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Daring Fishing Revelations
review by David Orton
Michael J. Dwyer’s Sea of Heartbreak: The Extraordinary Account Of A Newfoundland Fishing Voyage, 2001, with a foreword by Farley Mowat. Toronto, Canada, Key Porter Books, paperback, $21.95, ISBN 1-55263-303-9
“My estimate was that for every pound of turbot that we threw in the tank, we dumped 50 pounds of dead, dying and dismembered fish, shellfish and birds back into the sea.” (p. 146)
Sea of Heartbreak by Michael Dwyer is an explosive, powerful, and needed book. It shows, from personal experience on an offshore fishing vessel, that going fishing for turbot with gill nets is to participate in a marine massacre. Dwyer’s personal environmental ethics perhaps might be designated a form of “progressive anthropocentrism.” He is not opposed to killing wildlife for a living, e.g. fishing, or hunting for food. As he puts it: “It is a difficult divide to carry in your soul—that you must kill creatures to eke out a living and yet respect them enough not to kill them for sport or pleasure alone.” (p. 97)
…fishing for turbot with gill nets is to participate in a marine massacre.
Along with seven other crewmen, the author, a Newfoundlander, signed on aboard a 65-foot steel trawler, the Styx, in northern Labrador in the fall of 1998. Although he notes that dragger crews often make more than $80,000 a season, the author made no money, because of poor catches. The enforced culture of the boat was a strange mixture, that included lots of hymn music, no swearing or drinking on board, but the common belief that anything in sight could be shot. Offshore seabirds called “noddies,” such as Atlantic fulmars, were caught and deliberately tortured by smearing them with turbot liver oil and then tossing these birds overboard to be pecked to death by other sea birds. A definition of “garbage” by a crew member: “Garbage is anything that comes in over the side that we don’t ice down in the hold. On this voyage, anything but number one turbot is garbage.” (p. 23)
After reading about “our ship of death” (p. 191), it becomes clear that a civilization with such a profligate attitude towards the non-human inhabitants of the marine world does not deserve to survive. In some sense writing this book could be seen as a form of absolution for the author, for the obvious guilt he felt about being on such a trip. He had to observe the routine discarding of the gill net by-catch; the approximate 50 pounds of discarded sea creatures for every pound of the desired “number one” turbot; the shooting of seagulls, murres, whales, seals, and polar bears (one of the shooting crew members told Dwyer that dead whales make large crabs); the leaving of nets which continued “ghost fishing” (nets which could not be retrieved because of rough seas); and the throwing overboard of garbage and old torn fishing nets.
As Dwyer says, describing crew members shooting murres as the vessel approaches home port: “Greg and Todd fired off the last of their ammo, making whatever came within shot pay with their very lives. I couldn’t wait for this to be over. I couldn’t wait to tell.” (p. 203)
The author now drives a truck for a living, but he has also been a sealer. (He recorded his sealing experiences in an earlier book, Over the Side, Mickey.) Farley Mowat, who has written the foreword to Sea of Heartbreak, says that with this book Michael Dwyer “has done what no other commercial fisherman in Atlantic Canada has dared to do.” (p. 11) It took a lot of courage to write it and name names, because it could lead to the author being run out of Newfoundland. Yet he took this particular fishing trip because of needing a job and being hounded by bill collectors.
…treating nature as a “resource” for human and corporate consumption can desensitize fishers, loggers, or farmers.
This book is a good antidote to myths concerning the romanticization of those who fish for a living, prevalent, in my experience, on the East Coast of Canada among a number of groups: among fisher representatives themselves (e.g. “the track record of fishermen making sacrifices for conservation is solid”); among many mainstream environmentalists who seem afraid to say anything critical about fishermen in case they rock the boat of existing or potential coalitions (for example, against the oil and gas industry, or for marine protected areas); and among the social justice left with their tendency to eulogize inshore fishermen and the unions of fishers and plant workers. But a radical ecocentric consciousness informed by deep ecology has a basic belief that the ecological community forms the ethical community. Left biocentrism, the left tendency within deep ecology, has a concern also for social justice, but in a context which places the well-being of the Earth first. We need honesty, not self-imposed blinders. Social justice for fishers, as for aboriginals, is part of a wider justice, required for all marine and terrestrial life forms. It must be rooted in a profound respect for all life, and nor just human life.
There is plenty of evidence, for those who want to look, that treating nature as a “resource” for human and corporate consumption can desensitize fishers, loggers, or farmers. This book is not an indictment of all fishermen, and gives examples of those who speak out against the “sport” or “pleasure” killing of marine creatures. Yet Dwyer does speak of “the thoughtless cruelty of many of my fellow islanders who lived from the sea.” (p. 97)
Fishers, like loggers, find it hard to rise above self interest. Sea of Heartbreak will help radical environmentalists to speak the truth when building marine coalitions. Although a handful of East Coast fishermen have been at the foreground in the fight to protect deep sea corals, to oppose dragging the sea bottom and other gear-type and corruption issues, the claim that there is a conservation track record by fishers is highly inaccurate.
For those seeking fundamental change, it is essential to see that fishers, like loggers, have come to have a stake in the continuation of industrial capitalist society with its destructive lifestyle. For example, inshore lobster fishermen can sell their lobster licenses for hundreds of thousands of dollars when they choose to retire, illustrating quite graphically how a so-called common fishery has essentially been privatized.
Fishers, including those in the inshore smaller boat fishery, have a real stake in the present industrial model, whatever the anomalies that cause dissatisfaction from time to time. Basic values are accepted, and fisher interventions generally seek to work with, not take down, the system’s political and economic leaders and their version of capitalist democracy.
When fishers finally speak out publicly for the protection of all marine species, including seals, cormorants, dogfish and the diminishing bluefin tuna, and call for extensive no-take marine protected areas, then the assertion of a conservation track record could be seen as accurate.
This book, I believe, as well as describing a voyage of ecological destruction, also can serve to raise theoretical issues for consideration among radical environmentalists. It deserves to be widely read, and is movingly dedicated by Dwyer “to the creatures mentioned within.”
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