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.

5. Discussion

Understanding what drives and influences decision making of fishers operating in Scottish waters is key for designing effective policies to enhance sustainable and responsible fishing practices. Overall, this research project found several key themes and started to build an evidence base of how different drivers interact and influence each other in fishers’ behaviour. Synergies between the literature review and the findings of the interviews are discussed below.

5.1. Social drivers

Fishing has a long history and rich cultural heritage in Scotland. Several themes associated with social and socio-economic drivers prominently features in this research. Within the literature review, the main factors influencing fishers’ choices related to knowledge, community, heritage, identity; building upon the social network fishing creates within the community.

Within the interviews, the main social themes included difficulty of recruiting crew and mental wellbeing of fishers due to the cumulative impact of multiple pressures on the industry. Interestingly, the issue of recruiting and retaining crew did not emerge as strongly in the literature, although the importance of knowledge and experience was a key theme.

In the literature review, social drivers such as identity, community and heritage were highlighted as reasons for staying in the industry, whereas during the interviews fishers often spoke of social drivers of poor mental health and wellbeing as potential reasons for leaving the industry.

The link between knowledge and crew

Knowledge accumulates from personal experience and information sharing through social relationships with other fishers. Knowledge also contributes to improving fishing ability and skill and over time, as these will be passed down to the next generation of entrants to the industry. However, within the pilot study, fishers frequently highlighted issues with crew recruitment and retention due to the lack of people willing to enter the industry. Difficulty recruiting and retaining crew was attributed to relatively low wages, often harsh working conditions, training and certificate requirements, and seasonal work schedule.

Respondents said that it was hard to find local people, especially young people, to do the work and described the situation regarding crew as being ‘in crisis’ on the west coast. This has resulted in a high reliance on migrant workers travelling from overseas to work which can solve the issue in the short term, but as these workers return home on a seasonal basis, the pressure to find crew persists in the long-term. Crew related issues were frequently mentioned when planning for the next season/three months ahead. These issues were also raised when planning for the longer-term future as competition from other industries such as aquaculture farms offered more stable and better paid jobs. In the literature, there were concerns reported that, over time, the inability to retain crew will result in a declining workforce which will have an adverse socio-economic effect on the industry and the coastal communities which depend on it (Maltby et al, 2021). This is supported by one fisher’s concern regarding the survival of coastal communities without fishing families. Overall, this represents a significant concern about the sustainability of fishing communities and the preservation of valuable local knowledge about the marine environment developed through generations of fishing.

Whether to leave or stay in the industry

From the pilot study it was clear that several factors, including the cumulation of new policies, stricter regulations, crew issues, ‘spatial squeeze’ on fishing grounds, lack of quota, negative publicity, and targeting from environmental NGOs has led to an industry-wide mental fatigue due to the stress and pressure exerted on the fishing industry. Mental health was regularly raised as an issue and attributed to pressures facing the industry as well as uncertainty about the business in the current economic climate. Poor mental health reported by fishers was exacerbated by the nature of the job that often demanded unsociable and long hours, and a lot of time spent away from families and support networks. Yet due to the investment capital of fishing equipment and external factors influencing when you can fish (i.e. weather and quota availability), fishers must make sacrifices to go out fishing at any time in order to maintain the profitability of their business. This can often put a strain and added stress on fishers, resulting in many fishers leaving the industry.

In contrast, the findings from the literature review found that social factors (heritage, community and identity) to be the most significant drivers for fishers deciding to remain in the industry. This was largely attributed to the cultural heritage and value of fishing, particularly for small-scale fisheries where the transfer of knowledge and strong sense of identity, community, and stewardship is passed down through the generations, forming tight-knit social networks within the industry (Ross, 2013; Arias-Schreiber et al, 2018; Christy et al, 2021). These socio-cultural values associated with fishing played a crucial role in retaining fishers in the industry as they are motivated by both extrinsic factors, primarily financial incentives, and intrinsic factors, such as emotional fulfilment, that stem from their connection to fishing.

5.2. Economic drivers

Access to quota was the main economic driver mentioned by fishers in the interviews, while other economic factors, such as market demand and fuel price, emerged as important factors in fisher decision making in the literature review.


Quota availability is a major influence on fisher choices as it determines the volume of fish fishers are legally allowed to catch, affecting the species they can target, where they fish, what gear they use and how much revenue they make. Fishers argued that the lack of quota was constraining their fishing efforts and felt that current quotas were not representative of what was happening on the ground. This was said to have a major impact on fisher behaviour, as fishers must be very careful during their fishing operations to only catch fish they have quota for in order to avoid landing non-quota fish. These frustrations were exacerbated by the perception that the government’s promise to increase quota shares after Brexit has not been fulfilled to the extent it was promised.

