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Capitalist crisis of overfishing

Published Nov 19, 2006 12:01 PM

It was a stark warning. According to the Agence France-Presse, a Nov. 3 article in the journal Science threatened that “the world’s fish and seafood could disappear by 2048 as overfishing and pollution destroy ocean ecosystems at an accelerating pace.” (Nov. 2)

Since fish stocks naturally vary, sometimes in a drastic way, it took a four-year study by an international team of scientists to examine and analyze 32 experiments, studies from 48 protected marine areas and global catch data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, covering the years 1950 to 2003.

The scientists also looked at a 1,000-year time series for 12 coastal regions, using data from archives, fishery records, sediment cores and archaeology.

Mark Kurlansky, in his book “Cod,” described how the Vikings and the Basques began exploiting codfish stocks from the Grand Banks—shallow areas in the North Atlantic off the coasts of the United States and Canada—shortly after 1000 A.D. Canada closed its cod fishery in 1992, but cod stocks still have not recovered. Some ecologists believe that the marine ecosystem has changed in such a way that cod stocks in Canadian waters will never recover.

The lead author of the study in Science, Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told the AP: “Whether we looked at tide pools or studies over the entire world’s ocean, we saw the same picture emerging. In losing species we lose the productivity and stability of entire ecosystems.” (Nov. 2)

“At this point 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed—that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating,” Worm said. “If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime—by 2048.”

Worm and the team he led were surprised at these results, which were far more drastic than they expected at the start of their study.

The decline of fish stocks has had and will have serious consequences for the people employed in fishing, as well as the people who eat seafood. The high unemployment in Newfoundland, due to the collapse of the seafood industry in that province, has led tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders to migrate to labor-short Alberta.

The decline of fishing off of Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa has been an important factor in the perilous trips West Africans make to Spain’s Canary Islands, looking for a better life in Europe.

Worldwide fishing provides $80 billion in revenue and 200 million people depend on it for their livelihoods. For more than 1 billion people, many of whom are poor, fish is their main source of protein.

Reactions to this study and to the problem have been mixed. Some voices, tied to the U.S. fishing industry, have tried blaming Indigenous peoples or cultures, or claimed that what is happening is just a normal fluctuation in fish stocks. Others have promoted a capitalist solution to the problem—for example, using a bidding process for catching quotas.

The Worldwatch Institute, which proclaims to provide “independent research for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society,” has just published “Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans.” The paper explains “how buyers of seafood—including individual consumers, school cafeterias, supermarket chains and large food distributors—can reverse fishery declines and preserve the fresh catch of tomorrow.” Yet this is throwing a worldwide crisis into the laps of individuals, and many of the institute’s suggestions, such as patronizing small-scale fishers, are a bit idealistic in the context of a worldwide crisis.

Certainly there are approaches that have some merit; fish farming is one of them. Chinese and Vietnamese peasants have been doing small-scale fish farming for 3,500 years. Quotas and licenses will limit the catch of commercially viable stocks, but might not touch the destruction of biologically important but commercially insignificant fish, which are often thrown overboard instead of being landed. Add the fact that the oceans are big and it is hard to catch or stop illegal fishing.

But what is really happening is the capitalist drive to maximize profits by maximizing production and minimizing costs. No individual capitalist can respect the limits imposed to preserve a “sustainable yield,” because their competitors might not, which would mean less profit and more risk. Small fishers have to grow larger or be ground up by floating factories.

The system of capitalist exploitation of natural resources has to be challenged. Measures must be promoted that will save these resources from depletion.