Ocean Grabbing: Plundering a Common Resource

With 60% of the world’s population living in coastal areas, communities around the world are finding themselves caught between increasing pressure from the land and depleting marine and coastal resources. These resources are being subjected to ocean grabbing, affecting food security in developing countries. The privatization of marine resources, another form of ocean grabbing, often touted as an environmentally friendly option, is also impacting negatively on both small-scale fishers, other coastal communities and the ecosystem.

Seafood is being massively harvested in the global south by foreign fleets and exported, leaving local fleets unable to catch enough to feed local populations. According to Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur for the United Nations on the Right to Food, “‘Ocean-grabbing’ can be as serious a threat as ‘land-grabbing.’” In Africa, this diversion of resources is mainly perpetrated by large vessels from the EU, China and Russia. Even when fishing is legal and documented, most fleets are heavily subsidized and externalize the costs of overfishing and resource degradation, making fishing a highly profitable industry that threatens the right to food of millions. Attempts by European regulations and bilateral trade agreements to address this imbalance are almost completely ineffectual.

Fisheries privatization is often touted as an environmentally friendly management model. It involves redefining access rights to open, common or state-owned fisheries by increasing the level of private allocation of, and control over, public resources. The phenomenon, often called rationalization or catch share management rather than privatization, is coming to dominate many policy discussions and implementations all over the world. 

The Total Allowable Catch of a given fish stock is divided into individual quotas (called Individual Transferable Quotas or Transferable Fishing Concessions), based on the past fishing records of every boat, and through this mechanism, access rights to a common resource become private property rights, transformed into a tradable commodity. The twinned economic and environmental narrative for privatization, largely spread by the media and lobbyists, has found it a wide range of powerful proponents, such as the World Bank, promoting a situation in which, increasingly, fish become the property of a generation of wealthy owners, most of whom did nothing more than fish in the right place at the right time to get a stake. Meanwhile, organizations representing fishers are appealing to governments to look instead towards a human-rights-based approach.

Indeed, there is no clear link between privatization and conservation. Privatization encourages a logic of speculation, rewarding those who have invested in fisheries financially, rather than with their labor.
It leads to property rights migrating from rural to urban owners, and to leasing practices where those who fish are not those who own the rights, among many other phenomenons that favor wealth accumulation through these processes of dispossession. “Up to 80% of the landed value of my fish goes to lease the fishing. right,”explains Dan Edwards, a fisherman from Vancouver Island, where catch share programs have been in place for more than a decade. “There is no economic margin left to invest in modernizing your own boat, let alone in local infrastructure. The money goes to someone who doesn’t fish any more, and might be living on the other side of the planet.” 

Ocean grabbing does not stop with the privatization of fisheries, which is just the first step of a systematic attempt to control the whole marine ecosystem and benefit numerous other industries, like tourism, oil and gas extraction, aquaculture, pharmaceutical extraction, marine transportation and bioenergy, among others, and in some cases, military activities. 

Most communication over these issues has been framed so that resisting privatization does not sound like resisting a dominant economic logic that promotes the commodification of fishing rights and marine resources in general, to maximize profit, but sounds more like resisting the fight for a better marine environment and management of resources. The logic of privatization also obscures the many examples of successfully managed commons worldwide, like the prud’homies in the French Mediterranean, local institutions with over a millennium of history. 

Olivier de Schutter has called on governments to rethink what fishery models they support, highlighting the fact that small-scale fishers actually catch more fish per gallon of fuel than industrial fleets, and discard fewer fish. A new model must put the emphasis on local co-management of ocean resources, in ways that involve the small-scale fishers and other local stakeholders who depend on the oceans, helping them participate fully in the value chain while refraining from undertaking large-scale development projects that adversely affect their livelihoods. Fisheries and small-scale fishers must also be made an integral part of national right-to-food strategies. 

In the hopeful words of the Special Rapporteur: “It is possible, and necessary, to turn these resources away from over-exploitation, and towards the benefit of local communities.” 

The plundering of the waters of developing countries will be discussed during the water work shop Ocean grabbing: who does the sea belong to?

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