Hakai Magazine

Cover images courtesy of Oregon State University Press and Far Eastern Press. Background photo by Mark Garrison

Book Reviews: Rough Waters and Living Off the Pacific Ocean Floor

Two authors from fishing families explore the threats posed by the privatization of fisheries.

Authored by

by Alan Haig-Brown

Article body copy

For generations, on the Pacific Coast of North America, commercial fishing has been an occupation for immigrants, indigenous people, rural coastal residents, and determined individualists. More recently, as the world looks to the oceans to meet the growing need for protein, corporations and governments have jumped on board with economists pushing to privatize the fisheries with the publicly popular cry, “Too many boats chasing too few fish.”

Two recent books offer differing but congruent evidence of the dangers nations encounter when following these economists’ directives.

In his engaging autobiography, Living Off the Pacific Ocean Floor: Stories of a Commercial Fisherman, George Moskovita, son of Croatian immigrants, gives a comprehensive affirmation of the positive role fisheries have had in the immigrant experience. Born in 1913, Moskovita grew up around the docks in Bellingham, Washington, where he and his brother spent their free time working in their dad’s crab shack (cooking crustaceans for later sale to homes and restaurants), while he was out catching crabs in the bay. “When I was a boy we mostly worked,” Moskovita deadpanned to his daughter and son-in-law, who transcribed his stories for the book.

Moskovita’s tales of a life of hard but rewarding work could serve as a preface to Nancy Danielson Mendenhall’s Rough Waters: Our North Pacific Small Fishermen’s Battle. Subtitled A Fishing Family’s Perspective, the book is a definitive review of the current trend toward individual vessel quotas, individual transferable quotas, catch shares, and other versions of privatization. In essence, fish are assigned to owners while still swimming in the ocean common. The author has a multigenerational fishing background and has lived and fished with her family out of Nome, Alaska, for many years.

In her 430-page analysis of the complex rules that govern US fisheries, Mendenhall identifies often-conflicting challenges to both regulators and fishermen. For example, when targeted and protected fish are found in the same waters, it is often difficult to avoid one stock while harvesting the stronger.

Moskovita, like most fishermen, was frustrated by regulations that required him to discard by-catch in mixed-stock fisheries: “If we ever did get any halibut we would bring it in and give it away or keep it for our own use. …”

While still in high school, Moskovita crewed on his father’s boat as they worked the Puget Sound salmon fishery. After graduating in 1930, he worked on an Alaskan salmon seiner. Over his lifetime, he saw how technology, from hydraulics to electronics, made the boats more efficient at catching fish. The increased efficiency led managers to look to privatization to relieve them of the onerous task of monitoring the fast-moving fishery. Before his death in 2012, Moskovita recalled, “Each change made fishing a lot easier.”

These changes in technology increased capital costs, making vessel reduction and quota concentration schemes more attractive to corporations that preferred to see fishermen as employees rather than independent entrepreneurs.

With family members still in the fishery, Mendenhall is concerned about the continuing trend to limit small-boat and independent fishermen and blame them when fish are in short supply. It is easier to point the finger at the small-boat fishermen rather than the corporations that profit from environmental damage while being represented by powerful lobbyists. The same small-boat fishermen initially benefitted from quotas in the halibut fishery, as they could tailor their fishing to market and weather conditions, but as the quotas became commodities, the price of entering the fishery grew prohibitive.

Reading Mendenhall, it is hard to imagine how Moskovita’s immigrant father could have broken into commercial fishing and how Moskovita could have enjoyed a life of changing fisheries and boats had he been required to purchase a quota. In Rough Waters, Mendenhall has given us an exhaustively researched book in which she presents information on privatizing management regimes from around the world, while always relating her findings back to the independent and small-boat fisherman.

In her writing, Mendenhall extensively cites both British Columbia and Iceland, whose coastal communities share a fate that she fears for the United States: where harbors once bristled with fishing boats, there is now unemployment and despondency. The boats and quotas have been concentrated under the ownership of corporations, which means fewer boats with fewer crew jobs. The future is not looking good for US fisheries if they are to follow Canada. As one senior fisherman, a First Nations captain from Bella Bella, British Columbia, told me, “If we train no new skippers for 25 years, the knowledge will be lost.”

Living Off the Pacific Ocean Floor: Stories of a Commercial Fisherman
By George Moskovita
166 pp. Oregon State University Press

Rough Waters: Our North Pacific Small Fishermen’s Battle, A Fishing Family’s Perspective
By Nancy Danielson Mendenhall
483 pp. Far Eastern Press