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Fish and Ocean Grabbing: The Case of Commercial Fisheries


This analysis of current trends in fisheries policies, prepared by Seth Macinko and Brett Tolley, was presented at the Left Forum on June 1, 2014.


On April 8, 2009, a story in the New York Times quoted the administrator of NOAA (the federal agency in charge of managing OUR oceans) as saying that NOAA was "taking preliminary steps toward privatizing fisheries" (in New England).


We submit that if the director of the Forest Service or the National Park Service, or the Bureau of Land Management was quoted as saying those agencies were taking preliminary steps towards privatizing public forests, national parks, or public rangelands, that there would be an immediate outcry from "the left." And yet, there was no outcry whatsoever. Fisheries policy occupies a distinctly unique position in American environmental policy--- the singular solution to fisheries management problems now embraced by both the left and the right is to privatize access "rights" bestowed freely and in perpetuity to select members of industry. What is so different about fisheries?


When the US Congress created a 200-mile offshore zone in 1976, the fishery resources within that zone became a public asset for US citizens.


Given continual concerns about overfishing of certain fish stocks, fisheries economists (and others) have settled on the idea of setting scientifically-determined catch limits that are then divided into individual catch assignments for each boat that is fishing a particular stock. But this simple tool (pre-assigned catch) is being wrapped up in an ideological embrace of private property rights that states that only with private ownership can fish stocks be saved.


The alleged problem is a lack of ownership and invocation of Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" is ubiquitous in the explanations of the push for privatization. Notably, the pre-assignments of catch are not ease auctions as is done with timber or offshore oil and gas resources, but simply given away for free and talked about as the personal property of the lucky giftees-theirs to sell or lease as they wish. The public asset has instantly become a private asset.

This give-away is countenanced by the left and the right with sagacious commentary about how the owners will now have an incentive to conserve their new valuable assets-"the ownership promotes stewardship thesis."


Fisheries resources already have an owner. The American public. If fisheries are poorly managed, it is due to poor management, not a lack of ownership. Hardin was wrong, as he later admitted when he stated that he should have entitled his famous essay "the tragedy of the unmanaged commons."


The idea that private owners will automatically act as stewards to preserve their assets was proven dramatically naïve by the world financial crisis of 2008 (when Alan Greenspan confessed to Congress that he was in "shocked disbelief" to learn that self-interest was not sufficient to protect financial assets). Again, fisheries policy stands out for its bizarre uniqueness: what is demonstrably bad for banks, is good for fish.


EXAMPLE 1: In 2013 Lion Capital, a British private equity firm, paid $980 million to acquire Bumble Bee Foods and Bumble Bee's subsidiary Snow's Inc, which included the exclusive property rights to 23 percent of the United States' clams, which makes up a quarter of the national supply.

EXAMPLE 2: In 2010, the Carlyle Group, the second-largest private equity firm in the world, acquired the China Fishery Group, whose fleet covers the Arctic to the South Pacific and supplies fish across the globe. Following the Carlyle acquisition, the China Fishery Group released a new business strategy, which included buying shares in global fisheries. The company now owns nearly 20 percent of Peru's fishing region. It also owns shares in the North Pacific.

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Catch shares have been backed by an alliance of conservative, free-market advocates and environmental groups, some of which have financed scientific studies promoting the merits of the system. The Walton Foundation, according to its website, spent $20 million in 2012 to promote Catch Share programs.

"Conservative interests - many of them free-market advocates, including the Charles Koch Foundation and the Reason Foundation" - have aligned with progressive groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund to fuel a heavily funded campaign to consolidate the fishing industry."


"Fishermen are becoming like sharecroppers and tenant farmers, getting paid much lower rates. Money is taken directly out of fishing communities and transferred to Wall Street," fisherman Zeke Grader, Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Major impacts include job loss, infrastructure loss, reduction in number of boats with a disproportionate impact to the smallest-scale fishers, ecological damage, and loss of access and control over local food.


People are being scared into accepting the privatization of their fishery resources by seemingly daily news stories about the overfishing of the oceans. But, as above, we have a management problem, not a property problem. For fisheries where pre-assigning catch makes sense, this can be done through public leasing of catch assignments with significant safeguards in place to ensure the greatest benefit to the nation and health of the ocean is reached. (analogous to timber and oil leasing). Real stewardship will come from concerted efforts to change our view of natural resources, not ideologically-infused missions to privatize public resources.


Visit to learn more about the "Who Fishes Matters" campaign and visit to contribute to the National Family Farm Coalition's new Farmland Monitor, a farmer-and-fisher-powered website for posting information on resource grabs.



Seth Macinko is a professor at the Department of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island.

Other publication by Seth Macinko & Daniel W. Bromley: Property and fisheries for the twenty-first century: seeking coherence from legal and economic doctrine


Brett Tolley is a fourth-generation commercial fishing family member and is the Community Organizer for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.

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