The Fish Market: Inside the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate

The Fish Market: Inside the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate

by Lee van der Voo

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Overview

The Fish Market: Inside the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate by Lee van der Voo

**Winner of the Oregon Book Award**

Gulf Wild — the first seafood brand in America to trace each fish from the sea to the table — emerged after grouper, the star of fried fish sandwiches, fell off menus due to overfishing. The brand was born when the government privatized the rights to fish to fix the problem. Through traceability, Gulf Wild has met burgeoning consumer demand for domestic, sustainable seafood, selling in boutique grocers and catapulting grouper from the hamburger bun to the white tablecloth.

But the property rights that saved grouper also shifted control of the fish from public to private, forever changing the relationship between wild seafood and the people that eat it.

Aboard fishing vessels from Alaska to Maine, inside restaurants of top chefs, and from the halls of Congress, in The Fish Market, journalist Lee van der Voo tells the story of the people and places left behind in this era of ocean privatization—a trend that now controls more than half of American seafood. Following seafood money from U.S. docks to Wall Street, she explains the methods that investors, equity firms, and seafood landlords have used to capture the upside of the sustainable seafood movement, and why many people believe in them. She also goes behind the scenes of the Slow Fish movement—among holdouts against privatization of the sea— to show why they argue consumers don’t have to buy sustainability from Wall Street, or choose between the environment and their fisherman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250079107
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 811,764
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 16.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

LEE VAN DER VOO is an award-winning journalist who writes about sustainability, food, policy, and social justice. Her research has been funded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism as well as the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship. On staff at InvestigateWest, the nonprofit journalism studio for the Pacific Northwest, her work has been featured in The New York Times, Reuters, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, CNN, Slate, and High Country News. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

The Fish Market

Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate


By Lee van der Voo

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Lee van der Voo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9173-9



CHAPTER 1

Bering Sea

"Monsanto on the Ocean"


Dave Wagenheim drops his knife into the head of a pollock. A little flick of the wrist, a poke from the edge of the blade, and the otoliths role out. Two tiny circular bones. The move is practiced enough that he can do it now, over and over, without much attention to how. Inscribed with growth rings, the bones are to the fish what rings of the trunk are to the tree. A biologist for a company contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, it's Wagenheim's job to collect the rings.

It's tedious work. And not at all helped by the unending rise and fall of the factory floor. It's no ordinary factory. Instead, he's standing at his sampling table with its measuring stick and its scale inside a 272-foot ship on the Bering Sea. The tide beneath it is sometimes so strong that the work requires a kind of balancing act with the scale at the end of his arms, making Wagenheim into some kind of stumbling maître d'.

But despite its undulations, this place is a firestorm of busy. He stops its conveyor belts only long enough to collect his sample of fish. The rest of the time those belts are rattling like a roller coaster inside the lower deck of the boat, so that the sound of their creaking is like a kind of white noise beneath all other things. Hair-netted workers line up alongside it, toiling in a constant state of motion. Although this vessel rides the most remote waters surrounding North America, it's a surprisingly wakeful place. Three shifts a day tend a mostly automated menagerie of flash freezers and fish-gutting machines and meat grinders.

Wagenheim is among the luckiest on board. He works only twelve hours a day and can move around freely — the majority of everyone else being confined to the factory, their quarters, or a few common areas. Still, within six years, he will have a different career entirely, running the vegan food cart Viva! Vegetarian Grill in downtown Eugene, Oregon, where he will describe his newly flesh-free endeavor as the only way he can participate in the food-service industry without feeling like he is polishing a turd. But in 2008, the last year Wagenheim worked as an at-sea biologist, he labored in what has since become lauded as the world's largest sustainable fishery: Alaska pollock.

In short, boats like this one are where your Filet-O-Fish comes from. Your Seafood Sensation from Subway. They are the origin of Burger King's Extra Long Fish Sandwich and the fish fries and sandwiches at restaurant chains like Long John Silver's. Beyond the massive amount of fast food fueled by pollock, the fish is also funneled to a vast array of boxed fare: fish sticks, fillets, and breaded squares found in the freezer aisles of grocery stores. It is also the impersonator of the crab, and sends a tidy amount of roe and kamaboko — a kind of cured krab with a k — to Japanese markets. A handful of potions convert what's left to fish meals and oils, too.

