Fishing: Folklore to Foreign Policy


When I first began working on this issue of CSQ, the subject of fishing communities seemed a gentle one. Unlike "Militarizaiton" or "Forced Relocation," it didn't immediately suggest political conflict. Clearly, not all would be at peace on the water's edge: There would be cases in which modern fishing technologies threatened to eclipse the subsistence fishery of tribal peoples; cultural patterns would be encroached upon; and there would be ecological disasters to report. Yet, as the publication came together, there was more.

There is a gentle side to this issue - fishermen's tales of the sea, the unique arts of fish capture, and the importance of fishing as a way of life to those who practice it (described so masterfully by many of the authors, themselves fisherfolk). Yet, there are numerous battles going on - setting under the surface - round issues as seemingly disparate as water use regulation, native autonomy, freedom of the seas, and geopolitical control. In a sense, it's just another chapter in the story of the big fish eat the little fish. On the other hand, during the past decade and the one to come, decisions will have been made that are likely to determine the allocation and control of the earth's threatened but still vast aquatic resources.

Fishing communities are often thought of as remote enclaves of highly independent people, whose cultures separate them from neighboring populations. Folklore and myth surround the work itself; and the sea, being highly unpredictable, is filled with legends of spirits and monsters that may devour a fisherman or even an entire village. Fish and its bi-products have long played an integral role in most cultures with access to even the smallest or most seasonal body of water. Fishing has supplied nourishment. It has also supplied inks for dying cloth, bone for sewing needles or other sharp tools and oil for lamps. Shells have served as containers and utensils, currency, ritual objects, ornamentation, war shields, and musical instruments.

Indigenous and other poor peoples around the globe continue to rely for subsistence on locally harvested protein from fresh and marine waters. Yet, for some time now, the encroachment of export large-scale fishing - with its fluctuations in price and demand and radical changes in fishing technology - has placed indigenous peoples and outside interest in direct competition for resources. Formerly, independent fishermen survived by their knowledge of the natural environment; now socioeconomic and political considerations play an ever-increasing role, often forcing small-scale fishermen to either expand or abandon fishing as a viable economic activity. In the past two decades, sophisticated technology and marketing of fish has translated into smaller volume and profits from small-scale fishing. Small-scale fishermen are not only poor, they are becoming poorer.

Fishing fleets have become so enormous and complex that they virtually sweep the ocean of any fish in their path. Costly but lucrative floating fish factories have alarmed not only fishing communities, but environmentalists, the governments of less developed nations who see their fish stocks depleted, and the fishing industries and governments of competing developed nations who anticipate overfishing and high-seas conflict over resources. The Japanese fishing industry, for example, has expanded into the North Sea, offshore Africa and the Pacific. Its policy is characterized by slogans such as: "From the coast to offshore; from offshore to the high seas."

The simultaneous threat to water environments by industrial toxic waste, the runoff from chemical fertilizers and insecticides, acid rain and oil and chemical spills call for systematic and enforceable solutions. Unfortunately, jurisdiction over conservation, environmental protection, fishing rights and the extraction of other resources including ocean minerals and fossil fuels, as well as the regulation of strategic and commercial navigation has become at least as complex as its terrestrial equivalent.

Despite the difficulties inherent in resolving such complex issues, the dialog is ongoing, and small nations and indigenous peoples are making some gains. In North America, a key aspect of the struggle for Native sovereignty is being tested in cases involving water-rights, the use of traditional fishing technology, fishing yield entitlement and taxation of profits from marketed fish. In Asia, fishermen representing communities from Thailand, the Philippines, Japan and Malaysia have held workshops, and with the help of the United Nations, set out a "Small Fishermen's Manifesto."

Pacific island nations have begun to establish 200-miles EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones). By establishing EEZs, these nations lay claim to the profits derived from resources taken from waters bordering their lands. Now if nations or corporations wish to fish along another country's shoreline, they must pay a fee or negotiate an agreement. Technical assistance and aid packages are often traded for fishing-rights.

Fishing as Bait

The Pacific is a strategic location, where U.S., Soviet, Japanese and Chinese interests overlap. Recently, the Soviet Union has negotiated several fishing agreements with nations in the Pacific as part of an overall strategy to gain influence within the region. During this part year, the United States negotiated a treaty with 16 Pacific nations that will channel US $60 million in fees and development aid to the region during the next five years. The deal began with a conflict over tuna, but U.S. aid is closely tied to economic and political competition with the Soviets. The comments of the Indonesian foreign minister are telling: "Moscow's efforts to extend its influence into the South Pacific may have been set back by the Reagan Administration's decision to... negotiate a treaty...The American action should be regarded as only the first step in a Western campaign to insure the friendship and stability of the region".

The U.S. and Soviet Union are not alone in their attempts to win allegiances. Japan has made recent overtures to Pacific nations, promising "as much assistance as possible to make the region economically more prosperous". And China has recently become more active in the region, establishing a large embassy in Papua-New Guinea and offering assistance to a number of cities and villages on the islands.

On the other end of the Pacific, however, off the coast of Alaska, native fishing rights and salmon stocks within the US 200nm EEZ are threatened by the overfishing of Japanese trawlers, whose continued presence in the area is based on the Reagan administration's unwillingness to alienate its strong alley. Even when nations secure control over local waters, there is no guarantee that this will translate into greater opportunities for either indigenous or small-scale fisheries.

Fishing has become big business dictated to by a global market. Although decisions about international economic and political diplomacy seem outside the reach of small-scale fishermen, their communities are directly affected. Only organized and persistent protest by fishing communities whose economy and culture rely on this resource, alongside the recognition of such fishing rights by nations, corporations and local governments, can modify this reality.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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