Review: ‘Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea’

by Connie Scott

“Fish simply appear in supermarkets” (p.209), writes Penny McCall Howard. Most consumers have little or no awareness of where their fish comes from, or of the complex relationship between capitalism, labour, and the environment required to bring it to market. Howard’s book, Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea: ‘Working the Ground’ in Scotland, takes a dive into the life of fishermen, and the adaptations they have had to make as a result of capitalism. Exploring the precarity surrounding maritime labour and the way capitalism shapes fishermen’s lives, Howard’s book ultimately shows that no, fish do not simply appear in supermarkets.

‘Environment, labour and capitalism at sea‘ – Book Cover

Howard skillfully transports readers into the world of the fishing industry in the West Highlands of Scotland, where beautiful weather is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of going out to sea. Being a fisherman is dangerous: fishing-related deaths are more common than any other job-related death in Britain (p.199). Taking a Marxist approach, Howard argues that this danger is not due to natural causes but is instead because of the challenges fishermen face as a result of capitalism’s growing market.

With fishing industries being exploited into extinction, Howard suggests that fishermen are also often alienated from their catch because capitalism forces them to view their produce as a commodity rather than nature. At the same time, public awareness of the environmental costs of over-fishing has put fishermen in “a state of siege”, feeling as though “everyone is out to get [them]” (p.191). Howard argues that although the fishermen may destroy marine life, they do this not by carelessness or choice; the growing greed of the market ensures that fishermen exploit the ‘grounds’ they work in order to survive. Their despot, capitalism, is the main culprit behind the destruction of ocean life.

Although Howard’s ethnography is brimming with theory, her use of participant observation and interviews over multiple years provides an emic perspective on fishing in the Scottish Highlands. These accounts present readers with a beautifully raw, intimate narrative of labour at sea. Howard, an already competent sailor, states that prawn fishing was a new experience for her, and she invites the reader to follow the mistakes and perspectives of a new trawler. Her need to learn prawn fishing, understand the ‘ground’ she was working on, and the technology used for fishing shows the dangerous complexity of labour at sea, because those without sufficient experience have to worry about survival.

Howard shows how capitalism creates unsafe work environments due to the lack of regulations to support workers. It further shows how precarious the market is, where prawns hold the existence of fishermen’s livelihood, wealth and jobs. This point is beautifully summed up with the use of Nadel-Klein’s quote: “Capitalism can create or dismiss a way of life.” Moreover, Howard shows how capitalism creates dishonesty amongst fishermen as prawn monoculture has turned into a cutthroat industry, with competition between each trawler, which is a stark difference to the lives of fishermen in the 1970s.

This book is Marxist anthropology at its finest. It carefully demonstrates how capitalism fluctuates the lives of those caught in its grip. The fishing industry is often romanticised as independent to capitalism, yet Howard shows how neoliberalism mars and controls the lives of Scottish fishermen. Seen through a Marxist lens, fishermen have little agency due to market pressures and debt. Because of these pressures, fishermen are forced to work longer hours, in sometimes unsafe conditions in order to make enough to survive. This is how capitalism makes the sea a dangerous place: these workers know how to ‘work the ground’, but capitalism ensures that they cut corners on maintenance and safety, creating precarious and harmful work environments.

Photo by Hung Tran from Pexels

Howard stakes a position that purposefully counters an ecological perspective that blames fishermen for the destruction of marine life. If the public sees the effects of fishing on biodiversity, fishermen are also seeing this. With yield depleting over the years, fishermen must constantly adapt to different environments and produce. For example, where once fishermen caught herring, they now catch prawns. Howard argues that fishing does not have to create problems to biodiversity; the destruction of marine life is a result of capitalism’s drive for profit and its need to commodify nature and labour. Consequently, these fishermen are so alienated from their catch that they cease to eat fish themselves (p.80). Howard does well to sensitively unpack this topic on biodiversity and shows how the fight to prevent the destruction of marine life requires challenging the system that exploits nature, not simply a change to one’s eating habits.

My only critique of Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea is not about what Howard included but rather what she left out. I wanted her to delve further into topics on the consumer and other fishing industries, including fish farming or line-caught fish, because these are prevalent topics in recent debates on biodiversity. Furthermore, Howard implies these fishermen treasure their gear, however fails to include that 63.5% of plastic washed up on British and Scottish coastlines is fishing-related. I agree with Howard that capitalism is to blame for the destruction of sea life because it forces humanity to alienate from nature, however, her argument implies that fishermen have little agency when it comes to polluting the sea. In reality, trawlers do have some agency within their line of work, such as fishing practices and littering. Using their agency to not litter would result in a vast improvement to the sea’s environment.

Howard’s work is a phenomenal, important contribution to the anthropology of labour. It is an enjoyable and accessible book that skillfully captures the life of fishermen in Scotland and puts labour at the core of discussions on conservation. Her Marxist approach is vital to the understanding of capitalism and labour in an economy shaped so much by those who work with/around nature.

Connie Scott is a final BA Anthropology student at Sussex. She enjoys writing about the environment and sustainability.

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