Most current fishing practices are neither economically nor biologically sustainable. Every year, the world spends $80 billion buying fish that cost $105 billion to catch, even as heavy fishing places growing pressure on stocks that are already struggling with warmer, more acidic oceans. How have we developed an industry that is so wasteful, and why has it been so difficult to alter the trajectory toward species extinction?
In this transnational, interdisciplinary history, Carmel Finley answers these questions and more as she explores how government subsidies propelled the expansion of fishing from a coastal, in-shore activity into a global industry. While nation states struggling for ocean supremacy have long used fishing as an imperial strategy, the Cold War brought a new emphasis: fishing became a means for nations to make distinct territorial claims. A network of trade policies and tariffs allowed cod from Iceland and tuna canned in Japan into the American market, destabilizing fisheries in New England and Southern California. With the subsequent establishment of tuna canneries in American Samoa and Puerto Rico, Japanese and American tuna boats moved from the Pacific into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans after bluefin. At the same time, government subsidies in nations such as Spain and the Soviet Union fueled fishery expansion on an industrial scale, with the Soviet fleet utterly depleting the stock of rosefish (or Pacific ocean perch) and other groundfish from British Columbia to California. This massive global explosion in fishing power led nations to expand their territorial limits in the 1970s, forever changing the seas.
Looking across politics, economics, and biology, All the Boats on the Ocean casts a wide net to reveal how the subsidy-driven expansion of fisheries in the Pacific during the Cold War led to the growth of fisheries science and the creation of international fisheries management. Nevertheless, the seas are far from calm: in a world where this technologically advanced industry has enabled nations to colonize the oceans, fish literally have no place left to hide, and the future of the seas and their fish stocks is uncertain.
"Finley makes her point – that government subsidies to deep-sea fishing are a main cause of the current catastrophe – dramatically clear. Her descriptions of the damage that factory trawlers did to the ocean floor and the speed with which they wiped out fisheries in the '60s and '70s are especially powerful. Relevant not only to people who are interested in fisheries and oceans, but also to those concerned with global resource crises generally, this interdisciplinary, pragmatic book surpasses most of the work of historians in this area. Synthesizing scientific material with international law and politics, as well as the internal affairs of government agencies and private businesses, Finley links the fisheries story to the 'great transformation' of global ecology in the postwar period by way of the technology, policy, and politics of food production. All the Boats on the Ocean is a significant, original book."
– Arthur McEvoy, Southwestern Law School, author of The Fisherman's Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980
"In this compact and highly readable book, Finley argues that overfishing since the 1950s is less a tragedy of the commons than a tragedy of the Cold War. She shows how geopolitics, science, law, and greed combined to generate a scramble for the oceans and a regime of overfishing that lasts to this day. A welcome addition to several scholarly literatures."
– J. R. McNeill, Georgetown University, author of Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World
"Those of us who thought we understood how the oceans' plight came about will find much that is new in this thoroughly researched and highly engaging work. Weaving history, politics, and science, Finley shows how the seeds of the current predicament were sown during the Cold War Era, as government subsidies fueled the rapid acceleration of fishing. Her call for a reinterpretation of the role of fishing within government is long overdue. A must-read."
– Ellen Pikitch, Stony Brook University
Introduction: Political Roles for Fish Populations
1. The Fishing Empires of the Pacific: The Americans, the Japanese, and the Soviets
2. Islands and War
3. Manifest Destiny and Fishing
Conclusions: Updating the Best Available Science
This book presents a historical analysis of overfishing. Though many reviews have been written on overfishing, and everyone agrees that too many fishing boats have been built, Finley contends that the question is never asked who built these boats in the first place. Her analysis aims to show that government policies, especially during the Cold War (1946-1990), have been responsible, with subsidies for the fishing industry being a proxy to attain other goals. As the opening sentence puts it: fishing has always been about more than just catching fish. The US-side of the story is scrutinised most intensely, though developments in other nations are covered at length.
