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Ocean Grabbing: Plundering a Common Resource


Italy - 28/04/2013

Oceans and coasts have always occupied a privileged space in our imagination, cultures, customs, economy and way of life. People have lived along the shore and used marine resources for tens of thousands of years, and are doing so in increasing numbers. Currently more than 60% of the world's population lives in coastal areas, leading to a corresponding increase in pressure on natural resources, through fishing, pollution, tourism, resource extraction and the like.


Many coastal communities around the world are finding themselves caught between increasing pressure from the land and depleting marine and coastal resources. Within this context of scarce resources and growing demand, environmental awareness and speculative capitalist dynamics applied to common goods, a sharper focus is being turned on our marine resources and their subjection to different forms of ocean grabbing. Not only is ocean grabbing affecting food security in developing countries, but the privatization of marine resources, another form of ocean grabbing, often touted as an environmentally friendly option, is in fact impacting negatively on both small-scale fishers, other coastal communities and the ecosystem.


Ocean grabbing and food security

One form of ocean grabbing is linked to food security, as seafood is being massively harvested in the global south by foreign fleets and exported, leaving local fleets without enough resources for the local populations, many of which largely depend on fish as a protein source. In the words of Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur for the United Nations on the Right to Food, "‘Ocean-grabbing'- in the shape of shady access agreements that harm small-scale fishers, unreported catch, incursions into protected waters, and the diversion of resources away from local populations-can be as serious a threat as ‘land-grabbing.'" In Africa, this diversion of resources is mainly perpetrated by large vessels from the EU, China and Russia. Even when fishing is legal and documented, most fleets are heavily subsidized and externalize the costs of overfishing and resource degradation, making fishing a highly profitable industry that threatens the right to food of millions.

New European regulations will demand that fleets from member states apply the same rules that apply within the EU, so they will have to fish within the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) limits. This will prove difficult, since in many cases there is not enough data to determine a stock's MSY, but also, that alone is not a solution, as a large fleet could be fishing within MSY limits, and still leave smaller fleets with limited capacity unable to catch their share.

Also, while a few bilateral trade agreements state that part of the financial compensation has to be devoted to coastal infrastructure, which should benefit local fleets, many do not. Or the infrastructure put in place only serves large operations, making it even harder for smaller fleets to access ocean resources. "In Mauritania, we are seeing fish meal factories built by the Chinese springing out of the ground at an alarming rate," says Nedwa Moctar Nech, coordinator of the Slow Food Imraguen Women's Mullet Botargo Presidium. "They will transform tons of smaller and juvenile fishes plundered from the oceans," she says.


Fisheries privatization

Though nothing new, this may be the form of ocean grabbing about which the general public is least aware. Dominant economic theories have promoted the privatization of fishing access to maximize profits for more than four decades, following similar patterns to agriculture. Privatization involves redefining access rights or privileges to open, common or state-owned fisheries by increasing the level of private allocation of, and control over, public resources. Recently, this trend has embraced environmental concerns about the ocean's health, with claims that widespread privatization is a solution, leading to some degree of public support. The phenomenon, often called rationalization or catch share management rather than privatization, is coming to dominate many policy discussions and implementations over the world.

This is how it goes: Building on the narrative of the tragedy of the commons, in which if the seas belong to all, they belong to no one, fishers are seen as doomed to act as self-interested, competing actors, forced to race for resources, making it impossible to avoid degradation. This logic sounds natural and commonsense, as does the "rational" solution of privatization. A Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is defined for each fishery and divided among the individuals of the fleet according to "historical" fishing records, usually over the past five years, during which the most informed fishers have been "racing for quota," catching as much as possible and targeting strategic species. Hence, access rights to a common resource become private property rights, called Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQ) or Transferable Fishing Concessions (TFC) among many other names, and are transformed into a tradable commodity.

This twinned economic and environmental narrative for privatization, largely spread by the media and lobbyists, has found it a wide range of powerful proponents, promoting a situation in which, increasingly, fish become the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake.

The latest step in this process has been the creation of the Global Partnership for Oceans, initiated by the World Bank at Rio +20, which seeks to unite states, companies, research institutes, foundations and environmental organizations to protect the oceans, but with no involvement of fishing organizations and clearly promoting a widespread program of privatization. In a compelling "Call on Governments," the World Forum of Fisher Peoples and the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers denounced the global push for the introduction of private property rights as a tool to manage the ocean's fish resources. Instead, the organizations are appealing to governments to look towards a human-rights-based approach.

