Lecture #11: Even the Oceans Fail

Suggested Readings:

Joseph E. Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (1999)
John M. Kochiss, Oystering from New York to Boston (1974)
Chesapeake STEM Presentation on Oyster Aquaculture: http://www.chesapeakestem.org/aquaculture.html
John R. Bockstoce, Whales, Ice, and Men (1986)
Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling (2007)
Arthur F. McEvoy, The Fisherman's Problem (1986)
Garrett Hardin, "The Fisherman's Problem," Science (Dec 13 1968): http://science.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full
Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990)
Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea (2012)


I. Gifts of the Sea

Early visitors to New England and the eastern seaboard of what is today Canada came as much for the fisheries as for land resources: cod, salmon, herring, etc.

Still manifested by the five-foot wooden codfish that has hung above the entrance of the Massachusetts State House since 1798 (except in 1933 when pranksters from the Harvard Lampoon briefly "cod-napped" it): see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Cod

Key features of ocean geography/ecology: most fertile areas of the ocean are located on the continental shelf, especially where upwelling cold currents bring nutrients from ocean floor to surface and are able to sustain large phyto- and zooplankton populations, becoming a base for the food chain and fisheries.

Pelagic fish: live near the top of the ocean water column; demersal fish: live near the bottom.

II. Migrating Fish, Vanishing Fisheries

Anadromous fish: mature animals eat and live in the open ocean, but swim upstream into freshwater rivers and streams in order to spawn (in part so that young fish will be subject to lower levels of predation before they're large enough to defend themselves in open ocean). Salmon are the best-known examples, susceptible to mass harvest because of this reproductive behavior.

Atlantic salmon runs were destroyed quite early by the construction of mills, dams, and canals, mainly during the early 19th century. Construction of mills at Lowell on the Merrimack River starting in 1822 began this process, and the dam at Lawrence in 1847 essentially ended the spawning runs there.

This pattern repeated itself in California. There had been longstanding Indian fisheries that often took place, for instance, at major rapids on the Klamath and the Columbia rivers, regulated by ritual limits on how long the harvest would take place at those locations.

Rise of commercial fishing to supply food to gold rush migrants put increasing pressure on these salmon runs. The world's first salmon cannery was opened by the Hume Brothers on the Sacramento River in 1864: packed 4000 cases of 48 1-pound cans in first year, half of which spoiled.

By 1883 there were 21 canneries in California, with San Francisco shipping salmon around world. Peak of production occurred in 1882, when 12 million pounds were packed in the state.

This collapsed by 1891 to 2 million pounds, with just 3 canneries left. The last California cannery closed in 1919.

Why? Best explanation was overfishing, with nets and weirs eliminating the entire breeding stock from rivers, so that no reproduction could occur.

But also: silt and gravel from hydraulic mining muddied and filled rivers on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the Central Valley, raising water temperatures and turbidity past levels that young salmon could tolerate. Dam construction also blocked fish runs, and drainage of wetlands eliminated spawning grounds for other species.

So salmon fisheries migrated once again. As we saw in the opening lecture on Kennecott, a key attribute of moving resource frontiers was that people harvesting them could move on when the initial abundance of a resource declined, thereby avoiding having to confront the problem of sustainability.

Next great harvests were in British Columbia and Alaska. Alaskan rivers produced huge yields. First Alaskan cannery opened in 1878; there were 37 by 1889, producing 720,000 cases annually.

Alaska's peak year of production occurred in 1936 with 129 million fish caught and 8 million cases packed. This constituted 85% of the pack for the entire US, with, 25,000 packing plant workers in Alaska alone. In 1939, Alaska had 156 canneries shipping salmon to Lower 48, Europe, Australia, New Zealand.

The impulse toward reducing labor costs that so often characterized the US economy occurred here too, with workers being imported from China and Latin America, as well as investments in labor-saving technologies that eliminated a number of workers from the production process.

Then collapse: by the 1950s, Alaska's production was only 40% of 1930s' levels. The, nadir came in 1967, when only 1.5 million cases were packed.

