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The Industrialization of Commercial Fishing, 1930–2016

Summary and Keywords

Nations rapidly industrialized after World War II, sharply increasing the extraction of resources from the natural world. Colonial empires broke up on land after the war, but they were re-created in the oceans. The United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union, as well as the British, Germans, and Spanish, industrialized their fisheries, replacing fleets of small-scale, independent artisanal fishermen with fewer but much larger government-subsidized ships. Nations like South Korea and China, as well as the Eastern Bloc countries of Poland and Bulgaria, also began fishing on an almost unimaginable scale. Countries raced to find new stocks of fish to exploit. As the Cold War deepened, nations sought to negotiate fishery agreements with Third World nations. The conflict over territorial claims led to the development of the Law of the Sea process, starting in 1958, and to the adoption of 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the 1970s.

Fishing expanded with the understanding that fish stocks were robust and could withstand high harvest rates. The adoption of maximum sustained yield (MSY) after 1954 as the goal of postwar fishery negotiations assumed that fish had surplus and that scientists could determine how many fish could safely be caught. As fish stocks faltered under the onslaught of industrial fisheries, scientists re-assessed their assumptions about how many fish could be caught, but MSY, although modified, continues to be at the heart of modern fisheries management.

Keywords: fishing, overfishing, industrial fishing, factory processing ships, marine refrigeration, maximum sustained yield, technology transfer, subsidies, ecosystem management, Law of the Sea, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

World War II radically transformed the world of fishing, as new technologies increased the ability of boats to find and catch fish. The expansion of fishing was also propelled by the Cold War, as nations staked territorial claims on the ocean. This industrialization led to the creation of new international law and a modern fishery management process, undergirded by the assumption that that fish had “surplus” that could be safely harvested.

Fishing has always been a vehicle to achieve state power: “The discovery of the sea inaugurated a new age in which control of the world’s trade, and to a considerable extent also political control, fell gradually into the hands of a small group of states, mostly in Western Europe, which could build enough reliable ships to operate in all the oceans at once, and move at will from ocean to ocean,” wrote maritime historian J. C. Perry (Perry, 1994, p. 170).

For most of the early 21st century, it was generally considered that the marine harvest peaked at 86.4 million tonnes in 1996. However, new surveying methods suggest that the catch could have been as high as 130 million tonnes, and that catches are declining at a steeper rate than scientists originally thought, with just 74.4 million tonnes caught in 2010 (Pauly & Zeller, 2016). The global fish harvest costs $105 billion to catch, but it sold for $80 billion (World Bank, 2005). The fishing power of fleets worldwide may be as much as 250 percent higher than what would be needed to fish at sustainable levels (von Moltke, 2011).

The increased catches have been driven by technology. In the 1880s, steam engines allowed Europeans to take cod (Gadus morhua) off Iceland and Norway, drawing complaints of overfishing. With the end of World War I, the Japanese had taken control of German colonies on Pacific islands, developing a lucrative tuna (Thunnini) fishery. American tuna boats followed fish from San Diego south to the Galapagos in the 1930s.

With each advance in technology, from sail to steam, and the introduction of refrigeration, fishing capacity increased and fishing became more useful to the governments of various nations. Marine refrigeration during the 1930s meant boats could fish farther from home and stay longer at sea. As fishing expanded, it created a snarl of territorial conflicts: Where did a nation’s territorial waters stop? While three miles had been informally considered the limit of a nation’s territorial sea, it had never been adopted into international law and there was no agreement on any seaward expansion.

With the start of World War II, the oceans assumed a new importance for many nations. The development of naval and submarine warfare greatly accelerated the science of oceanography for both the Unite States and Soviet Union in particular (Oreskes & Rainger, 2000; Hamblin, 2005). Several nations commandeered the largest fishing vessels to assist in the war effort. Fishing was a vital industry, needed to feed the troops. Yet there has been very little study of the impact of war on fishing. Historian Poul Holm argues that World War II had fundamental consequences for the European fishing industry in the North Atlantic, but he does not go far enough (Holm, 2012). As far as fish stocks went, the impact of World War II was global.

The fishing industries of Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union were shattered by the time the war ended, with many boats sunk and a general shortage of material for repairs. Canadian and American fisheries boomed, with some West Coast fisheries finding their first steady markets in the military contracts for canned salmon, sardines, and frozen fillets. With the invasion of Norway, the nation’s production of cod liver oil was diverted to Germany, leaving a shortage of the oil, the only source of Vitamin A and D. The shortages stimulated new American and Canadian fisheries for sharks, as an alternative source of the vitamins (Moskovita, 2015).

With the end of the war, most postwar governments recognized that their fishing industries needed to be rebuilt and modernized; most made subsidies available to modernize the fleet. Eugene Skolnikoff argues this postwar period was formative to the development of the formal research and development process (Skolnikoff, 1993). Government money eased the transition from salted, dried, and canned fish to a world of new fish products like fish sticks and artificial crab. It funded research on new technologies to catch fish on a massive scale. Most of all, the government money ensured the transfer of new technologies, so that fisheries industrialized rapidly over most of the world. The oceans were a primary battlefield during the Cold War, which lasted from early 1946 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Cold War created an environment where trade policies and political alliances were entered into with little thought that there might be negative environmental consequences.

