Slow Fish in Action
Prud'homies of the Mediterranean Presidia
The Mediterranean, we think we know it by heart. The glistening waves, the white rocks, the pines and olive groves... but still, it has some well kept secrets where one would least expect to find them and which are a fundamental part of the history of these areas.
An example of one such hidden gem, of finesse within the collective management of complex territories by the men who live there, are the prud'homies of fishermen (Terra Madre community since 2004), these institutions that for ten centuries have supervised the management of the marine resources throughout the entire French coast.
Prud'homies, what are they?
Inspired by medieval trade guilds, the prud'homies designate communities of fishers (owner operators) who elect men from among their group to be prud'hommes, charged with managing the fishing activities of their zones through regulatory, jurisdictional and disciplinary powers. The institutions' constant motivation is to manage locally, in a simple, rapid, and cost-effective manner, the fishing activities of the area and the conflicts that most often arise in particularly cramped fishing quarters.
These communities of artisan fishers, distributed throughout the entire coast, play an essential role: the observation and preservation of marine areas, cultural and historic anchorage and participation in the daily life of the ports, and as a living reminder of the model for managing the fishing communities that has proven itself time and again throughout the years.
Definition of the fishing territories
There are 33 prud'homies, that cover the entire Mediterranean coast of France. Four of them are in Corsica.
Each fishing territory, or zone, is determined with land markers: where one prud'homie ends the next begins. The one in Sanary, for example, is found between those of Le Brusc and Bandol.
This division was formed by the customs and the identity of the community. Some prud'homies, for example, have been created, or divided, following the divisions of the fishing communities.
The territories' extensions vary: some are very extensive, at times because few fishermen live and work within them, at others due to the fact that no one else has claimed the territory over time. Such is the case of the prud'homie of Martigues, for example.
The decisions are made by the prud'hommes or by the general assembly. As they see each other daily, a prud'homme cannot make a decision without the support of the majority of his colleagues.
The community principles that motivate the decisions are founded on respect for the person involved and for future generations. These decisions are then conveyed by word of mouth through the docks in short sayings, to help in memorization: "Everyone must be able to live off their work (or the sun rises for everyone). One way of fishing should not preclude another...A job should be regulated rather than prohibited, for respect of those whose livelihood it is... If fishing goes badly for one fisherman, it need not go badly for everyone...It is best to let a species, or alternatively the "stones", rest (a sort of fallowing like that found in agriculture)...The sea is not to be emptied, but rather to be lived off of and saved for the children..."
In practice, the regulations tend to align the whole fishing arts on those that have the lowest fishing capacity, so as to leave an opportunity for the least equipped to live off of their work.
A specific case: the prud'homie of Sanary
The Prud'homie of Sanary's area extends, over land, from the mouth of the Grand Vallat to that of the Reppe river, and over sea all the way to the limits of French territorial waters. It covers the rocky coast with its continental plateau that extends out to about four miles, the edge of the abyss, which is a narrow fishing zone, and deep sea fishing areas that go out to 30 or 40 miles from the coast.
This morphology gives rise to small-scale coastal fishing and more robust fishing practices in the deeper and open seas.
The sea beds are composed of sandy areas very close to the coast, areas where sea grass is prevalent up to a depth of 30 meters, and muddy areas and rocky ones as well.
There are some areas identified as "fishing zones", which are those in which fish have passed safely since the dawn of time, and found at a depth of roughly 20 meters.
The bay is open to the Mistral and is therefore not sheltered from the Eastern winds, a fact which limits the effective number of fishing days.
This difficulty is compensated for in part by the quality of the market, since the fishermen can sell a large portion of their wares in bulk along the port's promenade, directly to the clients that are plentiful and conscientious.
The community of Sanary is made up today of 13 owner operators, both currently active and retired, and four crew.
This number has fluctuated over time: following the war, the number grew to more than 50 fishermen while it was at its lowest point during the outbreak of the plague in the 18th century.
Trends in immigration also heavily influenced the composition of this community. A large majority of the current fishermen are of Italian descent, having arrived some two or three generations ago. They have been integrated slowly over time, as some of them originally came at the beginning of the fishing season and then got married, for example. Their children later went on to become fishermen themselves. Some of them came via other foreign countries like Tunisia or Algeria, bringing new fishing techniques with them.
As Mediterranean fishing is essentially a multi-species enterprise, the artisan fishers catch more than 80 different kinds of fish, all of which are caught in different ways: among the more popular species are sea bream, cuttlefish, conger eel, mullet, capon, monkfish, hake and redfish, as well as a few sole and turbot. There are fish found around rocks, in the deep sea, among the sea grasses, in the sand, and benthic species (those that are attached to the ground, skimming forward across the sea floor). Some of the species are sedentary and others migratory, among which there are species that can only be fished over brief periods. A single fish can have two varieties, along different coastal zones, and can be recognized by their slight differences in color.
Protective measures applied by the Prud'homie of Sanary
Some of the protective measures are statutory, while others correspond to practices that come from the philosophy of the prud'homie itself. This institution aims to distribute the fishing activities all along the area and to avoid conflicts arising from the "race for resources", within a dynamic of "sharing" across a fleet that must remain artisanal and relatively homogenous. Furthermore, the prud'homie tries to preserve the sustainability of the natural resources in the area so as to assure the fishing community's continued life over time.
The prud'homie's system is characterized by a strong responsiveness, thus permitting very fast action that is not too expensive just as soon as there is a collective awareness of a common danger.
Protection of the species:
The protection of the species is assured by the fact that the fishing gear (and thus the quantity of the fish that is caught) is limited and versatility and diversification are encouraged. For certain species, like lobsters, there are specific additional protective measures in place:
• The permitted fishing gear is listed. Large gears are not used, since trawling, along with all other dragging methods of fishing, are prohibited (seine nets have not been used for a very long time, and are seen now only quite sporadically).