This decline couldn't be attributed to pollution or watershed modification; its chief cause was simple overfishing.

III. The Fisherman's Problem (cf. Arthur McEvoy's book with this title)

Sustainably self-interested fishery behavior would seem to suggest that rational fishers would harvest only a safe annual level that wouldn't threaten the long-term reproductive levels of the fish populations being harvested. Take no more than the annual number of young fish making it to adult each year.

Here, George Bird Grinnell's metaphor of spending no more than the interest earned each year by one's capital would seem to be apt as a rule for the sustainable harvest of a hunted or fished annual population.

But fishermen never seem to act this way, so that fish populations and therefore fisheries seem to have a tendency in modern history to collapse. Why is that?

This question was labeled "the fisherman's problem" by fisheries economists, and worked out solutions during the 1930s to what they interepreted as an unexpected market failure.

Their explanation was that fish (like other wild animals) were a "common property resource" with no legal property right attached. Many fishermen competed to capture these animals and bring them to market, but no one actually owned them, so no one took responsibility for defending them.

Worse: competitive incentives meant that fishermen would keep fishing as long as there was any profit to be made from doing so, since not fishing would only mean that one's competitors would get those fish instead of you.

Garrett Hardin popularized this "fisherman's problem" in 1968 by relabeling it "Tragedy of the Commons" in a famous article in Science: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full (See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons) Hardin narrated it by telling a story about competitive medieval peasants selfishly adding cattle to graze a common pasture until that pasture was completely destroyed.

Hardin originally framed this as an expression of "human nature", but in fact the underlying market logic is a cultural construction of a particular historical moment. In fact, medieval pastures were often ritually regulated just as native fishing areas was, so that common property resources didn't fail from over harvests. Only in a competitive market economy--the product of relatively recent history--did this problem seem to emerge.

The economists who studied this intriguing example of market failure offered two possible solutions:

  • turn the resource into private property, so owners would have an interest in defending it, making sure it reproduced, and harvesting it sustainably; or
  • impose state regulation on the harvest to make it sustainable.

Note in passing that the price put on fish (and other wild animals) is assigned to them by human beings in these market exchanges; the animals themselves don't get the chance to decide what their own lives are worth.

The "fisherman's problem" or "tragedy of the commons" is often described as if it were a "natural" consequence of "human nature" ... but again, always be careful when you encounter such claims, since they rarely apply in all times and places in history. More often than not, they reflect particular cultural values as expressed by particular institutions and economic relationships in particular times and places.

IV. Oysters: Farming the Underwater Ranch

Let's look at a case study in which the first of these possible solutions to the fisherman's problem seemed at least for a while to be successful: oyster fishing on the eastern seaboard of what is today the United States.

Shellfish are more sedentary than most other ocean-dwellers, so would seem to be more susceptible to being treated as private property than fish that are more mobile.

Early colonists were amazed by the size of coastal oyster beds in New England and elsewhere, as we saw in Changes in the Land, but human impacts were already evident by the 18th and early 19th centuries. A fisherman's problem was emerging.

The reproductive cycle of oysters is relevant here: the adult animals (which can switch back and forth between male and female) eject great clouds of eggs and sperm ejected. Eggs that are fertilized and manage to hatch (enormous losses at each stage of this process) become free-swimming larvae (known as "spawn"), which grow for a couple weeks until they're about 1/75" in diamter, then attach themselves to a hard surface (often another shell) and become "set," remaining fixed in place for the rest of their lives.

Initial responses to declining oyster populations in Long Island Sound: towns in Connecticut began to impose closed seasons, limited harvest, permitting only local residents to engage in oystering there.

By the 1820s, oystermen were "planting" oysters, from spawn they collected locally or from set oysters obtained elsewhere (typically the vastly larger oyster beds in Chesapeake Bay).

In 1855, Connecticut passed a "Two-Acre" law, which allowing towns to survey underwater 2-acre tracts in coastal waters and sell or license them to fishers.