As colonial empires broke up on land after World War II, they were re-created in the oceans, resulting in a new stage of imperialism. The United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union, as well as the British, Germans, and Spanish, industrialized their fisheries. Nations like South Korea and China, as well as the Eastern Bloc countries of Poland and Bulgaria, also began fishing on an almost unimaginable scale. There was a rush for the new and old fishing nations to find new stocks to exploit, and to form new relationships to catch and process fish from the waters of other countries. Fishing stimulated boatbuilding, created employment in coastal areas, and could provide fish for export. It was a quick way to industrialize and modernize an economy. With a ready supply of government money, fishing globalized extremely rapidly, creating an enormous disruption in always fluctuating fish populations.

There has been recent attention to the impact of foreign policy on natural resources. Kurkpatrick Dorsey has written about the attempts at international regulation of whaling (Dorsey, 2013). Jennifer Hubbard and Helen Rozwadowski have looked at the evolution of fisheries science (Hubbard, 2006, Rozwadowski, 2002). Fisheries and whaling are still considered separately, even though both have their roots in the same political and economic goals of postwar recovery and both severely impacted marine ecosystems.

Rebuilding the Global Fishing Fleet

The rebuilding of the global fishing fleet began when the Supreme Commander Allied Powers rapidly rebuilt the Japanese fleet. The prewar Japanese fleet had been the world’s largest, harvesting between 3.5 million and 4.5 million tonnes of fish a year. The U.S. catch, even pushed upward by the Alaska salmon component, was less than 2.5 million tonnes (Epenshade, 1949).

The Japanese fleet was rebuilt by June of 1947, with far greater capacity than before the war (Finley, 2011). The new boats were bigger, with more reliable engines, allowing them to operate further offshore. Recording echo sounders allowed fishermen to identify schools of fish below them in the water, so they could set nets more precisely. Sonar searched the waters ahead of them, while Lorans made it possible to return to the same patch of water where fish had been found. With better refrigeration, boats could follow migrating schools of fish.

Boats grew steadily larger, especially after the launch of the 280-foot Fairtry in March of 1954 in Aberdeen, Scotland. It represented something entirely new: it brought together, for the first time, modern fish catching, processing, and freezing capacity. It could stay at sea for weeks at a time and fish in gale-force winds of up to 63 miles an hour (Warner, 1977). Its first trip was to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland for cod; during its first year of operation, it produced 650 tonnes of cod fillets from 2,000 tonnes of cod in just 37 days. Within two years, the Soviets had ordered two dozen copies, on their way to creating the world’s largest fishing fleet. They had announced an ambitious five-year plan in 1946 to expand fishing five-fold and to do it by 1950 (CFR, 1946). By the mid-1960s, they had fleets of hundreds of sophisticated ships operating throughout the Atlantic and they were steadily escalating fishing in the Pacific. Fleets from the Black Sea were sailing through the Suez Canal to tap the resources of the Indian Ocean (Herman, 1964).

With Soviet assistance, Communist China built a fishing fleet; the catch more than doubled in just four years, from 2.64 million tonnes to 5.6 million tonnes by 1960. The Koreans bought boats from Japanese fishermen, who were using government subsidies to build new boats. The first South Korean exploratory trawler went to the eastern Bering Sea in 1966. Commercial operations began the next year and production reached an estimated 5,000 tonnes of pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus) in 1970 and 1971 (Pruter, 1973).

Starting in 1961, Spain created the world’s third largest fishing fleet. Within a decade, frozen fish production went from 4,000 tonnes to approximately 500,000 tonnes. Spanish fishermen operated substantial fisheries off the Americas and along the African coast from Tangiers to Capetown (Meltzoff, 1986). The government provided generous government loans and other subsidies.

European and Asian boats were fishing on the West African shelf area, while boats from South Korea and Taiwan not only expanded their coastal fisheries, but also joined the world tuna longline fishery (Kasahara, 1960). Much of the fishing was driven by market demand for fish meal, the prime ingredient in the food fed to the modern poultry and livestock industries. With the collapse of California sardines in the 1950s, processing equipment and capital was moved to Peru, creating the largest single species fishery in the world, Peruvian anchovies (Engraulis ringens) (Cushman, 2003). Landings increased 27% a year, culminating in a peak catch of 12 million tonnes by 1970, before the fishery collapsed (Reid, 2001).

As sardine stocks collapsed in Peru, processing equipment was transferred to South Africa, turning a country with a negligible fishing industry into one of the major fish canning countries of the world. By 1957, South Africa was producing some 2.5 million cases of pilchards. The industry moved into the markets formerly supplied by California sardines (Pacific Fisherman, 1958).

Canada was also embarking on an extensive program of fisheries development, catching fish to export. Newfoundland voted to join the Canadian confederation in 1949, and the federal government began a rich flow of money to modernize fisheries in Newfoundland and the three other Maritime Provinces. The American market was ready to absorb as much cod as fishermen could catch. The government would help improve refrigerated railcars and be involved in a cooperative advertising campaign with industry and an extensive program of research into technologies designed to catch more fish (Canadian Fisherman, 1949).

