The Tragedy of the Commodity
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The Tragedy of the Commodity

Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, Brett Clark

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eBook - ePub

The Tragedy of the Commodity

Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, Brett Clark

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About This Book

Winner of the 2017 Paul Sweezy Marxist Sociology Book Award from the American Sociological Association Although humans have long depended on oceans and aquatic ecosystems for sustenance and trade, only recently has human influence on these resources dramatically increased, transforming and undermining oceanic environments throughout the world. Marine ecosystems are in a crisis that is global in scope, rapid in pace, and colossal in scale. In The Tragedy of the Commodity, sociologists Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark explore the role human influence plays in this crisis, highlighting the social and economic forces that are at the heart of this looming ecological problem.   In a critique of the classic theory “the tragedy of the commons” by ecologist Garrett Hardin, the authors move beyond simplistic explanations—such as unrestrained self-interest or population growth—to argue that it is the commodification of aquatic resources that leads to the depletion of fisheries and the development of environmentally suspect means of aquaculture. To illustrate this argument, the book features two fascinating case studies—the thousand-year history of the bluefin tuna fishery in the Mediterranean and the massive Pacific salmon fishery. Longo, Clausen, and Clark describe how new fishing technologies, transformations in ships and storage capacities, and the expansion of seafood markets combined to alter radically and permanently these crucial ecosystems. In doing so, the authors underscore how the particular organization of social production contributes to ecological degradation and an increase in the pressures placed upon the ocean. The authors highlight the historical, political, economic, and cultural forces that shape how we interact with the larger biophysical world.   A path-breaking analysis of overfishing, The Tragedy of the Commodity yields insight into issues such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change.  

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Sea Change

At sea, the intense Mediterranean sun is inescapable. It is spring, and bluefin tuna have come to reproduce in the calm salty waters off the large Italian island of Sardinia. Since time immemorial, giant bluefin have returned to their Mediterranean birthing grounds. On this day, they have been trapped in an elaborate maze of nets, called la tonnara.1 A line of fishermen is poised to perform a craft that has been practiced in the Mediterranean for a millennium. “Pull, pull!” the head fisherman commands his crew. “Up! Up! Heave!” he barks above the uproar of clamoring fishermen and the splashing giants fighting for their lives. The fishermen yank and pull the heavy nets to enclose the bluefin in a ritual that links them back to their ancient ancestors.
This is la mattanza, or the slaughter, and it is a method of fishing that has been a mainstay in this region for centuries. Bluefin tuna have long been an important source of food, economic activity, and cultural heritage in Mediterranean fishing communities. As spectators and tourists watch the mattanza from nearby boats off the small island of San Pietro in southwest Sardinia, this traditional trap fishing operation has clearly reached the closing stages of its existence. Throughout the Mediterranean, trap fisheries like this one sustained and supported small coastal communities. Social and cultural events were linked to fishing practices. Today, tourists still come to San Pietro to eat tuna in the spring during the famous festival of tuna, called the “Girotonno,” and visit fishing areas hoping to catch a glimpse of the majestic species. But onlookers and fishermen alike recognize that this practice, its culture, and its economy are nearing the end. They are witnesses to the demise of a fishing system and tradition that has spanned recorded history.
In the center of the Mediterranean Sea sits a small archipelago known as the Egadi Islands. The sea surrounding these islands sparkles in shades of translucent turquoise and sapphire blue, and the rugged landscape is speckled with remnants of past civilizations. The combination of land, sea, and ancient artifacts prompts one to consider the long history of humans and the ocean. Just a few kilometers off the northwest coast of Sicily, the largest of these islands, Favignana, was one of the most productive tuna fishing centers in the Mediterranean. For thousands of years, humans have fished for bluefin tuna here, and by the nineteenth century Favignana was called la regina or “the queen” of the Mediterranean tuna fishery.
Today, the hordes of sunbathers that play in the calm clear waters might spend a day strolling the newly renovated museum that once contained an elaborate tuna processing plant, or pose for a snapshot in front of the crumbling walls along the waterfront that used to house the boats and fishing gear. However, on the Egadi Islands bluefin tuna fishing is now simply history. On Favignana, the tonnara endures like a ghost over the island. It lives in the folklore and artifacts that speak of a glorious past. It also tells the story of San Pietro’s future.
Why are these fishing communities, which have flourished for thousands of years, now in rapid decline, along with the majestic species on which they depended? Is this just another case of the tragedy of the commons? What kinds of fishing systems are replacing traditional systems such as this? Is aquaculture the solution? Are modern trends in fish production ecologically and socially sustainable? In this book, we answer these and other questions related to the massive transformations in ocean, fishing, and aquaculture systems. We employ a framework rooted in a socio-ecological perspective to analyze the tragic nature of recent developments and to provide a deeper understanding of the social processes that have been driving massive changes in these systems.

