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.

3. Findings

3.1. Literature review findings

3.1.1. Papers selected for the final review

Initially, 48 papers were selected for the literature review. These papers were reviewed with regards to whether they discussed fishers’ choices and drivers of choices. Other information, such as location and gear types, was also noted. As a result of this screening process, some papers were rejected if they were found to be irrelevant to the focus of the project (e.g. they contained no information on fishers’ decision making or drivers of choice). Annex 2 provides a list of these 48 papers. Following the initial review, 19 papers were selected for a more in-depth study, these papers are listed in Annex 7.

All the papers included into the final analysis were geographically located in Europe. Ten papers focused on drivers of fishers’ behaviour in the UK (seven in England, one in Scotland, one in the English Channel, one looking at the UK as a whole). Six papers did research in Northern Europe (four in Denmark, one in the Netherlands, one in the North Sea, one in the Baltic Sea). Four papers focused on the Mediterranean (one in Greece, one in Italy, one in Croatia, one looking at the Western Mediterranean). One paper looked at Ireland. Despite the inclusion of the search term ‘North Atlantic’, no papers from North America were identified and, therefore, this geographical area was not included in the review.

The selected papers covered a wide range of gear types and vessel sizes. Ten papers looked at different trawl fisheries (largely over 12 metres in vessel length), six focused on ‘all gear types’, five on passive gears (mainly under 12 metres in vessel length), and only one looked at scallop dredging.

3.1.2. Fishers’ choices mentioned in the literature

The choices made by fishers were grouped and documented into the data framework. In total, eight broad categories were identified and the frequency of each documented choice was recorded (as shown in Table 1). These choices span both short-term (daily or weekly) and long-term (seasonal or annual) decision making processes.

Table 1: Fishers’ choices mentioned in the literature.
Documented choice Choice frequency within the literature
Where to fish 12
Whether to remain in the industry 11
What fishing gear to use 8
Which species to target 6
Whether to go fishing (day by day) 3
Whether to collect data while fishing 1
Where to sell 1
How to fish 1
Total 43

The four most commonly cited choices (i.e. where to fish, whether to remain in the industry, what fishing gear to use, which species to target) occurred in the literature over five times more frequently (n = 37) than the other four choices made by fishers combined (n = 6). The two most commonly cited (where to fish and whether to remain in the industry) accounted for over half of all fishers’ choices, as reported in the literature.

3.1.3. Key drivers of fishers’ choices

As part of the literature review, the key drivers for the choices expressed within the literature were noted to gain a better understanding of how and why fishers made these decisions. Drivers were split into four broad categories: social, economic, governance and environmental. Together, these four drivers of choice provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the complex factors that influence decision making processes.

Social: specific drivers included knowledge, ability, skills which can affect the choice in fishing grounds and fishing practices used by fishers. In addition, community, social networks, heritage and identity can influence fishing behaviour. For example, many fishers come from families with a long history in the industry. The traditional and cultural ties to fishing can influence the behaviours of fishers and their fishing patterns, as well as their willingness to adopt new practices or technologies.

Economic: specific drivers included costs/benefits, profit, and value.

Governance: specific drivers included regulation, legislation, and industry power dynamics.

Environmental: specific drivers included weather, seasonality, climate change, environment, and sustainability.

Because of the complexity of decision making, most choices were influenced by more than one driver. The most common drivers identified in this review were social, suggesting that the motivation behind fishers’ decision making extends beyond a drive for profit or compliance with regulations. Social drivers accounted for 33 of the 81 noted drivers and were followed by economic (n = 19), governance (n = 19) and environmental (n = 11) drivers, respectively.

It is also important to note that each driver category encompasses a range of more nuanced sub-drivers. Table 2 provides a summary of the key drivers and sub-drivers identified in this review, and the frequency with which they were reported in the literature.