Which is why the first fish to fall out of the holding tank and onto the conveyor belt belong to Wagenheim. He steps up to fill his basket, waving off the workers in the headphones and rubber gloves that man the stations along the belt. He eyes the gap between the belt and the holding tank. Sometimes things get stuck in there. Sea lions, for example. Halibut the size of German shepherds. Salmon. All are occasional collateral damage in the pollock industry, the mammals the main reason marine biologists were put on these boats in the first place.

He weighs the fish. Sexes them. Writes it all down on the neat government forms provided. "Pollock. Species number 201. Haul number 487. Sex M. Length 42 [centimeters]. Weight .64 [kilograms]." He readies the otoliths to be peered at through a microscope in some distant laboratory. Five pairs from each basket. No more than twenty-five a day.

Right now, these notes by Wagenheim and his counterparts, scientific sheriffs riding the seas from Dutch Harbor to the Bering Strait, keep this industry on its leash. And the leash is part of what gives pollock its certification as environmentally sustainable. Biologists on board, counting the harvest, carefully measuring all the things that pollock boats kill by accident. Such data helps the government set the bar on how much pollock this industry can catch to avoid fishing the species, and others, into extinction. It's a lot. Two and a half billion pounds of pollock, give or take a few million, have been captured on these waters annually for the past two decades. It's the weight of the world's largest aircraft carrier with a blue whale riding on the deck. By the industry's estimate, it feeds billions.

The success these boats — and an entourage of smaller ones — have at feeding so many people, and so cheaply, while mostly curtailing collateral damage, accounts in part for the ubiquitous markets pollock's champions have built. Though pollock boats kill, at last check, 260,000 salmon a year and an annual average of about 470,000 pounds of halibut, this accidental catch is a tiny fraction of the pollock haul. The ongoing effort to bring science and invention to bear on avoiding such waste — it is illegal to trawl for salmon or halibut, so they are thrown back dead — has produced everything from real-time mapping of nontarget fish to nets with escape hatches and trapdoors to help them get away.

Such efforts combine with the size of the catch to make pollock attractive to high-volume buyers eager for sustainable bragging rights. Alaska pollock is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based certifying agency that balances the health of the pollock with its impact on surrounding aquatic life — for a price. Everyone who handles pollock, on these trawl boats and elsewhere, is certified to a chain of custody so that no imposters creep in. There are also audits and scientific assessments and third-party overseers. The task of satisfying them is not so easy.

But beyond the selling point of the ecolabel, there's another thing that makes pollock the denizen of the fish stick, the fast-food menu, and, more recently, the sustainable sushi scene: this is factory fishing. Pollock arrives at buyers' doorstep looking not at all like fish, but freakishly like dimensional lumber. On board trawlers while at sea, or on land later, pollock is pressed and frozen into blocks. These so-called fillet blocks are made to standard size so that they are easily fed to the next series of food-processing conveyors belts, making them ready protein fodder for just about anything. Half-moons of kamaboko. Cubes and rectangles for sandwiches. Tubes for fake crab legs and fish sticks. Or recut into fillets, then breaded and striped with grill-tread.

Wagenheim likes a lot about the job of minding this catch from the factory floor. He likes timing the lowering and the raising of the trawl nets, browsing the captain's logs, and standing on two legs above that vast swath of water between the United States and Russia. But he sees the contradictions between pollock's sustainable image and its reality. From his vantage of all there is to see in this industry, he sees things he could not have imagined from the foot of the backlit menu at a McDonald's or the freezer aisle of a Kroger. In that way, the ship is beyond most people's imaginings.

Most don't assume that their fish is caught by a ship the size of a Home Depot, a football field's length from bow to stern. Or envision its several decks and dozens of factory workers, its bunk beds or its massive galley kitchen, or the numerous and sometimes questionably performing toilets. Harder still to associate what happens on the deck with that ubiquitous blue label: the Marine Stewardship Council's insignia check arching over a fisheye.

It's a symbol that gives no hint of the huge net lowered into the water, the ropes as thick as baseballs, or the winch that hauls it, the hook alone larger than a man's head. It doesn't suggest a net that unfurls across the sea and drops, somewhere west of Alaska, and rises again full to the width of a manufactured home and twice the length, bulging with fish, the whole deck creaking and rattling with the effort to contain the weight, anywhere from seventy to two hundred tons.