The privatization narrative overlooks the fact that overfishing is more the result of industrial processes that have modernized and developed fisheries in recent decades, than the human propensity for individual greed. Also, there is no clear link between privatization and conservation. In fact, privatization encourages a logic of speculation, rewarding those who have invested in fisheries financially, rather than with their labor. It leads to property rights migrating from rural to urban owners, and to leasing practices where those who fish are not those who own the rights, among many other phenomenons that favor wealth accumulation through these processes of dispossession. "Up to 80% of the landed value of my fish goes to lease the fishing right," explains Dan Edwards, a fisherman from Vancouver Island, where catch share programs have been in place for more than a decade. "It's the elephant in the room," he continues. "It's easy to get desperate, and also, there is no economic margin left to invest in modernizing your own boat, let alone in local infrastructure. The money goes to someone who doesn't fish any more, and might be living on the other side of the planet."

Today, 35 nations have restructured major fisheries, implementing nearly 400 privatization access programs to manage over 850 species. In most cases, local fleets have shrunk and become concentrated. Fleet numbers in the Bering Sea have decreased by up to 30% from their original numbers, and in New Zealand, more than 80% of fishing rights are held by less than a dozen companies. "Of the 1,400 boats we originally had in Iceland, half were crushed by bulldozers only 44 months after implementing catch share programs," recounts Arthur Bogason, co-president of the World Fisher Forum.

Most communication over these issues has been framed so that resisting privatization does not sound like resisting a dominant economic logic that promotes the commodification of fishing rights to maximize profit, but sounds more like resisting the fight for a better marine environment and management of resources.

The logic of privatization also obscures the many examples of successfully managed commons worldwide, some of which are the subject of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom's studies on governing the commons, where fishing communities have formed their own bottom-up institutions, to share and manage local resources, even in a context of changing technology and culture. Such is the case of the prud'homies in the French Mediterranean, a local institution with over a millennium of history.


Privatization's wider implications

Ocean grabbing does not stop with the privatization of fisheries, which is just the first step of a systematic attempt to control the whole marine ecosystem and benefit numerous other industries, like tourism, oil and gas extraction, aquaculture, pharmaceutical extraction, marine transportation and bioenergy, among others, and in some cases, military activities.


In Mexico, the Terra Madre San Mateo Del Mar Ikoots food community inhabits a semi-desertic area in Oaxaca, making its living mostly from fishing. The community members are opposing a wind energy project set directly on the lagoon, which would destroy their livelihood. In Sri Lanka, the members of NAFSO, a local organization that includes 30,000 fishers and their families, have been fighting against the appropriation of their lagoon for tourism purposes. Women harvesting seaweed in Tamil Nadu were expelled from their ancestral grounds because of the creation of a huge Marine Protected Area, set up without stakeholder involvement. These are just a few examples. Even in Europe alone, looking at the map of oil and gas marine extraction is enough to see what is at stake. Meanwhile, aquaculture is being heavily promoted worldwide. The European Union, for example, plans a growth by 40% over 10 years, with no mention of limiting it to closed-contained or land-locked farms or non-carnivorous fish.


Towards a different model

Olivier de Schutter has called on governments to rethink what fishery models they support, highlighting the fact that small-scale fishers actually catch more fish per gallon of fuel than industrial fleets, and discard fewer fish.

A new model must put the emphasis on local co-management of ocean resources, in ways that involve the small-scale fishers and other local stakeholders who depend on the oceans, helping them participate fully in the value chain while refraining from undertaking large-scale development projects that adversely affect their livelihoods. Fisheries and small-scale fishers must also be made an integral part of national right-to-food strategies.

In the hopeful words of the Special Rapporteur: "It is possible, and necessary, to turn these resources away from over-exploitation, and towards the benefit of local communities."

The issue of Ocean grabbing was introduced and debated by the Slow Fish network during Terra Madre 2012. It is also the object of workshop and conferences during the 2013 edition of the Slow Fish event, in Genoa.



Suggested bibliography:

- Fisheries Privatization and the Remaking of Fishery Systems, Courtney Carothers and Catherine Chambers, Environment and Society: Advances in Research, Volume 3, Number 1, 2012
- Governing the Commons, Elinor Ostrom, Cambridge University Press, 1990
- Property and fisheries for the twenty-first century: seeking coherence from legal and economic doctrine, Seth Macinko & Daniel W. Bromley.
- Neoliberalism in the oceans: ‘‘rationalization,'' property rights, and the commons question, Becky Mansfield




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