The significance of coastal industries for social structure and political mobilization

Today Norway is a society that highly values the ideal of equality. Is it reasonable to think that the historical development of coastal industries has contributed to creating more egalitarian social conditions than the agriculture, forestry, industry, and mining in the inland districts? Right up to the 1980s and ’90s the resources of the fisheries industry were considered to be "common property" that everyone had access to.

The special working conditions, both physically demanding and economically risky, encouraged a strong element of cooperation in the industry. Purse-seine fishing for herring was based on a division of labour among equals, and the profits were shared out fairly according to the work done and the proportion of equipment and boats contributed. The most skilful herring-sighter, who also had the ability to coordinate the complex operation of catching, was the foreman – the master seiner – and received a double portion.

The system of apportioning was also widely used in other fisheries; fixed salaries were very uncommon. Joint-ownership of boats and cooperation were probably necessary responses to the limited access to capital in the age of the fishermen-farmer, making a virtue of necessity. As late as the 1960s, when the herring fisheries underwent the expensive change from relatively modest-sized, handhauled purse seines to huge motor-hauled ring nets that required even larger boats, having the reputation of being a skilful master seiner earned a better credit rating at the bank than having capital or business skills.

Even in its new and more capital-intensive phase the herring fishery was an occupation for active fishermen, which underscored the continuing importance of expertise. Growth in the business often resulted in a division into several units, each with just one or two boats, preferably with younger family members as the new shipowners.
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