When people look at the fish sticks in the freezer aisle and see the sustainable label, many are more likely to think of that Gorton's Fisherman on the box — the man with the trim beard, the yellow slicker, the wooden captain's wheel — rather than the people of enormous strength whose job it is to tend a factory trawler's net. Those men don't stand at wooden wheels scanning the sea in the open air. They are instead alternately hulks and quiet tailors, at one moment dropping ton after ton of fish into a holding tank below deck and squatting in piles of mesh in the next, sewing, patching, mending. They have to be watchful, ready to run if the net's cables break, the awful tinning snap of those loose whips scattering them. The cables can wreck a man, and killed one in the eleven years ending in 2012, during which accidents on these boats maimed more than four hundred people.

Other things about this industry are not so intuitive. For example, that most of the workers who sign contracts for tours aboard these ships, five months being the average, work two shifts a day, seven days a week, and do things as rote as stacking boxes inside a freezer, one after another. A large number of the people who sign up are hired from impoverished places, these jobs being a saving grace for many of them. But they are helpless to leave without severe financial penalties. And those penalties are often so steep that people desperate for land, people who simply can't hack it, have been known to feed their fingers to the factory's machines on purpose to escape.

What is most difficult to envision amid all those freezer boxes and all that fast food, however, is that when it's all over, the billions of pounds of pollock captured from American waters every year belong to a small number of people. It's not just that the proceeds of the catch belong to those who own the boats, that's a given. This is America, after all. Boat owners earn their share of the roughly $250 million in annual revenue. But what they also own are the rights to the fish. Alaska pollock is a privatized fishery. And they are its keepers.


* * *

How this happened is a long story. But the brief truth of it is that it began as an effort to recapture the bounty of American oceans from foreign-owned trawl boats and ended with an exclusive list of who could fish pollock.

It's a story that dates back a few decades, to the seventies, when Americans didn't have much of a hand in what happened off their westernmost shore. The United States didn't have big boats to harvest pollock then. Up until that time, it was regarded as a kind of seafood surplus instead, a deep-sea oddball that Americans hadn't yet found a use for or a way to catch. That changed when foreign trawlers came to the Bering Sea to capture it for themselves. Recognizing pollock fishing could be their own bountiful market, fishing industry and political leaders aligned behind the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the seafood equivalent of the Farm Bill. In 1976, when it passed, it kicked the foreign boats out. It claimed the two hundred miles off the coastal United States for Americans, then laid down the rules for fishing there. The law became, in effect, a kind of Constitution of the sea.

Within a couple of decades, however, the plan for managing pollock fishing shifted from keeping foreign boats out to controlling the massive domestic fleet that took over. Through the eighties and nineties, so many boats took to pollock that the Bering Sea had become the scene of an aquatic gold rush. The government, worried about the potential for overfishing, legislated how the boats could fish. But when it cut the fishing season to just two months a year, there were clashes on the water and squabbles over the haul.

The solution that emerged in 1998 remains today: the Alaska Fisheries Act Pollock Cooperatives. It was a long name for saying that $90 million was spent buying boats out of the water. And that after the government thinned the herd, it handed the rights to fish the pollock to the boats that remained, and thus to their owners. The industry paid for $70 million of the cost of its exclusive access to pollock over time. Taxpayers bore the rest, fated to buy their fish sticks from the same pack of newly minted millionaires who would henceforth control the resource.

This arrangement of gifting the rights to fish to boats or people or to the private companies that control them has a lot of names. In America it gained the most momentum in the Obama administration under the moniker "catch sharing," a polite-sounding term that implied things got shared when what they really got was privatized. Elsewhere catch-share policies have been known by a suite of other names, mostly letters — ITQs, IFQs, sometimes TURFs, or just "rights-based fishing." They had been tried abroad, but pollock was only the third time they were tried in the United States. Today, what the pollock cooperative has left the country with is 102 boats owned by 132 entities that are allowed to fish a multimillion-dollar natural resource exclusively. While some boats are small, the largest share of the pollock is caught by just sixteen factory-sized ships owned by six companies, five of them based in Seattle. In its best year, revenue from this fish soared to $385 million, with the boats that fished that year earning an average of $3.4 million.