In the space of a couple of decades, fishermen from Iceland had gone from longlining in dories to setting records for the most fish caught in a single trip, 380 tons in just seven days, during 1948 (Commercial Fisheries Review, 1948). The trawler Ingólfur Arnarson (named after the first settler in Iceland), was the first fishing boat in the world with radar. The modernization was paid for by government money, and Iceland also subsidized the price of fish for its fishermen if the fish was not selling on the world market. By 1950, almost the entire trawler fleet was equipped with radar and automatic sounders and it was considered, at that time, the most modern trawler fleet in the world. The government money meant all the boats modernized at once, with great rapidity.

While the new technology greatly expanded the capacity of fishermen, it was not immediately adopted everywhere. The American government did not create programs to help fishermen build new boats after the war (although some smaller naval vessels were turned over to tuna fishermen, and larger ships sold for fish transport vessels out of Seattle and Alaska). Federal fishery officials believed it was their job to increase markets for American fish. If they could create more demand for fish, that would solve the problems of the New England fishing fleet, which was old and outmoded. However, the problem for the New England fleet was cheap fish, first from Canada, then from Iceland and Norway, selling at prices the New England fleet could not meet (Weber, 2002).

Just as the tools of technology greatly expanded the ability of boats to catch fish, so the new tools of science—statistics, mathematical modeling, population dynamics—were transforming fisheries science, shifting away from ichthyology, the study of fish in their environment. As the oceans Balkanized into Cold War camps, so did marine science. Biological oceanography expanded and focused more on basic research about how the ocean functions. The intellectual exchange between oceanographers and fisheries scientists dwindled, and it remains very limited today. The chasm between these two disciplines is reflected by their present day reputations. Biological oceanographers are said to study life at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain whereas fisheries scientists study animals at the middle and top (NSF Foundation, 2000).

Oceanography is also fragmented from within, with the development of biological, chemical, and physical oceanography, as well as marine biology, meteorology and geophysics (Oreskes, 2015). The focus of fisheries science has shifted over the decades, from a focus on identification and classification of fish, to mathematical models, a trend solidified with the introduction of computers that made it possible to analyze increasing amounts of data (Morishima & Henry, 2000). These fish population demographics studies, used to develop fishing equations for predicting stock abundance, became the mainstay of American fisheries biology. This linkage between the development of fisheries science and creation of industrial fishing has been lost to sight. For most of the 20th century, fishery scientists were partners with fishermen, all of them seeking to increase the catch (Hubbard, 2014). Postwar fisheries science focused on helping fishermen find fish more efficiently, process it into new product forms, and sell it to the public.

Fishery Expansion and Fisheries Science

The expansion of factory processing ships greatly increased pressure for nations to increase their territorial limits beyond three miles. Iceland, long unhappy with the Europeans who had fished for centuries in their waters, acted most decisively to deal with the foreign boats. It defiantly expanded its limits four times: to 4 miles in 1952, to 12 miles in 1958, to 50 miles in 1972, and finally to 200 in 1976. The first expansion, to 4 miles, set off an international process of meetings, culminating in the three Law of the Sea conferences that created the framework for modern fisheries management.

Iceland asked the United Nations to hold a “technical” conference on fishing, to provide guidance to the International Law Commission, which was studying the question of territorial seas. The International Technical Conference on the Conservation of the Living Resources of the Sea began April 18, 1955, at the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) headquarters in Rome. Delegates from 45 countries attended, including the Soviet Union, as well as scientists from regional and international organizations.

The meeting recommended the Law Commission adopt what came to be called maximum sustained yield (MSY) as the goal of international fisheries management. The Law Commission adopted the recommendation at the first of the Law of the Sea meetings in 1958. MSY was defined in 1949 as “to make possible the maximum production of food from the sea on a sustained basis year after year” (Chapman, 1949. p. 67). MSY is theoretically the weight of the oldest cohort in a population when it reaches its maximum weight; it thus requires an infinite number of boats to catch all the fish. In other words, overcapacity is an essential element of the theoretical concept. Fish that are not caught are wasted, of no benefit to humans.

MSY reflected the growing industrialization of nature after 1920, as scientific concepts of industrial management were applied to natural resource systems in an effort to standardize and increase production (Josephson, 2002). It was an expression of Progressive ideals of efficiency and expertise, creating management systems where trained experts would be able to estimate when the maximum harvest had been attained, and when harvest would be slowed or halted. It was based in a utilitarian philosophy that held that resources should be used. Not to harvest fish was wasteful.

MSY assumes that populations reproduce and grow, and that growth rates can be increased by thinning the population, especially by the removal of the older, slower-growing fish. This produces the “surplus” that can safely be harvested and channeled scientists into a narrow focus on estimating the total biomass of fish, rather than the different sizes and age structure of the population (Smith, 1994).

The most important decision was that scientific evidence of overfishing would be necessary before fishing could be controlled or halted—the single most significant fishery management decision of modern times. The practical result of the Rome meeting was that the American tuna fleet, as well as the distant water fleets of Britain, Japan, and a host of other developing countries, could continue to fish off the coasts of poorer, less developed countries. Foreign fishing could only be halted when scientific studies proved that overfishing was occurring. Given the primitive state of fisheries science in 1954, with most states, provinces, and countries just starting to build natural resource management institutions, it was an impossible standard to meet.