Modern Fishing and Aquaculture: Three Sheets to the Wind

To understand the conditions within the modern Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery, for example, it is important to place these developments in their historical and ecological context. Societies throughout history have affected their environments, some to a greater degree than others. Today however, humans are altering marine environments in an unprecedented manner. Like a ship with three sheets to the wind, fisheries in many parts of the world are off course and foundering. As a result, some are collapsing. Oceans and associated ecosystems are in crisis. To make matters worse, this crisis is global in scope, rapid in pace, and colossal in scale. This unique human impact on marine ecosystems has attracted much attention from natural scientists, who have greatly informed public understanding of what is transpiring. But the important social dimensions of these circumstances require further attention. Social scientists can help investigate and illuminate the underlying causes and possible solutions.
Rachel Carson, best known for her work on the real and potentially devastating effects of toxic pesticides on humans and the environment, understood and emphasized the importance of healthy marine ecosystems. Before writing the classic Silent Spring in 1962, she worked at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In her writings, she focused on marine biology and oceanography, and emphasized humankind’s deep relationships to marine ecosystems.2 In The Sea Around Us, Carson notes that Earth is “a planet dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents are but transient intrusions of land above the surface of the all-encircling sea.”3 She eloquently illustrates the vital importance of ocean systems for humans, stating: “When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea.”4 In this remarkable book and other works on oceans and marine systems, she recognizes and describes how aquatic systems had long provided the means of life and the basis for human social development.
The archeological record suggests that coastal communities, including prehistoric civilizations, drew on near-shore marine resources—for example, mollusks—since the dawn of Homo sapiens, and deep-sea fishing began at least 42,000 years ago.5 It has been suggested that human societies may have put significant pressure on marine species dating back at least 2,000 years ago and even as long as 10,000 years ago.6 Recent research has determined that, since the end of the Pleistocene (about 11,700 years ago), the indigenous peoples of the northwest United States engaged in the capture and consumption of near-shore species such as mussels and abalone.7 This research documents the intensive reliance on these marine resources for many millennia, while highlighting the central importance these species had for the development of coastal societies. The evidence suggests that humans affected the size and makeup of these populations, yet did not exploit them to the degree that could threaten the local populations with collapse. Not until about 150 years ago did transformations in production and consumption begin to seriously compromise populations of these particular species to the verge of extinction.8
The scale and pace of human effects on marine species first accelerated during the era of colonial expansion (sixteenth century), then more significantly during the Industrial Revolution (nineteenth century). The development of new systems of mass transport, such as railways, and other technologies, in particular the steam engine and refrigeration, allowed for considerable expansion of fish production and consumption. For example, steam engines in boats permitted fishers to enlarge the range of their harvest at sea and, coupled with the growth of railways, extended the potential fishing capacity and consumer market. Larger quantities of fish could be captured, boats could fish farther and stay out at sea longer, loss from spoilage was reduced, and inland populations began to have greater access to marine fisheries products. During this period of rapid social change, technologies were adapted and fishing activity intensified, and thus began a period of increasing and severe pressure on aquatic species. Nevertheless, it is not until late in the modern era that fishing systems reach a stage of development that threatens biodiversity and well-being of marine systems on a global scale.9
Modern industrialized fishing efforts for marine species first emerged in the nineteenth century, but it was the post–Second World War period that marked a dramatic rise in global marine fish catches. The amount of capital and energy invested in fishing operations rose considerably after the war and up to the present. Advanced technologies and modern fishing techniques rapidly increased the intensity and capacity of fishing operations. As a result, global captures increased more than fourfold between 1950 and 2000, from almost 20 million tons to about 90 million tons. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s, the global fishing effort increased at a rate faster than that of human population growth in the same period.10
