More about Bell Shimada–the man, not the ship

Bell Shimada, photo courtesy of the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

It was great to see the Bob Hitz post in this collection of stories the University of Washington School of Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries has been publishing as part of its centennial.  They have published a biographical sketch of Bell Shimada, adding much information about what has been available about this scientist who died in a plane crash in 1958. If his name sounds familiar, he’s been commemorated by a research vessel home ported at Newport, but his personal story should be more widely known.

The post provides much information that is new to us, and we’ve been interested in him since we first found his translations of Japanese fishery documents when we were working on our thesis in the late 1990s. He popped up again when we were researching the Supreme Commander Allied Powers documents at the national archives. And when we started to look at O. E. Sette, there he was again, stationed in Honolulu, at a time of enormously stimulating work in what we now call fisheries oceanography.

There is much valuable information here about his career at the University of Washington, cut short by the University’s expulsion of Japanese students in 1942 and his internment in Minidoka, Idaho. He volunteered for combat and was sent to the Pacific, ultimately arriving in Tokyo as part of the Occupation. After the war, he worked with Sette in the Honolulu, before accepting a job at the newly created Inter-America Tropical Tuna Commission in La Jolla.

Posted in Pacific Fishing History Project | Leave a comment

What Bob has been doing…


Bob Hitz

We’re extremely pleased that Bob Hitz and some of his writing are featured in this University of Washington School of Aquatic Sciences celebration of its centennial.

There’s an official event in April, but we are interested in the memories of some of the alumni, both student and faculty, and that includes Bob.

It is exciting to see the school celebrate its birthday but dispiriting that the actual event is so firmly focused on the future there is no acknowledgment of any past. But then fisheries scientists are firmly uninterested in how they got to be fishery scientists. Still this is a major accomplishment that the School is recognizing.

Founded in 1862, the University of Washington was already offering courses in ichthyology through the Zoology Department, but supporters wanted an actual fisheries school. They included Miller Freeman, publisher of Pacific Fisherman, and Trevor Kincaid, head of the university’s Zoology Program.

The organizational structure was modeled on the world-renowned Imperial Fisheries Institute in Japan, where practical instruction and research had been underway since 1897. Kincaid suggested a two-year program with a concentration of classes in administration, technology or fish culture during the second year. Six years later, the school was established in 1919, with John Nathan Cobb (1868-1930) as its director.[1]

Cobb laid out his vision for the school in 1920, not to train fishermen or scientists, but something in between, “men of executive ability with a through understanding of the fisheries.”  According to biologist J. Richard Dunn, Cobb’s approach to the School reflected his experience with the fishing industry and the practical needs of the commercial industry. It would be a program in applied fisheries science and management. For Cobb, the salmon industry needed scientists, but it also needed men to run the fish companies and manage the growing complexity of the annual Alaskan fishery.

The faculty remained small, with a great deal of turnover, probably the result of the low salaries. There were two tracts of study, fish culture and fisheries technology. Enrollment was strong during the first decade, ranging from 30 to 117 students a year. The first graduating class was in 1922, and the first Master of Science degree in 1924. By 1928, Cobb could boast that 40 graduates had found work in some branch of the fisheries.[2]

[1] Robert R. Stickney, Flagship: A History of the Fisheries at the University of Washington

(Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1989), 6.

[2] J. Richard Dunn. “John Nathan Cobb (1868-1930): Founding Director of the College of

Fisheries, University of Washington, Seattle” Marine Fisheries Review 65, no. 3 (2003): 5.

Posted in Environmental History, fisheries science, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb, William F. Thompson | Leave a comment

If Wilbert Chapman was on Twitter….


President Harry Truman goes fishing, photo courtesy of Truman Presidential Library and Life magazine


…I guarantee we’d all be following him, and I don’t follow anybody. One of the interesting things about him was how modern he was in creating a following. I’ve been through a lot of his papers, including is State Department files, and they are filled with requests from people asking for reprints of his papers and his talks. The requests came from all over the world.

