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Capitalism and the oceanic crisis: Turning the seas into a watery grave

By Brett Clark and Rebecca Clausen

The world ocean covers approximately 70 per cent of the Earth. It has been an integral part of human history, providing food and ecological services. Yet conservation efforts and concerns with environmental degradation have mostly focused on terrestrial issues. Marine scientists and oceanographers have recently made remarkable discoveries in regard to the intricacies of marine food webs and the richness of oceanic biodiversity. However, the excitement over these discoveries is dampened due to an awareness of the rapidly accelerating threat to the biological integrity of marine ecosystems.[1]

At the start of the twenty-first century marine scientists focused on the rapid depletion of marine fish, revealing that 75 per cent of major fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. It is estimated “that the global ocean has lost more than 90% of large predatory fishes”. The depletion of ocean fish stock due to overfishing has disrupted metabolic relations within the oceanic ecosystem at multiple trophic and spatial scales.[2]

Despite warnings of impending collapse of fish stock, the oceanic crisis has only worsened. The severity is made evident in a recent effort to map the scale of human impact on the world ocean. A team of scientists analysed seventeen types of anthropogenic drivers of ecological change (e.g., organic pollution from agricultural runoff, overfishing, carbon dioxide emissions, etc.) for marine ecosystems. The findings are clear: No area of the world ocean “is unaffected by human influence” and over 40 per cent of marine ecosystems are heavily affected by multiple factors. Polar seas are on the verge of significant change. Coral reefs and continental shelves have suffered severe deterioration.

Additionally, the world ocean is a crucial factor in the carbon cycle, absorbing approximately a third to a half of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The increase in the portion of carbon dioxide has led to an increase in ocean temperature and a slow drop in the pH of surface waters—making them more acidic—disrupting shell-forming plankton and reef-building species. Furthermore, invasive species have negatively affected 84 per cent of the world’s coastal waters — decreasing biodiversity and further undermining already stressed fisheries.[3]

Scientific analysis of oceanic systems presents a sobering picture of the co-evolution of human society and the marine environment during the capitalist industrial era. The particular environmental problems related to the ocean cannot be viewed as isolated issues or aberrations of human ingenuity, only to be corrected through further technological development. Rather these ecological conditions must be understood as they relate to the systematic expansion of capital and the exploitation of nature for profit. Capital has a particular social metabolic order — the material interchange between society and nature — that subsumes the world to the logic of accumulation. It is a system of self-expanding value, which must reproduce itself on an ever-larger scale.[4]

Here we examine the social metabolic order of capital and its relationship with the oceans to (a) examine the anthropogenic causes of fish stock depletion, (b) detail the ecological consequences of ongoing capitalist production in relation to the ocean environment and (c) highlight the ecological contradictions of capitalist aquaculture.[5]

* * *

This article is posted, with permission, from the July-August 2008 (Volume 60, Number 3) edition of the influential US socialist journal Monthly Review, a special issue on ``Ecology: The Moment of Truth”, edited by Brett Clark, John Bellamy Foster and Richard York. The entire issue is devoted to the planetary environmental emergency. It is essential reading for all socialists and environmentalists. Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal urges readers to purchase the issue and/or subscribe to Monthly Review.

* * *

Marine metabolism: biological richness, energy cycles and trophic levels

Ecologists now appreciate the complexity of biological relationships at multiple scales, including primary productivity, carbon sequestration and intricate food webs. New light is being shed on oceanic ecosystems offering an emerging picture of the sea’s metabolism. In particular, research reveals great complexity and a resultant integrity among trophic level interactions (food webs) between microscopic organisms, plankton and larger predators. Ivan Valiela, a marine biologist, states:

No topic within marine ecology and biological oceanography has changed more... than our notions about components and structure of planktonic food webs. Knowledge about marine water column food webs has been considerably enlarged and made much more complex, by recent findings about the existence and role of smaller organisms, release and reuse of dissolved organic matter and reassessment of the function of certain larger organisms.[6]

The metabolic interactions expressed among trophic levels are proving to be the underlying source of great biological wealth and ocean resiliency.

