Healthcare and diversification in Cornish fishing

Rachel Turner et al., ‘Constraints to healthcare access among commercial fishers’, Social Science and Medicine 216 (2018), 10-19.

Paolo Prosperi et al., ‘Adaptation strategies of small-scale fisheries within changing market and regulatory conditions in the EU’, Marine Policy 100 (2019), 316-323.

The Cornish fishing industry has always attracted considerably more interest than other, numerically far larger, sectors of the Cornish economy. Ideologically fixed as representative of Cornwall, in a way inapplicable to supermarket shelf-fillers and checkout assistants or health-care workers, fishermen have been the focus of attention since the Newlyn School of the 1880s (see article below). Now described by the more gender-neutral term of ‘fishers’, they are once again the subject of a brace of recent academic articles.

The first, by Rachel Turner et al., discusses access to healthcare. Fishers make up a vulnerable group, with a high risk of poor health outcomes, not just musculoskeletal problems, but lack of sleep, fatigue and stress. Based on questionnaires and interviews (though notably geared towards the captains rather than the crews) and discussions with women from fishing families at Newlyn, Mevagissey, Padstow and Looe, the researchers find two main factors that reduce fishers’ access to health care.

The first are supply side, organisational constraints, such as timing of appointments (although these days this would not seem to be confined to fishermen). In reviewing this, a further issue raised by the men, but not expanded on in the article, was the loss of local doctors who had grown up in the area and/or understood the working patterns of fishermen.

The second constraint was found on the demand side in the norms of masculinity – independence, self-reliance, fatalism – that reduce willingness to seek health advice. Pointing to heterogeneity within the fishing community, the authors call for more flexibility on the supply side and a reduction of demand-side barriers. This all seems fairly obvious, while the article over-uses complicated statistical measures that don’t seem warranted by the rather limited data. The possibility of a radical overhaul of an over-centralised and market-oriented healthcare system that could establish more holistic healthcare and better respect local knowledge is left unexamined.

Some of the stress noted by Turner et al. could be caused by the growing challenges inshore fishermen face. The second article by Paolo Prosperi et al. reviews how the inshore fisheries of Cornwall have responded to a squeeze on incomes, increased production costs, volatile fuel prices, recruitment issues and declining fish stocks. Moreover, it compares their response with the coastal fisheries of Tuscany.

Both fisheries are characterised by low capitalisation, labour intensity and little control over marketing. Both face challenges in a context where 96% of EU fishing quotas go to large-scale, ocean-going, hi-tech boats, even though these have been one of the main causes of the fisheries crisis and the degradation of the marine habitat.

Mevagissey harbour

The researchers adopt a post-productivist or, as they prefer to call it, a non-productivist model, where producers diversify their activities to become less dependent on production in order to maintain their traditional patterns.

In Cornwall, in relation to production, they find two key issues. The first is the administration of quotas, seen as inflexible and remote. Lack of access to quotas has forced inshore fishers to seek out new species but can in turn put growing pressure on these. The second issue revolves around developing new markets. This is especially salient in Cornwall as 80% of the fish caught here is exported overseas, the vast majority to the EU. The uncertainties of brexit mean that, to survive, inshore fishermen must do more to access the domestic market and develop the degree of entrepreneurship necessary to bypass intermediaries buying at the traditional harbourside markets.

There is some evidence of direct selling strategies emerging but nothing on the scale of the solidarity purchasing groups the article describes in Tuscany. In addition, in Tuscany there has been a move to environmental protection and pescatourism. This last amounts to more than just taking tourists on boat trips around the headland, but involves education and training. Such moves have probably been made more urgent by the lack of fish stocks locally.

The authors conclude that in order to survive, the inshore fisheries of Cornwall could add value to their product by direct sales to the domestic market and diversify into pescatourism, recreational services and environmental protection. They note the possible loss of socio-cultural references that this may entail, but argue that, in the current climate of economic insecurity and declining fishing stocks, there may be few alternatives.

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