Two books that swim against the tide

Issue: 150

Sarah Ensor

A review of Alistair Couper, Hance D Smith and Bruno Ciceri, Fishers and Plunderers: Theft, Slavery and Violence at Sea (Pluto Press, 2015), £19.99 and Stefano B Longo, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark, The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries and Aquaculture (Rutgers University Press, 2015), £26.95

Human activity has pushed the world’s oceans into crisis from overfishing, pollution and warming water linked to climate change—and if nothing is done about it the results will be catastrophic for marine systems and the billions of humans who rely on them. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2015 Living Blue Planet Report: Species, Habitats and Human Wellbeing clearly shows that in just over 40 years, marine vertebrate populations have declined by 49 percent. These vertebrates include all our favourite dinner fish such as cod, haddock, salmon and tuna while a quarter of shark, ray and skate species are now threatened by extinction, mostly due to overfishing and environmental degradation.

At the same time fishing remains one of the most dangerous occupations. Even in advanced capitalist countries such as the United States, with theoretically stringent safety rules and equipment, fishers are 25 times more likely to die at work than the national all-worker fatal injury rate.

Fishers and Plunderers and The Tragedy of the Commodity are part of the contested solutions offered to this crisis and they complement each other in that they centre on powerful, fragile marine ecosystems and the ordinary people who live by working them. Both books recognise capitalism’s drive for profit and the commodification of every aspect of fishing as part of the problem and argue that the solutions arrived at have only exacerbated the problems of overfishing and environmental degradation.

Fishers and Plunderers detailshow the European Economic Community’s (EEC) fishing policies of the 1970s were designed to concentrate profits among a small number of capitalists. It was argued that, by introducing quotas with limits to the legal catch of each of the most popular fish species, these companies would be able to invest in and develop state of the art trawlers and fishing systems. It was further argued that it would be in these companies’ interests to manage fish stocks for the future. Inevitably the smaller companies weren’t able to compete but they were able to sell their right to fish. These Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) effectively privatised ocean fisheries.

Capitalists and their friends in government said this was necessary to prevent the “Tragedy of the Commons”, referring to the title of Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article, published in Science magazine. Hardin argued that if people were left to their own selfish behaviour then resources, such as land, water, air or fish that were held in common would always be destroyed by neglect and overuse. Harding argued that:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

Hardin’s idea was that anyone with access to a common resource such as open grazing land would always use it to their own personal advantage even if that were ultimately to deplete or even destroy the land. For instance, if five herders each have five cattle grazing on the same piece of land and one of the herders adds one animal to their herd they gain as they now have six animals to sell instead of five. As there are now 26 animals in total rather than 25 there will be slightly less grass to eat per animal but this disadvantage is spread equally among the herders. On balance the advantage for the herder of adding an animal outweighs the disadvantage for themselves. It appears that it is in each herder’s interest to keep increasing the numbers of cattle in their herd even if it degrades the land for everyone. In fact, Hardin argued, the rational individual would always act in their own interest to the detriment of the common land.

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Theoretically, this short, surprisingly thin article could have become an argument for strong state regulation to prevent individuals from destroying common resources whether grazing land or fisheries. But in the context of the end of the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s and falling rates of profit it was seized on by people who wanted to privatise everything. It became one of most cited academic articles ever, even though, as Ian Angus points out in “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons”, Hardin did not offer any evidence for his assertions. The article’s success was that it chimed with the reassertion of the dominance of privatisation and free market capitalism in the face of post-war redistribution.

The ideology of the Tragedy of the Commons expressed as EEC policies of ITQs and privatisation ensured the destruction of fleets of small boats and processing plants in relatively small fishing ports from Britain to the furthest ends of the Mediterranean. It also further developed the process of commodification in which every fish, shellfish, krill or plankton becomes valued for its market price. That creature’s value in the great multi-layered web of its marine system became of secondary importance—if it was valued at all.