There were so many requests, that quite early in his public career, and certainly during his State Department days, he developed the habits of incorporating a great deal of background detail into his daily letters. This habit means that his letters are tremendously informative, tremendously useful for a historian.  His correspondence network by 1949 was so large, he copied people extensively on his letters, and I imagine his letters were forwarded on to others. He was the great expert, the man who had fished in the equatorial Pacific.

“From New Caledonia up through the New Hebrides and Solomon’s to Green Island and back to Guadalcanal I traveled by small fishing craft, trolling all the way,” he wrote in April 1945 from his desk in San Francisco.  He had seen fish in commercial quantities and he wanted American boats to start catching them as soon as possible—or else the Japanese or the Soviets would dominate this high-seas resource that Chapman compared to buffalo on the Great Plains.

Chapman’s letter is widely circulated, I found a copy in the files of Washington Senator Warren Magnuson. By June of 1945, President Harry Truman is in Seattle fishing with Nick Bez.


A portrait of Nick Bez, by Karsh of Canada. Permission of the Bez family.

The Truman Proclamations are issued in September.

There are two proclamations: the first deals with oil and gas, the second with fishing. The fisheries side of the proclamation marks an enormously important event in world fisheries, you could liken it to the gun being fired at a race, since it certainly set off a race for nations to rapidly expand their fisheries.

During the next year, Representative Joseph R. Farrington of Hawaii would write a bill to provide for the exploration and development of high seas fishing in the Territorial and Island possessions in the subtropical Pacific. There will be $350,000 for the research lab in Honolulu, $700,000 for three vessels, and $355,000 for operating expenses. Annual budget will be $650,000. For a nation that hadn’t spent much money on oceanographic research since the 1930s, it was a lot of money.

Chapman was in the thick of the fight to pass the Farrington Bill; legal scholar Harry Scheiber has written a great deal about this.[1]

Chapman wrote to Seattle’s Nick Bez, asking him to bring the bill to the attention of President Truman. “It is quite possible that our fishermen could be shut out of potentially rich fishing areas in the Pacific in the future under the terms of our own Proclamation,” Chapman wrote. Bez was busy overseeing the reconstruction of the Pacific Explorer, one of the wartime projects that survived after the war.

“We have strong potential competition in the area from Japan and Russia. Both of these nations are moving more alertly than we are.”[2] If Bez wrote to Truman, the letter has been lost, but Bez undoubtedly threw his support behind Chapman’s efforts to ensure that American boats could expand into the central Pacific.



[1] Harry N. Scheiber, Pacific Ocean Resources, Science, and Law of the Sea: Wilbert M. Chapman and the Pacific Fisheries, 1945-70, 13 Ecology L. Q.381 (1986). Available at:

[2] ATA files, Box 26, Folder “Dr. Chapman’s Report (Pacific Fisheries, etc.),” Chapman to Nick Bez, Dec. 2, 1946.

Posted in Pacific Fishing History Project | Leave a comment

Wilbert Chapman and World War II

I haven’t written much about Wilbert Chapman on the blog. He’s in both my books, and in various academic papers, but there is not much about him in these pages. I’m going to be writing a series of posts about him, to tie into some of the other content that is available on the blog. Chapman is considered  by several scholars, me included, to be a central figure in the development of post-war fisheries, fisheries science, and oceanography. He left voluminous records, housed at the University of Washington Special Collections, his last employer, Ralston Purina, paid to have his papers archived and I think it’s a couple of hundred boxes. I have happily trawled through many boxes and the man had his fingers in many, many pies.

Both Harry Scheiber and Arthur McEvoy have written about Chapman; Scheiber most extensively. Like me, they basically summarized his career after 1945, when he became a leading voice for the expansion of fisheries and oceanography in the Pacific Ocean. He was appointed an attaché for fisheries within the State Department and he negotiated two treaties creating new international commissions that are still in existence, as well as greatly shaping the peace treaty with Japan. He later worked for the American Tuna Association out of San Diego (the address for the office was One Tuna Lane, I just love that), and for Ralston Purina as director of research. He died in 1970.

