Photo by Jennifer Wilcox
Six degrees of freedom: learning from the sea
This is a story in six movements, about our loving and dysfunctional relationship with the sea, and what can be said and done about it.
The sea moves us. It does it in just six ways. Naval architects use the following terms to describe the movements of rigid floating vessels: surge, yaw, roll, pitch, heave and sway. One way or another, you could say, we’re all at sea, subject to these forms of movement. What can we learn from the six degrees of freedom, and can they teach us about risk, relationship and revival in the context of social and environmental sea change?
1. SURGE (a sudden powerful forward or upward movement):
This is a boat: Swan LK 243, built in Lerwick, Shetland, by Hay & Co in 1900. A 67 foot herring drifter, a sailing boat designed to join the great fleet of 40,000 vessels at the height of the UK herring fishing boom, when the waters bristled with masts and movement. In 1900, the Swan was one of the fastest boats in the Scottish fleet. She was fleet.
But not for long. Steam drifters soon overpowered her, requiring less manpower, using bigger nets – catching more fish per unit of effort. Power, growth, surge…the movement of the 20th century. The Swan was left behind, languished, sank at her mooring, but was finally restored and returned to Shetland in the 1990s as a community-owned sail-training vessel.
We sailed on her in Orkney and Shetland waters on Cape Farewell’s Sea Change project, a gathering of artists and scientists exploring relationships between people, place and resources on Scotland’s ‘bellwether’ islands –its northern and western outcrops of rock, peat, machair, salt, sand and spray where the full force of Atlantic and North Sea storms and tides make visible and palpable the changes facing us all. The artworks that you’ll see have come out of this project.
This is an Atlantic herring, once chased so ardently by the Swan: Clupea harengus – one of the most abundant fish in the sea. The name probably comes from the Old High German heri, meaning multitude. People have been fishing in Scotland for over 7000 years, but herring began to be caught, salted and exported to continental Europe in large numbers in the middle ages.
In the 19th century the British Government began subsidizing larger herring boats and the international herring trade. The advent of the railways added speed and volume, and ultimately made possible a fleet of around 10,000 vessels in Scotland alone.
Herring were known as ‘silver darlings’. In the first half of the 20th century, mankind fell in love with a fish. And consumed his love, and used his love for fertiliser and fishmeal and lobster bait and oil and roe.
The Scottish herring industry surged into the 20th century and became the largest fishery in the world, but the spread of trawling and purse seine netting, the chasing of shoals in all seasons, and an unregulated fishery, made unsustainably large and consistent catches possible. In the 1950s the East Anglian herring fishery, which had lasted for over 1000 years, was exhausted. By the 1970s the entire European herring industry had consumed itself and had to be completely closed.
From boom to bust. Like the Californian sardine fishery in the ‘50s, the Peruvian anchovy fishery in the ‘70s, Newfoundland cod in the ‘90s, North Sea cod in the last decade, and now Bluefin tuna, orange roughy, haddock, sole, plaice, prawns, Atlantic salmon, whiting, hake, going, going…
Ackroyd & Harvey, Stranded, Cape Farewell, 2006 (crystallised whale skeleton)
Gradually, though, the benignly neglected herring stocks expanded again, unlike the cod, and the industry revived, though now it’s much more tightly controlled by quotas and catch limits in an attempt to restrict the degrees of freedom to what the system, not the fishers, can sustain. The 10,000 vessels have become around 30, 8 of which are supertrawlers. The Scottish herring fishery has recently received MSC certification and is considered to be sustainable. Time, and tide, will tell. Things flow, and they ebb. Herring populations are inherently unstable, responding to multiple impulses we don’t fully understand. Our actions have to ebb and flow with them, season by season, year by year. We have to recognize that sustainability in an ecosystem sense doesn’t mean business as usual in perpetuity. It means business as if the whole ecosystem mattered. We can’t live on a sea of perpetual surge.
2. YAW (to twist or oscillate about a vertical axis):
Atlantic herring are now at the centre of what’s being described as among the first climate change ‘wars’. Warming waters and altered currents have pushed herring stocks north to the Faroe Islands, but EU fishing quotas haven’t moved with them, leaving Faroese fishers with the right to take only a small percentage of the total annual catch. The Faroese have responded by claiming three times that amount, and the EU has banned Faroese herring imports. Who are the pirates here? The Faroese, the Shetland fishermen, or the herring themselves – travelling so brazenly outside their sector to plunder plankton which is itself on the move as waters warm?
Marine resources don’t recognise national boundaries. Nor do they recognise fishing nets. The Swan fished for herring with drift nets – originally made of hemp – which hung like curtains below the water, catching the fish by their gills. In the 1950s synthetic materials and smaller mesh sizes led to unsustainable catches, and the UN introduced a moratorium on drift netting in 1989 and later a ban on nets over 2.5 km long in international waters (some had been over 30 km long). But the nets are still used across the world, and so are those which have long been abandoned, contributing to a large proportion of marine pollution and bycatch. These ghost nets continue to fish everywhere, always. As so often, our industrial products veer off course from our intentions when they get caught up in complex living systems.
