Fishing for Profits
The Grim Reaper Casts His Net

Special to the Progressive Populist

Today America's family farm system of agriculture stands on the threshold of eradication. In the 1980s the nation watched ever-mounting numbers of farm bankruptcies, foreclosures, and forced evictions reap a grim "human harvest" of suicides, alcoholism, divorce, family violence, personal stress, and loss of community.

Continuing now into the late 1990s the very economic and social fabric of rural America is being ripped asunder. Meanwhile, the control of our food supply has been seized by corporate entities whose purpose is not to feed people, or provide jobs, or husband the land. Instead their purpose is to increase their cash flow and reduce their transactional costs in order to placate their excess-profit-obsessed institutional investors.

Now we see the same situations developing in the fishing industry and the communities that traditionally have supported that industry.

Just as the fundamental nature of American agriculture has been changed by corporate agribusiness, with factory-type farms, "vertical integration" and "forward contracting," where the processors control production, so has the world fishing industry been transformed by transnational corporate control, factory trawlers, value-added commercialism and Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).

While corporate agribusiness has managed to successfully eliminate "excess human resources," that is, family farmers, from agriculture through a series of policies and price manipulations, the large corporations that today dominate seafood production are destroying this nation's fishing industry by promoting the privatization of the marine commons through the use of ITQs.

Under this system, participants, usually large corporate interests and in many cases the very same corporations that dominate corporate agribusiness, are allocated quota shares in the total annual catch of a given fishery. Quota holders can "transfer" -- buy, sell, lease -- shares on the open market, as with private property or futures contracts.

With each passing year it has become more apparent that the fate of the North Pacific fisheries industry need only to look at the demise of this nation's family farm system of agriculture in recent decades to fully comprehend its own fate. In each case capital has replaced efficiency and technology has replaced labor as corporate-controlled interests have become more intent on becoming "miners" of the land and seas rather than stewards of these natural and finite resources of the world's food supply.

Unlike in the past, where farmers and fishermen were the producers of our food, increasing numbers of them are now becoming simply the raw material providers for a giant food manufacturing system.

Meanwhile, corporate food companies continue to seek to standardize our food supply through the "manufacturing" of our food, value-added food and creating "new" food through biotechnology while forcing consumers to pay a higher and higher quantitative and qualitative cost for their daily food.

By deifying "cost benefit analysis" at the expense of the "common good," these corporations have managed to annul the positive dimensions of the family farm system and the independent fisheries and eliminate their economic and environmental advantages, particularly as they relate to building genuine communities.

As social anthropologists Patricia L. Allen and Carolyn E. Sachs have pointed out, any system built upon a foundation of structural inequities "is ultimately unsustainable in the sense that it will result in increasing conflict and struggle along the lines of class, gender, and ethnicity." Today, this nation's corporatized food system has become just such a system.

The consequence of such action, as Greenpeace has noted, is that companies such as American Seafoods, Tyson's, and ConAgra have transformed the fishing trade into a "global extraction industry dominated by multinational corporations and industrial economies of scale." They have made fishing "not about a way of life," about feeding people and providing economic sustenance for local coastal fishing communities, but rather about "making a good rate of return on their global investment capital."

In 1994 Congressional testimony Rolland Schmitten, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service, was asked the question "Do ITQs promote 'big business' as large companies have resources to buy or lease a significant amount of shares?" He replied: "This could happen, as experienced with grocery stores, agriculture and other enterprises ... To the extent that larger firms are relatively better capitalized, they may be able to obtain more shares relative to their needs for efficient operation than could smaller firms."

Despite such public rationalization, the corporate seafood industry's own spokespersons admit to the fact that the major problem facing an area such as the Alaskan groundfish fisheries is overcapitalization, abetted by heavy bank financing from abroad, principally Norway, and also by subsidies from the U.S. government.

As Vince Curry, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, noted in 1994: "The problem with factory trawlers is they've built twice as many boats as have been justified, and they've created a very severe problem for this industry. They're driving ITQs because it was one way to take a public resource and use it to get them out of their bad investments."

Indeed, at the 21st Session of the Committee on Fisheries in Rome in 1995, the United Nations' Food Agricultural Organization (FAO) Ministerial Conference, in adopting the Rome Consensus on World Fisheries, noted that the problem of overfishing in general, and overcapacity of industrial fishing fleets in particular, threatened the sustainability of the world's fisheries resources for present and future generations. They urged that governments and international organizations take prompt action to review the capacity of fishing fleets in relation to sustainable yields of fishery resources and where necessary reduce these fleets.

Again the parallel can be seen in agriculture as it was Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank's vice president for environmental and socially sustainable development and chairman of its agricultural research group, who recently observed that "we have to do the hard work of dealing with the problems of the small-holder farm in remote areas. They are the real defenders against food insecurity."

Such voices, however, have been ignored by the corporate interests that today dominate the fishing industry and agriculture.

As in our country's rural communities, the growing crisis in our coastal fishing communities is systemic, for as it negatively affects the fishing fleet based in those communities so to does it impact the community's entire economy. Whereas previously the dollars earned from fishing multiplied as it moved through the community's economy, now that money is either no longer being generated or, in the case of the large transnantionals, it leaves the community immediately on being monetized.