Chapman spent spent 14  months in the Pacific. At the behest of the “Great White Father,” Chapman writes that he “spent the better part of fourteen months wandering from base to base in the Central and South Pacific, starting fisheries on a semi-commercial scale…”     The book is about from April to September of 1944, fishing in the Solomon Islands. It was published in 1949.

It’s a very mixed book. His main focus is the frustrations of trying to catch fish in a war zone, and the interpersonal conflicts among the three GIs and five “very black, and very stalwart men of Segi.” In addition to Chapman, there were three other scientists on the project.  Robert Smith died of complications from tropical diseases (Chapman does not make it clear), while Milner B. Schaefer contracted rheumatic fever and was spent 14 months of the war in military hospitals.  He died at the age of 60, so his health was probably permanently impaired by his time in the military.


Chapman left San Francisco in September of 1943. The Central Pacific Command asked him to spend a few days advising them about finding fresh fish to keep the troops. The “few days” stretched to three months and 20,000 miles of air travel. His plan to set up units on military bases, so troops could catch their own fish, using a fishing kit that had been designed by Reginald H. Fielder, a federal fisheries advisor. I am still searching for more about this fishing kit, but haven’t found anything. He spent nine month in the Gilbert, Ellice, and New Caledonian islands, hiring local fishermen and teaching them to use the gear, and setting up units on roughly 20 different military bases.

“This is a complete kit that can be used to catch almost anything edible that swims and compact enough to be loaded on a plane,” Chapman wrote in a draft press release about his wartime service.  “Now the kit goes along with our troops as they move to new bases.”[i]

The food situation is critical, in November of 1943 the upper Solomon Islands were so recently secured from the Japanese there were no lines of supply. Rations were dry and in short supply. After his scouting party, he finds the project has been transferred from the Navy to the Army. Chapman writes that the “plan of action which I submitted for the establishment of fisheries in the whole South Pacific area was turned into the Navy,” but then disappeared “and I was never again able to find the slightest trace of it.” It was up to the Army to implement a plan that had never been formally received.

Needless to say, this does not go well.  Chapman narrates the story in a light-hearted way,  with a dash of natural history as he collects specimens of fish for identification back at the Academy of Sciences.

But revisiting this story tells me two things: that there was a military plan during the war to expand American fishing deeper into the Pacific, and how these experiences shaped Chapman’s vision of the expansion of American tuna fisheries into the Pacific. Chapman returns to San Francisco at the end of the war, determined to expand American tuna fishing deep into the equatorial Pacific.

[i] University of Washington Special Collections, Chapman papers, Undated Box 4, Folder 1


Posted in Albacore tuna, American Tuna Association, Carmel Finley, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Wilbert M. Chapman, World History | Leave a comment

One More Time, What am I Doing?


Dr. Wilbert McLeod Chapman, University of Washington Special Collections.

I’m feeling a little pompous for having grandly announced I’m writing again, and certainly on something predictable, at least for me. I am trying to make my work more accessible, because it is important to have new stories about the natural world and the linkages between people, fish, and oceans.

I intend this book to tell a story of how fishery science developed in the Pacific Ocean. I know this will strike some people as very parochial; Sidney Holt has told me many times my work needs to be more integrated to into Atlantic fishery management.

But this Pacific story interests me a lot more, I think because so little of it is known, and it is such a complex and multi-layered story that needs to be discovered. Development in the Pacific was fast, fisheries starting and crashing with a decade (soufin sharks.)

This is material I have explored several times before. But I have a new set of questions to ask, and a desire to make some new connections with the research I did in graduate school. One reason this is important is that we lack foundation stories in many of the sciences, how the science was created and shaped, and the assumptions that were built in

Broadly, I am still interested in how American foreign policy continued to shape fisheries science after 1945, with the establishment of the Pacific Oceanic Fisheries Investigations, established in Honolulu, the conduit for Japanese oceanography research to be incorporated into western science.