With this innovation, oystermen became very similar to farmers, acquiring property, seeding it with oysters, waiting for their beds to grow, and defending them against anyone who tried to steal from this private property. Oyster packing factories grew up along the shore, shipping packed oysters to urban markets all along the coast.

There is quite a good presentation about contemporary oyster aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay, with many useful diagrams and illustrations, here: http://www.chesapeakestem.org/aquaculture.html

Chesapeake oyster beds began a long decline in the 1880s from hydraulic dredging on an industrial scale, resulting in massive overfishing.

Long Island Sound oyster beds began to fail to set starting around 1910. Sewage from adjacent lands polluted the beds, making oysters more dangerous to eat and thereby reducing demand. Siltation likewise caused problems in coastal water.

Final collapse came in 1950s and 1960s with devastating impact of DDT on shellfish populations. Note that pollution effects like these can be interpreted as another form of market failure arising from an unregualted common property resource: clean, unpolluted water essentially had no price and was not yet regulated, so no one had an incentive to keep it clean, and no one paid any market price for the side-effects of pesticides. Unpriced, no one had an incentive not to use polluting substances under these circumstances.

V. To the Icy Ends of the Earth: Whales

One additional example of a fishery that experienced massive collapse until regulations were imposed on its harvest: whaling.

Colonial whaling began in Nantucket as an offshore activity, often relying on Indians as laborers (cf the character Queequeg in Melville's classic 1851 novel Moby Dick).

New England whaling fleets gradually migrated around the world as North Atlantic whaling areas declined from competition and over harvest. New England ships were Rounding Cape Horn off the tip of South America by the 1790s, reached Hawai'i by 1819, and the Gulf of Alaska by 1835.

Sperm whales were the most sought-after animals, and their populations declined across the early decades of the nineteenth century. So: other species began to be harvested instead.

In 1848, Captain Thomas Roys headed into the Bering Sea, capturing 1800 barrels of bowhead whale oil in a single month. News of this enormously productive fishing ground generated an oil rush in 1849, with more than 70 ships visiting the Bering Sea to harvest bowheads for themselves.

This hunt followed a seasonal cycle: whalers left New England in the autumn, rounded Cape Horn in in the southern summer, arrived in Hawai'i in April, reaching the Bering Sea pack ice in mid-June. There, the whalers traded with Alaskan Natives and hunted marine mammals like seals and walruses (Pribilof Islands became a major site for this ancillary harvest) until the pack ice broke up in late July. Whalers then hunted bowheads from then until the pack ice began to form again in late September.

If they stayed too long, they faced the very real danger of shipwreck amid the ice floes, most famously in the 1871 disaster in which 33 ships became trapped in the ice, their sailors having to flee on foot and await rescue by other vessels.

Whales were valuable as commodities for several reasons. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the heaviest demand was for whale oil rendered on board ship from their blubber, used for illumination in lamps. This market was threatened by the discovery of "rock oil" (petroleum) in Pennsylvania in the late 1850s, but whaling continued for baleen, which was the nearest thing the nineteenth century had to plastic: strong and flexible, it was ideal for umbrellas and corset stays.

As prices edged upwards, spring steel began to compete with baleen as a replacement. Then, in 1907, the Parisian designer Paul Poiret introduced a "slim figure" to his dresses, eliminating the narrow waist and S-shaped figures so characteristic of Victorian and Edwardian fashion, qualities that the corset was designed to produce. This dramatically undermined the remaining market for baleen. By 1909, only three ships headed north; by 1910, there were essentially no buyers left for whalebone. The invention of the brassiere in 1913 as a replacement for the corset pounded the last nail into this market.

In the meantime, though, whole populations of whales had been drastically reduced by a world-wide harvest occurring in an unregulated competitive market. The International Whaling Commission was finally created in 1946 to try to impose some limits on continuing whale harvests in the mid-twentieth century, but its efforts would prove only partly successful.

Plenty and waste yet again?