Though pollock was corralled into US territory as a public resource, the public enjoys no commercial access to this fish on the Bering Sea today and no significant financial benefit from its capture, aside from low-cost access to fish sticks and fast food. A great many people will say that's enough. This has always been an industrial, deep-sea fishery, one impossible to fish with the small boats helmed by fishermen from nearby Bering Sea islands. And there is no disputing that the pollock cooperative feeds people all over the world at a price most can afford. But there are also critics of the system, who argue that it benefits an elite class of owners and differs from other industries in which a natural resource is extracted from a public place for a price. The timber, ranching, mining, wind, and solar industries, to give a few obvious examples, all pay lease fees for the use of natural resources and land in America. Rent, basically, for using a thing everyone agrees belongs to everybody. The pollock cooperative does not.

And this is where we have arrived in American seafood: at this union of privatization and conservation.

Though conceived as an economic device, today conservationists regard catch shares as more of an environmental tool than anything else. In the seas these groups envision, excess boats can be thinned, ownership rights bestowed, and those rights are assumed to translate into good stewardship of the oceans and fish. The idea is not so much that catch shares are a new religion. It's that money motivates people. And if you give fishermen a piece of the ocean, they will take care of the ocean or they will lose their money.

There are other selling points. Preassigning catch, as catch shares do, can eliminate many of the safety issues that attend fishing. And, as pollock illustrates, it also steadies the seafood supply in a way that builds markets from nothing and makes seafood vastly more valuable over time. Supply begets demand and begets jobs, too. And so the fish stick rose to power.

But much the same way the pollock catch share locked foreign competitors out, it locked other people out, including some neighboring islands where economies are sputtering, even as factory fishing makes life more complicated there. Such exclusion is a problem that continues, even while catch shares became the national model for sustainable seafood. And it's why Pat Pletnikoff, the mayor of the Bering Sea town of St. George on St. George Island, is not so fond of privatization.


* * *

Pletnikoff feared trawl boats would be the new barons of the sea when he first began sidling up to these ships on the hunt for halibut. His island has a lot of experience with oligarchies. St. George is almost the farthest west place in America, an island so scoured by wind that trees don't grow there, nor vegetables. Yet centuries ago, Aleut natives traversed hundreds of frigid sea miles to visit St. George, coveted as it was for its fur seal hunting and its fishing.

That yearning was contagious enough that St. George has since been occupied by two governments and numerous corporations and can now claim an unseemly history of forced labor, kidnapping, and war. Russian and American corporations once jockeyed for the island's seal pelts so steadily that today most of the people who remain here are descendants of slaves, captured in Siberia and the Aleutian Islands and put to work by those same companies. The US government took control of St. George in 1910 and technically freed its people. But slavery begat servitude to the US Bureau of Fisheries while other jobs were scarce. It stayed that way until government-sponsored seal clubbing peppered the nightly news in the 1980s. Shortly thereafter, the federal Fur Seal Act ended seal clubbing, and the island's economy.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Fish Market by Lee van der Voo. Copyright © 2016 Lee van der Voo. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

1 Bering Sea: "Monsanto on the Ocean" 1

2 Gulf Wild: How to Make Money in Seafood Just by Watching TV 16

3 Kodiak, Alaska: A Big Squeeze, an Ugly Divorce 29

4 Gulf Wild: Conservationists Reboot Fishing 43

5 Inside Passage, Alaska: Sharecroppers of the Sea 54

6 Gulf Wild: Traceable Catch and the Restaurant Menu 72

7 Port Orford, Oregon; Pacific Ocean: Farmstand Seafood and the Left Behind 83

8 Gulf Wild: Walmart, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Multimillion-Dollar Idea 98

9 Kake, Alaska: The New Colonialism 110

10 Gulf Wild: White-Collar Foodies 122

11 Southern Ocean, New Zealand: What's the Worst Thing That Could Happen? 136

12 Gulf Wild: An Industry Retools 154

13 New Bedford, Massachusetts: Foreign Equity, Domestic Seafood 167

14 Gulf Wild: Chefs, Fishermen, and Policy Wonks Descend on Capitol Hill 179

15 Chatham, Massachusetts; Nantucket Sound: History and Its Outlaws 190

16 Gulf Wild: Tagged 203

17 North Atlantic: A Rare Sight, and a Remedy 214

Timeline of Catch-Share Programs 228

Acknowledgments 231

Notes on Sources 235

Index 261

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