In a 1944 joint resolution, Congress had directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to survey the extent and condition of all marine and freshwater fishery resources, including the “high seas resources in which the U.S. may have interests or rights.”[i] In a report to Congress in February of 1945, Harold L. Ickes (1874-1952), the Secretary of the Interior between 1933 and 1946, wrote that Americans had to “take intelligently the leadership in world aquatic industries that seems about to be thrust into its hands.”[ii]

With the end of the war, Congress expanded on its 1944 resolution to expand
American fisheries deeper into the Pacific, both for tuna, but also for king crab and bottomfish in Alaska. Our colleague Bob Hitz has written extensively about these early research efforts.

My story starts in the 1930s, following three scientists, William F. Thompson, and three of his students, Wilbert McLeod Chapman, Milner B. Schaefer, and, a decade later, Bell M. Shimada, who are all at the University of Washington’s School of Fisheries in Seattle. It is the Depression, a very difficult time for all, but especially for fishermen who could not find markets for their fish. Thompson was director of the School of Fisheries; the position was part-time and paid $2,000 a year.

As always, I will be using the blog to share interesting tidbits as I come across them, as and to try to make connections with my prior work.  We’ll be doing some reorganization as well, so thanks for hanging in with us while we houseclean.

[i] Harry N. Scheiber, “Pacific Ocean Resources, Science, and Law of the Sea: Wilbert M. Chapman and the Pacific Fisheries, 1945-70,” Ecology Law Quarterly, 13 (38), 383-534, 394.

[ii] “Fishery Resources of the United States,” Letter of the Secretary of the Interior, March 1, 1945.

Posted in Pacific Fishing History Project | Leave a comment

Writing Again, at Last


I’m writing again.

I don’t know if anybody noticed, but there hasn’t been a lot of blog and that’s because I’ve been hung up on what the next book is going to be about. Now, as you can probably guess, it’s going to be about fisheries and fisheries science in the Pacific, because that’s what I write about. But what slice of the story to tell next?

I have also been very involved in teaching and learning about teaching at Oregon State University this past year. I spent parts of the summer and fall working on classes for OSU’s new undergraduate program in Marine Studies Initiative. I also taught my graduate seminar on the history of fisheries science during winter term.

My own work has taken a back seat (well, let’s be clear, I grabbed that back seat as fast as I could, there is nothing as dreadful as starting a new book unless it is trying to end a new book). I’ve made several stabs at starting to read my research materials but it hasn’t been sustained.

But I am finally starting again, and it is with a great deal of thought that has gone into how to tell stories about the natural world and our relationship with it.  One of the recent classes I taught in the Honors College was built around Blue Mind, by Wallace Nichols. He argues that we protect what we love. To me, that translates into how can we learn more about our interactions with the ocean? We do it through stories and making connections with the past.

Alert readers will remember Dr. Ellen Pikitch getting the Oscar Sette award from AFS, She asked me look in Sette’s career and, as always, research often leads to more research, not necessarily to answers. I tracked down Sette’s influential paper of 1954,* I found the footnotes, and so many of them were translations from the Japanese. And that made me think about again about somebody I have always been curious about, Bell Shimada. Here’s link to an early post about this young Japanese-American fishery scientist who died in an air crash in 1958.

Bell Shimada worked for Oscar Sette in Honolulu. But before that, he was one of three scientists sent to Tokyo, as part of a military operation to find research on Japanese fisheries science and oceanography. Historians of science are interested in how science is created, how decisions are made. In the case of the Pacific Ocean, American and Japanese scientists combined their understanding of how the ecosystem works.

A piece has been left out of this story, the Japanese contribution through military translations of scientific documents. I haven’t done a complete count of how many documents were translated, but I know many were about tuna (the Americans hoped to expand their tuna fishery into waters where the Japanese had pioneered a fishery in the Mandated Islands), and about salmon, and salmon hatcheries.

One of the factors that drove the rapid post-war expansion of fishing was money from governments, subsidizing the building of boats and equipment. But there were also military reasons to expand fishing, especially in the Pacific Ocean, after 1945.


*O.E. Sette, “Progress in Pacific Oceanic Fishery Investigations, 1950-1953,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Spec. Sci. Rep. Fish, 116, 75 pp.



