Fishers - strategies and choices: feasibility study

This social research publication explores what influences the decision making of Scottish fishers. It presents findings from twelve interviews with fishers. The main findings are focused on the social, economic, governance, and environmental drivers in fishers’ decision making.

Executive Summary

This project aimed to gather evidence of what drives and influences the reasoning and decision making of fishers who operate in Scottish waters. Fishing is an important industry both nationally and locally, and improving our understanding of how fishers make decisions is key to creating effective fisheries’ management policies.

The research team conducted a literature review followed by a qualitative research exercise (twelve interviews with fishers) to identify patterns and themes in fishers’ decision making. The literature review focused on what type of choices fishers make, as well as the underlying drivers of these choices. Eight categories of choices were highlighted in the literature:

  • Where to fish;
  • Whether to remain in the industry;
  • What fishing gear to use;
  • Which species to target;
  • Whether to go fishing (day-by-day);
  • Whether to collect data while fishing;
  • Where to sell.

The drivers of choices (underlying reasons that influence decisions) identified in the literature were divided into four categories and broken down into more specific sub-drivers:

  • Social (knowledge, ability, skill, community, social networks, heritage, identity);
  • Economic (costs/benefits, economic, profit, skills, value);
  • Governance (regulation, legislation, industry power dynamics);
  • Environmental (weather, seasonality, climate change, environment, sustainability).

In the literature review, social drivers were the most common drivers and influenced a variety of fishers’ decisions. For example, knowledge of fishing grounds (‘knowledge’ falls into social drivers) played an important role when deciding ‘where to fish’ (Tidd et al, 2015). Knowledge about spatial and temporal distribution of target species accumulates through time and is refined through social interactions with other fishers (Turner et al, 2014; Calderwood et al, 2021). The decisions on ‘where to fish’ were also linked to economic drivers (e.g. considerations of fuel costs), but social drivers had more substantial weight in these decisions. Another example of the prominence of social drivers was revealed in relation to decisions on ‘whether to remain in the industry’. Here, sub-drivers of ‘heritage’, ‘community’, and ‘identity’ showed that deep cultural and generational ties to fishing influence fishers’ decisions to remain in the industry (Arias-Schreiber et al, 2018; Christy et al, 2021; Matić-Skoko and Stagličić, 2020; Ross, 2013). Whereas social drivers dominated fishers’ decision making, the literature also showed that decision making is complex and often more than one driver influenced certain choice. For example, choices regarding ‘what fishing gear to use’ and ‘which species to target’ were based on a range of drivers (social, governance, economic, environmental).

The qualitative second part of the project involved interviews with fishers. Overall, seven main themes that influenced fishers’ decisions were identified during the interviews:

  • Difficulty recruiting and retaining crew;
  • Seasonality and weather conditions;
  • New policies and legislation;
  • Recent and rapid changes in regulations;
  • Access to quota;
  • Level of government support and engagement;
  • Mental burden on fishers.

The dominant theme in the interviews related to crew recruitment and retention. Interestingly, this theme did not emerge strongly in the literature review. Fishers mentioned a number of challenges around crew recruitment including seasonality of work, low wages, certification processes, competition from other industries, and reliance on migrant workers. In the analysis presented in the discussion section of the report, this theme was linked to social drivers and the ‘knowledge’ sub-driver in particular. Knowledge accumulates over time and is passed down to the next generation of entrants to the industry. Difficulties in crew recruitment represent a significant concern in relation to the sustainability of fishing communities and the preservation of valuable local knowledge about the marine environment developed through generations of fishing.

Apart from the crew retention theme, themes discovered through the interviews for the most part corresponded with the literature review findings. For example, linked to the governance drivers, interview participants focused on new policies such as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), and stricter regulations. The HPMA proposal envisioned that at least 10% of Scotland’s seas would be designated as HPMAs by 2026, including restricted fishing and other human activities in selected sites. The HPMA consultation[1] ran from December 2022 – April 2023. Following the consultation period, the Scottish Government confirmed that while it remained committed to the outcome of enhanced marine protection, it would no longer progress the HPMA proposals as consulted on[2].

With regards to the environmental sub-drivers, ‘weather’ and ‘seasonality’ were discussed. And in terms of economic sub-drivers, ‘operating costs’ were a prominent theme in the interviews. These drivers influenced when, where and whether to fish and what gear to use. They also appeared to be important in terms of the wider issues such as mental health, wellbeing, and feelings about the future in the industry. Overall, this study highlighted that often several drivers combine to influence the decision making of fishers and their outlook on the future. It also showed that there is a need for greater collaboration with the industry to support and preserve the sustainability and welfare of fisheries and fishing communities.

With regards to methodological insights, this pilot study showed that interviews offer a suitable method to explore fishers’ decision making. Interviews allowed fishers to talk about in-depth issues (e.g. mental health) and uncovered topics that were not raised in the literature (e.g. crew recruitment). However, future studies need to consider time required to employ these methods, as raising awareness of the project, recruiting participants, conducting and analysing interviews takes a long time. Other methods, such as fieldwork on the ground and attending industry meetings, can supplement future research.



Back to top