Revolution #180, October 25, 2009

From A World to Win News Service

If They Can’t Save This Fish, Don’t Trust Them With the Planet!

October 12, 2009. A World to Win News Service. People who are looking to the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change Conference or some other international body of today's capitalist states to save the planet should consider the death sentence the European Union may have just issued for the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

The Atlantic used to be full of bluefin, but they only bred in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean. Now, with their numbers greatly depleted, the Mediterranean has become critical for their survival as a species. Yet the European Union has refused to back a plan to cut the yearly bluefin catch to a level where they could escape extinction.

The bluefin tuna is one of the most magnificent of the world's fishes. (The tuna most people eat from cans is a different species.) Because of their unique metabolism, muscular structure and almost perfect hydrodynamic shape, they can push their great size (up to four meters [13 feet] long, and weighing as much as three-quarters of a ton) from one end of the Atlantic to the other, cruising at several kilometers an hour with bursts of up to 80 kph [49.7 mph], and diving half a kilometer [1,640 feet] deep. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered them beautiful and fascinating. Since then they were considered good for nothing but sport fishing until only a few decades ago, when the global market got hold of them. Now just one can be sold at the price of an ordinary car, and a big one at the price of a Rolls Royce.

High in a healthy kind of fat, many people believe that their red meat tastes particularly delicious raw. But don't blame anyone's ancestral tastes for the popularity that may prove to be fatal for this species. Noble Japanese used to agree with their American counterparts that this fish was not fit for their consumption. The market demand for them has been socially determined, involving, it is true, the fact that people can acquire a love for their flavor, but also the bluefin's iconic brand status as one of the world's most prestigious foods amid the boom in luxury consumption in the home countries of the imperialist (monopoly capitalist) world economy. In fact, the development of the productive forces played a more decisive role in developing today's taste for open-ocean fish than any age-old cravings, since it was only with the spread of household refrigerators in rich post-war Japan and elsewhere that the common people could eat much raw fish at all. Modern fishing equipment and refrigerator ships made it highly profitable to catch and transport bluefin tuna by industrial methods and in industrial quantities. With these conditions met, the market manufactured the popularity of this commodity by introducing it to sushi or sashimi (Japanese-style raw fish dishes) menus that, thanks to their profitability, have taken the better-off countries by storm.

Today, with the number of full-sized adult bluefin greatly reduced in the Mediterranean, fish crews generally catch them while they are young and small, and then put them in ocean pens to fatten them for a few months before driving a nail into their brains and selling them on ice. For some years the idea was promoted that this kind of capital-intensive fish farming could save the species, but in fact it made the problem worse, because the number of fish left to grow to reproductive age has dropped drastically and the bluefin has not bred in captivity.

The numbers are so clear that you'd almost think that they alone would settle the argument. The quota for the world's total bluefin catch was 22,000 tons this year. The real amount taken in is thought to be two or three times as much, because there's not much checking-up on catches declared by registered fishing vessels, and illegal fishing by unauthorized boats is rampant. If the quota were set at 15,000 tons and enforced for a sufficient length of time so that the fish population could recover, then according to the prominent fish NGO [non-governmental organization] Oceana, about 45,000 tons of bluefin could be harvested every year indefinitely. That would be a sustainable level, and is about the amount of bluefin regularly taken in a decade ago.

Yet the EU refused to back a proposal that the international body in charge of such things set the quota at that sustainable level.

That body is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), nicknamed, by the exceedingly pro-business publication The Economist, "the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna" (October 30, 2008) because it really represents the global fishing industry countries. The EU itself split right down the line you'd expect: the tuna-catching countries along the Mediterranean took a stand for the freedom to fish (including France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy had recently made a speech posing as the tuna's new best friend), while countries like Germany and the UK, whose waters have been emptied of bluefin, were in favor of the new quotas.

This is not just the result of pressure from commercial fishing companies, although there's plenty of that. The nature of capital and the workings of the market, above and beyond anyone's will, is the deeper explanation.

First of all, there's the question of timeline: bluefin live for decades and may not be able to reproduce until the age of eight or more; right now they are often caught when only a year or two old. So rebuilding the stock would take some time. Secondly, because there's so much money to be made in cheating, quotas might not be enforceable. This factor interpenetrates with another one: capital is nationally rooted, and every government would be under pressure to look the other way and let their fishing fleets do as well as those of the next coastal country. Maybe only a total ban, including on marketing bluefin, would work. Long-term reduced quotas would be very good for fishing, but the question of "saving the fishing industry" is not a question of saving some abstract industry. The undeniable fact is that today's fishing companies would be thinned and shrink at best, and the capital invested in them might never be recovered.

Thirdly, for capitalist production such questions are considered "externals": the cost to society and the planet of not reducing fishing quotas—or of not preventing other kinds of damage to the environment—is enormous, but that cost is not necessarily borne by any individual capitalist or capital formation. From the point of view of profits for fishing companies and the banks that finance them, and the various national monopoly capitalist economies in which this industry operates (injecting the capital obtained by profitable fishing into the larger circuits of capital by purchasing boats and other equipment, etc.), the most rational thing is to fish bluefin until there are no more.

This short-sighted approach is insane even from the point of view of capitalist profit in the long term, let alone the interests of the people and the planet. The Sunken Billions project of the World Bank and the UN's FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] points out that the more capital invested in fishing, the more fish are caught and the less fish stock is left, requiring even more capital (more boats fishing for longer periods, etc.) to catch them and reducing the overall profitability of the industry, although they fail to point out that this does not necessarily apply to the profit of any particular company, which can thrive by swallowing competitors. "If fish world stocks were rebuilt, the current marine fisheries catch could be achieved with approximately half of the current global fishing effort," the report concludes. In fact, one reason why the fishing companies require government subsidies to keep up their profitability is because there is too much capital invested in fishing. (Other reasons include global warming, a problem not unrelated to the dictates of profitability and the market.)

Ocean fish are part of the productive forces, like land, raw materials, machinery and technology, and people and their skills, that produce wealth. They have the unusual particularity of being the common property of mankind (sometimes called "the commons"), just as land once was before the development of class society and especially capitalism.

Fish have the potential to be an enormously important source of high-protein nourishment for humanity, and for its pleasure as well. But "the commons" and even more the collective labor of people all over the world cannot be used for the benefit of humanity and its planet as long as the monopoly capitalist system based on private profit prevails and the monopoly capitalist class holds political power.

The problem lies in what capitalism requires—what capital itself requires, which is antagonistic to the interests of humanity and the planet. The governments must respond to the dictates of profit or economic chaos will result. The politicians who represent capital may or may not want to save the bluefin but there are far more powerful forces at work than their individual consciences. Even where laws have been passed to save locally beloved species by restricting catches (eels in Holland, king salmon in Alaska—both, significantly, involving low-capital fishing), the international character of fish lifecycles and the overall environmental effects of capitalism and the global market have limited the success of such efforts.

As Karl Marx's close collaborator Frederick Engels wrote in Dialectics of Nature, "Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first...

"And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws [of nature] and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realize, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature...

"[B]y long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analysing historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our production activity, and so are afforded an opportunity to control and regulate these effects as well.

"This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production [capitalism] , and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order."

When it comes to something as complex, long-term and truly global as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and beginning to deal seriously with the threat of global warming, then the fate of the bluefin, which, after all, is just a fish, should serve as a warning.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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