It is during the period from 1945 to 1958 that many of the international institutions to manage fisheries and whaling were framed. Most international commissions were bilateral and multilateral organizations, with very limited authority. The states controlled how many boats would be allowed to fish. Efforts to limit licenses and boats were slow to emerge, especially in the United States, where fishermen fought limited entry well into the 1980s.

The United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union all scrambled to set up an extensive network of foreign alliances around fishing. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was also sending Western “experts” to Third World countries, bringing the Western ideology of progress. These scientist-ambassadors, as oceanographer Alan Longhurst calls them, promoted Western ideas about science and scientific practices in agriculture, oceanography, and fisheries biology (Longhurst, 2010). The visiting experts helped developing countries build large-scale, mechanized fisheries. The conflicts over territorial limits and fishing continued to escalate.

The Eleventh General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution on February 21, 1957, to hold a conference that would look at legal, technical, and political aspects of the sea. There would be three sets of meetings, in 1958, 1973, and 1982, that created modern maritime law.

The first Law of the Sea Conference opened March 11, 1958, in Geneva. The countries that participated claimed territorial seas ranging from 3 to 200 miles, with a goodly sprinkle of those that didn’t want any limits at all, such as the United States and Japan (Wolff, 1980). Nations divided into two interest groups. The coastal states wanted to establish ownership of the fish off their shores, which the distant water nations opposed. There was a vote on a compromise of setting a 12-mile limit, but it failed to get a majority of votes. There were other issues as well, especially ownership of the mineral resources of the deep seabed. Scattered all over the seafloor were manganese nodules containing nickel. The sea also contained dissolved minerals such as gold and silver. The fish were important, but there were other riches to be harvested from the seas (Hannesson, 2004).

Soviet and Japanese Expansion

A number of factors led the Soviets to expand into fishing. They had annexed Western Belorussia and East Prussia. The shoreline extended for thousands of miles, and there were 10 seaports, 4 of them accessible throughout the year (Taskin, 1961). Since all citizens were guaranteed employment, the shipbuilding and fisheries expansion was an important source of employment. The real motivation was the desperate need for protein, part of the larger drive for superiority on the seas. The Soviets built an ocean-going fleet, a powerful navy, merchant marine, and oceanographic research vessels. Like Japan, they used this emerging maritime strength as evidence of their modernity and rapid economic growth (Dunning, 1984).

The prewar fishing fleet was heavily damaged during World War II, leading the government to its first five-year plan in 1946. The restoration of the fishing industry would be accomplished through “the principle of improvement and modernization.” Plans called for increasing harvests far beyond the prewar level; the fisheries goal for 1950 was to increase the catch by at least 50% to 340,000 tonnes (CFR, 1946). As part of that expansion, the Soviet Union began a campaign of whaling in 1948 (Berzin, 2007).

During the next two decades, fish played an important role in the Soviet economy, providing up to one-third of the nation’s animal protein. It was an important source of employment. The fishery was managed by a large, centralized state administration and supported by educational establishments to train a large workforce. The Soviet state subsidized the fishery, initially because it was exploratory, then for strategic reasons (Pruter, 1973). The industry enjoyed several advantages. Funds for capital construction came from the central budget and did not have to be paid back. The price of fish was set by the state, and the higher the price, the easier it was to show a profit. Workers were paid by piecemeal or by a standard rate, with incentives in the form of extra pay for long service, overtime, over-fulfillment of quotas, and regional rates for hardship service on long or stormy voyages.

The Soviets owned more than half of the world’s tonnage of big fishing vessels, more than 5,000 fishing vessels, factory vessels, and fish transport. It was four times as large as the Japanese, the next largest in size. It was also increasing about 10% a year. Bulgaria, East Germany, Poland, and Romania also sharply increased in their vessel tonnage, all of it for distant water fishing. The Soviet and East European fishing fleets made up almost 60% of the world’s total tonnage in fishing vessels over 100 gross tons in size (Christy, 1977). The Soviet bloc countries were taking between 50 and 70% of their catches thousands of miles from home, greatly increasing their harvesting costs. Fuel costs increased steadily through the 1970s, rising to more than 20% of harvesting costs (Kaczynski, 1979a).

Japan had the world’s second largest fishing fleet by 1974, about 12% of the world’s total. It also operated the world’s largest fishery for pollack, some 652,000 tonnes. Nearly 45% of Japan’s total catch came from the 200-mile zones of the United States, Canada, and the USSR (Joseph, Klawe, & Murphy, 1988). The Japanese continued to enter into bilateral negotiations for access to stocks around the world. A 1974 report cited 135 overseas investments with a value of $59 million. Most of the agreements were in Asia and Oceana, but there were also agreements in North America, Africa, and Latin America (Christy, 1977). Japan was also being increasingly challenged by competition from other longline fleets, especially Taiwan, in both the fishing grounds and the marketplace (Haward & Bergin, 2001).

Fishing had always been subsidized by the Japanese government. It encouraged the building of larger fishing boats, engaged in an extensive series of support services for fishing, including setting up a system of weather warnings, investigations in oceanography, gear technology, and the training of young fishermen (Nicholson, 1907). It invested heavily in refrigeration technology in the 1930s, building freezing facilities and installing refrigeration on its larger fishing boats and transport vessels (Japan Times and Mail, 1939).

