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Fishers, Fishing, and Overfishing: American Experiences in Global Perspective, 1976–2006

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 April 2011


Since the mid-1970s, overfishing has had a considerable impact on the American seafood industry, and companies serving the American seafood market have taken steps to respond to the crisis. Following a brief survey of modern-day fishing and of the steps that have been taken to mitigate overfishing, the strategies adopted for commercial fishing in American waters, especially those in Alaska, are examined. Through their attempts to deal with the challenges posed by overfishing, fishers, seafood-processing and wholesaling companies, and retailers have fundamentally altered the industry. In conclusion, a summary of studies by historians and other scholars of fishery matters is followed by suggestions for historical research on the topic. Historians are reminded of the need to consider environmental factors when writing about business developments.

Copyright © Harvard Business School 2009

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1 Redmayne, Peter, “Frank Dulcich, President Pacific Seafood Group, Interview,” Seafood Business 22 (Oct. 2003): 86Google Scholar, at, accessed on 24 July 2007. I use the gender-neutral term “fishers” throughout my study. However, many women in the fishing industry prefer to be called “women fishermen,” not “fishers” or “fisherwomen.” See Leland, Leslie Fields, The Entangling Net: Alaska's Commercial Fishing Women Tell Their Lives (Urbana, 1997), 7Google Scholar, 69.

2 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2006,” 1, at, accessed on 29 Sept. 2008. For per-capita seafood consumption by nation, see Churchill, R. R. and Lowe, A. V., Law of the Sea (Manchester, U.K., 1999), 280Google Scholar; Clover, Charles, End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat (New York, 2006), 14Google Scholar; and Miles, Edward, Gibbs, Stephen, Fluharty, David, Dawson, Christine, and Teeter, David, The Management of Marine Regions: The North Pacific (Berkeley, 1982), 48.Google Scholar

3 In looking at fishery issues here, I touch on the need for additional historical oceanic research. See Bolster, W. Jeffrey, “Opportunities in Marine Environmental History,” Environmental History 11 (July 2006): 567–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and “Forum: Oceans of the World,” American Historical Review 111 (June 2006): 717–80.Google Scholar

4 Safina, Carl, “The World's Imperiled Fish,” Scientific American 24 (Nov. 1995): 4653CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in Environmental Management: Readings and Case Studies, ed. Owen, Lewis A. and Unwin, Tim (Oxford, 1997), 2834Google Scholar, esp. 28–30.

5 Worm, Boris, et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science Magazine 314 (3 Nov. 2006): 787–90Google Scholar, at;314/5800/787, accessed on 15 Nov. 2006.

6 UNFAO, “State of World Fisheries,” 5.

7 UNFAO, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, “Global Capture Production, 1950–2005,” at, accessed on 17 Oct. 2007. The top-ten fish-catching and fish-producing nations in 2004 were, in descending order: China, Peru, the United States, Chile, Indonesia, Japan, India, Russia, Thailand, and Norway. See UNFAO, “State of World Fisheries,” 7.

8 While commercial fishing greatly intensified in the twentieth century, localized overfishing began in medieval and early modern times. See Roberts, Callum, Unnatural History of the Sea (Washington, D.C., 2007), chs. 1 and 2Google Scholar

9 Ibid., 184–203, 281–82, 287–88, esp. 364. Roberts was a marine biologist at England's University of York. See also Warner, William W., Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman (New York, 1983), 8687Google Scholar, 96, 165; and Kroll, Gary, America's Ocean Wilderness: A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration (Lawrence, Kans., 2008)Google Scholar.

10 UNFAO, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department “Fishing Effort, 1970–1995,” at, accessed on 16 Nov. 2007. By 2004, according to the UNFAO, there were about 4 million fishing vessels, but many of these were not engaged in largescale commercial fishing operations. Only 1.3 million of them were decked vessels; the remainder were open boats. About one-third of the 2.7 million open vessels were engine powered. The rest used sails or oars. See UNFAO, “State of World Fisheries,” 4.

