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Colonial Science, Vietnamese Fishermen and the Fish They Sought, 1900-1940

Fri, March 17, 12:45 to 2:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Floor: Lower Concourse, Grand Ballroom West


As early as 1896 the French colonial state in Vietnam established the goal of modernising and industrialising the off-shore fisheries of the colony. By wedding the emerging science of marine biology with the bureaucratic management of the colonial civil service, successive fisheries policies had the stated goals of increasing the quantity and perceived quality and mono-cultural consistency of the catch. Eventually, according to the economic policies put forward in 1917, the superior catch of French Indochina’s coastal fisheries would provide produce for regional and international markets, particularly those within the French imperial world. While yields certainly did improve over the long term, French colonial scientists and planners remained disappointed with the ‘unscientific’ practices and perceived ‘low quality’ of the catches hauled in to port by Vietnamese fishing vessels. As scholars of industrialising fisheries elsewhere have observed, what colonial planners perceived as failed scientific stewardship of fishing grounds was more accurately a confrontation between two fishing cultures. Fishermen failed to produce ever-greater, single-species catches not because they were ignorant of new methods or blind to new markets. Instead, fishermen sought to maintain their fishing practices—what and where to fish—in order to preserve a series of social and cultural relationships, between fishermen and other members of their human societies and between fishermen and the populations of fish they hunted. This paper will examine this confrontation between Vietnamese fishermen’s ‘moral stewardship’ and the colonial state’s ‘economic stewardship’.


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