Transforming the Fisheries

“Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds, / Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds, / In little parcels, little minds to please, / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease”. These dispirited lines were written by the “anti-enclosure” poet John Clare at the turn of the nineteenth century. “The thorns are gone, the woodlark’s song is hush, / Spring more resembles winter now than spring”, he wrote in another verse, ruing the stark “emptying” that enclosure wrought upon the natural world.

Clare is quoted in the conclusion to Patrick Bresnihan’s elegantly written book, Transforming the Fisheries. As an academic text, filled with social research, it seems far removed from the rural poetry of Clare. But despite their different forms and periods, their subject, and lament, is similar. Both champion the richness that they perceive lies in the “commons”.

Today’s seas and oceans, Bresnihan recognizes, are subject to enclosure of a less visible form: through regulatory regimes imposed by governing bodies that seek to manage fish stocks for economic gains. This phenomenon is associated with “biopower” – a Foucaultian term denoting capitalism’s power over the sphere of “reproduction” (i.e. nature) since the eighteenth century. Bresnihan assesses the efforts of Irish government officials, worried about “the crisis of overfishing” and “scarcity”, who seek to protect and improve the industry. He considers policies designed to “rationalise” fisheries towards economic and environmental goals. The LEADER programme, the Maximum Sustainable Yield, individual transferable quotas and community-based resource management initiatives have all been proposed by policymakers to push fishermen towards greater profitability and sustainable, “locally-managed” fish stocks, in line with the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Transforming the Fisheries is partly ethnographic. Bresnihan spends eighteen months living in the fishing community of Castletownbere, Ireland. He helps out on big, commercial fishing trawlers, as well as smaller, inshore boats. In these places, he realizes that fishermen live within a respectful, complex and unpredictable “collectivity” between humans and non-humans. These environments are described as the “more-than-human commons”, where “resources [are] circulated and shared rather than accumulated, owned or controlled”. As such, the everyday activities of fishermen do “not translate easily into the terms of political economy or liberal frameworks of governance”. Instead, Bresnihan sees their behaviour more as “commoning”, denoting the continuous making and remaking of relationships with society and nature. With this notion he challenges certain neoliberal assumptions about human ways of being in the world.

Times Literary Supplement