Bandanas are distributed, paper mache boats in hand. Fishers and local government workers cluster around the board.
We’re a couple of rounds into the fishing game. Some have lost, others have hit the jackpot, in that lexicon of luck and lotteries that pervades the fishers’ descriptions of their daily hauls. Longer term trajectories of decline and degradation are hidden beneath the endless flux of synoptic and tidal patterns.
An illegal fisher is caught: not one of the real players, but rather one of the ghost ones: automated functions within the supporting computer model that act as encroachers. These invisible companions were intended to speed up the decline of the fishery and prompt discussion on ‘appropriate’ regulation.
However, their principal function has become to provide a convenient scapegoat for the fishers overriding tendency to cast the blame for the state of their decrepit ocean on anyone ‘not from here’, where ‘from here’ is a flexible and evolving concept, that shifts with migration patterns, economic fortunes, political alliances and family ties.
The facilitator probes for confirmation of the local treatment of illegal fishers. She takes on the role of Mayor, declares it an election year and that she’s open to leniency because it might give her a little boost in the tolling booths. Chuckles and laughter follow: this is a script the fishers know. They join in: yes, the mayor’s very understanding and open to having a little chat, especially for first offenders, especially for people from big families with lots of registered voters.
The local government representative goes along at first, confirming that first offenders (who vote) may well be able to talk themselves out of the fine. The banter continues, but some fishers express concern: they don’t like the secrecy, the implication of unfair treatment.
The government man begins to change his tune: he interjects sharply, addressing the facilitator “maybe they’ll take this seriously: the mayor’s not like that. You can’t just talk your way out of the laws”. The facilitator smoothly agrees, soothes ruffled feathers. Yes, yes. It’s not really like that: don’t take it so seriously. It’s just a game. Just a game.
We break for lunch and the discussion is lost.
This scene comes to mind, almost a year later, as I watch the departure of three apprehended fishermen, outside the municipal jail of a neighbouring island. A quick phone call – mayor to mayor – had facilitated their release without charges, the binning of the fisheries offence descriptions painstakingly typed out by the police chief the night before, and the mockery of the endeavours of the volunteer coast guard.
They’re small fry, it’s true, the bigger boats could never be apprehended by the dilapidated boats used by the municipality – they’re too fast and usually armed. But the ‘coffee favour’ – a local term used for corrupt acts among elites – only serves to strengthen the small-scale fishers’ sense of abandonment and perpetual injustice.
I think, sadly, of the conversations we did not have.