Of Fish And Foe review Pat Byrne

of fish and foe

Andy Heathcote’s documentary follows the Pullar family, who have traditionally fished in Scottish waters for decades and are now threatened by environmentalists among others.  The film follows John and Kevin Pullar and their crew as they lay their nets to catch salmon as the fish head to Scottish rivers.

Their methods, including the killing of grey seals who prey on the fish, are policed by bailiffs, whose job it also is to ensure that regulations are adhered to. The salmon fishers are also observed and harassed by –the Sea Shepherds  The film shows the clashes between the hunt saboteurs whose worthy aim is to defend, conserve and protect the oceans. Their views are straightforward in that they believe ‘Every living creature has a right to live.’ An attitude which conflicts with the views of the fishermen who are trying to make a living using traditional methods, which includes the killing of grey seals.

There are heated arguments, homophobic and racist slurs, claims of cruelty, which sometimes appear to have little base.  Tensions escalate between these two groups as the hunt saboteurs stalk the fisherman and damage their nets.  Police are regularly called to the shoreline to address disputes and some locals are vehement in their protests against the killing of the seals, albeit, the fisherman have the right to kill a set number each year.

However, the battle between the fisherman pursuing their traditional livelihood and the environmentalists working to protect wild fish is more nuanced and complicated than first appears.

The claims of sheer cruelty by the Sea Shepherds and the wilful killing of sea birds by the fishermen is called into question when you see the birds trapped in the fishing nets being carefully released. The scenes of the fisherman battering to death the salmon as they are thrown from the nets onto their vessel is harrowing. However, the concept of what constitutes cruelty is addressed when we see how the seals viciously hunt the fish.  The fisherman accept the management of seals as part of their trade – there is no natural predator of the seals in the Scottish waters other than ‘the occasional orca’.  The film maker does a fine job in helping the audience consider both sides rather than emphatically viewing the approaches of the salmon fishers as intrinsically wrong and every claim made by the environmentalists as correct.

There is friction between the bailiffs and the fishermen when nets are left in the seas outwith set times. The bailiffs remove and destroy nets, which the fishermen claim to have left because of dangerous conditions.  There are hints at corruption as opinions clash.

As the film progresses we recognise that there is more to the situation than first seems to be the case. Policy makers and environmentalists’ concerns with over-fishing balanced and bailiffs aiming to ensure rules are adhered to is balanced against the traditional reliance of people in coastal villages looking to the sea for their livelihood.  The relentless attempts to stop the Pullar family fishing for salmon with their nets arises from more than a campaign for animal rights.  Powerful rich landowners owners of fishing rights on Scottish rivers have a vested interest in putting them out of business. The more salmon that reach the rivers the greater the landowners chances of success in the lucrative trade of angling.

The documentary gives a fascinating glimpse into a  way of life where skills have been passed on between generations.  The salmon fishers are at the mercy of the bailiffs, organisations such as Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland, locals, including people who have moved to the Scottish coasts attracted by the scenery and wild life, and the hunt saboteurs.  Ironically the Sea Shepherds appear not to recognise that the anglers, filling the coffers of the posh land owners kill more salmon than the fishermen using their nets.

The documentary is intriguing and offers insight into a lost way of life in a modern world when traditional family businesses are ultimately threatened not only by environmental concerns and outdated policy but by the rich and powerful.

Pat Byrne, July 2019.

Showing at Glasgow Film Theatre until 1 August, 2019





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