Are fishermen happier than others?

Fishermen are said to uniquely enjoy a high ‘satisfaction bonus’ from their profession. Copyright: Crisco 1492/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]. This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Fishermen are said to uniquely enjoy a high ‘satisfaction bonus’ from their calling
  • The resulting happiness, though, is found to apply only to fishers who employ others
  • Findings have policy implications on fish stock management and labour structure

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Fishing, despite the dangers, affords a higher satisfaction bonus than other similar occupations, argue authors.

[JAKARTA] Imagine you are out on the open sea. You feel the challenge of the adventure ahead of you. You are in the company of your most trusted sailing buddies, navigating your boat through the expanse of the sea. Yes, you are a fisherman, yet for you it is not merely a profession. It is your livelihood, a way of life.

The notion of ‘satisfaction bonus’ from fishing is well known in both anthropology and economics literature. It is defined as the non-monetary benefit gained from participating in commercial fishing and from the nature of the work. These may include the thrill of the hunt or the challenge facing the power and expanse of the sea. Other aspects of extra satisfaction from fishing may include the cultural forces that forge a certain group identity.

So, does this unique ‘satisfaction bonus’ among fishermen make them generally happier compared to similar level-type professions?

“If you get extra happiness from fishing, you will tend to fish or sail more often, ultimately catching more fish.”

Zuzy Anna and Arief Anshory Yusuf, Padjadjaran University

The answer is not simple as there are many other things that can make people happy. Empirical literature on happiness suggests that important factors that affect people’s happiness may include income, education and health status. Like any profession, if a fisherman has low income, low education and is unhealthy, then it is less likely that he is happy, in spite of all the thrills he gets while sailing on the open sea.

Adding to the complexity, there are other aspects of fishing that may reduce, not increase, fishermen’s happiness. In fact, commercial fishing is considered one of the most dangerous civilian jobs in the world. The most recent census of the US Bureau of Labour Statistics shows fishers and fishing-related workers recording almost 100 fatal work injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. The occupation has the highest fatality rate. Being away from family for extended periods is also among factors that may be associated with lower life-satisfaction.

In order to validate the generality of this “happiness bonus” among fishermen, we need at least two things.

Firstly, we need to control other factors that affect happiness in fishermen. We should compare life satisfaction of fishermen to that of non-fishermen with similar levels of income, education and other factors.

Secondly, we need to have data of both fishermen and non-fishermen to make a good comparison. Of course, we also need some kind of measure of their life-satisfaction.

A recent paper by researchers at the Padjadjaran University, Indonesia, published 30 May in Marine Policy, is among attempts to work around these challenges. The survey, covering more than 20,000 individuals across Indonesia, was conducted in 2012 and 2014. In the survey, subjective well-being data was obtained from answers to the standard happiness questions. Questions were asked on income, education level, health status, age, geographical location and other socio-economic and demographic factors to enable researchers to establish the respondents’ profession as fishermen. 

The survey found evidence that being a fisherman is associated with more happiness. However, this does not apply to all types of fishermen. It only applies to fishermen who are self-employed but get help from other employees. Those fishermen who work for other fishermen or those who fish alone without workers were not found to be happier. The researchers surmise this is because the fishermen who get help from other workers are in a better position (from having more time and assistance) to enjoy the “happiness bonus”.

What is the relevance and the policy implications of such findings?

First, the nature of the “satisfaction bonus” is more or less similar to subsidies. For instance, fuel subsidy for Indonesian fishermen reduces the cost of fishing, potentially increasing net profit, which then becomes an incentive for them to sail more. Satisfaction bonus has the same effect. If you get extra happiness from fishing, you will tend to fish or sail more often, ultimately catching more fish.

However, this behaviour will put more pressure on fish stocks. According to the FAO’s State of Fisheries and Aquaculture Report, marine fish stocks have been declining. The fraction of marine fish stocks exploited within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90 per cent in 1974 to 66.9 per cent in 2015. Despite declining fish stocks (and difficulties in changing occupation) there may not be a corresponding reduction in fishing efforts. This may result in too many boats chasing too few fish and leading to an accelerated depletion of fish stocks.

Then there is the macro perspective. Indonesia particularly needs higher economic growth in its aspiration to escape from the middle-income trap – a situation where a country is stuck as middle-income because it cannot sustain its higher economic growth. Higher economic growth typically needs structural transformation, the process in which labour moves from lower productivity sectors such as fisheries into higher productivity sectors such as manufacturing and services.

There are also micro implications to the research findings.  These are, however, only relevant when policy makers start to use happiness, or well-being, in addition to standard metrics like income in its development policies. The finding, which suggests that the happiness bonus is only detected among fishermen who employ workers, implies that there are grounds for government to enhance entrepreneurship among fishers. This can be implemented by increasing access to capital financing and education.

Lastly, all the relevance and implication of the existence of ‘satisfaction bonus’ among fishermen also depend on how big the bonus is, as well as how universally this is shared across countries and across societies. There may be heterogeneity due to social, cultural and institutional context. We leave these open for further research.
Zuzy Anna is the executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Development Goals Studies, Padjadjaran University, Indonesia. She is part of an expert group that advises the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group of world leaders who are committed to developing, catalysing and supporting solutions for ocean health and wealth in policy, governance, technology and finance.

Arief Anshory Yusuf is a professor of economics at Padjadjaran University and a senior researcher at the SDGs Centre of the university. He is also a visiting professor at King’s College, London, and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University. He is the current president of the Indonesian Regional Science Association and director of the Economy and Environment Institute, Indonesia.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.