The Rise of the Cyborg Fish: On attempts to make fisheries manageable

Le poisson-cyborg,ou comment gérer l'ingérable ?
Article Index
Fisheries resource management as a cybernetic…
Fishermen, vessel and fish in the 1920s
Low-tech Norwegian fishing vessels from the 1980s
A high-tech fishing operation on a small-scale…
The robo-fisher - a single man surrounded by…

The fishing industry's modernization saw radical changes in capture techniques, and in the fish themselves. Fisheries science created virtual fish-stocks analyses and transformed fish into manageable objects via quotas. Although intended to create sustainable fisheries, the resulting focus on financial concerns actually reduces fisheries' sustainability.

Although natural resources have been exploited since humanity's origins, modern resource management is a recent phenomenon.

This is a revised version of an article in Maritime Studies (MAST) in 2009 with the title, "The cyborgization of the fisheries. On attempts to make fisheries management possible " MAST 7: 9-34. The article is revised and republished with approval from MAST.

The huge variety in resource types, adaptations, knowledge systems, institutions, and practices have made it difficult to bring the harvest of common property resources under political and managerial control. In the maritime arena, fish as well as fishermen have historically been "unmanageable" for all practical purposes. Since the late 1960s, when the threat of fisheries over-exploitation became apparent, efforts intensified to transform fish, people and technologies into "manageable" entities, a process that accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. In this paper, we discuss conditions, processes and instruments through which this transformation or "translation"

This argument draws on methodology developed within the sociology of science, in particular ANT (Actor-Network Theory) (Latour 1987, 1990; Callon 1986; Haraway 1997). We retain the core concept of "translation," the process by which innovators attempt to build and stabilize the relationships among heterogeneous entities in order to form a network that can perform as a coordinated actor. Translation implies that the entities in a network take on identity in much the same way as words become meaningful in language, through their relationships with other words.

becomes practically possible. The application of science plays an important role in turning the "wild" object into a "manageable" one. The outcome of this process - for which we use the metaphor of the "cyborg fish" - is a complex and heterogeneous network that links nature, society, technology, science, markets and policy in new ways.

Managing the Unmanageable

While fisheries management is typically seen as regulation imposed from the outside on entities - fishermen, nations, fisheries - that remain essentially unchanged, we will argue here that management fundamentally transforms and reconstitutes the managed objects. Traditionally, marine fisheries have been beyond societal control, an order of things institutionalized in the centuries-long Mare Liberum regime. Today, however, marine fisheries have been recognized as "manageable" - a regime change symbolically and institutionally grounded with the signing of the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) in December 1982. The convention confirmed the coastal states' the right to establish a 200-nautical-mile-wide economic zone (EEZ), a move that brought more than 95% of fisheries resources under national jurisdiction. Mare Liberum was replaced by a new regime in which management authority was invested in the coastal state.

A swift and dramatic reform has followed. Fish have transformed into measureable and controllable entities, primarily in the form of single-species stocks subject to regular counting and assessment. Fishermen have transformed from commoners and hunters into businessmen and property owners. Fisheries management has developed from bare-bones efforts to control food security and crises into an ambitious framework, orchestrating fisheries into a well-ordered and rational pattern. The "governance" of fisheries depends in no small part on this mapping of representations onto practices, so that it becomes possible to shift between these two realms (Holm 1996; 2001). The effectiveness of this mapping determines not only how closely the symbolic system will correspond to the practical one, but also how readily decisions within the former can translate to the latter. Figure 1 sketches this model of managerial control.

We refer to the processes by which the fish and their human predators transform from unmanageable to manageable objects as cyborgization.

Transforming unmanageable objects into manageable ones requires much work and tends to meet resistance.

This paper will review its consequences, drawing primarily from examples in Norway. As a result of UNCLOS and the introduction of the EEZ, Norway gained control over rich fish and petroleum resources.

In addition, Norway has established an internationally-accepted fishery zone around the Island of Jan Mayen and a disputed fishery protection zone around Svalbard.

The revenues from oil and gas extraction contributed to a radical modernisation of Norwegian society as a whole, one that also has relevance for the fisheries sector. Although the Norwegian case finds echoes in Canada and other high-technology western fisheries, "cyborgization" in Norway is probably more extreme than in other countries (Johnsen et al. 2009).