According to marine scientists, “the genetic, species, habitat and ecosystem diversity of the oceans is believed to exceed that of any other Earth system”. For example, ocean environments contain seventeen different taxa of life forms compared to eleven land-based taxa. Oceans account for 99 per cent of the volume that is known to sustain life — most of which is still unknown. Scientists exploring the ocean’s middle depths have discovered a host of new species composing productive ecosystems. The deep-sea bottom, of which little more than 1.5 per cent has been explored, has recently been the object of great interest due to its abundant biodiversity.

For example, in one such Atlantic seafloor with an area of approximately twenty-one square metres, scientists sampled and found 90,672 individual organisms representing 798 species, of which 460 were previously unknown. These new discoveries have yielded important insights regarding marine ecosystems. At the same time, they produce an appreciation of the great uncertainty that still exists for much of the marine environment’s processes, such as the role of currents, nutrient cycles and biomass.7

Recent advances in trophic level understanding have developed in three areas: microbial interactions, multi-tiered trophic dynamics and upper trophic level controls. First, the new array of facts offered by studying the base of the food web (diatoms, dinoflagellates and other microalgae) has led marine researchers to propose a new view of the planktonic food web that includes a “microbial loop”. In the microbial loop, organic matter cycles through microbes before entering the classic food web; this is a more complicated relationship than was previously assumed.

Second, it has been found that oceanic food webs often have five trophic levels or more, as opposed to freshwater systems where three levels are more typical. Valiela describes this yet-unexplained discovery as a significant qualitative difference between the two environments. Previously, trophic interactions among freshwater fish were thought to be analogous to pelagic fish and management decisions were based on such comparisons. Exploring the multi-tiered dynamics of ocean food webs as unique from freshwater systems provides a more complex research question for the scientific community. Uncertainty colors all speculation of how vulnerable ocean systems are compared to freshwater and land ecologies.[8]

Finally, researchers have found that species in the upper trophic positions seem to be closely coupled to food availability. This means that the top predators exist near the carrying capacity of their environment. This is not the case with most bony fishes in freshwater environments, which usually exist in an environment with an abundant prey population. The life history characteristics of the upper trophic creatures suggest they are easily susceptible to overexploitation. Little room exists in the population of top marine predators to absorb losses of food resources.

For example, the ability of whales to recover to their earlier abundance after massive human predation is now dependent on the availability of krill. Although the large-scale hunting of whales has dramatically declined, the massive exploitation of krill as a protein source and as an animal-feed additive may now jeopardise recovering whale populations dependent on krill as a food supply.[9]

There is a significant amount of interaction and dependence of the ocean’s top predators on lower trophic levels. Trophic level interactions represent a marine food web based on energy flow and describe one element of the ocean’s metabolism. Many other relationships besides trophic level interactions exist between ocean organisms, such as the relation between organisms and their immediate habitat, which can include coral reefs and kelp forests. Both of these realms, on which species depend, are highly vulnerable to resource exploitation.

Capitalism and marine fishery exploitation

Humans have long been connected to the ocean’s metabolic processes by harvesting marine fish and vegetation. Harvesting methods and processes have varied depending on the structure of social production. Subsistence fishing is a practice woven throughout human history, beginning with the harvesting of shellfish along seashores and shallow lakes and progressing with the development of tools such as stone-tipped fishing spears, fishhooks, lines and nets. This was originally based upon fishing for use of the fish. What was caught was used to feed families and communities. Through the process of fishing, human labour has been intimately linked to ocean processes, gaining an understanding of fish migrations, tides and ocean currents.

The size of a human population in a particular region influenced the extent of exploitation. But the introduction of commodity markets and private ownership under the capitalist system of production altered the relationship of fishing labour to the resources of the seas. Specific species had an exchange value. As a result, certain fish were seen as being more valuable. This led to fishing practices that focused on catching as many of a particular fish, such as cod, as possible. Non-commercially viable species harvested indiscriminately alongside the target species were discarded as waste.

As capitalism developed and spread, intensive extraction by industrial capture fisheries became the norm. Increased demands were placed on the oceans and overfishing resulted in the severe depletion of wild fish stocks. In Empty Ocean, Richard Ellis states, “Throughout the world’s oceans, food fishes once believed to be immeasurable in number are now recognized as greatly depleted and in some cases almost extinct. A million vessels now fish the world’s oceans, twice as many as there were twenty-five years ago. Are there twice as many fish as before? Hardly”. How did this situation develop?[10]

The beginning of capitalist industrialisation marked the most noticeable and significant changes in fisheries practices. Mechanisation, automation and mass production/consumption characterised an era of increased fixed capital investments. Profit-driven investment in efficient production led to fishing technologies that for the first time made the exhaustion of deep-sea fish stocks a real possibility. Such transformations can be seen in how groundfishing, the capture of fish that swim in close proximity to the ocean’s bottom, changed through the years.