Posted in Carmel Finley, Cold War, Environmental History, fisheries science, History of Science, Japanese fishery science, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project | Tagged | Leave a comment


Fig 1 (1)

Cobb near the Ballard Bridge 2008                        Hitz Photo

By: Charles R. (Bob) Hitz       Blog # 42 Final                  Dec. 28, 2017

By December 2017 the John N. Cobb was finally getting the loving care that she deserved after she was decommissioned in 2008.  Since that date she has gone downhill.  She sat for about seven years under the Ballard Bridge, then was sold in 2015 to a new owner who began to modify her at Stabbart Maritime in Ballard on the ship canal, just inside the locks.  Wondering what happened to her, I looked her up in Wikipedia encyclopedia under the “R/V John N. Cobb” where the last sentence read; “She is located at Port Townsend, Washington pending seizure by the city and eventually will be scrapped.”  I called the Port and talked to Eric Toews, who invited me over to see her.  I made the trip there on Friday, July 15, 2016.

Fig 2

Cobb in 2015 in the Ship Canal                             Mike Webb Photo

Eric told me that the Wikipedia statement was incorrect, that they were going through the correct procedures for placing her for sale.  Once that was done they sold her to Ron Sloan of Reedsport, Oregon on April 26, 2017.  Ron was kind enough to E-mail me – “I just wanted to let you know I got the Cobb.  Deal was finalized yesterday.”  He is an albacore fishermen working out of Oregon, where the fisheries last from June to September each year.  He was then preparing to go fishing for the 2017 season, which is the time the weather is best to tow a vessel down the coast.

Fig 3

Cobb in Port Townsend 2016                                Hitz Photo

He had planned to tow her himself, but instead contracted another fisherman who towed her to her new home port of Winchester Bay, Oregon, arriving there on August 18, 2017, crossing the bar on a high slack tide.  In my opinion, towing a vessel down the coasts of Washington and Oregon is no laughing matter, so the vessel Sunnford and her skipper did a wonderful job.  Everything went well.

Fig 4

Start of the Temporary Cover 2017                        Sloan Photo

Before she left Washington I went over to Port Townsend hoping to meet Ron, but he wasn’t there.  However I met a retired engineer, Joe Johannes, who described what he had to do to get the Cobb ready to tow.  One of the problems was how to get the forward anchor winch operating after years of neglect.  That was important, because they had to disconnect the anchor from the chain, attach the tow rope to the chain and let it out to about 150 feet.  It would work as a shock absorber between the Cobb and the towing vessel so that the tow rope wouldn’t come out of the water due to ocean swells, violently jerking the vessels.  Then they had to retrieve the chain before they went across the bar into port.  The winch was frozen, and when he couldn’t get it to work, he took a sledgehammer to it which brought it to life once again.  The engine room was really dark because of the shore power and he needed to get light there so they could get one of the generators to operate, in order to have the correct navigation lights working during the tow.  Another major problem was to locate the steering gear which had been removed before Ron got the vessel, and reinstalling it before she could be towed.

Fig 5

Deck repairs inside the Cover 2017                       Sloan Photo

As soon as the fishing season was over allowing Ron to work on the Cobb, he built a temporary cover over the afterdeck to keep rain water out.  Once it was covered he sent me an E-mail; “The Cobb is finally stabilized! NO fresh water is entering the hull now.”  He also got the furnace working so that the interior was warm and dry and got the fresh water system fully operational, which gave them plenty of hot water to clean with.  He found the bilge full of oil that had to be removed and said it wasn’t fun, but had to be done.  He began to dismantle the main engine and replacing parts of the after deck which had started to rot.  He said that it is fortunate that he got her when he did – the rot hadn’t gotten to the deck beams.

Fig 6

Cobb and Nova 2017                                            Sloan Photo

Ron send a recent picture of the Cobb with NOVA alongside, she was one of his restorations and he uses her to fish for albacore.  It has a beautiful stern, completely different from the COBB’s cruiser stern.  Year 2017 has been a good one for COBB – she is loved once again and it shows.

Posted in boat building, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb | Leave a comment

The John N. Cobb to go for tuna!

cobb comming home Aug 12, 20171.jpg 027


Oregon fisherman Ron Sloan has purchased the former federal research vessel John N. Cobb and recently towed it to Winchester Bay where it will be turned into a tuna vessel.

