Hook, Line, and Purse-Seine

About the time the Marvelettes were singing “Too Many Fish In The Sea,” the Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO) tuna fishing fleet carrying capacity (tons of capture to fill holds) measured 36,631 metric tons and the total catch weighed 167,456 metric tons, a ratio of 4.6: 1, catch-tons to carrying capacity tons. By the time Marvin Gaye was releasing his sea-change album Trouble Man, fleet carrying capacity had increased to 61,246 mt and the catch to 226, 185 mt. In 1976 when the Sex Pistols released the second greatest song in rock and roll history, “Anarchy in the UK,” the catch peaked at 394,275 mt with the fleet carrying capacity at about 162,000 mt, a ratio of 2.4:1. Carrying capacity continued to increase, to almost 168,000 mt in 1981, but the catch did not, declining to 322,000 mt. At that point the carrying capacity entered a downward spiral.

By 1992, fleet carrying capacity was little more than half the 1981 peak, and the catch ratio was above 3:1. The EPO fleet began another round of expansion, with catches increasing to 610,000 mt in 1999, a ratio 4:1. Capacity continued to increase, to 185,000 mt in 2001 while catches again declined, and the catch recovery ratio has again dropped below the critical 3:1 ratio. And those in the groove with the sound of young America might be able to hear the Four Tops singing “It’s The Same Old Song,” and Jimmy Ruffin’s “I’ve Passed This Way Before.”

There’s more to the songs than the singers, and there’s more to the catch than overfishing. In the history of rise and fall of catch ratios is the story of overcapitalization and overproduction as opposed to simple scarcity and depletion of a natural resource.

Conservation measures for EPO yellowfin tuna fisheries were agreed upon in the late 1960s. However, as the conservation measures yielded greater stocks of yellowfin, ship capacities increased to reduce unit costs, garner greater portions of the quota, and take advantage of the increased catch rates. Average weight of the catch was 12 kg per fish.

The competition drove portions of the total fleet to fish away from most frequented areas, targeting smaller, less mature fish. Lower yields, reduced catches per hour, caused progressively earlier closings of the fisheries. Pressures from the fish production corporations led to the collapse of the conservation measures. By 1982 the catch was half its peak. By 1983, average weight of the individual fish was 6 kg.

As conservation quotas took hold in the 1960s and 70s, fish stocks recovered. Then greed trumped, as it does at least half the time, fear. Capitalization of the industry increased. Greater capitalization is blind to everything but the need for greater profit. Unit costs of production dropped with the increased capacity of the fleet, but the total costs of reproduction could only be sustained with increased supplies and higher prices, both of which were undermined in the very process of production. That was then.

This is now. In June 2004 the World Bank issued a dire warning about the state of the world’s fisheries, including estimates that a quarter of the world’s major marine fisheries are over-fished and 40 percent are fished to capacity; that the cumulative weight of the fish ( biomass) surviving in the coastal waters of Asia is only 8-12 percent of the biomass at the beginning of the 20th century; the prevalence of cod, tuna, and groupers has fallen 90 percent in the past 50 years.

Whether or not the condition is that desperate, there is no doubt that catch rates have declined, and individual catch weights are low. Still, during the mid 1990s fish capture weights remained fairly steady. Increases in fish production has occurred in aquaculture, marine and inland fish farming which now accounts for 30 percent of the total.

Shrimp accounts for 19 percent of the international trade in fish production and shrimp fisheries seem to be withstanding the pressure.

Still the pressure on the world’s fisheries is real and it is the result of simultaneous over-capitalization and underdevelopment. International trade absorbs 38 percent of world fish production and the developing countries provide 50 percent of all exports. Low income food-deficit countries (LIFDC) account for 19 percent of exports. Net receipts (exports minus imports) for developing countries expanded from $4 billion in 1981 to $17.7 billion in 2001.

Most of the international trade is production from boats of advanced countries fishing in waters of the developing countries (thus making clear who really benefits from increased exports). Yet the World Bank reports a quadrupling of the number of people fishing. The Bank reports: “The extra numbers are comprised mostly of small, non-industrial fishers in developing countries, seeking food, or to supplement their incomes.”

The populations of developing countries have partaken only modestly in the increase in fish production, particularly since the Asian financial crises of 1997-1998. Calories per capita per day from fish in developing and LIFD countries has been flat since 1997, and remains at 80 percent of the world average.

As the capitalist expansion in Asia drove some economies forward, it disrupted and destroyed the pre-existing petty market economies of village, agriculture, and exchange. Subsistence production, simple exchange, becomes an impossibility. Immiseration of the previous relations of exchange forces some of the population into the cities.. and others to the sea, not for subsistence, but for subsistence exchange; not from poverty, but from simultaneous capitalist integration and marginalization.

In 1998, the number of large ships, weighing more than 100 gross tons and longer than 24 meters, in the world fishing fleet numbered 19,992. In the 1950s, ships this size were built at the rate of 500 per year. In the 1980s that rate was 2500 per year. Currently the rate of construction is 300 per year. Still, the capacity utilization rate of these ships is less than 1, and this over-capitalization determines the overproduction.

S. Artesian

address all comments to: sartesian@earthlink.net


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