Heike Bachelier and Andy Heathcote’s Of Fish and Foe continues a cinematic saga – stretching back from Robert Flaherty’s 1934 Man of Aran to two recent films directed by Mike Day: The Guga Hunters of Ness (2011) and The Islands and the Whales (2016) – examining marginal hunting practices in the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a provocative study of Scotland’s last trad­itional fishermen, the Pullars, as their business is forced to close, apparently for reasons of conservation.

Of Fish and Foe questions environmental rights and protections in the context of these salmon fishers who use traditional techniques such as seal-culling to protect salmon numbers: methods that are eschewed by ecologists and conservationists. The film is edited as a series of arguments and counter-arguments. Are the fishers heartless killers who decimate seal and salmon populations, as one activist claims, or do they play a role in an important ecological niche? And might the real opposition be coming from the anglers and the owners of the hereditary fishing rights upriver? The film claims that in the same year that the Pullars finally saw their licence to fish wild salmon revoked, the salmon were merely caught in greater quantity by anglers upstream. Elsewhere, the Pullars argue that seal numbers need to be managed by humans in order that wild salmon populations can be maintained. All this is rather alarming for anyone sceptical of the ecological claims made by the Pullars, and one of the fishermen suggests provocatively that Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is in league with Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland and Esk District Salmon Fishery Board, putting their differences aside to vanquish a perceived common foe (the Pullars).

The film shows the Pullars under constant surveillance, videoed both by Fishery Board bailiffs and by Sea Shepherd. In response, the fishers also take to filming. Now everyone is recording everyone else whenever they meet, grimly staring each other down as if in a western. But cameras don’t simply record the truth: they are highly partial and manipulative tools that intensify the conflict, and as the Pullars learn when they find themselves in a courtroom with no television monitors, there has to be an audience for your story to be heard.

Bachelier and Heathcote have lent the authority of the feature film to an otherwise excluded community without necessarily condoning its activities. As in The Islands and the Whales, this decision allows Of Fish and Foe to go beyond simply painting a portrait of a precarious traditional society. Where Man of Aran could only romanticise the apparently ageless conflict between humans and Nature, these films make a direct intervention in the way we think about conservation and the natural world.

While frank about the violence of hunting, including explicit scenes showing the slaughter of fish and other animals, Bachelier, Heathcote and Day speak for hunters within traditional communities and scrutinise organisations that claim the moral high ground. Across these films, Sea Shepherd comes to symbolise a modernity that can comprehend neither an ecological ethics based upon local subsistence, nor the true forces that spell its demise. If Bachelier and Heathcote tack too close to the Pullars and let their own cinematic perspective take precedence, they do this so that we can examine fishing, the law, conservation and justice. At a time when public debate seems to value emotion, opinion and hearsay over evidence, Of Fish and Foe is a difficult-to-watch but vital documentary.

Alex McDonald is a curator and film-maker. cargocollective.com/alex-mcdonald