Catching Fish - From Human Relations to Cybernetic Capture Systems

Once upon a time, there were fish, vessels, and men, like those we see in Figure 2. Although a few larger steam ships worked in the herring fisheries, small fishermen-owned vessels dominated the Norwegian industry. The fishermen in the photo are representative in this respect. A family partnership owned the vessel; non-partner crew members (like the first author's grandfather, number three from the left) were neighbours and/or more distant relatives, all living in the same community. Together, they exploited fish as a common property resource.

Traditionally, all Norwegian citizens had a right to undertake commercial fishing inside, as well as outside, Norwegian waters, and to use all types of fishing gear except trawlers, which were strictly regulated. The only requirement was to register both vessel and personnel, designating each as engaged exclusively in fishing.

While the social relationships within the commons may have been complex, the relations to the fish were simple and direct. The fishermen, as members of hungry households and cash-strapped communities, pursued fish that could be exchanged for money. The basic relationship between fish and fisherman was mediated by the hook and line. If the hook slipped or the line broke, the fisherman would lose income; his family might starve and the community economy would suffer. Skill with the gear constituted the man as fisheman and breadwinner. The hook and line produced him not only as a catcher of fish, but also as an active subject and a bearer of community values.

However, the 1930s saw a transformation in the relationships between fishermen, fish, coastal communities and the state. Influenced by the hardships of the global depression, the authorities first intervened to protect small-scale coastal fishermen from fierce competition by industrial capitalists and large-scale trawlers. The parliament adopted the first temporary Trawler Act in 1936 to regulate trawling activity in Norwegian waters. Two years later, in 1938, the Raw Fish Act gave small-scale fishermen a legal monopoly in the first-hand fish market, and helped establish sales organizations they could control. Taken together, these two acts strengthened the small-scale fishermen's position in the Norwegian fisheries sector; institutionally, they increased the complexity of the fish-fisherman relationship. By the end of World War II, however, the government's priorities shifted, and the small-scale fishermen no longer received the same level of protection. Instead, a modernisation programme for Norwegian fisheries emerged, defining governance, institutional change, and technological development as its three pillars. This programme supported the controlled development of a trawler fleet, along with technological and social development of the coastal fisheries. From a troubled start - the small-scale fishermen intensely loathed the trawlers - the offshore fleet grew into a very powerful creature during the next 60 years.

Nevertheless, within the fisheries commons, the modernisation process neither marginalized nor fundamentally transformed the conventional coastal fleet. While considerably smaller than that of the 1920s, in the 1980s it still had basically the same geographical distribution, work organization and ownership structure. Even if the vessels had become more technologically sophisticated than their predecessors - with more powerful engines, hydraulic equipment, sonar, radar, autopilots, and so on - there were striking continuities. Most coastal vessels were still made of wood (Fig. 3). They still exploited a common property resource. Most crew members were recruited locally, through family or personal connections. And the crew size on a gill-netter, still a dominant gear type, remained similar to what it had been six decades before (Johnsen 2005).

By 2000, all this had changed. In the new millennium, a typical coastal fishing vessel is between 30 and 50 feet and technologically sophisticated. It is made of fibreglass or steel, and the wheelhouse has been moved to the front. Usually, no more than three people work aboard, aided by hydraulic haulers and mechanical helpers. They navigate using radar, GPS, digital chart machines, and autopilot. The electronic equipment is fully interfaced: a click on the mouse at the wheelhouse computer steers the vessel to its position, pre-selected and saved by the skipper. Given a short introductory course, almost anyone can navigate. And while experience still comes into play in locating fish, new colour sonar equipment makes this part of the process easier. The deck machinery is more specialized than on the early 1980 gill-netters, with different gear and mechanized hauling and clearing (Fig. 4).

Fishing operations have become more or less self-contained, and are now deeply embedded in the service programme and knowledge infrastructure provided by gear manufacturers, shipyards and other professional networks. Where fishermen, their families or communities formerly saw to rigging, maintenance and storage of gear, to a great extent they now purchase these services from the manufacturers. Thus the focus of the fisherman's responsibilities has shifted towards those of running a business, controlling finances and investments, and keeping up with fishing legislation.