The Tragedy of the Commodity describes the process: “Capitalist commodity production drives fisheries toward intensified production with the central aim of capital accumulation”, so that, “nature is integrated into bio-economic models that are expected to determine the catch level that will bring about greatest returns on investments” (p61). Part of this process was the development of the theory that it was possible to work out how much of any particular species could be caught without destroying it—the so called “Maximum Sustainable Yield”. Set at around 30 percent of the fish stock, these calculations did not usually take into account the age, size or breeding state of the fish, or its importance to an ecosystem. Yet, Tragedy of the Commodity continues, “Maximum Sustainable Yields are incorporated into Individual Transferable Quota systems to avert tragedies assumed to be caused by the unadulterated self-interest of users. Yet, the institutional arrangements driving the social metabolism towards ever-expanding captures and degradation of the resources are overlooked… The heart of the problem becomes the solution” (pp61-62).

So overfishing, dumping of dead unprofitable fish—so called by-catch—destruction of finely balanced ecosystems and the incentives to flout all the rules were built into the architecture of the system for developing fisheries over the past 55 years.

This situation, as Dean Bavington points out in Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse, is how the Newfoundland cod stocks collapsed in the early 1990s despite being “managed” for over a century. Even after a total ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland waters in 1992, when around 30,000 workers were laid off, the recovery of the fish stocks has only reached 26 percent of levels considered safe for the future of the species in the area.

The Tragedy of the Commodity uses case studies of Atlantic Bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon—both species driven close to destruction—in order to examine the effects of recent “solutions” to specifically capitalist problems of fish ­production; tuna “ranching”, salmon aquaculture and genetic modification.

As its title indicates, the book is an explicit challenge to Hardin—the history of Bluefin tuna hunting detailed here effectively demonstrates that the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons is nonsense. For at least 1800 years Bluefin tuna has been one of the most prized fish in the world. Traditionally these tuna have been caught as they came to breed in the shallow salty Mediterranean water around Sardinia and Sicily. As late as the mid-20th century the seasonal killing was organised around a series of very large traps created by nets hung vertically in the water that guided the fish to the final harvest pen.

These tuna are highly sensitive to stress. If they are not calm they will not breed. It was a remarkable feature of this hunting method that large numbers of these fish, weighing up to 450 kilos, could spend a month in the traps without being so disturbed that they would not breed and damage the following year’s harvest. The whole process took up to four months, was labour intensive and sustained tens of thousands of workers and their families.

For at least 1700 years the seasonal tuna harvest was vitally important to the prosperity of large numbers of people, and human beings managed the fish sustainably. But modern capitalism doesn’t like seasonal fishing and unreliable yields, so with the development of trawlers, tuna tended to be caught before they reached the breeding grounds. Many more fish were caught and for a short while returns for investors were very high; until inevitably the tuna population crashed as fish were unable to reproduce.

So, as Longo, Clausen and Clark show in their case studies, the behaviour Hardin describes is not the behaviour of a mythical herdsman but the behaviour of actual capitalists destroying the real world for profit. Before capitalism developed Bluefin tuna into a luxury commodity for the rich, fishers and merchants managed a harvest that they depended on in a dialectical ­relationship with the fish and its habitat. The solutions found to these capitalism-created problems actually exacerbate the situation. Now wild young tuna are caught for “ranching”—to be held in pens for fattening, which means that there is even less chance that they will breed. Furthermore, no species can exist in isolation from the pressures of habitat destruction and climate change. So while the Bluefin tuna migrates long distances between feeding and spawning it is under more pressure from climate change affecting water temperatures as its food migrates further north to find its preferred cold water.

Even when companies can successfully breed tuna in pens there will still be the problem of needing at least ten kilos of fish as food to produce one kilo of tuna (p101). Capitalism expects to find a way as long as a single fish for sushi can fetch $37,000 at auction (as happened last January)—even if this is a fraction of the price paid only two years before. If it cannot find a profitable solution then Bluefin tuna will disappear and be replaced by some other species suitable for rich customers who can be persuaded that a previously unwanted fish is now a delicacy.

The other solutions to failing stocks of wild fish include the genetically modified (GM) salmon called AquAdvantage that will mature to market size in half the time of an ordinary Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty, the company that owns the salmon’s patent, argues that because its GM salmon grow so much more quickly than existing salmon it will take much less food to produce it. It is not clear whether this is what Fishers and Plunderers refers to in saying, “there is research in progress regarding alternative feedstocks, which could take the pressure off wild fish stocks” (p5). But it is more likely from our experience of other commodities becoming cheaper that as the price drops more of the salmon will be sold, more bred and ever larger amounts of under-valued species will be destroyed to feed them.