Industrialisation began to influence the groundfishery around the early 1900s, as technological developments were employed to further the accumulation of capital. The introduction of steam-powered trawlers from England in 1906 heralded a significant change in how groundfish were caught and rapidly replaced the sail-powered schooner fleets. Prior to steam trawling, groundfish were caught on schooners with baited lines during long journeys at sea. Due to lack of refrigeration and freezing, most of the cod catch was salted.

The competitive markets organised under capitalist production welcomed the increased efficiency of steam-powered vessels, without a critical assessment of the consequences of increased harvest levels. More captured fish meant more profit. The switch to trawling was complete by 1920 and the consequences of the second industrial revolution organised under capitalist forces would soon change the human-nature relationship to the ocean, extending the reach of capital.

The expanded geographic range and speed of fishing fleets allowed for increased productivity of catch as well as increased diversity of captured species that were deemed “valuable” on the market. Technological developments and improved transportation routes allowed the fishing industry to grow, increasing its scale of operations. Cold storage ensured that fish would be fresh, reducing spoilage and loss of capital. In *Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky explains, “Freezing [cod] also changed the relationship of seafood companies to fishing ports. Frozen fish could be bought anywhere — wherever the fish was cheapest and most plentiful. With expanding markets, local fleets could not keep up with the needs of the companies”. Advances in the transportation infrastructure allowed people in the Midwest [USA] to consume the increased harvests of cod and haddock, leading to a significant expansion in the market. Major marketing campaigns promoted the consumption of fish to increase sales. Together these factors enhanced the accumulation of capital within the fishing industry and companies invested some of this capital back into their fleets.[11]

By 1930 there were clear signals that the groundfishing fleet’s ability to capture massive quantities of fish had surpassed natural limits in fisheries. A Harvard University investigation reported that in 1930 the groundfishery landed 37 million haddock at Boston, with another 70–90 million juvenile haddock discarded dead at sea. The sudden rise in fisheries harvest (creating a subsequent rise in consumer demand through marketing campaigns) resulted in stress in the groundfish populations and landings plummeted.

Competitive markets create incentives to expand production, regardless of resource decline. Thus, in reaction to decreased stocks due to overfishing, groundfishing fleets moved farther offshore into waters off of the coast of Canada to increase the supply of valuable fish to new markets. The fleet’s ability to continue moving into unexploited waters obscured recognition of the severe resource depletion that was occurring. As a result, the process of overfishing particular ecosystems to supply a specific good for the market expanded, subjecting more of the ocean to the same system of degradation.[12]

The distant water fleets were made possible by the advent of factory trawlers. Factory trawlers represent the pinnacle of capital investment and extractive intensification in the global fisheries. In Distant Water William Warner presents a portrayal of a factory trawler’s capacity:

Try to imagine a mobile and completely self-contained timber cutting machine that could smash through the roughest trails of the forest, cut down trees, mill them and deliver consumer-ready lumber in half the time of normal logging and milling operations. This was exactly what factory trawlers did — this was exactly their effect on fish — in the forests of the deep. It could not long go unnoticed.

Factory trawlers pull nylon nets a thousand feet long through the ocean, potentially capturing 400 tons of fish during a single netting. Industrial trawlers can process and freeze their catch as they travel.[13] Such technological development extended the systematic exploitation and scale of harvesting of fishes.