The fishing enterprise of today is not simply a boat and crew; it comprises many interlinked professional systems that all contribute to the efficiency of the operation. Among other effects, these changes result in a reduced need for manpower onboard. A steering post at starboard reeling, behind the hauling equipment, is a standard feature that allows the skipper to control both the vessel and the hauling from one position (Fig. 4). Mechanisation permits three men to tend the same number of gillnets on a 42-footer as six men could handle in the same period of time on a 64-footer. It is not unusual for two vessels to "buddy up" and operate together to reduce labour costs. As a result, many former fishermen have sold out, found other jobs or retired.

This replacement of people by machines and institutions has transformed the Norwegian fisheries. Fishing is part of a larger national and international harvesting system, based on much the same ideology as the production and manufacture of other industrial products. Thus the designers and the producers of the vessels' equipment become more prominent in fishing. The vessel is now the node in a technological and symbolic capture system. In former times, one vessel could easily replace or pull gear for another; today, vessel and gear integrate in a quite different way. The modern fishing vessel, transformed into a highly effective "fish-killing machine," is part human, part mechanism: one can reasonably describe the assemblage of gear, vessel, the crew and the work processes as a cybernetic system (Johnsen et al. 2009).

The Cyborgization of the Fisherman

"The existing Norwegian regulations give the seaman's doctor the right to evaluate if a sailor with a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 30 and 35 is healthy enough to sail." Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry, Ansgar Garbrielsen. (Parliament of Norway 2002)

Humans do not stand outside the machinery as users and masters, but must be seen as an integrated part of it. The quote above shows that the technoscientific network of fishing requires specific physical abilities. The dimensions of the gear, the work speed expected, and the precision required in operations mean that human skills alone cannot produce the desired performance. Machinery comes to replace humans because it can be adapted more readily than human bodies. As a consequence, human fishing performance becomes regulated by the technology of the harvest machinery; where these operations prove easier to learn and perform than traditional practices, the latter vanish, as does the knowledge linked to them. Where one could once speak of human fishermen with individual fishing expertise, knowledge is now increasingly embedded in machinery and organizations (Murray et al. 2005; Johnsen et al. 2009).

Through this process, where humans interact with both technological elements and governance mechanisms, the fisherman - formerly a human at the end of a line, or hauling gill nets by hand - ceases to exist as an independent individual. Instead, the fisherman has been transformed into a cybernetic organization, a cyborg, who at the micro level might be called a robo-fisher (Fig. 5). But the robo-fisher also reflects a similar type of process at a macro level, where fisheries as a whole shift towards a cybernetic organization based on intervention and feedback mechanisms, as depicted in Figure 1 above.

Despite the "wiring in" of greater proportions of fishing "knowledge," not just anyone can fill the human positions in the cybernetic organization or network. These require specialists to maintain and operate the different bits, bytes, and pieces, as well as the relations between them. Relatively few will qualify as robo-fishers, even if the selection process is less extreme than that for, say, fighter pilots; while the open commons of the past had fewer restrictions, today's fisheries can and do discriminate on the basis of "disability."

Even if cyborgization comes with new demands and restrictions, it also opens new opportunities. One outcome is certain: with killing machines and robo-fishers ruling the oceans, the fish itself will also be transformed.

Transforming Fish: the TAC Machine

Today, fisheries science - a blend of biology, oceanography and computer modelling tools -drives much of the effort toward sustainable fisheries resource management (Government of Norway 2003). The origin of modern fisheries science lies in the industrial revolution (Murray and Hjort 1912). The nineteenth-century widened the scope and scale of marine exploration. Through oceanographic expeditions, trial fishing, and collection of catch information, marine researchers from many countries amassed a tremendous amount of empirical material about the seas and its creatures, material for calculating, measuring and modelling marine life (Murray and Hjort 1912). Almost a century after the first scientific venture into fisheries, a breakthrough came in 1965 with the invention of an effective stock assessment technology, the Virtual Population Analysis (VPA) (Finlayson 1994; Holm 1996; Nielsen 2008; Roepstorff 2000). The VPA made it practicable to assess the strength and development of major fish stocks on the basis of available data, mainly year-class structure and catch rates. While these assessments were rough and often missed by large margins, they legitimized fisheries scientists as independent, objective experts who could advise on optimal use of fish stocks. The VPA assessment was integrated with the Total Allowable Catch (TAC), a practical intervention that allowed regulation of fishing pressure through quotas on specified fish stocks. Together, the VPA and the TAC informed a powerful management instrument, the "TAC machine" (Nielsen and Holm 2007), which assessed fish stocks and set quotas accordingly in a repetitive, annual cycle.