New Technologies

Among the most significant innovations in the development of fisheries were new product forms, especially the development of the fish stick in 1953. The sticks were uniform, simple to prepare, and, best of all, required no cooking (merely heating), totally divorcing them from messy, smelly fish that consumers had trouble cooking. Fish sticks could be made by stacking fillets into a mold, freezing it, then slicing and re-freezing. Fish caught in Canada, Iceland, and Norway was shipped to the United States. The imports of fish blocks soared, worsening the economic problems of the New England fishing fleet (Houtsma, 1971).

Historian Paul Josephson calls the fish stick the ocean hotdog. Three years in development, it signaled “the modern era of easy-to-prepare, nutritious foods,” (Josephson, 2008, pp. 44–61). Many innovations in technology came together to create it, including new refrigeration techniques and the spread of the supermarket, with its frozen food aisle. Governments and industry sponsored education campaigns to get consumers to try the new products.

New technologies greatly increased the ability of fishermen to find and catch fish. San Diego tuna man. Mario Puretic in 1955 created a hydraulic power block to pull in the nets used by purse seine fishermen, making it easier and safer to haul heavy nets. The big new nets could handle large volumes of skipjack and yellowfin (Sharp, 2001). The technology was rapidly adopted in the United States, Norway, Iceland, Spain, and Portugal. The gear could be adapted to traditional boats, increasing the catch capacity and reducing the size of the crew. Purse seining spread rapidly, greatly increasing the tuna catch.

As Soviet and Japanese boats expanded throughout the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean, they encountered large schools of walleye pollock (Herrfurth, 1987). Pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) are found throughout the entire North Pacific rim, from the waters in the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and into the Bering Sea. They are a relatively new species, only around for three million years, and are closely related to Atlantic cod. They occur in large dense schools off the sea floor, which means they are easily caught. They also have a low by-catch of other species, making them easy to sort and process (Bailey, 2013). The flesh is white, with a low fat content, so it is good for fillets and minced fish used in fish sticks and fish burgers. There was a long history of harvesting pollock in both Japan and Korea. The initial catch in 1960 was just 25,000 tonnes. The Soviets boats joined the fishery in 1959 and catches exploded to 655,800 tonnes by 1969 (Herrfurth, 1987).

Fueling the growth, especially on the Japanese side, was the discovery that pollock was the perfect fish to be turned into a fish paste called surimi. Pollock surimi could be frozen without destroying qualities that allowed surimi to help preserve other fish. Surimi products could now be made available all year long in Japan, and demand soared. Within thirteen years after the introduction of frozen surimi in 1960, the Japanese surimi-based product industry doubled in size. The frozen surimi industry by that time was producing 355,000 metric tons annually. As of 1984, the surimi industry is a $500 million business in Japan (Sonu, 1986). Though almost any fish can be used to make surimi or fish paste, pollock offered an unmatched combination. They were abundant and easy to catch, and that made them economical—if you had an industrial fishing operation.

After 1960, Japanese tuna boats were also equipped with rapid freezing technology. The surface and the inside of the tuna are frozen simultaneously, allowing ice crystals to freeze before they can clump with other ice crystals, damaging the cell structure of the fish (Tucker, 2007). The technology allowed tuna to be delivered to where processing costs were cheapest.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Thailand emerged as a leading exporter of canned tuna. “They wasted nothing: tuna blood and flesh regarded as unsuitable for canning we made into pet food, the water in which the tuna was cooked was used to make a concentrated soup, and bones were ground in fertilizer,” wrote John Butcher in his account of the impact of the expansion of Japanese fishing in Southeast Asian waters. “And they paid low wages to their workers, nearly all of whom were young women hired on a daily basis. Since canning tuna is a highly labor-intensive process—skinning the tuna and cutting the loin meat from the fish must be done by hand—this gave Thai canneries a great advantage over many of their competitors,” (Butcher, 2004, p. 264).

Political developments also aided the expansion of fishing from the Pacific to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. One of the most significant was the incorporation of Micronesian islands into American foreign policy objectives. The Japanese had taken possession of the Marshall, Marina, and Caroline Islands from Germany after 1918. The Japanese colonized the islands and built a tuna fishery. The islands came under American control after the war.

The United States did not directly annex the Japanese Pacific islands. Instead, the entire northern Pacific Ocean area became a trusteeship of the United Nations, administered by the United States. The area was under the supervision of the UN’s Security Council, not the General Assembly. Since the United States possessed a veto in the Security Council, the islands were under absolute American control (Weeks, 2002). Through its control of the Trust Territories, the United States had access to isolated sites deemed suitable for nuclear testing.

The American Pacific Proving Grounds included Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands, Christmas Island, and the Johnston Atoll. Between 1946 and 1952, the United States conducted 110 atomic bomb tests. Nuclear testing had to be done in areas with few human residents and where the oceans could absorb the radioactive debris. Tests had to be kept as secret as possible. The United States, France, and Britain concluded that the safest place to accomplish these goals were small islands in the remote Pacific. The testing programs were carried out without the consent of native peoples.

The Navy had built a cannery at American Samoa during the war. It took bids in 1952 for a company to operate the cannery. Van Camp’s Seafood of San Diego signed a five-year lease and began to expand the cannery’s capacity. Van Camp’s agreed to provide for the improvement of American Samoa by developing the skills of fishing and fish processing among the Samoans, paying local wages, and ensuring a supply of raw, frozen, and processing fish (Whittaker, 2007).