And still we fish like there’s no tomorrow, veering from one stock to another as we consume them. For most of the poorly stewarded commercial fish stocks in the world, there may not be a tomorrow. In the Mediterranean, 95% of stocks are overfished to the point of collapse. In their place, simpler, more adaptable species are blooming, fish that thrive in zones of depleted oxygen and nutrients, fish that swarm and overwhelm smaller species, fouling nets, engines, nuclear power station cooling systems, ancient, primitive fish – jellyfish.
The course we’re plotting is a precipitous movement from abundance and diversity to slime, in just a few centuries. Yaw comes from the Old Norse jaga, to drive, to chase; to yaw is also to swing wild, off target. Impose too much, take too much, too fast, too widely, and the system will veer in a new and unlooked for direction.
Towards a future of fog, slop, absence and white noise below the surface.
Another possible origin of the word herring is the Old English har, meaning grey. The haar is a grey fog common in northern waters. The haar takes everything. Horizon, landmarks, time itself. Haar above, har below, just when we need to see more clearly.
Surely the most blindly destructive of inventions is the bottom trawl, in use in English waters from the 14th century, when it was condemned for destroying ‘the flowers of the land below water’. In the late 16th century, bottom trawling became a capital offence in France, and fishermen in England were executed for using metal chains on their beam trawls (standard practice today). The spread of trawling and dredging has caused the greatest human transformation of marine habitats ever seen. How do we value what we’ve already lost?
It takes effort, imagination and foresight to yaw back on course, or rather onto a new course that acknowledges the fullness of our impacts on marine environments. In the meantime, nets can have other lives outside the sea – as carpets, matting, the matrix for dune stabilisation. In the meantime, we could join a growing number of marine conservation groups calling on the UN to secure a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling and speak out for stronger systems of governance to limit and redesign the bottom trawl in national waters.
In the meantime, in South Korea, they’re using robots to shred jellyfish, while the Chinese government is encouraging more people to eat them, and the US government is promoting their use in the cosmetic industry. They’re being looked at as a fertilizer. Adaptation, mitigation, remediation, speculation: they’re all necessary, but they have to go along with a shift in our ways of seeing and being: a reframing of how we use and value resources throughout their life cycles and well beyond our own.
3. ROLL (To move in a particular direction by turning over and over on an axis)
The sea is a mirror – and a powerful lens. It’s ourselves we see in and through it. We began there; we’re 60% water. Our brains are 75% water – no wonder the stuff’s on our minds. We human beings are mineral-rich estuaries with our own tides – our blood still contains the same percentage of salt as the ocean. The sea provides 70% our oxygen and most of our drinking water, and contains perhaps 90% of all the species on earth. We’ve separated ourselves from the sea physically, but not fundamentally. And it’s time we got to know it again, to know the dangers and possibilities of our degrees of freedom.
At sea, a boat becomes an extension of the body. You can’t move independently of a boat. Travelling on boats defeats our tenuous relationship with the vertical.
And that means learning to move again, as if the earth was rolling beneath, to adapt, improvise, respond, adjust, maintain (from the French main tenir – to hold in the hand).
Thought and feeling are forms of movement: we grasp ideas, we are seized by emotions. Meaning begins in the body. How we think and feel and speak of things determines our attention and motivation, what we care about, what we will do to protect what we care about. How we are moved influences how we act.
When a boat rolls, it rights itself, and rolls again. And we roll with it. That’s okay, we can cope with that. The earth’s climate system is like a boat, very like a boat. If it tips a little in one direction, it simply tips back again in the other and stabilizes itself. But tip it too far and that stable state will be upside down. Stable, but catastrophically different. Rolling is the most dangerous of the movements of vessels at sea.
At sea, by the sea, near the sea, where 60% of the world’s population lives, everything is energy, a universe of flow and gyre; what Kathleen Jamie calls ‘the covenant of wind and kittiwake.’ That energy in the waters beyond us is beckoning. In Orkney, there’s a revolution taking place, as scientists, engineers and developers crowd to the coast in search of new forms of energy to extract. There’s so much of it…we could be rolling in it. But the industrialization of renewable energy from wind, wave and tide is laying claim to vast areas of marine space and raising urgent questions in law and ethics about governance of the seas and the future of the ocean commons. The Scottish government hopes to install thousands of turbines in Orkney waters, in particular in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Scottish mainland, a narrow throat of tidal water described in the 16th century as the ‘most daungerouse place in all Christendome.’
The waters are bristling again with masts and movement. And while we were looking away, renewable energy and acquaculture have been transforming our coasts and their ecologies, turning public resources into speculative commodities. We’ve been building the new suburbs of the sea, most of them created on an old industrial and economic model in constant danger of rolling right over. Why? Because its system is rigid and its structures fixed; because it’s largely monocultural and ignores the complexity of its context, because it’s resource intensive, and it’s growing too fast. In 30 years acquaculture has gone from supplying 4% of the world’s seafood to 30%, but it hasn’t stemmed the decline of wild fish stocks.