According to Bob Hitz, the Astoria vessel Sunnfiord towed the Cobb to Winchester Bay.

cobb comming home Aug 12, 2017.jpg 034

The Sunnfjord and the Cobb at Winchester Bay

As faithful readers know, the Cobb is really the star of the blog, the wooden research vessel Birth of the Cobbin 1950 (click the link for some beautiful pictures)!

Bob and I are both very excited about this and we’ll be eager to document what happens next with this iconic West Coast research vessel. We wish the Cobb and her new owners the best!

Posted in Pacific Fishing History Project | Leave a comment

A review of The Fish Market

51vbcKPeF4L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The Fish Market: Inside the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and your Dinner, by Lee van der Voo, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017.

I am utterly amazed by this book. Lee van der Voo has done something I thought was impossible, to write an understandable book about fisheries catch shares and have it be both accurate and interesting. There is voluminous literature on catch shares in many, many academic journals, all of it couched in the dense vernacular of social scientists, with their irritating acronyms and obtuse theoretical constructions. Even for somebody with an interest in the subject, it can be heavy lifting.

But van der Voo took it from the other direction, from the individual people who are involved in catch shares, and then worked back through their stories to show what catch shares has meant for some  fishermen and their communities. Environmental groups sold the idea of catch shares to corporations and politicians, promising private ownership of the resource would bring about sustainable fishing. She paints a powerful picture of how catch shares are changing fishing. By keeping her focus so tightly on people, she does not place catch shares into their wider ideological foundation, neoliberalism.

A1LkVOnvZBL._UX250_Neoliberalism is a political economic theory that supposes that human well-being can best be achieved by maximizing entrepreneurial freedoms within a framework of private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets and free trade (Harvey 2007: 8).[1] The preferred neoliberalism option within fishing nations has been systems of catch shares, where individual fishermen or other groups are given rights to a certain percentage of the total catch. Catch shares have increasingly been implemented in Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia. The Canadian halibut fishery switched to it in 1991. After a long history of strenuous objections, a system of catch shares was implemented in several American fisheries, starting in the 1990s.

Van der Voo’s book describes the outcomes of several of these catch sharing programs, by interviewing people who have been involved; some were successful, others were not.  It was an absorbing read, but the conclusions were vague and unclear, not distinguishing that catch shares can be part of a governmental system, but that in some areas without strong governing body, will lead to inequities.

Fishing has always been a hard and difficult way to make a living. For centuries, fishermen have been poor, and in many areas of the world, they continue to be. For a first person account of modern trawling, check out the memoir of pioneering Oregon trawler George Moskovita.

In his review of my new book, Dr. Donald Gunderson suggested by my book and van der Voo’s bracket an era:

“Finley’s book represents a definitive analysis of the politics of world fishing from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, with the sharpest focus on the Pacific Ocean.  Van der Voo’s book explores the outcomes of several catch sharing programs that have been carried out globally since then, with a focus on the United States. Both make for fascinating reading.”

I found her book and her methods fascinating, a reminder of the importance of good and clear journalism in telling accessible stories about complex and important topics. And as a newspaper reporter turned historian, it’s nice to see that stories about people still have the ability to move readers.

[1] David Harvey, “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 610, NAFTA and Beyond: Alternative Perspectives in the Study of Global Trade and Development (Mar., 2007), pp. 22-44 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science Stable URL: . Accessed: 25/06/2013 14:27


Posted in Fisheries policy, Fishing, George Moskovita, Marine Policy, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Overfishing, Pacific Fishing History Project | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Review of All the Boats, by Dr. Donald Gunderson

All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Created overfishing, 1945-1976, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

By Donald Gunderson

This book is a well-written, scholarly, and engaging history of state subsidies for the fishing industry. This carefully researched book explores the political and economic philosophies behind the subsidies that gave rise the development of those Soviet and Japanese fishing fleets that hit both coasts of the U.S. like a tsunami in the 1960’s, then mushroomed the size of U.S. “domestic” fleets in the 1970’s and 1980’s.