Technology and capital-intensive systems that utilize massive ships, heavy machinery, and state-of-the-art location technology principally drive modern fishing practices. These operations have been organized largely around three main types of fishing boat technologies: trawlers, longlines, and purse seines. Industrial or factory trawlers utilize massive nets that are either pulled through the open sea like a large parachute or dragged across the ocean floor, sometimes thousands of feet below the surface of the water. Bottom trawlers have equipment that makes contact with the ocean floor and drags across sediment to stir up species of ground fish and crustaceans for capture. This practice has been associated with habitat destruction analogous to clear-cutting forests. Industrial bottom trawlers level entire areas of ocean floor to catch valuable target species. In addition to target species, bycatch (unintentionally harvested fish that are unwanted or lack a market) are inevitably captured, particularly by large-scale fishing gear. Approximately one-third of all species captured in fishing operations in the United States are killed and discarded as bycatch.11
Longlines use a string of baited hooks that hang from a main line, which can stretch for miles. The largest industrial longlines can contain thousands of baited hooks. This practice is often used in commercial fishing operations targeting pelagic species like tuna, halibut, and swordfish. Purse seines use massive nets to encircle schools of aggregating species like tuna. These nets can have a circumference of over a mile and can harvest many tons of fish in a single haul. Longlines and purse seine fishing systems are notorious for the amount and species that make up the bycatch. These unintentionally captured species include not only other fish, but also marine mammals, such as dolphins, and birds.
Accompanying these capture systems are advanced location technologies including fish aggregating devices and sonar. These tools allow fishing vessels to pinpoint the location of target species with lethal accuracy. Evidence is mounting that, as a result of these changes in fishing practices, many fish populations are being harvested at a faster rate than they can reproduce. Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly describes the production expansion in modern fisheries as a “toxic triad,” arguing that geographic, bathymetric (i.e., deeper, offshore fishing), and taxonomic expansion (new, previously ignored species) have characterized global fisheries in the modern era.12 The expansion of modern fish operations often disrupts food webs and marine ecosystems, which can displace workers and undermine fishing communities.
Although overall fishing effort has been steadily increasing, cumulative yields of all species in large marine ecosystems have been in decline since the 1980s.13 Recent trends in captures of global marine fisheries resources, once thought to be infinite, clearly indicate the onset of a crisis. The populations of many marine species are stressed primarily by anthropogenic activities such as overexploitation of stocks and habitat loss due to environmental degradation. In a recent study, fisheries scientist Boris Worm and his colleagues predicted that if trends of increasing pressure and loss of biodiversity in marine ecosystems continue unchanged, the collapse of all taxa that are currently fished could occur by the middle of the twenty-first century.14 Furthermore, it is estimated that all large predatory fish have seen a 90 percent decline in spawning stock biomass since the preindustrial level.15 These trends and predictions do not even include the growing concerns associated with climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and introduced species. The oceans have become a dumping ground, including a sink for growing carbon dioxide emissions. While the estimates by fisheries scientists have been at the center of contentious debates about the health and future of fisheries, it is clear that numerous marine systems have experienced significant decline and many modern fisheries are overexploited, are perilously close to collapse, or have collapsed.16 Such changes have not been frequent occurrences in human history until very recently. The collapse of marine fisheries points to systematic changes in the ways that social systems interact with marine ecosystems.17