Table 2: Summary of drivers and sub-driver
Key driver Total frequency Sub-driver Frequency
Social 33 Ability 4
Community 7
Heritage 5
Identity 5
Knowledge 7
Morale 2
Skills 3
Economic 19 Costs/Benefits 12
Economic 1
Profit 3
Skills 1
Value 2
Governance 19 Legislation 3
Power 3
Regulation 13
Environmental 11 Climate Change 1
Environment 1
Seasonality 4
Sustainable 1
Weather 4

With regards to sub-drivers, ‘knowledge’ was noted as one of the most significant factor influencing fishers’ behaviour (n = 7), it was the most common single sub-driver for deciding where to fish (n = 5). ‘Community’, ‘heritage’ and ‘identity’ were also recognised as important factors due to the cultural ties and traditions of the industry, as well as the ‘social network’ fishing creates (n = 16). These factors had influenced many fishers’ choice of ‘whether to stay in the industry or not’ (n = 7).

In addition, ‘ability’ and ‘skills’ were documented frequently in the literature, largely influencing decisions on ‘what gear to use’ (n= 3) but also on ‘whether to stay in the industry or not’ (n= 3). This related to fishers’ confidence in their ability and skill, but also concerns that their skills were not easily transferable to occupations and contexts outside of the fishing industry (Ross, 2013). ‘Morale’ was identified as the least important factor and was the only motivation for ‘whether to collect data while fishing’ (n =1) as well as influencing ‘what gear to use’.

Economic sub-drivers appeared to be more homogonous, the most frequent sub-driver within this category being a calculation of ‘costs/benefits’. This was found to be an influence in 12 individual fishers’ decisions across six choices listed in Table 1, including the three most documented choices: where to fish (n = 4); whether to remain in the industry (n = 2); what fishing gear to use (n = 4).

Under governance sub-drivers, the most significant sub-driver was regulation (n= 13) which primarily influenced decision making on ‘where to fish’ (n= 4) and ‘what gear to use’ (n= 4) to reduce unwanted catches and comply with discard regulations.

Finally, environmental drivers, particularly weather (n= 4) and seasonality (n= 4) were associated with a wide range of decisions due to the cumulative effects these factors can have on safety at sea, seasonal abundance and location of different fish species.

3.1.4. Discussion of literature review findings

A discussion of which drivers influenced the top five fishers’ choices (see Table 1 for fishers’ choices) is provided below. The findings also consider whether the drivers differ between fleet segments.

1. Where to fish

Deciding ‘where to fish’ was the most commonly cited decision made by fishers found within the literature review. Out of the 12 research papers that mentioned choices regarding ‘where to fish’, social drivers were attributed to 10 of these decisions. Some research papers noted that a combination of choices (e.g. social and economic) influenced fishers’ decisions. With regards to ‘where to fish’, four research papers out of 12 mentioned above talked about purely social choices. The rest of these research papers talked about both social and other drivers influencing choice. The social sub-drivers were primarily related to fishers’ ‘knowledge’ of the marine environment, as well as ‘community’ and ‘ability’.

For example, prior knowledge of fishing grounds, as well as spatial and temporal distribution of target species, is an important driver of fishers’ location choice (Tidd et al, 2015). Over time, knowledge accumulates through a combination of personal experience, learning from past fishing success and patterns, and social relationships with other fishers in the community who share and exchange information about their catch and locations. While the information gained through these relationships can be beneficial, Turner et al (2014) reported that the advantages gained through social networks are not always equally distributed, with fishers commonly choosing who they wanted to share their information with based on the perceived skill and success of a fisher. Turner et al (2014) found that fishers were most likely to disclose information to fishers they perceived as successful while successful fishers were less likely to share valuable information with less experienced or unsuccessful fishers. Therefore, fishers who are characterised by a higher level of fishing success are more central in information-sharing networks and are likely to have greater access to a wide range of information sources, perpetuating their fishing success. Together, personal experience and information sharing can increase fishing efficiency and contribute to more fishing success by utilising tactical choices to decide when and where to fish (Turner et al, 2014; Calderwood et al, 2021). This can also help fishers avoid unwanted catches and optimise quota use (Calderwood et al, 2021).