The importance of access to quota was also observed in the literature review. Maltby et al (2021) reported that fishers were concerned with the increases in the consolidation of vessel ownership and the associated access to quota compared to non-company owned vessels. The surrounding uncertainty regarding the total availability and distribution of quota was also echoed in research conducted by Prosperi et al (2019). According to this paper, fishers in the UK raised concerns regarding the unequal allocation and distribution of quota to larger-scale vessels, with the inshore sector only receiving 4% of the total allocated quota. This has led fishers to change their behaviours and target high value non-quota species to support their businesses.

Fuel costs and market conditions

The literature review identified increasing fuel costs as an important economic driver due to its influence on the operating cost and profitability of fishing. The cost of fuel was identified as a main driver on fisher location choice, i.e. distance to fishing grounds, vessel speed, trip length and visiting high 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 as the main driver in the decisions of 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). Fuel costs did not emerge as a key theme in the interviews, although it was clear that fishers weigh up the costs and benefits of targeting different grounds and species.

5.3. Governance drivers

In the literature review, governance was an important driver primarily influencing where to fish, what gear to use and which species to target. These topics were also raised in the interviews, with respondents describing how the number and combination of rules and regulations, as well as the perceived pace of change in this area, was creating a shifting regulatory landscape that was difficult to navigate. The relationship with government and agencies was also discussed, with respondents wanting better communication and engagement from the government.


In the pilot study, the majority of respondents expressed their concern and frustration regarding the introduction of new policies and stricter regulations. The increase in policies designating new conservation areas and renewable energy developments was considered a major issue due to further restrictions and the perceived ‘spatial squeeze’, something that fishers thought is likely increase gear conflict and reduce future fishing opportunities.

Fishers’ concern regarding the ‘spatial squeeze’ from other marine sectors and increasing spatial restrictions from closed areas was also noted during the literature review (Tidd et al, 2015; Maltby et al, 2021). Here, fishers perceived conservation measures and competition from other commercial maritime activities as a risk to access traditional fishing grounds or opportunities. Maltby et al (2021) reported this has led some fishers to feel uncertain about future domestic fisheries management and policy. In particular, the introduction of new policy and stricter regulations have left many fishers to feel disenfranchised as a result of their perceived exclusion from stakeholder consultations concerning HPMAs, as well as the frequent inspections carried out by the MCA to ensure compliance with stricter regulations.

Relations with government bodies

Participants in the pilot study felt there was a lack of government support and engagement and this has resulted a negative attitude towards government agencies. This has mainly stemmed from the perceived lack of dialogue and consultation by government with industry to discuss new policies and legislation. Many fishers felt that policies were imposed on them without any warning. The nature of the policies and perceived absence of communication and outreach to rural coastal fishing committees has led fishers to believe that government does not understand the importance of fishing and the economic, social and cultural benefits it brings to coastal communities. Respondents were clearly frustrated and felt that the government is not doing enough to champion the industry and protect fisher livelihoods. That said, respondents also mentioned that they had positive relations with civil servants they engage with and expressed enthusiasm for working collaboratively with government to grow the industry and onshore employment which rely on fishing.

5.4. Environmental drivers

Environmental drivers were discussed in the literature review and during the interviews, mostly in relation to weather and seasonal changes, and impact these have on choosing where and whether to fish, and how to do this safely.

Environmental factors such as weather and tides were considered to be the primary driver to dictate fishing activity on a daily and weekly basis. Local weather conditions and tidal events were frequently mentioned as the main considerations for informing daily decisions on where and what to fish. Time of day was also important due to tidal events that can affect accessibility to fishing grounds and sometimes exit and entry to harbour (Andersen et al, 2012; Prosperi et al, 2019). It was clear from the interviews that the underlying rationale for these decisions is based on safety, especially if fishing alone. Safety onboard a vessel is of paramount importance. Due to the nature of fishing (i.e. operating heavy gear in mostly wet and harsh conditions), fishers must plan and adapt their daily fishing operations around local environmental conditions to ensure the safety of the crew, particularly in smaller vessels.

In terms of environmental factors, it was interesting to note a lack of concern of the future impacts of climate change on fishing activity during the interviews. More targeted questions on the environment may elicit more responses on climate change in future. Similarly in the literature, only one paper included in the critical analysis focused on fishers’ perceptions of climate change. It reported that climate is rarely considered as a risk to demersal fishers in the south-west UK when compared to a wider range of environmental, socio-economic and governance risks (Maltby et al, 2021). This was largely due to climate change scepticism and perceived self-efficacy to adapt to future climate impacts (Maltby et al, 2021).

In December 2020, the Scottish Government launched Scotland's Fisheries Management Strategy 2020-2030 (FFM Strategy) which is the first Scottish fisheries policy instrument to include climate change regarding fisheries management. It is recommended that further research into fishers’ perceptions of climate change is required to understand how future policy making will affect fishers’ behaviour and resilience to climate impacts.



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