I will come right out and say that this is not an easy book to read. I read this right after Never Out of Season, which, broadly speaking, deals with a similar topic (human exploitation of the environment for food). I thought that was a riveting read, whereas I found this book less accessible. This isn't helped by, what seems, needless repetition of whole paragraphs between chapters. The many names by which rockfish go is an example of something that is repeated at least three or four times in different chapters in almost verbatim fashion, notes and all. Was this not picked up during the editing of the book? Furthermore, the prospect of reading about decades worth of governmental Cold War policies might sound daunting. But, these criticisms aside, persevere, and All the Boats on the Ocean reveals itself to be a valuable and interesting contribution that should hopefully change the way we look at this problem. If anything, this books shows the value of library archives. Scanning the notes at the end of the book reveals how Finley has mined a rich ore of grey literature, including letters, telegrams, memos, and internal reports to support her reconstruction.
So, how did all these boats end up on the ocean? Finley argues this has been a case of Cold War imperialism, foremost by the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union. Tensions between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were fought out on the high seas. And having access to strategic military locations was considered vital. This led to the US subsidising the rebuilding of the Japanese fisheries fleet to prevent the country from falling into communist hands, supporting the Icelandic fishing industry in exchange for operating military bases in Iceland, and developing a fishing industry in the Pacific where a few little island nations soon became test sites for nuclear bombs.
Through Finley's reconstruction, a tangled web emerges of complex trade relations, tit-for-tat arrangements, and competing interests. Development of the fishing industry turned into a frenzied free-for-all, with a handful of nations brazenly fishing off the coasts of other countries. Government subsidies funded construction of larger fleets, as well as research & development of new techniques. Specialised factory ships aided by fleets of supporting ships and spotter planes, refrigeration, echo sounders and sonar to locate fish, new types of nets made from stronger and lighter material... anything to catch as much fish as possible, as quickly as possible, before other countries beat you to it. The statistics are staggering, and especially the size of the Soviet fleet in the 1960s defies comprehension.
All this happened with zero regard for the biology of fish populations. Fisheries science was still in its infancy, and many politicians simply couldn't imagine fish stocks to be exhaustible. Postwar optimism and faith in technology was at an all-time high. Time and again the answer to problems seemed to be: we need more boats. Revealing, and nowadays easily overlooked, is Finley's finding that fisheries biology initially supported fishermen in finding and catching more fish through above-mentioned technological developments, and created market demand by inventing new fish products. Fish sticks are one example that allowed pretty much any fish species from anywhere to be turned into unrecognisable but tasty and convenient food. It was only throughout the 1970s that scientists started waking up to the realisation that overfishing is a thing. It was only then that we started understanding the complex nature any one population – the damaging effect of culling the largest fish, often responsible for producing the healthiest and strongest offspring – let alone the complex food web relationships between multiple populations, with population crashes affecting other species too.
By then fishing fleets had already done tremendous damage. One after another species was virtually extirpated before fleets moved on to a different species in different areas, modifying catching techniques as needed. Coastal fish populations were the first to crash. The deep seas were next and were hoovered empty top to bottom in a process more akin to strip mining. But policies have proven hard to revert and created an unfortunate legacy. According to Finley, the International Technical Conference on Living Resources of the Sea, held in 1955 at the FAO headquarters in Rome, established the precedence that fishing could not be regulated until scientific proof of overfishing had been established, meaning that we are always running after the facts.
I found All the Boats on the Ocean at times a bit of a dry, but ultimately rewarding read. The reconstruction that Finley presents here is incredibly interesting, yet saddening at the same time. Before reading this book, I did not realise that overfishing is not just something of the last 20-30 years (i.e. my lifetime), but that it has been systematically going on for much longer than that, the proverbial baton being passed from nation to nation. It just goes to show how important a subject history is to get a proper perspective.
Is there hope? Though the establishment of Marine Protected Areas has shown promise in helping some fish populations to recover, this book didn't leave me hopeful. Overfishing efforts continue unabated, and a lot would need to change before we can hope to see recovery.
Carmel Finley is a newspaper reporter turned historian of science who teaches in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. She is coeditor of Two Paths toward Sustainable Forests: Public Values in Canada and the United States and the author of All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press. She lives in Corvallis, OR.