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How we fish what we fish and know what we know

By Lucas Kuijl

On an icy Monday morning, I found myself on the first ferry to the island of Terschelling. I was researching fisheries in the Netherlands and their lived experience of the sea. I was going to Terschelling to meet Liesbeth, a fisherwoman who fishes with her husband on shrimps in the North Sea. The weather was cold and bitter on the boat, and all I could think about was that I had to go on one of those tiny fishing boats onto the vast sea. The ship swayed and rain violently hit the windows. And this was only the Wadden Sea, a small intertidal sea, protected by the belt of islands around it. Somehow the weather cleared up when I found myself in the harbor. A large red-haired woman approached with utmost confidence in the café I was waiting in. She joked to all the men in the café that she was there to meet a date. They laughed. The men in the café were all ex-fishermen or somehow related to the sea, their earrings (thick and golden), hats (reading: “Fish or Die”), and later Liesbeth, gave away.

Liesbeth took me through the whole process of fishing. The decisions a fisherman makes to go or not to go fishing, the investment, both financial and emotional, and the strain it can put on a family. One thing that stood out to me was her approach to the uncertainty of the job.

Fishing means never knowing what you are going to catch, thats why its called fishing, not catching.”

The wonderful thing about the ocean is that we don’t know what is there. Fishermen speak from experience, scientists speak from samples, but the truth is that we still know surprisingly little about the ocean. Eventually, every fishing trip is another gamble fishermen take on the open sea. 

Fast forward to a few months later in my research. I have scratched the surface of what there was to know and was ready to go deeper, but I didn’t quite reach below the surface. I gathered as much data as I could so that I could write something true, something interesting. I was looking for that strange find, that one bit of knowledge that connected it all, and somehow no one has found it yet. This bit of information I needed to figure it all out, everything. No one else would have to ask these questions anymore because I already figured it all out! Hurray!

I couldn’t find it, of course. I was left with rusty half-interviews, interlocutors who didn’t reply to my emails, organizations that sent me from pillar to post, and just the general awkwardness of participant observation. I was frustrated and confused and, like probably most of us at one point or another, I had the terrifying thought of quitting my research and anthropology altogether and opening a bakery. “It’s called research for a reason, if we already knew, we wouldn’t have to find out.” my supervisor kindly reminded me.

That was when I remembered the adage of Liesbeth and many other fishermen. “It’s called fishing, not catching.” She was right. As researchers, we don’t know who and what we find. We might catch a handful of interviews over weeks and we might run into our key interlocutor or gatekeeper two weeks before we go home. We want to tell the whole story, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But, much like the fish in the sea, you can’t catch it all, and yet every week we go out there again. We have to decide whether to go or not.

Fishing is not an easy feat. With all the bad weather, prices changing quickly, declining fish stocks, government regulation, and perhaps most significantly, the unknown. What baffled me was that fishermen still went out there every week. With all this adversity, something really powerful drives one to keep fishing. “If only I’d gotten seasick the first time I went.” One fisherman says to me jokingly. “If only I opened that bakery”,  I sometimes thought. But fishing, like research, is not about knowing or certainty, it is about curiosity and the unknown. You let it catch your eye, reel you in, and before you know it, you’re hooked. Fishermen need to be curious about their catch and process, that way they ensure that they can keep doing better. “If that curiosity disappears, there is no point in fishing.” Another shrimp fisherman told me. In a sense, I was in the same boat as some fishermen, even though our lives were wildly different. Curiosity is the reason we try again and again to catch another glimpse, experience, and sample from the ocean of knowledge out there.

Lucas Kuijl studies social and cultural anthropology.

One Comment

  1. Marina de Regt Marina de Regt

    What a beautiful blog, Lucas!!!

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