Fish are a significant protein source for billions of people, and fishing operations and production provide employment to millions of people. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in 2012 capture fisheries and aquaculture systems produced approximately 136 million tons of food for human populations, and more than 58 million people took part in fishing and aquaculture activities worldwide.18 Additionally, over 660 million people are estimated to work in, or are dependent on, operations associated with fish production.19 Modern fishing systems can take on a variety of forms and scales. Small-scale and artisanal fishing systems are still practiced in many parts of the world, particularly the global South. Like all fishing practices, artisanal fishing does have an impact on the stocks of fish that it targets. Nevertheless, the dominant forms of fish harvesting and production practiced today are large-scale and intensive operations. Fishing has become a global enterprise producing marine food resources on a scale unprecedented in history. Of the more than 93 million tons of fish supplied to the world market by capture fisheries in 2012, over 85 percent was captured in marine areas. Aquaculture systems supplied an additional 67 million tons.20 Like capture fishing, aquaculture systems have undergone an extraordinary shift toward large-scale intensive production, representing the fastest-growing segment of food production in the world.
The rapid depletion of marine species in the ocean has coincided with a parallel trend in the emergence of modern aquaculture systems. Marine aquaculture is defined as the cultivation of marine species under conditions controlled and privately owned for part or all of their life cycle. The trends of depletion and intensification of production occur simultaneously and, therefore, must be studied side by side. In light of severe fish depletions, modern industrial aquaculture is offered as a technological solution to increased demand for global food supplies. The Blue Revolution, the name under which modern aquaculture is celebrated, has rapidly emerged on the global market, introducing a new policy discussion on social and ecological issues related to food production. Like agriculture’s Green Revolution, the recent growth of total aquaculture output has been accompanied by an increase in intensified methods of production and the globalization of production and consumption.
Aquaculture is commonly known as fish farming. In 1960, only 5 percent of the fish consumed by humans came from aquaculture. Between 2000 and 2012, aquaculture production more than doubled. As of 2012, about half of all fish consumed is raised on farms.21 While the majority of aquaculture production is land-based freshwater culture systems, like tilapia, the most rapidly expanding aquaculture sector is the ocean-based, capital-intensive production of penned species such as salmon and shrimp and, in the future, tuna. The emergence of marine-based intensive fish production is a recent historical phenomenon, and its growth has often outpaced scientific assessment. The growth of this type of intensified, privatized, highly capitalized, and technologically driven production system is transforming the nature of seafood production in general. Therefore, as sociologist Conner Bailey states, “Aquaculture should be seen not only as a technical and biological innovation, but also as a socio-economic enterprise that requires the same kind of social analyses as any other production system.”22
Aquaculture has been considered a key component in economic and social development by international agencies such as the United Nations, World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Commonly, aquaculture is presented by development agencies and organizations as a means for enhancing global food security, stimulating economic growth, and furthering environmental conservation. It is considered an important provider of much-needed calories and protein for a growing global population, and is also seen as a way of increasing economic output, employment, and foreign exchange through trade, particularly in the global South. Given the excessive demands on marine and other aquatic ecosystems, aquaculture is promoted as a way to reduce pressure on global fisheries and oceans and maintain growth in seafood production.23
The parallel trends of rapid fish deple...

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Citation styles for The Tragedy of the Commodity

APA 6 Citation

Longo, S., Clausen, R., & Clark, B. (2015). The Tragedy of the Commodity ([edition unavailable]). Rutgers University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)

Chicago Citation

Longo, Stefano, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark. (2015) 2015. The Tragedy of the Commodity. [Edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press.

Harvard Citation

Longo, S., Clausen, R. and Clark, B. (2015) The Tragedy of the Commodity. [edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Longo, Stefano, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark. The Tragedy of the Commodity. [edition unavailable]. Rutgers University Press, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.