11 Iudicello, Suzanne, Weber, Michael, and Wieland, Robert, Fish, Markets, and Fishers: The Economics of Overfishing (Washington, D.C., 1999), 12Google Scholar, 17, 20–22; Roberts, Unnatural History, 305–15; and Woodard, Colin, Ocean's End: Travels through Endangered Seas (New York, 2000), 238.Google Scholar

12 Cushing, D. H., The Provident Sea (Cambridge, U.K., 1988)Google Scholar, closely examines relations among developments in fishing methods, increases in fishing, and the growth of marine science in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

13 Scott, Anthony, The Evolution of Resource Property Rights (Oxford, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ch. 4, surveys the history of national and international fishing laws from Roman times to the present.

14 Most fish live in the relatively shallow waters above continental shelves, not in deeper seas farther offshore; EEZs, which cover most continental shelves, contain an estimated 75–90 percent of the world's commercial fish. See Churchill and Lowe, Law of the Sea, 15–22, 160–80, 289; Hannesson, Rognvaldur, The Privatization of the Oceans (ambridge, Mass., 2004)Google Scholar; and Miles et al., The Management of Marine Regions, chs. 2–4.

15 See Hayes, Samuel P., Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (Cambridge, Mass., 1959).Google Scholar

16 Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (13 Dec. 1968): 1243–48Google Scholar, is the classic statement. For valuable discussions of the tragedy of the commons in fisheries, see Clover, End of the Line, 141–65; and McEvoy, Arthur F., The Fisherman's Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850–1980 (New York, 1986), 1012CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In fact, fishing and overfishing have many aspects, as social scientists have recently pointed out. State actions, especially their promotion of fisheries development, along with the actions of fishers and processors, have been important. See, for example, Feltault, Kelly, “Trading Quality, Reducing Value: Crabmeat, HACCP, and Global Seafood Trade,” in Food Chains: From Farm Yard to Shopping Cart, ed. Belasco, Warren and Horowitz, Roger (Philadelphia, 2008), 6283Google Scholar; and Mansfield, Becky, “Thinking Through Scale: The Role of State Governance in Globalizing North Pacific Fisheries,” Environment and Planning 33 (Autumn 2001): 1807–27Google Scholar.

17 Merchant, Carolyn, “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History,” Environmental History 8 (July 2003): 380–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Cole, Luke and Foster, Sheila, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (New York, 2001)Google Scholar; and Melosi, Martin, “Equity, Eco-Racism, and Environmental History,” Environmental History Review 19 (Fall 1995): 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Rosenberg, Andrew, Swasey, Jill H., and Bowman, Margaret, “Rebuilding U.S. Fisheries: Progress and Problems,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4 (2006): 303–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at, accessed on 11 Nov. 2006. See also UNFAO, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, “World Fisheries Production, by Capture and Aquaculture, by Country (2004),” at, accessed on 11 Oct. 2007.

19 Johnson, Terry, Ocean Treasure: Commercial Fishing in Alaska (Fairbanks, 2003), 1, 79.Google Scholar

20 Cooley, Thomas, Politics and Conservation: The Decline of the Alaskan Salmon (New York, 1963).Google Scholar

21 Matsen, Brad, Fishing Up North (Anchorage, 1998), 8485Google Scholar; and McCloskey, William, Their Fathers' Work (New York, 1998), 276–79Google Scholar, look at early-day salmon fishing.

22 Crutchfield, James A. and Pontecorvo, Guilio, The Pacific Salmon Fisheries: A Study of Irrational Conservation (Baltimore, 1969).Google Scholar

23 Fields, Entangling Net, 19. Women composed about 5 percent of Alaska's commercial fishers. On limited-entry salmon fishing in Alaska, see Arnold, David F., Fishermen's Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska (Seattle, 2008), 156–70.Google Scholar

24 On recent salmon catches, see Anchorage Daily Times, 12 Apr. 2008, 1, at,accessedon12Apr.2008; Kodiak Daily Mirror, 11 Apr. 2008, 1, at, accessed on 11 Apr. 2008; and Seafood Business, 18 Apr. 2008,1, at, accessed 18 Apr. 2008.

