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Thursday, 10 March 2011 16:53

Psychosocial Characteristics of the Workforce at Sea

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Two dimensions are of special importance in the psychosocial characteristic of fishwork at sea. One dimension is the issue of scale and technology. Fisheries may be divided into: small-scale, artisanal, coastal or in-shore fisheries; and large-scale, industrial, deep sea, distant water or off-shore fishing. The psychosocial working and living conditions of crew members in small-scale fishing differ tremendously from the conditions faced by crews on large-scale vessels.

The second dimension is gender. Fishing vessels are generally all-male environments. Although exceptions occur in both small-scale and large-scale fishing, one-gender crews are most common worldwide. However, gender plays a role in the character of all crews. The sea/land split which fishers face and have to cope with is to a large extent a gendered division.

Small Fishing Vessels

On board small fishing vessels the crew members are usually related in several ways. A crew may consist of father and son, of brothers or of a mixture of close or more distant kin. Other community members may be in the crew. Depending on availability of male relatives or local customs, women are crewing. Wives may be operating a vessel together with their husbands, or a daughter may be crewing for her father.

A crew is more than a company of workmates. As kinship ties, neighbourhood ties and local community life most often bind them together, the vessel and workforce at sea is socially integrated with family and community life on shore. The ties have a two-way effect. Cooperation in fishing and belonging to a vessel confirms and tightens other social relations as well. When relatives are fishing together, a crew member cannot be replaced by a stranger, even if someone more experienced comes looking for a berth. Fishers have security in their job in such a tight network. On the other hand this also puts restrictions on switching to another vessel out of loyalty to one’s family.

The many-sided social relations mitigate conflicts on board. Small-scale fishers share a narrow physical space and are subjected to unpredictable and sometimes dangerous conditions of nature. Under these demanding circumstances it may be necessary to avoid open conflicts. The authority of the skipper is also constrained by the knitted network of relations.

Generally small-scale vessels will come on shore every day, which gives crew members the opportunity to interact with others on a regular basis, although their working hours may be long. Isolation is rare but may be felt by fishers who operate a vessel alone. Nevertheless radio communication at sea and traditions of comrade vessels operating in the vicinity of each other diminish the isolative effects of working alone in modern small-scale fishing.

Learning processes and safety on board are marked by the ties of kinship and locality. The crew are responsible for and dependent on each other. To work skilfully and responsibly may be of utmost importance in unforeseen situations of bad weather or accidents. The spectrum of skills required in small-scale fishing is very wide. The smaller the crew, the lower the level of specialization—workers must have comprehensive knowledge and be able to do a variety of tasks.

Unawareness or unwillingness in work is severely sanctioned by stigmatization. Every crew member has to do necessary tasks willingly, preferably without being told. Orders are supposed to be unnecessary except for the timing of a series of tasks. Cooperation in mutual respect is thus an important skill. The display of serious interest and responsibility is helped by the socialization in a fishing family or village. The diversity of work furthers the respect for experience in any position on board, and egalitarian values are usual.

Successful coping with the demanding cooperation, timing and skills needed in small-scale fishing under changing conditions of weather and seasons creates a high level of job satisfaction and a locally rewarded and strong work identity. Women who go fishing appreciate the status rise connected to their successful participation in men’s work. However, they also have to cope with the risk of losing ascriptions of femininity. Men who fish with women, on the other hand, are challenged by the risk of losing ascriptions of masculine superiority when women show their ability in fishing.

Large Fishing Vessels

In large-scale fishing, crew members are isolated from family and community while at sea, and many have only short periods on shore between trips. The duration of a fishing trip generally varies between 10 days and 3 months. Social interaction is limited to the mates on board the vessel. This isolation is demanding. Integration into family and community life when on shore may also be difficult and awaken a sense of homelessness. Fishermen highly depend on wives to keep alive their social network.

In an all-male crew the absence of women and lack of intimacy may contribute to rough sexualized conversations, sexualized bragging and a focus on porno movies. Such a ship culture may develop as an unhealthy way of exposing and confirming masculinity. Partly to prevent the development of a harsh, sexist and deprived atmosphere, Norwegian companies have since the 1980s employed up to 20% women in the crew on factory ships. A gender-mixed work environment is said to reduce the psychological stress; women are reported to bring a softer tone and more intimacy into the social relations on board (Munk-Madsen 1990).

The mechanization and specialization of work on board industrialized vessels creates a repetitive working routine. Shift work in two watches is usual as fishing goes on round the clock. Life on board consists of a cycle of working, eating and sleeping. In cases of huge catches, sleeping hours may be cut down. The physical space is restricted, the work monotonous and tiring and social interaction with others than the workmates impossible. As long as the vessel is at sea there is no escape from tensions among crew members. This poses a psychological stress on the crew.

The crews of deep-sea vessels with 20 to 80 workers on board cannot be recruited in a tight network of kinship and neighbourhood ties. Yet some Japanese companies have changed recruitment policies and prefer to staff their vessels with personnel who know each other through community or kin relations and who come from communities with traditions of fishing. This is done to solve problems of violent conflicts and excess drinking (Dyer 1988). Also, in the North Atlantic, companies to some extent prefer to hire fishers from the same community to support the social control and create a friendly environment on board.

The major reward in deep sea fishing is the chance of earning good salaries. For women it is furthermore the chance of a rise in status as they cope with work that is traditionally male and culturally ranked as superior to female work (Husmo and Munk-Madsen 1994).

The international deep-sea fishing fleet exploiting global waters may operate their vessels with crews of mixed nationalities. For instance, this is the case with the Taiwanese fleet, the world’s largest deep-sea fishing fleet. This may also be the case in joint venture fisheries where industrialized nations’ vessels are operating in developing countries’ waters. In cross-national crews, communication on board may suffer from language difficulties. Also the maritime hierarchy on board such vessels may be further stratified by an ethnic dimension. Fish workers of different ethnicity and nationality than the mother country of the vessel, particularly if the vessel is operating in home waters, may be treated far below the level that is otherwise required by officers. This concerns wage conditions and basic provisioning on board as well. Such practices may create racist work environments, increase tensions in crew on board and skew power relations between officers and crew.

Poverty, the hope of good earnings and the globalization of deep-sea fishing has fostered illegal recruitment practices. Crews from the Philippines are reported to be indebted to recruitment agencies and working in foreign waters without contracts and without security in pay or safety measures. Working in a highly mobile deep-sea fleet far from home and without support of any authorities leads to high insecurity, which may exceed the risks faced in stormy weather on the open ocean (Cura 1995; Vacher 1994).

 

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