Book review: Fish

Elizabeth DeSombre and J. Samuel Barkin’s readable prose makes unpicking the complex politics and economics behind the fishing industry look as easy as shooting fish in a barrel

What with Channel 4’s Fish Fight attracting celebrity chefs from Hugh to Heston, Selfridges’ iconic Project Ocean (tagline: no more fish in our seas) campaign and the establishment of the UK’s first Marine Conservation Zones, things marine have certainly been in spotlight this year. The Marine Conservation Society, Greenpeace and others have been warning us for years about the dangers of over-fishing but while simple solutions might seem obvious, the problems surrounding fish and fishing are harder to unravel than the Gordian knot. Penned by global policy experts, Elizabeth DeSombre and J. Samuel Barkin, Fish, the second title in the Polity Resources  series proves an interesting attempt at unpicking it.  

Fish begins at a familiar point: on the restaurant menu. Marketing is first to get the treatment, with DeSombre and Barking noting that what’s sold as a Chilean Sea Bass is really an unrelated species – the Patagonia Tooth fish – and is rarely found in Chilean waters at all.  Surfacing repeatedly, the Chilean Sea Bass is as close as the book comes to a protagonist. Next up are the difficulties inherent to the fishing industry, which is troubled by uncertainty and, at times, counterproductive and inefficient governance. A quarter of the world’s fish stocks are over exploited or depleted, half are fully exploited (which means that there is no fishing growth) and only a quarter of the world’s fish can be considered sustainable. Fish, say the authors, are a unique renewable resource pool and differ from other global commodities as there is no market domination: fish belong to whoever catch them first.

Over the course of six chapters, the growth and structure of the industry from traditional fishing methods in small villages to the industrialisation and growth of the commercial fishing industry of the present day, is recounted. References to the historical and cultural significance of fishing along with the complicated structure of extraction and consumption from local catches to global, million dollar trawlers add interest. The regulatory efforts of governments and the often bizarre subsidies propping up the industry are explained. For example, the US subsidises its fishing industry to the tune of a billion dollars per year – an amount equivalent to a third of the industry’s overall worth. Increasing politicisation of the industry has resulted in government interest and involvement in fisheries out of all proportion to its economic importance.

Potential solutions are offered in the shape of aquaculture (or fish farming) and consumer choice. The Marine Stewardship Council certification scheme and endangered lists are well embedded but not, in themselves, enough to make a real difference. Fish wasn’t written by environmentalists, but policy experts and this is apparent in its clear, concise and objective prose. At no point does it scold, which is just as well considering the controversial nature of the issue. There is no pleading, threats or ultimatums: instead Fish outlines the problem and details the policies. The structure of the fishing industry is complex with a host of political, economic and social factors and Fish provides an easily accessible overview of the fishing industry for anyone who wants to know more about one of the world’s natural resources or wants to know more about the fishing industry. Moreover, it makes a great environmental case study and my bet is, once you’ve read this book, you’ll be hooked (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Fish by Elizabeth DeSombre and J. Samuel Barkin (£40, Polity Press) is available from Amazon


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