The initial American policy in the islands was driven by a desire to build an economy that would allow the natives to modernize their economy (Weitzell, 1946). With that in mind, the U.S. Tariff Schedule approved a clause, under Headnote 3 (2) that products from American Samoa would be exported to the United States if the local component was at least 30% of the value. A second powerful inducement was that the territory was exempted from the Nicolson Act, which prohibited the landing of fish by foreign flagged vessels in U.S. ports (Hamnett & Pintz, 1996). Fish caught by non-American vessels could land their catch at Pago Pago, where it would be processed, then exported to the United States with no tariff. Fish canned in oil carried a tariff of 35%, while tuna canned in brine water had a tariff from 6% to 12.5%.

In January of 1954, Van Camp’s entered into a contract with seven Japanese tuna vessels to deliver their catch to the cannery. The boats established an albacore (Thunnus alabunga) fishery in the South Pacific. Vessels from the Republic of Korea and the Republic of China soon joined the fleet (Otsu & Sumida, 1968).

Van Camp’s found that Samoans could catch, clean, and process fish, but the federal minimal wage was too high for the company to make a profit. Van Camp’s was operating at a loss and no other industries had moved to the islands. In 1956, the company appealed to Congress for permission to lower wages; despite opposition from fish processors on the mainland, permission was granted later that year. Star-Kist Samoa, Inc., began operating a new cannery adjacent to the Van Camp plant in 1963. Both canneries depended entirely on foreign boats to supply the fish for canning (Otsu & Sumida, 1968).

Exempting the companies from paying American-scale wages in fish plants paved the way for other U.S. companies to move to the islands, setting up manufacturing companies that could ship products to the United States. In particular, large clothing manufactures opened factories in American Samoa, creating sweatshops with a long history of abuse of workers (Ortiz, 2002).

With this series of decisions, American Samoa became the focal point for Japanese tuna to enter the United States, leading to the ultimate demise of the tuna processing industry in San Diego and San Pedro. With the establishment of a tuna cannery in Puerto Rico—also heavily subsidized and exempt from American wage standards—in 1953, the stage was set for Pacific fishermen to move into the Atlantic and Indians Oceans. Japanese boats would successfully develop longline techniques during the 1960s to target Atlantic bluefin tuna, (Thunnus thynnus), especially off Brazil, before moving on to the Gulf of Mexico, the only known spawning area in the Western Atlantic (Fromentin & Powers, 2005).

The key to Japanese dominance of the markets was the low wages it paid. Large Japanese fishing companies would guarantee a minimum monthly wage of only 5,000 to 6,000 yen, or about $13.90 to $16.50 in American dollars (Commercial Fisheries Review, 1951). The work was arduous and conditions were harsh. The working day would begin early in the morning and last until the catch was processed. Vessels had quotas they had to meet. Conditions were just as bad at the onshore canneries in the Northern Kuril Islands, with 21-hour work days, with poor food and sanitary conditions. The wage structure emphasized bonus for increased production, encouraging workers to remain on the job even when they were clearly too tired to continue (Howell, 1995a).

Between 1950 and 1975, the world economy grew almost 5 percent per year, and 3 percent per year per capita (McNeill & McNeill, 2003). Fishing grew 8 percent a year through most of the 1950s, which was interpreted as evidence that stocks were being well managed and scientists were on the right track in their work (Garcia & Newton, 1994). Nations went fishing in confidence that they were modernizing and industrializing, and secure in the knowledge that the massive catches were “surplus allowable catch” to what fish needed to sustain their stocks.

The 200-Mile Limit

Fishing was being industrialized, along with the rest of the world agricultural system. Agriculture became closely meshed in domestic and international policies in this postwar period. Industrial agriculture developed quickly, with federal money to build dams to provide irrigation. Ideas about agriculture were transferred to the oceans: fish were a crop that could be harvested “like radishes,” and could sustain high harvests over time (Larkin, 1977). Trawl nets plowed the ocean floor, just like tractors plowed a field, stirring up nutrients-but also breaking fragile ocean-floor life forms, a consequence that was not revealed until the 1990s, when cameras attached to fishing gear revealed the destruction on the ocean floor. These technologies and ideas about nature were exported to Third World countries, which were also encouraged to industrialize along the American model (Latham, 2000). Fuel was inexpensive, allowing countries to travel long distances to access fish.

There were ominous signs that the world’s oceans were being fished too heavily. The Peruvian anchovy catch plummeted, but most scientists still thought fish would rebound to previous high levels in a short period of time. The idea that the ocean itself might get less productive did not seem remotely possible.

Fleets of Soviet processing ships, hundreds of boats at a time, showed up on the east and west coasts of the United States during the early 1960s, increasing the pressure on Congress to expand the territorial sea from three miles. But the Cold War concerns of the Departments of State and Defense rejected expanding the territorial seas. If countries imposed limits on where boats could fish, that might be a precedent for other restrictions, such as passage by American merchant marine, navy, and submarine fleets.

