FISH + OCEAN GRABBING: The case of commercial fisheries

This article was first presented by Seth Macinko and Brett Tolley 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.
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 lease
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.


CASE 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.

CASE 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.
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


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