For example, in 1992 Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for southeast Alaska, commissioned a report about the socioeconomic impacts of the halibut and sablefish quota programs which placed the quotas in the context of past limited-entry measures. Restrictions associated with these measures, Greenpeace's Jed Greer reports, have reduced rural communities' access to fishing grounds, particularly in the halibut fishery where residents were active participants.

With very low per-capita income levels, the report explains, individuals or households of these communities would find it difficult to purchase quota. They were also likely to sell their shares out of necessity, frequently to higher-income, urban-based fishers. Since a limited-entry program for salmon fisheries began in 1975, by way of illustration, the number of salmon permits owned by rural residents of southeast Alaska had declined by 60% in the ensuing 17 years.

There are other striking parallels between what has been taking place in agriculture and is underway in the fishing industry.

Just as banks and farm management companies have been seizing more and more control of bankrupt and foreclosed farms, so too have the corporate giants of the fishing industry been pursuing more debt-laden factory trawlers.

In recent years American Seafoods, the world's largest seafood company -- which is neither owned nor operated by Americans, but rather is of Norwegian origin and registry -- has been buying such trawlers to the extent it now has a total of 15 of the largest factory trawlers in the Northern Pacific, completely dwarfing its competitors.

Although it was born in Seattle, Washington, American Seafoods has little to do with the United States other than fishing off American coasts. In a Norwegian television interview one the corporation's board members described its startup. "Kjell (Rokke, owner of the company) and I were sitting around saying, 'OK, these boats are financed in Norway, they're converted in Norway, we've got Norwegian investors, we've got Norwegian specialists on the boat, OK, we call it American Seafoods, hahaha.' "

Despite its name, American Seafoods is a wholly owned subsidiary of a Norwegian multinational corporation -- Resource Group International (RGI), formed several years ago from a loose accumulation of bought-up companies and real estate holdings. In October, 1996, RGI merged with the Norwegian conglomerate Aker, to become Aker/RGI.

Taking a page from corporate agribusiness's book, the giants of the fishing industry have in many ways duplicated those conditions which have been the hallmark agriculture's "harvest of shame" -- the treatment of its migratory labor force.

Like corporate agribusiness, factory trawler companies have also been using lax labor laws to maintain their operations, resulting in the fact that shipbuilding jobs have not been going to American shipyard workers; factory trawler workers have been excluded from federal minimum wage and overtime laws while some make no money at all; crews are often cheated out of wages and these workers have less rights to file wage claims. At the same time trawler companies have a history of opposing labor unions, and they usually do not hire local workers but frequently hire foreign workers.

But these parallels should come as no surprise for, as noted earlier, some of the same companies that today dominate corporate agribusiness have also become major forces in commercial fishing. Right behind American Seafoods within the corporate fisheries industry is ConAgra, the nation's second-largest food manufacturer, and Tyson's, the nation's leading poultry producer.

For example, Tyson's and its founding president Don Tyson are being investigated by Independent Counsel Donald C. Smaltz. Early in 1998 Tyson's pleaded guilty to giving former USDA Secretary Mike Espy $12,000 in illegal gratuities and the company consented to pay the federal government $4 million in fines and $2 million in costs. It admitted to giving gifts to Espy at a time when it was urging the USDA to go slow on imposing new meat and poultry handling instructions.

Prior to this investigation the Tysons, long-time friends and confidants of Bill Clinton, were questioned whether they would have any influence over the President's appointments to positions such as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of which the National Fisheries Service is a part. Son John Tyson responded "I would be irresponsible to my company and my industry if I didn't have any input."

That same year the U.S. Department of Commerce, using recommendations from its own scientists at NOAA as well as from the Pacific Fishery Management Council, issued a rule proposal regarding allocation of the year's whiting harvest, setting aside a significant amount of the allocation to smaller Pacific Coast fisheries who do business with local shoreside processors.

Within a month, however, the Commerce Department reversed itself, ignoring the recommendations of its scientists and of the Council and gave the allocation to Seattle-based factory trawlers, including Arctic Alaska, the Tyson subsidiary. Many believed the reversal was due to the intervention of the White House. Marine biologists said there was no scientific justification for such a reversal, that the new ruling would cause more harm to the fish stocks because of the trawlers' large bycatch (the catch of other unwanted marine species) and that the rule could well cost the local communities between $35 and $40 million in income.

In 1994 alone, North Pacific factory trawlers threw overboard more than 581 million pounds of dead and dying fish because they were the wrong size, sex or species. The waste from these 60 factory trawlers was greater than all the similar fish caught and kept by all fishing vessels in the Northeast U.S. during that same year.

Thus, as our nation's small fisheries are becoming subsumed in the hulls of giant corporate factory trawlers. They are joining those thousands of family farmers who already have been lost to corporate agribusiness' grim reapers.

Readers may write, call and/or fax the Secretary of Commerce and demand a ban on factory trawlers in U.S. waters and the full implementation of the new provisions in the Magnuson Act to reduce bycatch, protect critical habitat and prevent overfishing. Write the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 20230; phone: 202-482-2112; fax: 202-482-4576. For more information contact: Green Peace Public Information, 1436 U St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009;

A.V. Krebs is editor/publisher of The Agbiz Tiller Online, .

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