The old net loft is mostly gutted now. It will be coming down for good early in the new year. I got lucky, I was poking about the floats on the outside when a fellow saw my interest in it. Turns out he had the keys, and a few stories to tell. From the outside, another stilted dock building, the corrugated metal silver-blue under the overcast sky.
Which we get a lot of.
Condemned, say the signs. A few weeks back another fisherman – his boat is the Arne A – lamented the loss of the timbers within. Great old beams in there, he said. So I’d been hoping to get a peek inside before they tore it down. My lucky day.
The gillnetter fleet is not what it used to be, by any measure. From hundreds of vessels in the heyday of the industry, to less than two dozen today, and no one’s making much money on salmon these days. There’s politics there, you’ll be told: ‘the Department‘s been trying to put the fishermen out of business for years, and looks as though they’re finally succeeding’ – this is the basic story, but from there, the how and the why are steeped in so many layers of alleged corruption, political opportunism, and inherited antagonism among the followers of fish… there’s no untangling it.
Inside, the place is all but gutted – I said that already I know, but the word and its pun is inescapable and deserves repetition. Storage for nets and gear, repairs and work. Yep… end of an era – around these structures this comment is voiced many times a day now, and meanwhile a few eagles glare down (though I’ve counted up to 60 in a single frame, on a reduction day or when the herring is running, the offal a gluttony for those much glorified scavengers… and I’m told the power would even go down on occasion, from collisions between eagles and the transformers on the power lines, a clumsy aerial thief, the eagle).
Everything about the place says ‘work’, and I’ve learned that this work was what cemented the deal between people and place, vocation and well-being, for a generation or two or three. The office, empty, looks out on the floats, from where I used to look in. Pieces of the place have been acquired by the museum, I’m told.
The salmon, you see, when it swims upstream to spawn, doesn’t eat. It’s metabolism kicks in and it ages all at once, burning up its ocean-fed nutrients to fight against river currents and rapids, spend itself and then die. By the time it makes it up to the spawning grounds, it’s in a sorry state: less nutrients, the flavour not so good. So why the steady shift in fisheries allocation to upstream fishing…? Now there’s a toxic question. Put all the fishermen close to the gravestone together, my guide tells me, and they’d keep you filled with stories on that for days.
It’s complicated. I used to suppose I could understand it one day, but this implies there’s some truth out there to be acquired, or some untruths to be exposed and discredited… but of course there’s neither, there’s only this minefield of human culture between them, following fish.
I’m feeling a bit like Jonah in this gutted place, the rafters and beams, within the belly of a great, nearly spent fish. But that’s another fish story, isn’t it? And probably someone, somewhere, once heard that story, so it must be true, I think.