Welcome to the Pacific Fishery History Project. We are in the very preliminary stages of starting to bring together people who are interested in the development of fishing in the Pacific. Since the project, at this point, is basically me and my work, let me tell you a little about myself, and why I’m interested in these issues.
The short answer is that I’m married to a commercial fisherman, an Oregon salmon troller. Carl owns the 34-foot Maro, which lives in the boat basin at Newport, Oregon. We live in Corvallis, with our cat, Max, and I am an instructor in the Department of History at Oregon State University. But my interest in the development of ocean fisheries isn’t due to Carl or the boat.
One of the last news stories I covered for The Oregonian was the collapse of the West Coast trawl fleet in 1996. As the trawl story unfolded, I was working on a masters’ degree at Oregon State University and I became very interested in what had happened to the trawl fishery. It was obvious that the science was at the heart of what happened. New stock assessments showed that several populations of fish were at less than 10 percent of their original estimated biomass. Under the provisions of the 1996 Sustained Fisheries Act that meant a drastic reduction in catch and a mandatory rebuilding plan to restore stocks within 10 years. It was obvious to me that whatever had happened to the groundfish fishery, the science was at the heart of the conflict.
I was taking a History of Science seminar at Oregon State with Dr. Ron Doel and I decided to write about the development of fisheries science. I poked around in the literature and came across a 1994 paper by R.J. H. Beverton, published after his death, called “The State of Fisheries Science.” Beverton wrote that the decision to adopt MSY as the goal of fisheries management came at a meeting in Rome in 1955, and that the decision had been a political one. I became very curious about what the political issues were.
This interest led me to the University of California, San Diego, to do a doctoral degree in History of Science and Science Studies, with Dr. Naomi Oreskes. California Sea Grant supported our work with three years of funding, to look at what had happened in the groundfish fishery. The result was the 2007 dissertation, “The Tragedy of Enclosure: Fish, Fisheries Science, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1920-1960.” The metaphor of the tragedy of the commons holds that fish stocks have been overharvested because individual fishermen could not restrain their behavior, even in their own self-interest.
I contend the collapse of world fisheries was not caused by individual fishermen rushing to harvest but was the result of deliberate policies adopted by distant water fishing nations in general, and the United States in particular, to promote and expand fishing because it fit with the Cold War goals of open seas and open skies.
My argument is that with the development of refrigeration in the 1930s, boats fished further from home and stayed at sea for longer periods of time. One result was a growing number of territorial claims, as the boats of countries with developed fisheries were increasingly fishing in the offshore waters of other nations. The Japanese greatly expanded their fishing during the 1930s, sending boats through the Pacific and even into the Atlantic Ocean. They were the world’s greatest fishermen, with a peak aggregate annual production that ranged from 3.5 million metric tons to 4.5 million metric tons. The Americans, by comparison, caught less than 2.5 million metric tons a year.
But the Americans were also expanding their fishing, not only north to Alaska for salmon and halibut, but also off Mexico and Latin America, for tuna. In the spring of 1926, albacore disappeared from the waters off San Diego, and boats headed south off Mexico in search of tuna. American boats were fishing in the tuna-rich waters of the Galapagos by the 1930s, drawing complaints that the boats were depleting stocks of baitfish. In Alaska, where boats took a record harvest of 8.4 million cases of salmon in 1936, biologists were warning that the fluctuations in the catch were a sign of overfishing. There were 117 canneries operating in Alaska in 1937, with a total capital investment estimated at $98 million; industry profits were estimated at $3 million annually.
In 1936, Japan announced it intended to mount a “scientific investigation” into the salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. The Northwest salmon industry responded with outrage. Politicians introduced bills to expand Alaska’s territorial limits and ban the Japanese from their waters. The State Department asked the Japanese to withdraw their request, and Japan did so. The fisheries dispute was soon lost in other tensions.
But in 1945, President Harry Truman issued the two Truman Proclamations. One deals with federal authority over offshore oil and gas production. But the second deals with fishing. It declared the U.S. had the right to establish conservation zones in the ocean to protect fish in the high seas contiguous to the United States, where fishing activities were fully developed. If the Americans had developed a fishery, the declaration said the government might act to limit fishing in the area by other nations, in the interests of conservation.
The Truman Proclamation was aimed at keeping the Japanese out of Bristol Bay. But it soon had unintended consequences. A month later, Mexico adopted a 200-mile territorial water zone. Argentine followed a year later, in October of 1946. Chile and Peru acted in 1947, and Costa Rica in 1949. (Iceland also acted in 1948, based on the 1945 Truman Proclamation).
All of these actions tied fishing to foreign policy concerns for many nations. I contend that between 1937 and 1958, this intersection between fishing and foreign policy significantly affected the development of American fisheries science, as summed up in the policy known as Maximum Sustained Yield (MSY).
A summary of the politics around the adoption of MSY can be found in this recent article, published in Ecology and Society:
Finley, C. 2009. The Social Construction of Fishing, 1949. Ecology and
Society 14 (1): 6. [online] URL:
My next project is to take the information I have developed about the geopolitical tensions around fishing in the Pacific and apply it to the development of the West Coast groundfish fishery. I’m focused right now on the California sardine fishery in the 1930s and how, as the catch fluctuated, processing companies moved into Oregon in 1934, and then into Peru, after the start of World War II. The movement of fishing boats to new waters has been studied, but what about the movement of processing equipment?