The Last Fisherman

I found this photo while digging through my Grandpa’s closet this weekend.  He had taken several photos of fishermen at the docks and canneries as part of a project for a photography class in the late 1940’s.  My Grandpa passed away about 10 years ago, so unfortunately I can’t ask him about the photos, but I’m guessing they were taken in Seattle, where he was living at the time.

Seeing these 60+ year old fishing photos made me think about how little the profession has changed in the last several thousand years.  Sure, the technology has improved, but the basic principles are the same- take a boat out to sea and catch fish using lines or nets.

14th Century Illustration

Fishing has always been an essential aspect of survival and subsistence all over the world, not just for those living along coastlines, but for people living along rivers and lakes as well.  Where fresh fish wasn’t available, dried fish could substitute.  The first evidence of fishing dates back to about 40,000 years ago, a time when most humans live a hunter and gatherer lifestyle.

Today, most fishing is commercial as opposed to subsistence, but the industry is as important as it ever was- employing millions and feeding billions. The Fishing and Agriculture Organization estimates that fisheries and aquaculture provide direct and indirect employment to over 500 million people.  Zed and I have many friends that are commercial fishermen, working on relatively small boats with small operations.  Any fisherman who knows what he or she is doing can buy their own boat and make a decent living, working for themselves.

This type of independence is rare in today’s world, and it is becoming rarer every year, as large corporations are buying up fishing operations and quota.  Big businesses condense more quota onto fewer boats, saving themselves money, but reducing the number of fishing jobs available.  This is what happened with the Bering Sea crab fishery.  There are a fraction of the crab boats there used to be and the fishermen are working much harder to catch more quota, but getting paid much less.  A quote from my husband Zed , “A lot of boat owners are jacking up the lease fees to as much as 70 percent, essentially turning crabbers into sharecroppers.”  This is what happens when corporations gain control of the industry, yet they call it “Rationalization.”

It makes me wonder if the commercial fishing industry, which has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years, could be witnessing the last generations of independent fishermen.  Will family fishing operations still exist 50 years from now, or will they go the way of the family farms?


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