Fishing is highly political. Just because fishing isn’t as appealing as talking about the WE Charity scandal, doesn’t mean we should pay any less attention.
For a few years now, I’ve worked in seafood restaurants to pay for tuition. Sometimes I was amazed by the kinds of stories I’d hear about the fishing industry. One time I was told that Atlantic lobsters were being sold and flown internationally from the Maritimes before being repurchased by retailers from Chinese firms at a higher price. While I wasn’t able to find specific evidence of this online, it nevertheless made me rethink the implications of a seemingly innocuous trade. I have to confess that I’d never really given a whole lot of thought to the fishing industry as a whole and to some extent, working as a lobster fisherman was even looked down upon by some people I’d known growing up. I began to care more once I actually had a job which dealt with the retail end of fishing, given that I was cooking and preparing lobster on a daily basis. After moving to St. John’s I even learned from former high school friends who ended up working on boats sent around the North Atlantic.
Even after my first year, I still hadn’t taken the fishery seriously enough until I learned about the now infamous Turbot War, during a course on international law. It surprised me that the dispute was not discussed more in Canadian foreign policy or international relations. To think that actual interstate disputes (involving militarized naval deployments between NATO members) had seemingly erupted over a bunch of expensive “sea bugs” didn’t quite make sense to me. But then again, maybe it was because I never understood the appeal of lobster to begin with. Something seemed to be bubbling beneath the surface, given such serious political tensions.
When international law exists in a sort of quasi-existential crisis brought about by fundamental challenges in enforcement and compliance, Spanish boats off the Newfoundland coast can easily take advantage of this good-faith system (and we arrive at a Realist theory of international relations). This means the law becomes equally vulnerable to interpretation and difficult to enforce. Currently, Canada is engaged in a longstanding dispute with the United States over the Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine. While, to the Smithsonian, it may just seem like “bickering” over a big rock with “little more than a lighthouse and some puffins,” the water’s territorial boundaries have deep implications for the lobster fishing in the region. There’s even a recent documentary on the subject called “Lobster War,” for those interested in the ongoing death threats and coastal patrols in the so-called “Grey zone”.
For many firms, the stakes are very high, and a sudden inaccessibility could impact the local Maritime economy. Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Deadliest Catch recognizes that insiders take the trade very seriously, and for good reason. For example, crustaceans and other seafood account for an approximate third of all exports from Nova Scotia. While it might only be around 5% of exports from Newfoundland & Labrador, it’s still a $700 million dollar industry which is overlooked by petrol’s 70% export share at over $10 billion (including crude and refined petroleum). If the oil and gas industry eventually phases out, as many environmentalists would appreciate, fishing would then become the biggest economic sector in the province and a fundamental industry, similar in fashion to how oil and gas have been treated. In light of problems discussed here, this indicates an urgency to seriously consider approaching a model for ethical fishing and cooperative economics in the near future.
With the ongoing violence over Indigenous rights to fishing in the Atlantic, its not often mentioned that the Minister of Fisheries, MP Bernadette Jordan, is also tasked with managing the coast guard. Despite this, its disappointing to note that no preventative peace-keeping deployments were launched amid ongoing aggressions against Indigenous fishing rights. According to APTN, recent documents indicate that the authorities were well aware of looming threats and dangers against Indigenous fishing operations but neglected to intervene. It is hard not to come away from this information thinking that the government just doesn’t care as much as it should about fisheries.
While the international community accepts French sovereignty over St. Pierre & Miquelon, it seems like a stretch to see the logic allowing Spanish boats (accessing EU channels via France) to harvest fish in Newfoundland’s waters. Subsequently, more political problems begin to present themselves more clearly. There are plenty of other instances where similar conflicts have occurred aside from the Turbot War mentioned above.
In the Lobster War of 1961-63, France and Brazil consulted oceanographic experts in defining the lobsters at the centre of the dispute, not the water itself. There was an intense debate about whether Spiny lobsters ‘hop’, ‘leap’, ‘crawl’, or ‘swim’ and whether one of those categories technically implied that the Caribbean spiny lobster would classify as a bird. It’s another reminder about the ability of ecology to transcend political geography: borders may adjust in the short run of history, but the fish don’t really seem to care. Other well-known examples include the 1993 Cherbourg incident, the Cod Wars, and the Pacific Salmon War.
However, this is not to say that the disputes are exclusive to Western countries; it’s recently been argued that the entire dispute in the South China Sea stems from the exhaustion of fish populations. Furthermore, there are vast ecological concerns about a giant wastepipe, from a Canadian fish-packing plant, ejecting pollution the Pacific Ocean and tainting salmon populations. It’s too graphic to show but its been referred to as the “2019 Fish Farm Virus”; research at your own discretion.
Seal hunting is another example. Some in green politics have been split over the practice as a traditional way of life for some – but that can hardly be compared to en masse hunting practises of a multi-million dollar company.
The recurring themes here are necessity, sovereignty, and nature. The issue is not even necessarily about choosing one over the other, but how to best balance what is needed as opposed to what nature can offer. On top of that, you have multiple vying actors. This is not even necessarily specific to Atlantic Canada, and as we’ve seen, its in fact a global political issue. It begs the question… Does this seem like an ‘equitable’ or fair distribution of a valued commodity? Does this seem economically ‘efficient’? Does this seem like a healthy feature of an industry? Is this what is best for the ocean’s inhabitants? It’s not common for countries to deploy militaries over timber rights or hunting access. But then again, there is plenty to be said about military deployment over rights for oil extraction.
What we’re forced to consider are questions of moral priorities in fisheries – and thus economics – and thus politics. How much is needed to feed people? How much is available to trade? How many fish should be saved and protected? Who has a legitimate claim to authority – institutions, governments, or people? And under what circumstances should that authority be challenged or overridden?
If the field of international politics plans to confront the challenges of today, then the fisheries are a great place to start given their direct relevance to issues regarding the geographic sanctity of the ocean, environmental policy over pollution, sustainable fishing practises, and labour rights. Also of interest is the suitability and efficacy of legal framework which assesses harvesting rights of nations, those governing the land in question and those Indigenous to it.
In writing this, I have not aimed to provide a solution or even promote a specific perspective regarding ongoing issues in fishing disputes; instead, I have tried to illustrate how an undervaluation of the industry (and its broad-reaching ripple effects) often spill over into dangerous scenarios in political economy. For those looking for more information, the upcoming Netflix film, Seaspiracy takes aim at exploring this darker side.