The advent of this TAC machine, along with the new oceans regime negotiated through the 1970s, represent two major preconditions for a new fisheries entity: what we term here the cyborg fish (Holm 2007), a cybernetic organization for defining and measuring fish. This process institutionalized fisheries science with strong ties to political institutions as well as the fishing industry (Holm 1996). Despite its apparent simplicity, the cyborg fish is a complex and heterogeneous object, one that links nature, society, technology, science, markets, and policy (Holm 2007). With the construction of the cyborg fish, the unmanageable fish-in-nature has been domesticated and become manageable. In this process, the fish, as well as the fishermen, have been redefined (Johnsen et al. 2009).

The Fisheries Leviathan - the Links Between Policy, Science, Technology, and Economy

The killing machines, the robo-fisher, the TAC machine and the cyborg fish are all elements in a technoscientific network - combining humans and non-humans into a creature that acts as one. Together, they form a cybernetic organization that allows governance of nature and society. We started our history with the 1920s, describing the close, simple and direct relations between humans and fish that characterized the traditional fisheries. In comparison, the relations between humans and fish in modern fisheries are strikingly more complex, with highly developed scientific, regulatory and governance mechanisms. The creature that in Norway drew its first breath with the introduction of the Trawler Act in 1936 has grown up and come to the surface: its scope, intricacy and all-encompassing character justify the name of "fisheries Leviathan" (see Callon and Latour 1981). This "Leviathan" acts as a strong and powerful cyborg, representing, linking and to some extent programming the actions and space of all the system's components.

Since the 1960s, fishing technology has become effective enough to threaten natural resources. In tandem with the growth of a stronger "Leviathan" in the fisheries, fish-capture capacity has continued to expand, and with it, the need for more management and governance. Currently, the successful fisheries enterprise comprises not just the owner, the crew, the vessel, the fish and the available quotas; it has also been woven into a network of regulations that define its relations to fish, and extend to negotiations with other states (for example, the Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission, which oversees the management of the Northeast arctic cod and other important species). Scientific production, interpretation and application also integrate the fishing enterprise, as with the International Council of the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) and the development of gear and vessel technology. Enterprises must furthermore buy and sell rights and quotas, undertake planning, obtain finance and credit, and evaluate risks. A wide range of cybernetic mechanisms therefore orchestrates fisheries access. This process of cyborgization is changing the relationship of crews, coastal communities and general public to marine resources.

Paradoxically, in Norway the development of the "fisheries Leviathan" has transferred rights and responsibilities for management from the public to the private sector, despite adhesion to public "ownership" of resources as the main principle of governance (Government of Norway 2007). The ordinary crew (who no longer have any legal claim to fish resources) their families, and their communities now depend on the vessel owners for their access to fisheries and the wealth they generate.

Nature, the fish as a biological creature, is woven into fishing enterprises. Based on vessel length and other criteria, these enterprises receive pre-specified volumes of fish to pursue. Exclusive rights and quotas now provide the basis for the industry's profitability and sustainability. A fishing vessel is not only a "killing machine," but also represents an option on a certain quantity of fish. These mechanisms have at least temporarily approached Norway's long-term political goals for its fisheries: increased stability and profitability (see Government of Norway 2007). As pointed out by Standal and Aarseth (2002), however, they have also favoured technological modernisation and increasing harvest capacity. Changing patterns of investment also reflect this process. From 1995 to 2002, more than 7 billion kroner were invested in the Norwegian fishing fleet. The long-term liabilities of the full-time operating fleet (vessels over 13m /50ft) increased by 168% during the period 1995-2001, many times higher than the rate of inflation; this reflects an increase in technical standards on the vessels (Johnsen 2005). Even with fewer people and boats directly involved in fishing, in 2003 the fishing cyborgs had to achieve a higher catch value than in 1995 in order to pay for the increasing costs.