25 Johnson, Ocean Treasure, 11. By salmon ranching, Johnson meant raising young salmon in hatcheries and then releasing them into the rivers running to the sea, not raising salmon in ocean pens for their entire lives. In fact, fish farming in ocean pens was outlawed in Alaskan waters in 1990. Alaskan fishers and processors had considerable success in the early 2000s in differentiating their wild salmon from salmon farmed elsewhere. Copper River salmon from the Gulf of Alaska, for instance, commanded premier prices in stores and restaurants, up to forty dollars per pound in 2008.

26 Blackford, Mansel G., Pioneering a Modern Small Business: Wakefield Seafoods and the Alaskan Frontier (Greenwich, Conn., 1979), ch. 3. In the interests of transparency, I should note that my father was the captain of a 140-foot-long, king-crab trawler-processor, the Deep Sea, in the 1940s and 1950s.Google Scholar

27 The NPFMC was (is) composed mainly of federal and state fisheries experts, as well as representatives of leading commercial fishing and processing companies.

28 Walker, Spike, Working on the Edge (New York, 1991), 157Google Scholar, 165; and Dillon, Patrick, Lost at Sea: An American Tragedy (New York, 1998), 78Google Scholar, 19, 60–61, 70–71, 115–17, 180. For recent first-hand accounts of king-crab fishing, see , Andy and Hillstrand, Johnathan, Time Bandit: Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World's Deadliest Jobs (New York, 2008)Google Scholar; and Weeks, Dan, Deadliest Catch: Desperate Hours (Des Moines, Iowa, 2008).Google Scholar

29 Johnson, Ocean Treasure, 45–46; McCloskey, Their Fathers' Work, 296–99; Walker, Spike, Nights of Ice: True Stories of Disaster and Survival on Alaska's High Seas (New York, 1997), 8687Google Scholar; and, especially, Dillon, Lost at Sea, 184–251.

30 ABC News Online, 25 Apr. 2008, at; and Anchorage Daily News, 25 Apr. 2008,1, at Both accessed on 26 Apr. 2008.

31 Wall Street Journal, 4 Sept. 1996, 1, and 15 Jan. 2002, 1; Columbus Dispatch, 12 Nov. 2000, B6. See also Johnson, Ocean Treasure, 89, 100, 143–44; and Nature Conservancy, Newsletter, Summer, 2004, at, accessed on 11 June 2004. Crab-catch figures may be found in NPFMC, “Summary of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council's Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Crab Rationalization Program Submitted to the United States Congress, August, 2002,” 2, at, accessed on 4 Apr. 2008.

32 NPFMC, “Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Crab Rationalization Program, August, 2002,” 1, at, accessed on 4 Apr. 2008.

33 Wall Street Journal, 1 Jan. 2003, An.

34 NPFMC, “Crab Rationalization Program Overview and Frequently Asked Questions, Updated June 6, 2007,” at, accessed on 2 Apr. 2008.

35 Hillstrands, Time Bandit, 149–50; and “State Reveals Data on Fishing Trends,” Anchorage Daily News 6 Dec. 2008, at, accessed on 11 Feb. 2009.

36 Kodiak Daily Mirror, 11 Apr. 2008, inside page, at, accessed on 13 Apr. 2008.

37 NPFMC, “Draft Report to Council Crab Advisory Committee, February, 2008,” 7, 9, at, accessed on 30 Mar. 2008.

38 NPFMC, “Summary of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, March 31,1997,” at, and NPFMC, “Summary of the Gulf of Alaska Groundfish Fishery Management Plan, August, 2001,” at, both accessed 8 Apr. 2008.

