Review of "Making Seafood Sustainable"

Mansel Blackford’s monograph Making Seafood Sustainable: American Experiences in Global Perspective is primarily a history of the development of the American regulatory regimes in the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest. That such a development occurred while the truck transportation, airline, rail industries were being deregulated by may seem unusual, but is explained by different set of conditions composing their industry. For one, the increased capacity of new, technologically advanced boats following World War II to bring in and even process ever larger catches with greater efficiency was a new force. To speak to the novelty of such an occurrence Blackford quotes a marine biologist who says that “the twentieth century heralded an escalation in fishing intensity that is unprecedented in the history of the oceans, and modern fishing technologies leave fish no place to hide” (15). Secondarily, domestic fishers appealed to government for greater-sized regions to exclusively exploit; thus regulations emerged to progressively force out foreign capital from extracting the limited resources. Following the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, regulations increased barriers to foreign exploitation of fisheries from 12 to 200 miles off the coast of U.S. borders and helped formulate limits to the amount of specific types of fish could be taken. With these factors, at wide variance from the other industries mentioned, regulation became conservatory rather than seeking to facilitate the rapid extraction of maximum profits. These are not, however, the only two factors affecting the form of subsequent regulation and Blackford opens the book by illustrating the historical milieu of the Northeast and California fisheries that helped inform policy makers how to proceed once a regulator body was formed.

Since the inception of the industry in the northeast Atlantic, fishers extracted from the commons of the ocean in their region in a largely unsupervised manner. In California, the fisheries had the resources involved in their catches take a second place to other industries such as electricity and construction. The result for both was a tragedy of the commons, wherein fish were no longer able to reproduce themselves fast enough and stocks were depleted to the point of near extinction. Despite late attempts at curbing catches to a sustainable level, damage to the stocks had been done so that that fishing had to be banned outright for a period of time so stocks could restore themselves. With this knowledge in mind, the northwestern fishers nor various environmental groups wished to see this replicated, so a disciplinary regime based upon scientific analysis of available stock and industry leaders requirements for profitability was formed. As Blackford then shows, this wasn’t a large enough constituency and they had to include other groups that had traditionally fished in that region such as native communities and particular Alaskan villages. Following the creation of a maximum catch allowable, a quota system with percentages of the potential catch had to be distributed amongst those groups. These portions were highly contested and led to conflict amongst various historical stakeholders with the new, big-capital corporations investing in processing and distribution.

At several point throughout the work Blackford relies upon novels in order to depict the life of fishers and the changes occurring as a result of these regulatory and technological changes that made Alaskan fisheries into the most regulated industry in the United States. In addition to this, it provides an aesthetic element that shows the terrifying and sublime aspects of the job that seems to readily appeal to intellectuals looking for a break from their work in the form of strenuous manual labor. Additionally, Blackford includes numerous descriptions of the daily operations of the processing industry that shows how seemingly banal technological developments and hygienic standards could have huge impacts on the industry.

I believe Mansel was a little too soft-handed when writing on the entrepreneurial ideology anathemic to government intervention held by so many of the fishers. While he need not go deeply into the content of an ideology that doesn’t recognize the fact that the federal government purchased Alaska for 7.2 million dollars in 1868, invested in the infrastructure that allowed the fisheries to transport their goods to southern markets, provided for the search and rescue operations which their lives depended in event of capsizing, or acted as police to keep foreign resource extractors out of the fisheries, it certainly speaks volumes to their incredibility as a legitimate institutional guides in helping determining maximum optimal catches in councils. As this is one of the factors Blackford’s conclusion focuses on, in the context of his endorsement of Elinor Ostrom’s cooperative, natural resource management framework, I think it’s worth more than just letting pass, especially having mentioned that the European attempt at a similar regime has ended so poorly.