described as magnificent, awesome, unique. It is, to be sure, a nowadays rare example of what used to be quite common: a delta. As such, it is characterized by a profound dynamism, as water and land constantly shift with no particular end arrangement in sight. This very process has been stalled by humans many times before. I am now writing these words from Brussels, which had its own battle with the Senne/Zenne river until, in the mid 19th century, it buried it underground. More famously, the neighboring country of the Netherlands is partly defined by a battle against the dynamism of water: much of the land in the north of the country is reclaimed, or we could say stabilized land, frozen in convenient shape. For the Dutch or Belgian visitor, the Danube Delta looks extremely natural. After all, the river is still visible, and large, there are relatively few buildings (some villages and one town), and an abundance of wildlife. However, this delta has its own history of taming, so far failed, but important nonetheless.

Panorama of the Delta

But it is not the attempted drying of the Delta that I want to talk about (I’ll write about that some other time). Rather, I want to reflect on several conversations I’ve had with locals, particularly around the topic of fishing. From a classical conservation perspective, the issue of fishing is quite simple. Either stop altogether and allow the fish to reproduce and thrive, or else follow very strict quotas and methods, such that fishing stocks cannot be depleted. Both of these methods have been tried, to some extent, in the Delta. Sturgeon (the common name of 27 different species, most critically endangered, not least because a number of these species produce caviar), a fish that defined the local fishing communities for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries, is illegal to catch. A moratorium was issued in 2006 and continues today. Nobody really knows how the sturgeon is doing as a result, as studies are few and far between, and not made public even when they do exist. For all other species of fish that are caught in the river there is strict regulation of size, methods, and time of year. Despite this, the fish stocks continue to dwindle, and the fishermen get progressively angrier about the bureaucracy that they have to put up with, and which they perceive as threatening their lives. It is commonplace to hear fishermen (they are only men; in fact, women don’t even get into the fishing boats, as they bring bad luck) say that the ultimate goal of conservation is to drive their way of life into extinction.

In the decades before the fall of the communist regime, sturgeon was caught year-round. In the village of Sfântu Gheorghe, the largest village in the Delta, there were 10 brigades doing the fishing in perpetuity. Sturgeon was caught at sea, with huge hooks that were used to hoist the beast into massive boats. The mahuna was traditionally made of wood, and was large and heavy to whitstand the stormy Black Sea. The brigades would get back to the fish processing plant, were women were employed packing cans of caviar. I spoke with Natalia about those days. She was around 15 when she started working the caviar line, and she remembers those days with palpable nostalgia. Once, she managed to pack 167 kilos in one day! Now, she says, the men are not even allowed to catch sturgeon. The only time when the fish is openly handled (not being allowed to catch it doesn’t mean nobody does) is during the village celebrations. The hram, as it is locally called, celebrates the village and its saint and cannot really happen without the traditional sturgeon soup, called storceag. This is cooked by the women in huge vats, and served to the whole village and whoever happens to be visiting. Every year a sturgeon materializes for the event. It is said it comes from Bulgaria, where the fish is still legal. Nobody asks for further details.

The old cherhana (fish processing plant)

The importance of the sturgeon for the fishing community of Sfântu Gheorghe was replaced by the Pontic shad (or Black Sea shad, Alosa immaculata), which migrates annually upriver (in the spring) and is caught during this migration. Its fishing is forbidden during certain periods of the migration in order to let enough stock through. The rest of the time, it is caught 24/7, with boats queuing on the river and fishermen calling each other at all times of day and night to take their place in line. Every year, the fishermen complain that there is less shad. If asked, most would like to catch quantities that are obviously unsustainable, and seem to think that fishing itself cannot be the main culprit in the decline of the population. From their perspective, fishermen are driven into narrower and narrower confines, whereas they would like to fish according to what they think is best. Scarcity is imposed by bureaucracy and conservationists, and wouldn’t really be an issue if everyone was simply allowed to fish their share.

Pontic shad, post-mortem

I am not writing this in order to dispute the view sketched above. In fact, we have no clear idea as to what is happening with fish stocks in the Danube Delta. There are many theories, but all of them speculative, because there is no proper long-term study on a multitude of species to determine with precision what the facts are. This is also true of the view that, left to their own devices, locals would somehow know better than to kill everything off. It is just speculation. What I want to point out instead is that the Danube Delta, the enchanting, marvelous natural space that conservationists want to preserve, is a bureaucratic minefield for its inhabitants, with no little historical baggage. When fishermen go out on the water, they do not smell the same smell or see the same sights. The place of conservation is, for them, not only a place of living, but one where they feel threatened. In other words, the nature that conservationists find obviously beautiful is one that the fishermen often find conflictual and adversarial.

There is another way in which nature for fishermen is much more problematic than for conservationists. There is no big secret here: fishing commercially is really hard work. Fishermen endure ridiculous weather, pull huge weights out of the water at all ours of the day and night, have to contend with broken tools and engines, persistent smells, and a feeling of being unwanted in their own home (the bureaucratic effect again). Stefan’s father was a fisherman, but Stefan never wanted to do that: it is a terrible job, he says. He’d much rather take care of cattle and tend to his garden. Waking up at 5am to take care of animals is nothing compared to what fishermen go through. Even for those that choose it as their profession, the rigors of the job are punishing and cannot but get mixed into their appraisal of the natural world. In fact, most fishermen in the Delta seem completely uninterested in other kinds of wildlife but the fish that they can catch, sell, or eat. Their relationship to the wider natural world is one lived through fishing, namely through a rough and increasingly stigmatized profession. You can imagine how well it goes to wax lyrical to a seasoned fisherman abut the beauty of pelicans.

So much for nature being obviously beautiful and worthy of respect. So-called pro-environmental behavior is rare among the inhabitants of the Delta. Nature loving tourists look in horror as locals flick their cigarettes into the river. And, though rarer now, some still do untold damage by ‘fishing’ with electrified wires, debilitating entire parts of the river for the purpose of an easy catch. We can talk about these problems separately and come up with appropriate-seeming solutions: an education campaign about what electricity does to fish, or about the dangers of cigarette buts. But the bigger point and, to my mind, the crucial and difficult one, is that when conservationists start thinking about how to protect an area, they should first start from the facts and not from the assumption of beautiful nature. Blaise Pascal argued that the way to change someone’s mind is to start from their point of view, and show them that, thought they are right from their perspective, they are wrong from a different one. Conservation too often starts by assuming the truth of its own position. Instead, it should start by trying to understand how the Delta, to run with the example, can be simultaneously where you grow up, eat, sleep, love, feel alienated, marginalized, and throw your cigarette buts. The river for the fishermen is this melange, and not just some beautiful space. It is easy to point the finger and accuse them of missing something. And surely, they are missing lots. But it is harder, wiser, and truer to the facts, to point the finger inward and first wonder about what we are missing.

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