39 NPFMC, “Community Development (CDQ) Program,” 1, at, accessed on 8 Apr. 2008. On the history of the Community Development Quota Program, see Mansfield, Becky, “Property, Markets, and Dispossession: The Western Alaska Community Development Quota as Neoliberalism, Social Justice, Both, and Neither,” Antipodes 39 (Fall 2007): 479–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

40 Clover, End of the Line, 280–96. See also MSC homepage, at; MSC, “Certified Fisheries,” at—both accessed on 28 Apr. 2008; Laine Welch, “Fisheries Say Long and Costly Eco-Label Worth the Effort,” Alaska Journal, 5 May 2005, at, accessed on 16 July 2007; and Seafood Business, 12 June 2007, unpaged, at, accessed on 18 Apr. 2008.

41 Seafood Business, 15 June 2007.

42 Ellis, Empty Ocean, 69; Scott, Evolution, 183; and Woodward, Ocean's End, 86.

43 Scott, Evolution, 166–67,172–74.

44 UNFAO, “State of World Fisheries,” 22.

45 Roger Horowitz, “Making Food Chains,” in Food Chains, ed. Belasco and Horowitz, 1–5, esp. 1.

46 Warren Belasco, “How Much Depends on Dinner?” in ibid., 9–15, esp. 11. For an excellent review of the literature on food-chain analysis, see Shane Hamilton, “Analyzing Commodity Chains: Linkages or Restraints?” ibid., 16–25.

47 Rosen, Christine Meisner, “The Role of Pollution Regulation and Litigation in the Development of the U.S. Meatpacking Industry, 1865–1880,” Enterprise & Society 8 (June 2007): 297347CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Comparative company data are currently available, collected and reported by the industry trade journal Seafood Business only for 1999–2006. Unfortunately, several of the largest processors-wholesalers did not report their sales for 2007 (privately owned, they were under no obligation to do so). See Seafood Business 19 (Feb. 2000): 1, and 26 (16 July 2007): 1, at and, accessed on 17 July 2007 and 16 July 2007, respectively.

49 On Nippon Suisan, see “Investor Relations, Balance Sheet, 2006,” at, accessed on 26 July 2007.

50 Seafood Business 19 (Feb. 2000): 1; 20 (Feb. 2001): 1; 21 (May 2002): 1; 22 (May 2003): 1; 23 (May 2005): 1; 24 (May 2005): 1; 25 (May 2006): 1; all accessed at www.find on 17 or 23 July 2007. For 2006 sales, see Seafood Business 29 (May 2007): 1, at, accessed on 23 July 2007. On StarKist's sale, see “Charlie Gets the Hook,” Forbes Magazine, 30 June 2008, at, accessed on 6 July 2008.

51 Joe Pleasha, “Trident Seafoods to Acquire ConAgra Surimi,” Chef2Chef 14 Mar. 2006, at, accessed 23 July 2007; and Seafood Business 24 (Apr. 2006): 1–2, at, accessed 23 July 2007.

52 Seafood Business 24 (May 2005), 1, and 25 (May 2006), 1, both at, accessed on 23 July 2007.

53 Ibid., 22 (Oct. 2003): 86, at, accessed on 24 July 2007.

54 Peters, Thomas and Waterman, Robert Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America ‘s Best-Run Companies (New York, 1982), 292Google Scholar, coined this phrase.

55 Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, 1977).Google Scholar

56 “Trident Seafoods,” at, accessed on 23 July 2007.

57 Seafood Business 20 (Jan. 2001): 1; 23 (June 2004): 6; and 25 (Apr. 2006): 1, all accessed at on 23 July 2007.

58 Ibid., 22 (Aug. 2003): 6, at, accessed on 23 July 2007.

59 Seattle Times, 16 July 2005, at, accessed on 23 July 2007.

60 “IBM News Release,” 19 July 2006, at, accessed on 23 July 2007.

