Fishing for Profits
Special to the Progressive Populist
The Grim Reaper Casts His Net
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
A.V. Krebs is editor/publisher of The Agbiz Tiller Online, http://www.ea1.com/tiller/
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