[Voices from off Shore: Narrative of Risk & Danger in the Nova Scotian, Deep-Sea Fishery]

By Binkley, Marian; Menzies, Charles R. | Anthropologica, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

[Voices from off Shore: Narrative of Risk & Danger in the Nova Scotian, Deep-Sea Fishery]


Binkley, Marian, Menzies, Charles R., Anthropologica


Fishermen are often regarded as the epitome of Western Individualism. Popular culture is replete with references to the romantic and rugged imagery of the fisher poised, bearded and weather-worn, battling the winds and storms of the open seas. Were it only so. As Binkley effectively points out in her pair of monographs, Voices from Off Shore and Risks, Dangers, and Rewards, the world of the commercial fisher is neither romantic nor necessarily desirable. It is, in fact, one of the most dangerous, uncomfortable and difficult vocations one can take up.

These books are the product of a research program, initiated in 1989, which examined the working conditions of deepsea fishers in Nova Scotia. The books cover the same material but in importantly different ways. Voices is a carefully selected sample of stories about fishing told by fisherfolk themselves. The storytellers include the Old Salt, the deckhand, the wife, the landsman, the casualty and the Skipper. In an analytic sense, Risks is by far the more detailed text. Here, Binkley methodically takes us through her theoretical concerns, the details of the fishing process, the bureaucratic counting of injury, fishers' job satisfaction and the possibility of improving working conditions. Read as a set, the two works complement each other in the respective prioritizing of emic and etic viewpoints.

The personal stories in Voices helps us in understanding the ways in which fishers perceive danger. For example, early on in her research, Binkley found that when asked if they had ever had a serious accident at sea, the fishers invariably answered, "no." For the outside observer, their visible physical dismemberment and injuries rendered their response incomprehensible. But, when we listen to their own stories of fishing and making a living we realize why: "It's only serious if it makes you stop fishing" (Binkley, 1994: 107, 221).

Numbers and categories of accidents take on a living tone in the voices of men like "Ned Adams," an icer on a deep-sea dragger. Mr. Adams lives the experience which we see "objectively" laid out in tables and graphs: "When you're down in the hold, you gotta shovel all the fish up into the pen. If the boat rolls, all that comes down on you. You shovel up the ice and the fish slides down on you. Eighteen hours in the hold shovelling ice is bad enough without that" (ibid.: 108). The meticulous listing and discussion of causalities and types of injuries (see esp. Binkley, 1995: 106-127) is shocking in and of itself. Listening to "Ned Adams" and the other fishers tell their own stories should make even the most unconcerned reader squirm.

In a field in which women have traditionally received short shrift (for an important exception see Davis and Nadel-Klien, 1988, To Work and to Weep, St. John's, NF: ISER). Binkley's discussion of women's experiences (1994: 70-95, 215- 218; 1995: 49-65) is refreshing. In "The Wife's Tale," themes of loneliness and worry underwrite "Joan Elliot's concerns for her husband's health and her family.

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