What is a Boat Worth?

George William Anderson does not think the decommissioned boats were old or broken or inefficient: I saw beautiful boats, immaculately cared for, destroyed. It just broke your heart.[1] The kitchen windows of Ruby and George William’s house peek into the harbor of the Shetland island of Whalsay. Between 1992 and 2002, Ruby says she watched the whitefish fleet dwindle as, one by one, they sailed out past the breakwater for the last time. It was like watching a funeral, like watching the life go out of the harbor. George William was in his late thirties then, when he helped one Whalsay skipper sail his boat to a Denmark scrapyard to be decommissioned. When George William delivered the boat to be scrapped, he went into the yard where they were breaking up the vessels. Paint on the hulls cracked into coastlines, flaking fractals of primary colors chosen carefully to contrast with seal-toned water. George William says he remembers seeing a whole line of wheelhouses separated from their boats, like decapitated heads on the grass, some with soda cans still resting in their windows.[2]


At six degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the Shetland archipelago sits in the confluence of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The channel between the Faroe and Shetland Islands frames an arctic migration pathway for many marine species, making the fisheries between the two island groups some of the most productive in the world.

By the end of the twentieth century, however, the whitefish fishery around Shetland was declining. Policymakers sought to preserve fish stocks by reducing the number of EU boats fishing in the North Sea and Northeast Atlantic, and the European Council made EU funds available to help Atlantic-facing member states pay fishers to decommission their boats.[3] “Decommissioning” meant breaking up fishing boats for scrap. Faced with hard times and low quotas, many fishers had no choice but to accept the payout. By 2002, forty percent of the whitefish fishers in Shetland had decommissioned their boats.[4] By 2012, whitefish had begun returning to Shetland waters.

The EU plan had rare marks of a fisheries policy that, at least on paper, seemed successful.[5] Fishers were paid to decommission their boats, and, within a decade, declining fish populations began to rebound. When I was in Shetland in 2019, fisheries around the islands were more plentiful than they’d been in over 20 years. Yet most of the small and mid-sized boats that defined community along Shetland coastlines never returned to small-town harbors. And, when the time came to vote on Brexit, Shetland fishing communities had some of the highest percentage votes for Leave in Scotland.

The reasons here are neither uniform nor pure. Among them is the distance between one policy’s account of boats as commodities that can be bought and destroyed, and the kind of account I offer below.


It was the mid-1970s, and Sidney Sinclair needed a massive loan to buy a share in his first fishing boat. The bank called to confirm his decision: What collateral do you have to back this up? The whole crew laid down everything they owned. Everything was put against the boat, and Sidney says he had no hesitation about it. A bank representative was amazed: You’re jeopardizing everything you own for this boat? Sidney says he didn’t look at it like that. That’s just what they had to do in order to get started. That’s just what everybody did.[6]

He was the engineer on that first boat, which they named the Valonia. He says she was very successful; they fished awfully well with her. Sidney grew up in a fishing family in the community of Hamnavoe on the Shetland island of Burra. Being a fisherman was in the blood, he tells me.[7] His father and grandfather were both fishermen, and it continued on like that for more generations than Sidney can recall.[8]

One night, fishing for sand eels off the coast of Fair Isle, they filled her right to the top with fish until she couldn’t hold any more. They made for Fraserburgh on the mainland, where they would get the best price for their catch, but something went wrong. The boat started taking on water. With one-hundred tons of fish aboard, the Valonia lost all buoyancy. The engines started to slow, the bow began to dip, and the oil in the tipping engine tripped an emergency shut-off. With the engine off, there was nothing to help them pump the water out.[9]

Sidney was the engineer. He repeats this: I was the engineer. As the boat tilted, he scrambled down into the engine room. He poured more oil into the engine and got the level up enough for the pumps to start going again, but by that time water had started pouring through the celling vents and pooling on the floor of the engine room. He knew he had to abandon. We just had to abandon her. By the time he got up to the deck, the rest of the crew was calling to him to get onto the lifeboat and they paddled off to the side of the Valonia just before she turned turtle, entirely upside down. Sidney says that the only thing he could hear was the engine running: and that’s what kind of broke my heart… to hear the engines running and getting faster and faster and faster… and then just silence. She just stopped. And then she sank. But it was… to hear her those engines grinding themselves to pieces… I looked after those engines. I looked after that boat and she looked after me.[10]

[1] This post is based on a paper, entitled “This boat is a machine; this boat is my family,” that the author shared with the 2019 Inaugural European Graduate Fellows Conference at Yale University. That paper can be accessed here.

Italics rather than quotation marks are used in order to reflect what was communicated in conversations between author and interviewees that took place in a mixture of English and Shetland language. For more information on language in Shetland, see: https://www.shetlanddialect.org.uk/

[2] Ruby and George William Anderson, interview with author, 2019.

[3] Juan C. Surís-Regueiro, Manuel M. Varela-Lafuente, and M. Dolores Garza-Gil, “Evolution and Perspectives of the Fisheries Structural Policy in the European Union,” Ocean & Coastal Management 54, no. 8 (2011): 593-600.

[4] Personal communication with Dr. Ian Napier, 2019

[5] However, as members of fishing communities will tell you, the ocean and the beings that live within it frequently exceed human capacities to predict cause and effect. It is impossible to know the extent to which the 1990s decommissioning schemes were responsible for rebounding fish populations.

[6] Sidney Sinclair, interview with author, 2016.

[7] I use the term ‘fishermen’ rather than ‘fishers’ in this ethnographic section because ‘fisherman’ is the term that Sidney used to describe himself, and ‘fishermen’ is the term he used to describe his peers.

[8] Sidney Sinclair, interview with author, 2016.

[9] Sidney Sinclair, interview with author, 2016.

[10] Sidney Sinclair, interview with the author, 2016.

*Cover image: ‘Lovely Lines’ [watercolor and gouache on paper], painting by author.

[*Cover image description: a colorful watercolor abstract painting of an old wooden boat hull with layers of flaking paint.]