Fish for the Table, by Tam Treanor
95% of the salmon farmed in Scotland comes from a single Norwegian-owned multinational, and it was in Norway in 1984 that infectious salmon anemia first appeared and spread, inevitably, to wild populations, and now – along with sea lice, which proliferates in crowded pens – threatens the viability of farmed and wild salmon stocks. Industrial aquaculture, its surge of investment, its concentration of resources and its stifling efficiency has brought the marine epidemic into being. The sea may be mistreated but it will not be denied; all things will flow.
4. PITCH (to fall headlong)
Marine life is reacting to climate change much more quickly than terrestrial life. Through the combination of stresses caused by rising temperatures, melting sea ice and glaciers, acidification, pollution, overfishing, shipping and energy extraction, species are being pitched into unprecedented decline.
Pitch: to throw roughly, as in to pitch our ‘waste’ into the sea. Pitch: complete blackness. Still waters running deep.
European fish stocks are now less than 1/10 of their size in 1900, the year the Swan was built. In January 2013, this critically endangered Bluefin tuna sold at auction in Japan for $1.76m, and that day became sashimi. It’s been claimed that the automotive giant Mitsubishi, which controls 40% of the world market in bluefin tuna, is deep freezing and stockpiling the fish, speculating on exponential future price rises as tuna populations dwindle to zero. A global good to a frozen good. This is the tragedy of the commons, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time to pitch in.
5. Heave (ho) (to lift with great effort, raise up, exalt, to hold).
Sailing on an old boat is a training in the vital processes of maintenance, cooperation, memory, gratitude, and adaptation. We all move together: fish, water, wind, boat: movement, meaning and context. All of us can become ‘more deeply part of the mutable world’ as Rebecca Solnit puts it, by embracing labour, biology, mortality, change, process, by heaving together.
Why bother? Because the oceans cover 72% of earth. Arthur C Clarke argued that our planet should be called Ocean. There are marine fossils on Mt Everest. The sea connects all things in its great cycles. 2/3 of its fishery stocks are overexploited or depleted. One third of its critical environments – seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs – have been destroyed. 15% of the land is protected; but only 1% of the oceans. That is changing – it will change, but it cant be taken for granted. It will take real effort, real participation and education; all of us; the hauling together of stakeholders and stewards uncomfortable in dialogue, untrusting in debate. Because in the end, we do all want the same thing – oceans that provide food, water and air – that continue to provide those things, along with the unquantifiable but undeniable role that healthy seas and a healthy relationship with them play in cultural survival, wellbeing, social cohesion, human health.
6. SWAY (to move slowly back and forth; to influence)
‘Fair Isle: westerly 6 or 7, occasionally gale 8 in south. Rough or very rough. Rain at times. Poor, occasionally very poor.’
The sailor lives between weather and chart, between landfall and wuthering, always adapting. Sailors dwell in context, with relativity, and develop the skill of improvisation in part by never relying on a single, predictable outcome. In this way they mimic biology itself, which provides multiple solutions for every problem, an abundance of possibility even when resources are limited. Sailors know the value of resources and the capacities of materials, including their own bodies.
John Cumming, sketch
Iain Hamilton Finlay spoke of the Shipping Forecast as a high mass for fishermen.
Our relationship with the sea has always had a spiritual or religious underpinning, a mix of fear and wonder at what’s still largely unknown to us, unrevealed. The sea shows its back to us, but it’s not ‘away’, not an alien inhospitable environment, but the original host of life on earth, an extension of our own bodies and communities into something rich and strange.
The ocean is earth’s greatest commons, and 90% of its volume lies outside national jurisdictions. The ocean’s future is our future. It will be what we make of it. The ways in which coastal dwellers perceive and conceive of the sea, the ways they think and feel about it and their corresponding behaviour towards it, are as much a part of the marine ecology of a place as its fish, seabirds, tides and water temperature. We have the knowledge, principles and organisations in place to address the deterioration of the ocean commons. We all have a role to play – in active learning and engagement, in influencing change in our own communities – in swaying one another – supporting a more sustainable seafood industry through our own behaviour as consumers, shaping better forms of communication and participation around issues of marine governance and resource extraction.
These are not remote concerns – these are the decisions and actions that put fish on our tables and heat in our houses; that determine our contribution to foreign aid and industrial subsidy. Most of us are only small fish, but so are herring. And there are multitudes of us too.
The sea teaches us about transformation – sea change – that our own lives are mutable and our futures unpredictable. But that we too have an immense capacity for reorientation – for sway – for learning, teaching, for reconnection; for active engagement or careful forbearance depending on context, for citizen science, for sensitive progression, for give as well as take.
We live on a small blue marble – ‘the most beautiful marble you could imagine’ according to astronaut James Irwin, looking down on planet earth for the first time. ‘You are not a drop in the ocean’ wrote Rumi, ‘you are the entire ocean in a drop.’
Anne Bevan, Foram 9, Things Unseen
Ruth Little, 2013