In the early 1950s, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile announced they would be creating a 200-mile limit in their waters. The announcement was challenged by Greek millionaire shipper Aristotle Onassis, who sent the whaler Olympic Challenger and 15 catcher boats to Peruvian waters in 1954. The ships were seized by the Peruvian navy and Lloyds of London paid the $2.8 million fine (Fraser, Jacobson, Ottaway, & Chester,1977).

Throughout the 1960s, nations created conflicting territorial claims, hoping to control foreign fishing and whaling in their waters. Japan, the United States, and Great Britain upheld the historic claim of 3 miles. India claimed 6 miles, Mexico claimed 9, while the USSR, Venezuela, Panama, Canada, and the United Arab Republics claimed 12 miles. Iceland claimed 50 but was threatening to go 200. Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and El Salvador claimed up to 200 miles of exclusive fishery jurisdiction (Van Cleve & Johnson, 1963).

It all changed, almost overnight, as nations adopted new 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). An estimated 99% of the world’s commercial fishery stocks were within the new zones. Distant water nations either had to find new and productive fishing grounds outside coastal state jurisdiction, or they had to negotiate to gain access to the resources of coastal states.

Nations began expanding fisheries within their exclusive economic zones, setting off a new scramble to build fishing fleets. The money was a massive jolt into the always dynamic and volatile world of fishing. Government money was followed by private money. Shipyards across the world started turning out fishing boats. Hundreds of thousands of people went fishing, at the same time as unprecedented technological capacity was being created. Fishermen would soon be able to find and catch fish anywhere in the oceans. Information about technology transferred with great rapidity.

The real turning point in the battle over foreign fishing came at the 1974 meeting of Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in Caracas. There was a widespread realization that overfishing and depletion were occurring, with no effective international organizations to manage the harvest (Black, 1983). Coastal nations were frustrated that they could not develop their own fisheries, because the foreign boats—be they Japanese, Soviet, American, or European—had taken all the fish. A year earlier, during the Arab oil embargo, the price of fuel had skyrocketed, directly challenging profits for the factories processing ships. The costs of fishing were increasing; even the Japanese had to pay more for labor. It took until 1982 for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) to be signed, establishing exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of 200 miles and giving coastal nations control of large areas of the ocean.

In the meantime, many nations created additional subsidies to expand fishing within their new EEZs. The U.S. Congress passed the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in 1976, creating a 200-mile U.S. economic enterprise zone. Congress had established two programs to build boats in 1970. The Fishing Vessel Capital Construction Fund Program allowed tax deferments that let fishermen set aside money for future vessel upgrades or new construction. The Fishing Vessel Obligation Guarantee Program, passed in 1973, guaranteed loans for up 87.5% of the cost of reconditioning an existing vessel or constructing a new one. With the passage a 200-mile bill, the American fleet modernized rapidly. “Private bankers, investors attracted by tax shelters, the NMFS, and other federal and state agencies provided financing for the largest buildup of U.S. fishing vessels in the country’s history” (Weber, 2002).

The legislation included a provision that defined tuna as a highly migratory species, a move designed to make the United States part of any tuna regulatory regime in the Western Pacific. The policy indicated American interest in the region, even though the tuna were not caught in American waters. Over the following decades, the countries of Latin America and the central and western Pacific were offended by what they viewed as American hypocrisy in maintaining a U.S. interest in tuna, yet denying their claims to jurisdiction over tuna within their 200-mile zones (Carr, 2004).

Since the early 1990s, all of the Pacific island countries have tried to increase domestication of the tuna industry and almost all of the efforts have failed. The islands tried to invest in harvesting and canning, but those are two of the least profitable segments of the highly competitive tuna industry. The money is in distribution and marketing, which are controlled by Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, and the United States (Pretes & Peterson, 2004). As biologist Gary Sharp has noted, the complexity of international negotiations, and the ability of fishing nations to string out the negotiations process, “allowed the emergence of a new generation of international corporations with unusually complex marketing systems. These evolve continuously in efforts to cope with changes in legal ownership, access, and regional and local responsibility for resource management,” (Sharp, 2001, p. 354).

MSY was further solidified with the passage of the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act in 1976, when it was declared to be the “best available science.” This is embedded in the seven national standards that underlie the act. The first standard was to prevent overfishing and ensure optimum yield from each fishery, and to be based on the best available science (Weber, 2002). This was a variation on MSY, optimum yield (OY). A problem, of course, was that the best available science at the time was not very good (Longhurst, 2010). Scientists were soon suggesting that MSY was interpreted too rigidly, with too much of a focus on harvest and not enough on conservation (Holt & Talbot, 1978). Under the new federal act, eight regional management councils were created, charged with writing fishery management plans from 3 to 200 miles. For the first time, there were regional regulations outside the three miles of state waters.

Fishermen from other countries also found themselves displaced. The sudden tightening of regulations sent some Japanese and Soviet vessels into fishing in unregulated waters. There was a large year class of pollock in an area of the Aleutian basin, generally called the Donut Hole, because it is outside the territorial limits of all countries. China had just bought 15 large new factory processing ships and was moving into fishing for pollock. So were the South Koreans. There was no regulation; the pollock catches increased until the stock collapsed in 1994, after harvesting a final catch of 10,000 tonnes (Bailey, 2013). A convention was finally ratified in 1994, but the pollock population in the Donut Hole had been destroyed.

