Emily Brownell on “Fish in Crisis”

The final event of the fall season for the centre was a roundtable put together by the CSMCH’s own fellow Dr. Betty Banks. This was a wide-ranging and engaging roundtable on “Fish in Crisis”. As Banks noted at the outset, when the general public considers the crisis of fish, they likely consider it to be a crisis of what fish they should eat, within a larger discussion of fish stocks, climate breakdown, and our depleting oceans. But as this panel made abundantly clear, there are many crises that we might consider, both historical, enduring, and in the present moment. And, as always, considering crises we must always be asking: whose crisis?

The first speaker, Arianne Sedef Urus started us off in the early modern Atlantic World where she is researching the role of Newfoundland as a key fishery as well as strategic place of rivalry between Britain and France.  As Urus notes, in the early modern period, the crisis was not one of fish but rather one of relations between imperial powers. Both Britain and France saw Newfoundland waters as not just an abundant fishery, but as a rite of passage for young men destined for imperial navies. It was this desire – to constantly replenish stocks of skilled, sea-faring young men that in part led to an agreement between the two countries by the beginning of the 18th century that, along the “treaty shore” of Newfoundland (otherwise a possession of Britain at the time), access to fisheries and areas on shore for processing would be a matter of usufruct rights rather than property rights. These areas and access to them were decided on a first come first served basis, each season. By mid-century, various British fishermen began challenging this rule and attempting to establish more permanent residency in the region. But the governor of Newfoundland at the time felt those who settled permanently in Newfoundland to be uncivilized and also feared losing the region as a “nursery for seamen” and a way to constantly replenish stocks in the imperial navy. Thus, the 18th century crisis of fish in Newfoundland was not one of fish populations but rather a question of European rivalry, possession of a frontier testing grounds for masculinity and imperial fears of ‘going native’.

Jennifer Johnson Lee’s presentation turned us to contemporary Uganda and the crisis of fish and fishing along the shores of Lake Victoria, as English speakers know it (also known as Lake Nyanza). The largest lake in Africa and the world’s largest freshwater fishery, Johnson discussed how the crisis of Lake Victoria has become synonymous with the massive, imposing figure of the Nile perch. An invasive species first introduced in the 1950s by a British game warden, the Nile perch has since reworked the ecology of the lake by feasting on the diverse number of cichlids, indigenous to the lake. Seen as “trash” fish, the decline in cichlid populations was not seen as alarming to many development experts until it began threatening the Nile perch. Since 1994, there has been a string of stories and pronouncements in the international and Ugandan media that Lake Victoria is dead or dying. In this narrative of crisis, the death of the Nile perch imperils the Ugandan economy (it is a crucial export good that generates foreign exchange), European access to cheap fish, and renders life along the edges of the lake more vulnerable to poverty, crime, and immoral economies. But Johnson warns of the “myopia of only thinking with the Nile perch”. Johnson argues that there is an alternate ontology of Lake Victoria that needs to be considered. In this other parallel world, Lake Victoria is not even a lake but a sea, and the economies built around it are not based on the export of Nile perch, but the ongoing fishing of cichlids that are ubiquitously eaten and sold in local markets. Johnson opened her talk by invoking the question: which fish is in crisis, whose crisis is this, and what worlds are being made (or unmade) by this crisis. And as her talk made very clear, the effects generated by crisis narratives can reveal and obscure other worlds that always existed alongside more visible narratives.

Next, Troy Vettese, gave us a whirlwind tour of the history of neoliberal environmental thought. Or, more specifically, where fish in particular have fit into both classical and neoliberal thought since the 1920s. Neoliberals main contribution to environmental thought has been the policy of cap and trade. Essentially, cap and trade is the practice of creating a market for industries to buy the right to pollute. In the 1990s, this becomes the answer to a much older question of how to deal with environmental externalities: the external costs not factored into the costs of production that are carried by environments and communities. For much of the 20th century, externalities were calculated by the state as taxes on corporations. Neoliberals economists, however, were not comfortable with the idea that these externalities (or, “market failures”) were best estimated by the state. In the genealogy of cap and trade, Vettese argues that it emerges not under President Bush (the senior) but is first tested out by fishery economists in Canada in the 1980s, who are part of what Vettese calls the Vancouver School of Neoliberalism.  These economists create the notion of a “right to pollute” and it is first tested out in the abalone market. Key to this was the imperative that fishing markets had to maximize yield by controlling the amount of effort going into fishing, which had the effect of consolidating the fishing industry into the biggest ventures. For Vettese’s economists, the question is not who’s crisis but rather, what crisis? As long as fish make it to market, shortages do not matter.

The final speaker, Ruth Brennan, presented her work on fishing and access to fishing rights in island communities off the coast of Ireland. The Irish government, unlike other EU countries, had set out a policy objective of managing fisheries as a public resource. This was an attempt to do the opposite of Vettese’s economists and keep fishing opportunities diffuse and out of the hands of solely large fishing corporations.  Through an animated short film and a poem, Brennan shows how this attempt at equality amongst fishing vessels through the use of quotas fails to confront the challenges faced by small operators. The poem in particular was quite moving, gathering together quotations from interviews with young folks in Ireland about the seeming impossibility making a livelihood where they grew up, particularly through fishing. Ultimately, Brennan suggests that a policy of “equality” failed to understand the struggles faced by small fishing operators and “equity” would be a better framework. Echoing Johnson, Brennan suggests that it is crucial for policy frameworks to be able to allow different worlds to become visible.

Historian Jeffrey Bolster in The Mortal Sea notes that oceans have eluded historicity in certain ways because we can’t see down into their depths.  This opacity has allowed a sense of oceans as unchanging to prevail. Though, Bolster notes, this has never been the case for fishermen who have sounded the alarm in various ways about  “changes in the sea”.  This strikes a chord with the theme running many of these presentations: the problem of visibility, particularly visibility within capitalism. What gets seen determines what the crisis is, and the crisis then determines what we see. And, as Vettese mentioned in discussions after the presentations, fishing is now moving into deeper and deeper parts of the ocean with the promise that as long as there are stocks there is no crisis. In this sleight of hand, another form of invisibility prevails as one fish becomes another magically on the market, with consumers often none the wiser.