Economic drivers were attributed to fishers’ choices in five research papers. Fuel costs and fluctuating market prices were key economic considerations to decide ‘where to fish’ in order to maximise profitability of the fishing activity (Andersen et al, 2012; Bastardie et al, 2013; Eliasen et al, 2013; Maltby et al, 2021). Increasing fuel costs can have a substantial impact on operating costs and therefore deciding ‘where to fish’ is often based on distance to the fishing grounds, trip length, vessel speed and whether to prioritise high fish density areas to increase the catch rate (Andersen et al, 2012; Bastardie et al, 2013; Maltby et al, 2021). In addition, fluctuating market conditions were reported to be the main driver when deciding whether or not to pursue fishing activity (based on the existence or absence of a market), and whether the market price would support the economic activity of fishing (Eliasen et al, 2013).

‘Legislation’ and ‘regulations’ were key governance sub-drivers in fishers’ location choice due to quota restrictions, conservation measures (such as spatial closures), and increased interactions with other marine sectors (Tidd et al, 2014). The cumulative effect of these factors sometimes led to reduced or restricted access to historic fishing grounds. Research conducted by Maltby et al (2021) reported this has led to some fishers feeling uncertain about future domestic fisheries management and policy. This uncertainty stems from the need to navigate evolving restrictions and potential shifts in competition dynamics with other marine sectors. This results in fishers having to constantly adapt their practices to align with new regulations and overcome the potential risks of finding alternative fishing grounds or targeting different species.

Finally, environmental sub-drivers, such as ‘weather’, ‘seasonality’ and the ‘environment’, were also important factors in decisions on ‘where to fish’ due to their influence on working conditions at sea. Many smaller vessels operated closer to shore. Fish abundance and fish distribution (due to migration and habitat preference) influenced fishers’ ‘seasonal’ decisions (Andersen et al, 2012; Calderwood et al, 2021).

2. Whether to remain in the industry

When deciding ‘whether to remain in the industry’, social drivers were the most significant (n = 10). Within this category, the combination of ‘heritage’, ‘community’ and a sense of ‘identity’ influenced the majority of choices. Overall, ‘heritage’ was the most cited social sub-driver for decisions to remain in the fishing industry. This could be attributed to deep cultural and generational ties to fishing traditions which are commonplace in rural coastal communities where there is a long-standing history of fishing (Arias-Schreiber et al, 2018; Matić-Skoko and Stagličić, 2020).

In addition, ‘identity’ was highlighted as an important factor due to fishers’ desire for autonomy and freedom, their attitude towards risk and passion and pride in one’s fishing occupation, forming a positive source of self-identity (Ross, 2013; Christy et al, 2021). Collectively, this strong sense of identity facilitates kinship within a community, particularly in small-scale fisheries, but also on a wider scale within the industry due to a shared understanding and connection to fishing (Ross, 2013). This may be an underlying reason why fishers remain in the industry due to the values of fishing which cannot be replaced by financial value (Ross, 2013).

Other drivers influencing ‘whether to remain in the industry’ were related to economic (n = 3) and governance (n = 2) drivers. It is interesting to note that within the analysed literature, only one fisher had decided to leave the industry which happened to be the only case where economic factors were the sole driver for the decision due to the fisher’s perception of their ongoing ability to make money (Christy et al, 2021). In most cases, it is not stated in the literature whether the fishers remained in the industry, except in three cases where ‘community’, ‘ability’ and ‘identity’ were cited as reason for their decision to stay.

3. What fishing gear to use

Factors influencing ‘what fishing gear to use’ were fairly evenly spread across the drivers: social (n = 7), governance (n = 5), economic (n = 4), and environmental (n = 3). For social sub-drivers the most influential were the fishers’ ‘skills’ and ‘ability’ based on their personal experience of past fishing success, as well as information from other fishers in terms of catch rates (Andersen et al, 2012). Using their in-depth knowledge, fishers are able to adapt their gear and fishing practices to different seasons and fishing grounds to optimise landings of target species (Steins et al, 2022).

