An Earth Day Excerpt from Making Seafood Sustainable

If you plan to celebrate Earth Day this Sunday, April 22, don't forget the water. Earth wouldn't be home without water, the habitat for the fish that nourish many omnivores among us. These fish provide livelihoods for coastal communities around the world. To give water its Earth Day due, we’re sharing an excerpt from Making Seafood Sustainable: American Experiences in Global Perspective, a new book by Seattle native and historian Mansel G. Blackford. In Blackford’s preface, you’ll see that history and water–along with politics and economics–do mix when it comes to understanding how to maintain our planet's natural resources.


Making Seafood SustainableBorn in 1944, I remember clearly the excitement and relief that ran through members of my family on a cold, winter evening in 1952. Then a young boy growing up in a pre-Starbucks Seattle, I was delighted that my father, who pioneered in the development of Alaska’s king-crab fishery as the captain of the Deep Sea, a combined catcher-processing vessel, was home for several weeks. That night he received a telephone call from a friend, who was the master of another fishing boat that had also just returned to Seattle from Alaskan seas. He told my father that water had entered one of his ship’s cold-storage holds, partially flooding it and encasing the halibut there in ice. My father could have one of the fish, if he would come down to the vessel and chip it out. Times were tough, and my father was happy to do so. In the early morning, helped by a friend, he brought home a frozen 150-pound halibut. Fortunately, my family had a horizontal freezer large enough to receive the fish. For weeks, along with other family members, I ate halibut prepared in every conceivable manner—boiled, baked, fried, poached, broiled, and creamed. We also ate king crabs, for which a market was just being developed, from my father’s vessel, until we could hardly face another dish of them. Meat was a rare treat, indeed, in those years. However, members of my family were unusual in their dining habits.

At the time, seafood such as king crabs and halibut did not reach the tables of most Americans, especially if they lived in inland cities. In many parts of the United States, seafood consisted of canned salmon and canned tuna fish. Processing seafood by freezing was in its infancy. Fresh fish was sold in grocery stores and restaurants mainly in coastal cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. Today, technological advances, such as jet airplanes and new freezing techniques, have made it possible for processors and distributors to offer people throughout the United States and in other nations a wide variety of seafood. Fresh, wild salmon from Alaska nestle next to frozen, farm-raised tilapia from China in grocers’ counters across America.

My book explains how this transformation occurred. To do so, I explore the interactions among fishers, executives of seafood-processing firms, governmental officials, scientists, and environmentalists in formulating policies that created the food chains connecting boats to consumers. (Food chains consist of the many links involved in moving food from farms, ranches, and the seas to consumers. Thus, seafood chains are made up of fishers, processors, wholesalers, and retailers, along with the railroads, trucks, and airplanes used to move seafood from place to place.) In establishing seafood chains, Americans set up governmental regulatory regimes over about the past forty years designed to end over-fishing in their nation’s waters, most successfully in Alaskan seas. (Regulatory regimes are composed of laws and rules, along with the government agencies which implement them.) Americans were trying to ensure steady flows of raw seafood through their food chains.

Though many variables, from rising water temperatures to changes in marketing methods, have shaped the modern seafood industry in the United States and abroad, evolving governmental policies have been at the heart of the alterations. My book is, at its core, about governmental regulation of business and its ramifications. State and federal government oversight was the chosen path to make fishing sustainable. My study reveals that regulatory regimes for seafood have changed dramatically over the past four decades. My work analyzes especially how, during the past generation, new regulations and their implementation have created sustainable fishing for many types of seafood in the Northeast Pacific, a marked contrast to over-fishing, which has continued to devastate many of the world’s commercial fisheries, including some in American waters, such as the New England cod fishery.

Congressional legislation has been crucial to this process. Passed in 1976, the Fishery Conservation and Management Act sought to protect American fishers from the onslaughts of their foreign counterparts by excluding foreigners from fishing within 200 miles of the American shores.4 That same legislation made possible sustainable fishing by requiring that fishers harvest no more fish than could be replaced by natural reproduction each year. Leading seafood types of the Northeast Pacific—including salmon, king crab, and some bottom fish (such as Pacific cod, halibut, and pollock)—were at various times over-fished. However, new types of governmental regulation eventually limited the overall catches of many species and pulled them back from the brink of commercial extinction. My volume looks at how business leaders and government policy makers crafted and implemented this legislation.