Many fishing vessels today, even small ones, are organized as corporations rather than partnerships. The ideology, the forms of organization, the institutional framework, the tax rules, and the financing of the fishing fleet therefore resemble the patterns we find in land-based businesses. For example, when rights and quotas become elements in transactions, financing institutions gain more control over fishing activities and become parts of the cybernetic organization. Capital seeks investment opportunities, but given a smaller number of vessels and individuals with access to rights, fisheries investment positions have grown scarce. Fewer fish and fishermen, and more restrictive quotas, can increase the price for entering into relationships. If scarcity increases the price of fish, quota options and the related costs of fishing, and more intensive fishing becomes necessary to meet the increased costs, then the ecological benefits of limiting access to the fisheries may disappear. The fisheries policy and the cybernetic organization of the Leviathan give priority to economic values; along with managing resource access, they tend to impel "cyborg" action in a certain direction. As a result, fishing enterprises appear less as producers of fish, labour and social benefits than as producers of added economic value. This reduces informal social and economic pay-offs, because the professionalized network formalises as many practices and relationships as possible. The cyborgs in the fisheries must therefore behave as rational actors, with huge consequences for the fisheries as well as the fisheries Leviathan itself.

The Future of the Fisheries Leviathan

Despite its success in prioritizing resource management and modernizing fisheries into a much more profitable, safe and secure business, the fisheries Leviathan is not - at least not yet - a stable entity. Fisheries management is, if not in crisis, at least continuously in dispute. One reason is the difficulty of stabilising harvest capacity - a key goal of management. In fact, it has been claimed that management and governance instruments contribute to increased efficiency and harvest capacity (Johnsen 2005; Government of Norway 1998; Standal and Aarset 2002). And here we come to the paradox of fisheries management efforts. While they aim to create sustainable fisheries, the resulting system often reduces sustainability. Why does a system that has succeeded institutionally, transforming fisheries from the ground up, give so poor a technical performance? We propose here that this has something to do with how the "unmanageable" objects are translated into manageable ones - such as the cyborg fish, the killing machines and the robo-fishers, the ontology of the actors, and development of the fisheries as a cybernetic organization. The cyborgs are relationships, and linked together, they form cybernetic harvest systems that start to follow their own logic, and therefore prove difficult to govern. The efficiency, the power, and the need for fish in these systems are so vast that they require continuous restructuring of the fish-killing system. A pivotal question is whether the Leviathan will survive attacks from its own component parts; we may yet see fully privatized fisheries where a few killing machines, even more "robotized" than today, bring both the cyborgs and the natural fish under their control.

As conflicts persist in fisheries, efforts to create new relationships and links have emerged. These include incorporation of local fishermen' knowledge, more open and participatory scientific methods, increased user participation in decision-making, expansion of market- over state-based management, addressing claims for traditional rights and extending rights to new groups. The results remain uncertain. Profitability, the precautionary principle, ecosystem approaches, the emergence of industrial carnivorous aquaculture and many other issues will affect how fisheries resource management develops in the future. Will commercial fisheries continue to exist as a politically and morally viable option for humankind? If we want to understand how fisheries management actually works and what it can accomplish, we need to start understanding how modern fisheries - these cybernetic creatures - function. The dynamics of the cyborgization process are hidden in the relations holding this heterogeneous network together.

Fisheries resource management as a cybernetic control mechanism, based on a scientific system of representation and a system of instrumental intervention

Source: Nielsen and Holm (2007)
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Fishermen, vessel and fish in the 1920s

(Photo: J.P. Johnsen)
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Low-tech Norwegian fishing vessels from the 1980s

(Photo: J.P. Johnsen)
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A high-tech fishing operation on a small-scale Norwegian fishing vessel

(Photo: J.P. Johnsen)
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The robo-fisher - a single man surrounded by technology

(Photo: J.P. Johnsen)
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