Spanish fishermen who took 70% of their catch off the Americas and along the West African coast found themselves having to negotiate for access to fish (Meltzoff, 1986). A decline set in during the 1980s, with the fleet returning to the size it had been in the 1950s. Many Spanish vessels, as well as the vessels of other countries, transferred ownership to foreign flags, for tax purposes, in Liberia, Malta, and Cyprus (Sularez & Rodrıguez Mateos, 2002).

As Iceland expanded its seas, fishermen and boats were hurt in the British distant-water fishing ports of Hull, Grimsby, and Fleetwood, where boats lost their access to fish (Mitchell, 1976). One of the fastest growing fisheries had been off West Africa, where European and Asian nations increased the catch from 1.4 million tonnes in 1967 to 3.7 million by 1976 (Kaczynski, 1979b). Especially hard hit were bluefin tuna. Scientists declared the overfishing of bluefin an “international disgrace” in 2008, when a review committee declared the international community deserved better management of the iconic fish (ICCAT, 2008).

With the steady increases in efficiency, fishing became so technologically proficient that there are few areas in the ocean where fish can find refuge (Gjerde & Freestone, 2004). Seabed mapping, global positioning systems, fish-finding electronics, and lighter, stronger nets have all allowed fishing to penetrate the deepest marine canyons. Massive trawl gear has done extensive damage to complex, slow-growing sea floor communities.

Conserving and Sustaining Industrial Fisheries

Despite the implementation of fishery management plans in many countries, there has been a steady escalation of fish stocks reduced to unsustainable levels. The most publicized was the 1992 moratorium on Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). The introduction of the industrial catch and processing equipment outstripped the ability of the cod to cope by spawning earlier. The industrial catch also included capelin (Mallotus villosus), an important prey for codfish, limiting their food supply at a time when they were fished more heavily and in deeper water.

Large portions of the ocean and many fish species are not protected by any sort of regulation to limit harvest. This has been especially harmful for deep-sea fishes that are slow growing, because good survival conditions do not occur every year. For such fish populations, there is very little fish that is surplus to reproductive needs, let alone to sustain a harvest year after year. These fish live in deep-sea canyons, where ever-evolving technology has allowed fishing nets to operate, leaving few places in the sea where fish cannot be successfully pursued and harvested. Especially hard hit have been slow-growing, long-lived species, such Orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) and West Coast rockfish (Sebastes) that live in the deep ocean. For such fish populations, the most significant cohort is the old female fish that produce more viable progeny (Berkeley, Hixon, Larson, & Love, 2004). Many small, low-tropic-level species have collapsed with little notice, reducing the food supply for larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals (Pinsky, Jensen, Ricard, & Palumbi, 2011). There is increasing attention to the population structure of the fish, and a recognition that all cohorts play a role in resiliency.

There are many analyses of the reasons for the failure to protect fish stocks. The pace of technological development after the war made it impossible for scientists to keep up with the expansion of fisheries into new species. Some scientific assessments were flawed, and there was a widespread lack of adequate data (Alverson, 2002). Government subsidies greatly expanded the fishing fleet, and there was enormous reluctance to reduce the numbers of fishing boats in many countries, especially the United States.

It was not until the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996 that maximum sustained yield (MSY) was modified and management councils told that harvests levels could not be set above MSY levels. The revisions also called for the creation of management plans that would rebuild stocks within a decade, an impossible standard to meet for the recovery of long-lived species.

The EU fisheries policy is seen as having failed to conserve stocks, such as North Sea cod, and the fleet is still too large for dwindling resources. The scientific advice has not been put into practice at the policy stage, technical measures to reduce catch have been slow to be implemented, and fleet restructuring has not been as effective as planners hoped. Enforcement has also been poor (Daw & Gray, 2005).

There has been much soul-searching among fishery scientists, economists, and among fishermen themselves, as to why fisheries have been so difficult to manage at sustainable levels. Economist Giulio Pontecorvo argues that the management failure in commercial fisheries is partly the result of disciplinary insularity on the part of oceanographers, fishery biologists, and economists. All three disciplines failed to understand the uncertainty created by the complexity of the ocean environment, which makes it impossible to forecast stock abundance with any degree of accuracy (Pontecorvo, 2003). Other scholars cite the failings of other disciplines to contribute to human understanding of complex systems.

There has been a fundamental shift in ecological thinking. While postwar scientists thought the oceans were in equilibrium, it is increasingly apparent that ecosystems are places where disturbance is constant. Ecosystems are complex, dynamic, and unpredictable across time and space. Current policies and plans do not reflect this emerging scientific perspective (Wallington, Hobbs, & Moore, 2005). Fisheries scientists and fishers are learning to work together, to develop collaborative research strategies aimed at reducing the costs of fishing, yet protecting vulnerable stocks.

Marine Protected Areas (MPA), where fishing and exploitative activities are banned, have been shown to be effective in achieving significant ecological gains, including more species, more of them, and in larger sizes (Lubchenco & Grorud-Colvert, 2015). Virtually every country with a marine coastline has declared one or more marine protected areas. There are more than 11,000 marine protected areas in existence; collectively they comprise only 3.5% of the ocean surface. While a very low percentage of the total ocean is protected, there has been significant progress during the last decade, with protection increasing from about 0.9% of the ocean in 2000, to 3.5%.


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