Governance sub-drivers included changes in regulations that encouraged fishers to seek gears with higher selectivity to reduce unwanted catches and discarding of species subject to TACs (total allowable catches) and size limits (Calderwood et al, 2021). This provided additional incentives for fishers to adjust their gear and change their fishing behaviour in order to comply with regulatory requirements while optimising economic yields from available quota (Calderwood et al, 2021). In terms of the economic drivers, the literature review highlighted that certain gears (e.g. gillnets) can be worked closer to port, reducing fuel use and associated costs (Andersen et al, 2012). In addition, success with certain gears led other fishers to adopt similar practices in search of greater yields (Andersen et al, 2012).

4. Which species to target

Deciding ‘which species to target’ was influenced by all driver categories: social (n = 4), governance (n = 4), economic (n = 4), and environmental (n = 2). However, the most frequent sub-driver was ‘regulation’, where fishers targeted or avoided certain species as a reaction to certain regulations or legislation. For example the Landing Obligation[4], as part of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, put in place a discard ban for all quota fish stocks, unless an exemption is in place. It came into force on the 1st of January 2019. This prompted fishers to avoid certain species (Mortensen et al, 2018), while the way in which quota is allocated has driven fishers to target non-quota species (Prosperi et al, 2019). In addition, Maltby et al (2021) found fishers also had concerns regarding the ‘perceived increases in consolidation of vessel ownership (hence quota) among fewer individuals’. For non-company owned boats, this risked future quota access leading to uncertainty on how this could affect markets and power dynamics within the fishing community (Maltby et al, 2021).

5. Whether to go fishing (day by day)

The primary drivers behind deciding ‘whether to go fishing’ were environmental, mainly ‘weather’ (n = 1) and ‘seasonality’ (n = 1). This also related to economic drivers, as fishers reportedly had to consider the ‘cost/benefits’ (n=1) of fishing based on fuel consumption and efficiency to reach their fishing grounds. Bad weather, especially for smaller inshore vessels can significantly influence fishers’ decision to go to sea (Andersen et al, 2012; Prosperi et al, 2019). Research into short-term choice behaviour in the Danish gillnet fishery reported gillnetters were relatively sensitive to weather conditions due to the small vessel size and reduced manoeuvrability when setting nets in poor conditions (Andersen et al, 2012). It was concluded that weather influenced fishers’ choices on whether to go out fishing based on the negative correlation of recorded wave height and total fishing effort reported by surveyed fishers (Andersen et al, 2012). In addition, bad weather can increase fuel consumption and costs associated with fishing activities, resulting in fishers either not heading out on a particular day or adapting their practices to save fuel. For example, fishers could reduce vessel speed when steaming, reduce trip length by targeting high fish density areas only, and reduce visits to distant fishing grounds (Bastardie at al, 2013).

6. Differences by vessel segment

Within the literature, it was not always possible to determine how choices differed between fleet segments such as vessel size and gear use (Seafish, 2022). However, it appeared that a number of distinctions existed between larger and smaller vessels.

For example, larger vessels were less likely to be influenced by the weather when deciding ‘whether to go fishing’, because these vessels are better equipped to handle a greater variety of weather conditions. Larger vessels had more capability to venture into deeper waters and travel longer distances to target offshore fish stocks. These vessels can also operate for extended periods of time due to greater storage capacity and fuel efficiency. In contrast, smaller vessels tended to remain closer to shore and often return to port in the same day.

In addition to this, larger vessels appeared to have more choice in terms of where to sell their catch, as they had greater resources and economies of scale at their disposal. Moreover, larger vessels receive a greater proportion of allocated quota which governs their decisions on ‘what species to fish’ and ‘what gear to use’ to ensure they do not exceed their quota and comply with discard regulations. In comparison, smaller vessels tended to target more non-quota species and use more selective gear to prioritise high value species to maximise their profits.



Back to top