The Devastating Tsunami of Ocean Grabbing

As storm clouds gathered inland from the Porto Antico, a panel of academics, activists and fishers gathered on the third day of Slow Fish to discuss the highly topical and worrying issue of “ocean grabbing,” as marine resources all over the world are becoming privatized, destroying communities of small-scale fishers in the process.

The conference, “Ocean Grabbing: Who Does the Sea Belong To?”, is part of a program started in 2012 with the support of the Italian government that unites Italian civil society around the issue of sustainable development. Its conclusions will be presented at an international conference in June.

The conference was chaired by Stefano Masini, director of the Environment and Territory sector of Coldiretti, the confederation of Italian farmers, who began by outlining the principles of the sea as a common good, which should be available for everyone to make use of, including future generations, rather than being sacked for short-term profits.

A professor in marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, Seth Macinko had harsh words for marine resource management systems based on privatization and property rights, which are often promoted as being an environmental solution to the problem of overfishing. “Rights-based fishing sounds friendly,” he said. “but this is theft. We need to expose the lies we are being told.”

Carsten Pedersen of the South African NGO Masifundise continued, saying that systems based on catch-share programs, like Individual Transferrable Quotas (ITQs), have devastating impacts when implemented. He described the effect on the South African coastline when the government introduced a policy that effectively took away the livelihoods of 90% of the country’s 30,000 small-scale fishers as a “tsunami.” He emphasized the link between these privatization policies in fishing and the wider context: “ITQs don’t come from a vacuum, they fits into a broader paradigm of neoliberalism. That’s why you should join the fight against ITQs even if you are not a fisher. I hope together we can stop this neoliberal crusade.”

Another specific account of the devastating effects these policies can have on local communities came from Miguel Cheuqueman Vargas from Chile, a fisherman and community organizer with the indigenous-rights organization Identidad Territorial Lafkenche. He said the neoliberal model had been applied to every level of the economy in his country, and described the indigenous and community-level struggles since the 1990s, when the Chilean government began taking away their rights to fish. “In 2002 they gave away 90% of rights to seven rich families—whose cousins are the ones making the laws,” he said. “The remaining 7% was given to small and medium businesses, and 0% was given to the 2 million Mapuche people.”

Brett Tolley, a community organizer with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance in the United States, described their campaigns, centered around community-based fishers, to fight back against similar privatization policies and fix what he called “broken policies, broken markets, broken science, broken trust.” He described organizing fishermen as like herding cats, but said the campaign, called Who Fishes Matters, was trying to appropriate the language and slogans of the family-farming, small-scale agriculture movement.

Also showing that ocean grabbing was not only a problem of the global south, Marta Cavallé of the Fundación Lonxanet, described the “silent process of privatization” in her native Spain. “We are being presented with this as a solution but we don’t have a property rights problem, we have a management problem.” She said ITQs lead to an individualistic way of thinking, while what we need for the future is a more collective logic.”

The last speaker, Harald Zacarias Hansen of the Spire student organization in Norway, said that overfishing was a big problem but that ITQs were not the solution. “They’re an instrument for economic efficiency, but they don’t give a thought about the local communities dying along our coastlines. They’re leading to more social inequality and monopolizing our resources.” He said that the fisheries quota system was one of the main reasons behind the economic crisis in Iceland, but since the country reintroduced coastal small-scale fisheries in 2009, fishing villages have been revitalized.

Audience members then added their own contributions to the debate. Chris Bean, a fisherman from Cornwall, England who has a boat under 10 meters, and he described the mismanagement of the quota system in the UK that leads to tons of cod being thrown away every year. Alain Le Sann, the founder of a fishing film festival in Brittany, France, talked about the problems of natural reserves being created without concern for their social impact, and the further exploitation of the sea’s resources for oil, gas and mineral extraction and energy production. Lastly, Remi Ie, a community empowerment designer from Japan, described some of the problems in Japan following the 2011 tsunami, and warned that demand for fish from the rest of the world would be rising, given the radiation contamination in her country, which is the world’s top fish consumer.

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