In my days as an early-career fishery scientist (to avoid being ageist we’re no longer allowed to refer to young scientists as, er, young scientists) I was thrown in at the deep end of a couple of contentious issues, one of which entailed the development in the 1980s of a harpoon fishery for basking sharks in the Clyde Sea area.
Given the public distaste for launching harpoons at large docile animals, coupled to the greater vulnerability of sharks to over-fishing and the short-lived nature of historical basking shark fisheries off the Scottish west coast, the renaissance of such a fishery attracted a lot of unfavourable press.
Yours truly was asked to carry out a literature review to navigate between the various perspectives and to give an objective overview. That was something of a challenge because exclaiming “Trust me, I’m a government scientist” is not the sort of clarion call that is viewed sympathetically by media outlets. In those days even the most egregious sound-bites peddled by the more extreme environmental lobbyists would usually be received more compliantly by the press than the words of a perceived government lackey (and as there was a lot of nonsense floating around with which I naturally disagreed, I didn’t end up a favourite of the press or the fishery’s critics).
Unsurprisingly, the fisherman concerned was largely demonised by the media. That was a real shame (although he sometimes seemed to be his own worst enemy) since up until then a great deal of what was known of basking shark biology came from collaborations between the fishermen and scientists. Moreover, at least four ‘popular’ books were written by Scottish basking shark fishermen of the 1940s and 50s – Harpoon at a Venture by Gavin Maxwell was the best known – and all contained interesting, if largely anecdotal, information.
One of those authors, ‘Tex’ Geddes, the so-called Laird of Soay, was Maxwell’s harpoon man and, like Maxwell himself, he was an instructor for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. The Independent’s obituary of him described him as “an accomplished knife-thrower and bayonet fencer, a boxer, a former rum-runner in Newfoundland, an orphaned lumberjack “tree monkey” whose father had been blown up while dynamiting a log jam and who had been expelled from school at the age of 12 as “unmanageable“). Nae bad, even for a Peterheid loon!
Anyway, our contemporary skipper was, like Geddes, something of a character albeit a less extreme one. We took part separately in a number of TV programmes, each facing hostile interviews covering the controversial fishery, including Channel Four’s ‘Fragile Earth’ series and the BBC2 ‘Nature’ programme fronted by Michael Buerk (famous for his ‘Ethiopian famine’ reports in the earlier 1980).
I think it was in the former (but I may be wrong) that our modern-day ‘Tex’ was asked about the moral issue of using a harpoon gun to kill such large and charismatic animals, sometimes in full view of families gazing down on the Clyde from the ramparts of Culzean Castle. Bearing in mind that he was being filmed standing on the prow of his boat, almost sideways on, with his harpoon gun fully loaded and pointing with priapic grandeur from below his midriff, his reply made me laugh. Having thought for a second or two, he focused attention on his weapon by sweeping his arm downwards with a flourish and proclaimed:
“That’s ma tool!”
I rather warmed to him after that 🙂