Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Capitalism and the restructuring of fishing and fisheries across the world

When anthropologist Jane Nadel-Klein described how "capitalism can create and then dismisses a way of life", she was talking about the fishing villages of east Scotland. But the same could be said of any of the tens of thousands of fishing communities that developed fishing and fish processing industries over the last century from Iceland to New Zealand. The "dismissal" of these fishing villages has been part of the restructuring of global capitalism known as neoliberalism in response to the falling rate of profit since the end of the long post Second World War boom.

The restructuring of fisheries was intended to increase the profitability of commercial fishing, which it most certainly has for corporations and large boat owners, as the page from Statistics Iceland  below shows. The total catch from Icelandic fisheries in 2016 was almost half a million tonnes less than in 2005, yet it was worth twice as much as the 2005 catch had been.

The increase in value of Iceland's total fish catch 2005-2016


The resulting destruction of many fishing communities has been a by-product of consolidation of capital, privatisation of fisheries, over-fishing, the imposition of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) in the name of sustainability and the financialisation of quotas into commodities in their own right. All of which has led inexorably to the closure of factories and fewer small boats being able to make a living for their crews and owners.

Nadel-Klein's book Fishing for Heritage was published in 2003 and since then anthropologists have been looking in depth at the results of this process in different areas of the world. Penny McCall Howard's superb book Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea focuses on the people "working the ground" in the prawn fisheries of the west coast of Scotland, to investigate how capitalism and its drive for profit is systematically wrecking the fisheries and the livelihoods of the fishers. I have reviewed Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea in the latest edition of International Socialism Journal.


Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea
by Penny McCall Howard


Fiona McCormack's Private Oceans: The Enclosure and Marketisation of the Seas examines how Individual Transferable Quotas work in New Zealand and Iceland and considers Hawaii where ITQs have not yet dislodged a fisheries management system based on maximum annual catches. The book ends in Ireland with examples of the effects of the Common Fisheries Policies from Donegal and the island of Árainn Mhór. I recently reviewed Private Oceans for Climate and Capitalism and while it contains a lot I disagree with, the book is full of fascinating detail and the voices of the fishers at the sharp end of neoliberal restructuring.


Private Oceans: the Enclosure and Marketisation of the Seas
by Fiona McCormack






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