Fishers and Plunderers explains how the European bosses’ club tried to solve some of its problems of overfishing and underemployment of fishers by arranging for large boats from Europe to fish the coasts of West Africa for access payments. Two thirds of this fee is paid by what is now the European Union (EU) and one-third paid by the ship owner, but very little of this money ever reaches coastal communities. And even less goes to help the local fishers immiserated by the loss of their fish and destruction of local ecosystems. One report found that in 2012, some 37 percent of all fish caught in West African Exclusive Economic Zones was illegal. Most of it was shipped to the Canary Islands for processing and export to Europe. Fishers and Plunderers points out that, when African governments complained to the EU about the theft and demanded they act to stop it, the giant fish corporations simply threatened to boycott the Canaries and the matter was dropped (p100).

Fishers and Plunderers also focuses on the realities of fishing for a living. Even on the best terms and conditions available, commercial fishing involves constant exposure to harsh weather and sea conditions, long working hours, little and irregular sleep, heavy work and poor diet. These conditions are exacerbated by loneliness and isolation from families and friends, often for months at a time.

For a relatively small number of fishers wages can be high because fish is valuable and quotas have become concentrated, in areas such as Scotland, in very few boats. There are few problems finding crews to work on any boat where £30-50,000 can be earned in less than eight months of the year. But this is exceptional; most fishers worldwide are badly paid and lack contracts. And it isn’t always about workers hired from distant countries isolated by language barriers. Some of the worst pay and conditions cited in Fishers and Plunderers are faced by Ukrainians working on Russian crabbing boats. Globally these problems escalate to theft of wages, violence, debt bondage, slavery and trafficking while fishing vessels are registered under flags of convenience or in countries with few enforceable rights for fishers. This scandal was effectively uncovered by Dr Christine Stringer and her colleagues at the University of Auckland, whose research found the extent of forced labour on foreign chartered fishing boats operating in New Zealand waters (p142).

The book would like to be a handbook for fishers’ rights and to help anyone trying to unionise, so its appendices detail the relevant international laws such as the current United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and the International Labour Organisation’s Work in Fishing Convention. It seems unrealistic that it will reach the workers themselves, though the book is undoubtedly a powerful tool for campaigners. The authors mention a few strikes and instances when land-based campaigners have helped stranded crews on impounded boats, but there is little expectation that the crews can help themselves in isolation. Yet Brian Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster showed that even land-based campaigns supporting fishermen could win major gains in safety and training at sea by shaming trawler owners and forcing them to put the worker’s safety before profit. Only this summer, Thai fishing workers went on strike against the imposition of EU regulations that threaten to make thousands of small boat owners illegal for not being able to afford regulation equipment. Where there are no fishing strikes to point to, it is worth remembering that refugees and migrants were able to get into Europe in large numbers in 2015 only because they refused to wait in grim camps and suffer quietly with no future. No-one expected that it would be the self-activity of the most marginalised and apparently weak that would open cracks in Fortress Europe.

As Ian Rappel wrote in International Socialism 147, “At an abstract level, the reason why capitalism creates the conditions for biodiversity loss is that non-human species and ecosystems that lie outside of the commodity production process simply fail to realise any meaningful valuation. This harsh logic applies not only to elements of biodiversity that fall completely outside of human instrumental utility, but also to those forms of biodiversity that have developed alongside and with other non-capitalist social formations such as subsistence or peasant agriculture” (p103).

These two books consider some of the most brutal aspects of the effects of capitalism in the process of turning every part of nature and every aspect of people’s lives within it into something saleable. “Capitalist production,” Marx explained, “only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker”. He could equally have been writing about the oceans now. Both these books are accessible and contain detailed research that will be of great value to activists and campaigners. We know that species are under pressure from a convergence of overfishing, habitat destruction and human-made climate change that will push many more into extinction. The Tragedy of the Commodity also makes clear that to stop this destruction our society has to be organised in a completely different way and we have relatively little time to achieve it.