French Net Fishermen a Dying Breed
French Net Fishermen a Dying Breed
Mar. 06, 1999
ILE DE MOLENE, France (AP) _ When waves toss his boat like a cork in a dishwasher and sleet pelts down in the black predawn, Aurelien Masson, at 20, considers retirement. But a nation of fish lovers cheers him on.
Masson's 40-foot boat is the last sizable craft fishing the old way off this forgotten island at the tip of Brittany. After his breed, the future is bottom-scouring trawlers and square-shaped frozen fish chunks.
``Sometimes it gets a little hairy, but I love this life,'' said Masson, who like his 26-year-old brother, Sebastien, is following a family tradition that dates back more generations than anyone remembers.
They use long, wide-mesh nets designed to catch only what they are after. They come in frequently to sell fish so fresh they still quiver. Brittany fisherman have done it that way for a thousand years.
But the Masson brothers plan to make a few changes in the next millennium. After a hard day's fishing, for instance, they want to cut out profit-sapping middlemen and sell their catch on the Internet.
``Chefs all over France will be able to order lobster or fish that are hard to find, and we can ship directly,'' Aurelien said, smiling at the possibilities. ``Why work your tail off for nothing?''
Molene, a half-hour boat ride off Brest, is an unlikely spot for e-commerce. Its 350 inhabitants are mostly retired. The principal activity _ drinking _ produces 45 tons of glass refuse a year.
There may be no older fishing traditions than on Molene, where a 5th century fresco found near the church shows inhabitants offering their catch of lobsters to a boatload of visitors.
But with a growing world appetite for seafood and shrinking schools of fish, old ways are changing fast off the French coasts, especially in the old ports of Brittany.
A recent study by the national research institute, Ifremer, shows the pattern clearly.
From 1983 to 1995, the Brittany fleet dropped from 3,529 boats to 1,944. The greatest declines were in large vessels of longer than 80 feet and in the smallest ones.
``We see a concentration toward trawlers in the midsize range, equipped with high technology instruments for more efficient fishing,'' Alain Biseau, an Ifremer specialist, explained. ``The change is happening fast.''
Ifremer's census found more than half the boats in Brittany now trawl for fish, using nets on cables that scour the sea floor and scoop up everything in their path.
Because of European Union quotas on the number of boats each member country can send out fishing, most new craft are trawlers.
Aurelien Masson, like most fisherman in the fewer than 10 percent of Brittany boats that still use wide-mesh surface nets, blames the trend for worrisome declines in everyone's catch.
``These guys are a menace to ocean ecology,'' he fumed. ``They take the young along with the mature. They get species at the wrong time. Sure, they throw stuff back in, but by then it is usually dead.''
Also, he adds, trawler catches are so large that freshness suffers. Fish stay too long on ice or have to be frozen before reaching the consumer.
Trawlermen acknowledge some damage to undersea environment, but they argue this corrects itself. Their advantage is efficiency, they say. Fewer workers can feed more people, even if that means some frozen fish.
``Real fishing is an art, a way of life, not an industry,'' Aurelien said, balancing on a pitching deck awash in fish guts. ``If too many people do it wrong, we all pay the price. Already, it's getting much harder.''
At the wheel, Sebastien made the same point. He barely glanced at the green radar screen, the color-coded sonar readings, or the computer maps that displayed every rock and sandbar from Molene to Madagascar.
``We've had this stuff for years, just like the trawlers, but it is the last thing I look at when we go fishing,'' he said. ``Much more important is instinct, the mental map of generations of secret places.''
The Masson brothers' father, Milo, still goes out regularly even though his boys and their two-man crew don't really need him.
``I have a profession I love, and freedom,'' he said. ``What more could anyone want?''
But he is worried. Some days, the boat earns 10,000 francs (nearly $2,000) in a few hours. Other days, it comes back nearly empty. Nets cost 20,000 francs a month, and there are wages, taxes, fuel and repairs.
``All sorts of new regulations, the European Union, the French government, are making things harder,'' Milo said. ``We are finding less fish and crustaceans every year.''
While Brittany farmers and meat producers band together to defend their interests with often violent protests, artisan fishermen never manage to get together for anything, Milo said.
His sons' plan to market the catch directly via the Internet could make the daily struggle into something profitable, Milo said. It wasn't a world he understood, he added, but something had to be done.
``The French fisherman is selfish, and he thinks only of his own nets,'' he said, with a slightly embarrassed laugh. ``We can't defend ourselves, and no one else does.''
Aurelien shares his father's concerns, but he plans to keep at it, lonely and tough as it is, as long as the business breaks even.
``I guess that's just the price of freedom,'' he said.