• The catch limits impede the development of specialized intensive fishing techniques and encourage the diversification of fishing techniques. The size of the catch is limited per boat (total length of the nets used, maximum number of racks or hooks for the long lines) and per fishing technique used.
• The young fish are protected by a minimum size of mesh (12 knots) and hooks.
• The time that gear may be left in the water is also capped so as to avoid unnecessary harm to the catch, which could otherwise be damaged.
If stocks decline, real time closure is immediately decided, that concerns either a species or a fishing area.
Protection of water and environmental quality
Whenever a problem with pollution is identified, an immediate closure of the concerned area is enforced. In order to preserve the quality and extention of their fishing zones, not to mention the future of their profession, the prud'hommes undertake specific actions, at times with the support of other structures: for example, in the creation and management of reserves, the restoration of water flow, the definition of constraints for the creation of sea outlets for sewage, judiciary actions with associations or labor unions (to block the filling in of ponds, in court cases against those who discharge fresh water and silt into ponds, etc.), in negotiations with the port authorities...
Furthermore, the protection of the marine habitats is regulated as follows:
• The spawning areas of scorpion fish, lobster, and shrimp are protected,
• Periods of closure are scheduled for certain coastal fishing areas so as to allow the seabed to rest and recover.
Protections ensuring fleet diversity and fair conditions for all
The guidelines provide that:
• When fishers using the same type of gears are competing for specific fishing locations, access is determined by drawning lots. The fishermen who are regularly at sea are given priority over the others,
• Setting of gear is done perpendicularly to the coast so as not to disturb the other areas,
• Fishing gear is identified by visible markings showing the name of the boat to which it belongs,
• The gear that takes up the least space (net posts and small drift nets) are given priority over the others,
• For certain gear, a specific distance must be respected in the setting so as not to diminish the efficiency of trapping.
Protection from financial hazards
In order to conserve relative stability in the market, certain measures permit the prud'homies to intervene in cases in which too big of a catch would make the prices fall. A prud'homme can, for example, put a halt to fishing until the prices rise back to an acceptable level. On a small scale, at the docks, a more spontaneous form of management allows for the re-targeting of the species, as in cases in which there are too many different species caught that are used only in the preparation of fish soups, for example.
These prerogatives come from a long tradition, as the prud'homies have taken on the responsibility of commercialization long ago, through the management of auctions or co-ops.
The prud'hommes are attentive to the individual situation of each member of the community: they aid the younger members, the retired fishermen, widows, and those with various problems (health, material, administrative authorizations...). The support, according to each case and the resources available, can be in the form of financing, administration, or institutional help... Some Prud'homies have incomes from rent, community aid, or historic compensation funds (tied to the industrialization of the sector...) that they manage as if they were mutual funds.
The following are all admitted by the regulations:
- Gill and trammel nets,
- Fixed, drifting and floating long lines,
- Towed, fixed and drifting lines,
- Traps and pots,
- Traditional fishing instruments (fyke nets, other traps, chum...)
All other tools are prohibited, particularly those used for trawling.
History of Mediterranean prud'homies
During the Ancien Régime the prud'homies made their rights known to all the kings of France (through patent letters), trying most often to fight against aristocratic and ecclesiastic privileges (like their use of trap nets and fish weirs, and tributes to be paid...) and raising the concerns of immigrant fishermen concerning the regulation or the prohibition of certain techniques. Patent letters from the tenth century can still be found in the archives of Marseille.
Later, just like all corporations, this organization was abolished during the Revolution. The prud'hommes of Cassis and Marseille went to Paris where they were supported by Mirabeau before the Constitutional Assembly. Recognizing the democratic function of this institution, the Assembly preserved it and authorized all ports that did not have a prud'homie to create new ones. Most prud'homies came to being in the following years.
Under Napoleon III, as the decrees of State for the regulation of all maritime fisheries were written, the decree for the Mediterranean transcribed the attributions of the prud'homies into modern law, recognizing the institution's responsibility in defining local rules for the different fishing techniques. This decree of 18 November, 1859, which has been modified several times since then, is still the text that legislates the prud'homies.
The presence of the prud'homies probably delayed the industrialization of the fishing sector at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the fishing communities preferring to continue their work in developing the limited and diversified quantities of products on a well stocked local market rather than selling large quantities at lower prices.
Due to various factors (arrival of foreign fishermen who brought more intensive fishing techniques, the local implantation of a research center that detected important undiscovered stocks, the opening of a common market of canned goods...), the State began the process of industrializing fishing starting in the 1960s, and opposed the prud'homies' ban on the generalized use of night lamps (specifically, the use of a rotating, sliding seine net and of a glowing ganglion used in the catching of small deep sea fish).
The current situation
Today, the prud'homies continue to function locally, separately from their ruling authority (ministry of fisheries), and with more or less influence depending on the local contexts: for example the importance of the number of artisan fishers and the necessity of regulating their gears within small fishing grounds (in ponds, lagoons, or tight sea coasts), the relative importance of "large boats" (trawlers and seiners) and the professional organizations which have vested interests in these intensive techniques, and the development of specialized coastal zones (touristic, industrial, residential...). Since the Common Policy of Fishing has been put in place, characterized by a trend towards increased productivity and influence by environmental lobbies, the prud'homies have struggled to defend their rights at both the European and the national level, and preserve the future of the small scale artisan fishers. Better integrated at the local and regional level, the prud'homies are often present in the places where coastal management consultation takes place.
Authors: Michèle Mesmain and Elisabeth Tempier
More info on Mediterranean fishing culture and updates on the prud'homies on the website of l'Encre de Mer.