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Fishing Exploitation And The Origins Of Capitalism

Published: Thu 16 May 2024 07:53 PM
Andrea Vance is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s standout investigative journalists and columnists. Her political columns are value based, sharp and invariably hit the mark.
But it is her environmental, including oceanic, investigative pieces that impress even more. Her writings are empirically based and well-researched. Vance really drills down into issues.
This was evident in her recent piece in the Sunday Star Times (14 April):Massive underreporting of ocean wildlife caught out.Vance’s revelations
In response to the suspected deaths of thousands of sea birds, dolphins and sea lions due to ocean fishing nets and lines, seven years ago the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) required commercial boats to install cameras on board.
Vance reports that MPI has just reported its first observations based on over 100 vessels. These revealed a high level of official underreporting of what and how much they were catching.
Almost all interactions between sea birds and fishing boats are regarded as adverse because they result in injury or lead to seabirds being attracted to vessels.
Further, the volume of reported discarded fish because they were undersized or not valuable increased by 46%.
Vested interests and politics are discussed. The cameras were introduced in the final year of the previous National-led government in 2017. The Labour-led government endeavoured to extend the scheme but was blocked by its NZ First coalition partner.
Relevant non-government environmental organisations would like the scheme extended but this is unlikely under the current Chris Luxon led coalition government. If anything it is likely to go backwards.
Oceans and Fisheries Minister Shane Jones of NZ First is not only opposed to extension. He has asked officials to look at ways to hand back control of the footage to the fishing industry. This has resonance with asking poachers to monitor poaching.Fishing and the origins of capitalism
Vance’s article reminded me of an earlier article published by Monthly Review in March 2023 by Ian Angus.
In the context of the origins of capitalism he discussed the significance of fishing: The fishing revolution and the origins of capitalism.
Angus is editor of the online eco-socialist journal Climate & Capitalism. He is the author of many books, the most recent (2016) being Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System.
Angus writes that fishing is older than humanity with evidence that lake and river fish were caught  in east Africa a million years ago.
For most of humanity’s  existence, fish were caught to be eaten by the fishers themselves perhaps with some trading with neighbours.
Fishing for sale rather than consumption developed along with the emergence of class-divided societies about five thousand years ago. Incrementally this led to early environmental and fish supply damage.
In the eleventh century increased political stability and renewed economic growth led to a rapid expansion of commercial fishing in the North and Baltic seas.
Dried and salted fish for export followed as Europe-wide trade revived along with a shift from freshwater to ocean fishing.
Over the following centuries new more extractive methods were developed to increase fish catches, including bigger and better equipped votes.
In the mid to late nineteenth century Karl Marx regarded Holland as a “model capitalist nation” in which fishing was a key factor in its economic development. Angus observed that Holland had achieved absolute dominance of commercial fishing in the North Sea.
Over time the largely Dutch led ownership shifted from partnerships to companies and boosted the shipbuilding industry. Wage labour also developed.Transatlantic trade and cod ‘gold mines’
Angus describes the increasing transatlantic trade from the 1500s, particularly Spain and England.
While the former focussed on plundering metals further south, plundering by the latter occurred in the expanding commercial fishing in the cod ‘gold mines’ of Newfoundland & Labrador in eastern Canada.
Cod fishing was concentrated on Newfoundland’s east and south coasts. Whaling followed on its northwest corner in what Angus calls the world’s first oil boom.
He then progresses to discussing the developing first capitalist factories (sometimes called ‘fishing rooms’) in Newfoundland for both inshore and offshore fishing, including assembly line divisions of labour.
Spain endeavoured to compete with England over Newfoundland commercial fishing. What Angus calls a “cod war” was part of a wider escalating economic war between the two countries.
In 1585 Sir Francis Drake led an investor-financed fleet of 10 ships to Newfoundland. Such was its success that after defeating their Spanish competitors that it brought a 600% return to investors along with a knighthood to Drake.
Angus refers to Marx in Capital arguing that buying (for example, dried or salted fish) cheap in one place and selling dear in another (or “profits upon expropriation”) did not undermine the prevailing feudal mode of production.
Instead it was the integration of manufacture and trade that laid the basis for a new social order. It was part of the transition to capitalism rather than the capitalism mode itself.Ecological impact
The ecological impact was discernible even back in this time. Cod in particular was in abundance.
But over time the average size of cod was driven down and relatively unexploited stocks became a “reminder of the past.” Reproduction rates appear to have slowly declined.
The increasing intensification of fishing in Newfoundland has led to what some environmental historians have called a ‘fish revolution’.
In their words, as quoted by Angus, historians:
…have grossly underestimated the historical economic significance of the fish trade, which may have been equal to the much more famed rush to exploit the silver mines of the Incas.New Zealand’s contemporary glimpse
Andrea Vance’s revelations about the deaths and harm to sea birds, dolphins and sea lions by ocean fishing nets and lines is a contemporary glimpse of the devastation caused by commercial fishing.
This carnage is a direct consequence of commercial fishing’s exploitation which itself is a direct consequence of the economic mode we call capitalism.
It is about maximising profit extraction. Or, as Marx put it, extract cheap in one place and sell dear in another; profits upon expropriation.
What has not been fully appreciated, but emphasised well by Ian Angus, is that commercial fishing, beginning in the Baltic and North seas, was part of the core origins of this economic mode.
If Shane Jones gets his way as part of the current coalition government, New Zealand will do its bit to continue this historical exploitation and ecological harm.
Ian Powell
Otaihanga Second Opinion is a regular health systems blog in New Zealand.
Ian Powell is the editor of the health systems blog 'Otaihanga Second Opinion.' He is also a columnist for New Zealand Doctor, occasional columnist for the Sunday Star Times, and contributor to the Victoria University hosted Democracy Project. For over 30 years , until December 2019, he was the Executive Director of Salaried Medical Salaried Medical Specialists, the union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand.
Contact Ian Powell

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