Working on the topic of over-fishing has continued and expanded my long-term interest in the history of American politics and the nation’s political economy. As I came of age in Seattle during the 1950s and early 1960s, I visited Alaska on several occasions. No doubt, my father’s participation in king crabbing helped spur my interest in the history of fisheries. I attended college and graduate school on the Pacific Coast, in Seattle and Northern California during the 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1980s, I spent two years living with my family in southern Japan, where I taught in Fukuoka and Hiroshima as a Fulbright Lecturer. Travelling throughout Japan, I had many opportunities to talk with local fishers and was able to go out on the boats of several of them. Flying to and from Japan, I stopped over in the Hawaiian Islands. During the 1990s, moreover, I taught on Maui on several occasions for the University of Hawai`i, experiences that brought me into close contact with a broad range of Pacific Islanders, including fishers.

My professional work has allowed me to combine interests in business and environmental history, together with abiding concerns for the histories of the American West and the Pacific. Many of my books have explored intersections in these fields, as does this one. I have long been concerned in my research and teaching about connections among business changes, alterations in physical and social environments, and the development of government policy. My works have emphasized the complexity of political decision making and have stressed that most decisions have been compromises resulting from the inputs of numerous groups of stakeholders, ranging from politicians to business people to environmentalists and to indigenous peoples.5 My study about fishing shows as well the complexities involved in reaching policy decisions, especially about natural resources. The nuances were many, varying by region, fish stock, and precise regulatory regime.6 However, my research on the topic suggests that workable solutions to difficult problems were possible in open political systems in which members of different groups had at least some trust in each other and in which they shared basic assumptions about the parameters of feasible actions.

The shift in regulatory regimes leading to sustainability changed in important ways the very nature of fishing, thus altering the lives of thousands of fishers and people in their communities. Nor did changes stop at the shoreline. I analyze how companies serving the American seafood market as processors, wholesalers, and retailers underwent major changes in recent decades as they grappled with challenges stemming from over-fishing. The executives of leading American processors and wholesalers—such as the Red Chamber Company, headquartered in Los Angeles, Trident Seafoods,
and the Pacific Seafood Group, located in Portland, Oregon—altered their strategies and their corporate structures as a result of scarcities of some types of seafood. Vertical integration backward to control their companies’ sources of their raw materials, their fish and crabs, was a common response. Similarly, the officers of large retailers—such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Target—reacted to over-fishing in a variety of ways, most importantly by encouraging fishers to harvest fish in sustainable manners. By handling only seafood caught in sustainable ways, retailers forced fishers to modify their fishing methods.

Most accounts of recent fishing and over-fishing issues have focused on negative developments, especially the collapse of many commercially harvested wild-fish stocks around the world. There have been many such tales to tell. Yet, as I illustrate, there have also been success stories. In 2008, the Marine Stewardship Council—a British organization, the globe’s premier marine environmental organization—certified a scant two dozen fisheries around the world as being managed in sustainable ways. Impressively, this short list included most Alaskan salmon and bottom fish. The only other American fishery to achieve such status then was Oregon pink shrimp. In 2009, several other types of seafood joined the list, including Atlantic red crabs and West Coast Pacific whiting (hake), a type of bottom fish.

What can be learned from these successful experiences? Are they applicable elsewhere? Have there been downsides? How might problems be avoided? Beyond fishery matters, what do developments in America’s seafood industry reveal about the intersections between environmental and business changes, especially with regard to the management and use of renewable resources? By way of a brief response to these questions, I would suggest that the attainment of sustainable fishing in the Northeast Pacific does have general lessons applicable elsewhere. Most obviously, it is extremely difficult, even when most parties are in rough agreement, to make fishing sustainable. Yet, sustainable fishing can be made to work under the kinds of circumstances spelled out in my study. The economic and social costs to achieve sustainable fishing, however, are significant, for not all fishers and processors can be allowed to operate at previous high levels. Some have to be excluded. Still, there were (and are) ways to mitigate the social and economic costs, as this study demonstrates.

Mansel G. Blackford is Professor Emeritus of History at the Ohio State University and author of several books. His latest book, Making Seafood Sustainable: American Experiences in Global Perspective, is in our American Business, Politics, and Society series.