61 Seafood Business 25 (Sept. 2006): 4, at, accessed on 23 July 2007; and Seafood Business 27 (May 5, 2008): 1, at, accessed on 14 July 2008.

62 Seafood Business, 29 May 2007,1.

63 Ibid., 15 June 2007,1.

64 Safina, Carl, Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters along the World's Coasts and beneath the Seas (New York, 1997), 395.Google Scholar

65 Clover, End of the Line, 4–5, 343–45.

66 Holm, Poul, Smith, Tim D., and Starkey, David J., eds., Exploited Seas: New Directions for Marine Environmental History (St. John's, Newfoundland, 2001), xiii.Google Scholar

67 Judd, Richard W., Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).Google Scholar In addition, see Judd, Richard W., “Saving the Fisherman as Well as the Fish: Conservation and Commercial Rivalry in Maine's Lobster Industry, 1872–1933,” Business History Review 62 (Winter 1988): 596625CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Vickers, Daniel, Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850 (Chapel Hill, 1994).Google Scholar

68 See also McEvoy, Arthur F., “Law, Public Policy, and Industrialization in the California Fisheries, 1900–1925,” Business History Review 57 (Winter 1983): 494521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

69 IIITaylor, Joseph E., Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle, 1999).Google Scholar For a comprehensive history of salmon fishing in southeast Alaska, see Arnold, Fishermen's Frontier.

70 See especially Scott, Evolution.

71 On the history of the North Atlantic cod, see Innis, Harold, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven, 1940)Google Scholar; Kurlansky, Mark, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (New York, 1997)Google Scholar; and Magra, Christopher P., “The New England Cod Fishing Industry and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution,” Enterprise & Society 8 (Dec. 2007): 799806.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

72 One international group of researchers, composed of scientists and some humanists, is trying to provide historical background on fisheries: members of the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) project. They have been engaged in preparing a “Census of Marine Life” in “a research program designed to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life in the oceans.” See Holm, Smith, and Starkey, eds., Exploited Seas, 215; and H-MAP, “History of Marine Animal Populations,” at˜marboe/hmap/hmappros.html, accessed on 16 Nov. 2006. Some scholars have criticized this group. Historian Lance Van Sittert has concluded, “HMAP's primary focus on quantification and building a historical data base has tended to restrict ‘context’ to the verification of historical time series and rendered the humanists the data serfs of ‘scientist’ model lords.” See Sittert, Lance Van, “The Other Seven Tenths,” Environmental History 10 (Jan. 2005): 106–9Google Scholar, esp. 107.

73 Gillette, Howard Jr., Camden after the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial Society (Philadelphia, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Steven High and Lewis, David, Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization (Ithaca, 2007).Google Scholar

74 See the book by Proulx, E. Annie, The Shipping News (New York, 1994)Google Scholar, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, and a movie by the same title.

75 For the classic example of this image in literature, see Kipling, Rudyard, Captains Courageous: A Story of the Grand Banks (London, 1897)Google Scholar. The television program “The Deadliest Catch,” which is about fishing for king crabs in Alaskan waters, perpetuates this heroic image.

76 Historians Christine Rosen and Christopher Sellers observed in 1999, “Business history has never paid much attention to the environment,” and in fact has given “little attention to the effects of resource extraction and use on plants, animals, land, air, or water, much less entire ecosystems and climate.” See Rosen, Christine Meisner and Sellers, Christopher C., “The Nature of the Firm: Towards an Ecocultural History of Business,” Business History Review 73 (Winter 1999): 577600Google Scholar, esp. 577. See also Rosen, Christine, “The Business-Environment Connection,” Environmental History 10 (Jan. 2005): 7779. That situation has begun to change. The Winter 1999 issue of Business History Review is devoted to relations between business and the environment, as is the June 2007 issue of Enterprise & Society.Google Scholar