Dr. Donald Gunderson

As Finley shows, fishing subsidies are never just about fishermen or food.  They are just one component in a suite of tactics used to achieve broader (often covert) national economic and political goals. “Feeding the people” is usually a secondary goal.

The expansion of the Japanese fishing fleet after WWII was encouraged and abetted by the U.S. to help rebuild the Japanese economy and keep Japan out of the communist sphere. The Soviets expanded their fleet to show the world the superiority of communist industrial might as much as to feed their people.   The U.S. stance on “Freedom of the Seas” was more about freedom of U.S. naval operations than rights for U.S. tuna fishermen to fish as close as three miles from any nation’s coast.

Finley argues that the goal of achieving MSY (maximum sustainable yield) throughout the world’s oceans was happily endorsed by diplomats who probably didn’t even understand the conceptual framework behind it. It simply buttressed their position on freedom of the seas.  When the international community began to adopt 200-mile fishing zones in 1976, and MSY had achieved the status of a moral imperative in order to avoid “wasting “ fish needed by humanity, the U.S. had a new problem.  It could either subsidize the expansion of its domestic fleet and harvest MSY itself, or allow foreign fleets within their new 200-mile limit. They chose the latter of course, and the dynamics of pork barrel politics insured that the domestic fleet soon became much larger than necessary.

So what was the result of all these subsidy programs?  Since nobody had a clear idea of just what level of harvest might be sustainable, Japanese and Soviet distant water fishing was nothing less than a raid on global fish stocks.  They quickly depleted many stocks around the world, resulting in far too many boats chasing far too few fish.  The U.S. overbuilt its own fleet and depleted the stocks off the U.S. coast even further.

Finley gives a broad overview of global issues, and focuses on the Pacific coast of the U.S. to show how this played out at a personal level for the fishermen, processors, and scientists there.  She highlights the fate of Pacific coast “rosefish” (Pacific ocean perch) stocks, which have yet to rebuild from the overfishing that resulted.

Finley’s book shows clearly that subsidies to the fishing industry almost always develop a political life of their own, bloat the fishing fleet, and result in overfishing.  They are always a bad idea if sustainable fisheries are the only policy goal—which (as Finley shows) it usually isn’t.  We now know enough to ask,  “What is the real goal here?” whenever such subsidies are proposed

While the book represents a thorough analysis of fisheries policies through the 1980’s, it leaves out many subsequent developments, and closes with a fairly dark assessment of the current situation. Finley suggests that more marine protected areas need to be established, and that larger spawning stocks of older females must be maintained if fisheries are to be truly sustainable.

She may be correct here, but fails to recognize that there has already been considerable progress in achieving sustainable fisheries.  Overfishing on both coasts of the U.S. eventually led to the development of laws and management systems (surveys, stock assessment programs, observer programs etc.) that began the rebuilding process, and many U.S. stocks are currently being harvested at MSY levels.  “Rosefish” (Pacific ocean perch) stocks have been successfully rebuilt in Alaska.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the overcapacity of many U.S. fleets was reduced through buyback programs (requiring further subsidies) and “catch sharing” programs that allocate each year’s fishing quota among the vessels that remain in the fishery.

Lee van der Voo’s 2016 book “The Fish Market: Inside the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and your Dinner” describes the outcomes of several of these catch sharing programs, and serves as a good companion to Finley’s. Suffice it to say that most catch sharing programs have resulted in fisheries that are more sustainable and profitable, although participants with access to capital end up with the lions share of the benefits while many others are forced out of the business as collateral damage.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the history, science, or management of marine fisheries read both of these books.  Finley’s book represents a definitive analysis of the politics of world fishing from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, with the sharpest focus on the Pacific Ocean.  Van der Voo’s book explores the outcomes of several catch sharing programs that have been carried out globally since then, with a focus on the United States. Both make for fascinating reading.

Posted in Carmel Finley, Cold War, Fisherie subsidies, Fisheries policy, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, Maximum Sustained Yield (MSY), Ocean fishing, Overfishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Soviet environmental history | Tagged | 1 Comment