Book review – All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing

This book presents a historical analysis of overfishing, following up on her 2012 book All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. 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.

All the Boats on the Ocean

All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing”, written by Carmel Finley, published The University of Chicago Press in February 2017 (hardback, 211 pages)

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.

“Through Finley’s reconstruction, a tangled web emerges of complex trade relations, tit-for-tat arrangements, and competing interests.”

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 were 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 of even single populations (e.g. 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.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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