The natural limits of fish populations combined with capital’s need to expand led to the development of immense trawlers that increased the productive capacity and efficiency of operations. These ships allowed fishers to seek out areas in the ocean where valuable fish were available, providing the means to capture massive quantities of fish in a single trip. Overcoming the shortage of fishes in one area was accomplished by even more intensive harvesting with new ships and equipment, such as sonar, in other regions of the oceans. The pursuit of vast quantities of commercial fishes in different areas of the ocean expanded the depletion of other species, as they were exploited and discarded as bycatch. The swath of the seas subjected to the dictates of the market increased, whether a fish was sold as a commodity or thrown overboard as a waste product.[14]

Competition for market share between companies and capital’s investment in advanced technology intensified fishery exploitation. Competing international companies sought nature’s diminishing bounty, causing further international conflict in the “race for fish”. US President Truman responded to these disputes by attempting to expand US corporate interests. He issued two proclamations expanding US authority beyond territorial waters trying to further territorial enclosure of its adjacent seas out to the limits of the continental shelf. Coastal states around the world struggled to transform the property rights of the open ocean to benefit their nations. In response to growing conflict, the United Nations convened the First United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in Geneva in 1958.

Eventually, most nations voted to sign the UN Law of the Sea article, “irrevocably transforming” international law and constituting “a fundamental revision of sometimes age-old institutions”.[15] (The US Senate, however, has still not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention.) In the end, the convention established a property regime according to the prescription of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The EEZ put regions of the high seas adjacent to coastal waters entirely within the management purview of the coastal state, up to two hundred miles from their shore. In this zone, states have exclusive rights to living and non-living resources for extraction and economic pursuits.

The collapse of fisheries due to overexploitation coupled with the expanding seafood market forced companies to look elsewhere for “the most traded animal commodity on the planet”. African nations — such as Senegal, Mauritania, Angola and Mozambique — confronting dire economic conditions sold fishing access to European and Asian nations and companies. In the case of Mauritania, selling fishing access provided over US$140 million a year, which equaled a fifth of the government’s budget. Few countries can resist such bait, given the need for monetary resources. Industrialised trawlers descended into African waters, combing their seas for the treasured fish commodities. In the past three decades, Africa’s fish population in the ocean has decreased by 50 per cent and thousands of fishers have become unemployed.[16] The expansion of capitalist fishing practices continues to decimate fisheries and spread ecological degradation, as profits and food are funnelled back to core nations.

Sharp declines

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the world capture from fisheries increased from approximately 20 million tons in 1950 to 84.2 million tons in 2005. A dominant narrative explains that human population growth is solely responsible for this increase in capture; however, recent research demonstrates that social structural factors such as economic growth are also propelling the depletion. Since around 1989 the world capture of marine fish has declined by 500,000 tons per year amidst increasing fishing effort.

There have been sharp declines in the populations of tuna, cod and marlins. During the 1960s and ’70s, shelf fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean started to collapse as a result of overfishing. Operations moved to the deep sea. Deepwater fishing has seriously affected the populations of deep-sea fish, such as the roundnose grenadier, onion-eye grenadier, spiny eel, spinytail skate and blue hake. The populations of these deep-sea fishes have plummeted by over 87 per cent in seventeen years. It is expected that these fishes will be driven to the point of extinction — to the detriment of the ecosystems in which they live. Part of the vulnerability of these fishes is that they can live to around sixty years of age and do not sexually mature until their late teen years.[17]

Changes in the market can transform the demand for particular fish species. In the early 1900s, bluefin tuna was seen as being only suitable for use as pet food. But given their strength and size — weighing up “to three quarters of a ton and [having] a length of four metres” — they were deemed worthy opponents to be hunted. In the later half of the twentieth century, bluefin tuna became “the most desirable food fish in the world” with the spread of sushi and sashimi restaurants. Given the machinations of capitalism, this has also caused them to become “the most endangered of all large fish species”.

The bluefin tuna population continues to be decimated by overfishing and the practice of capturing half-grown tuna at sea and placing them in floating pens — known as tuna ranches — where they are fed until they are ready for market has only worsened the situation. While this helps control the production process, it involves catching the fishes “before they are old enough to breed” and keeping “them penned up until they are killed”. As a result of this practice and overfishing, bluefin tuna are threatened with depletion.[18]

The geographic span of ocean exploitation has widened as capitalist operations of extraction continue. Even the Antarctic waters are increasingly under assault as the fishing industry gears up to plunder the krill population. Since the 1970s the numbers of krill have declined by 80 per cent, largely due to global warming. But fishing operations are adding to the depletion. These tiny crustaceans eat carbon-rich food near the surface of the water, thereby they help remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

They have long been one of the primary sources of food for seals, whales and penguins. Progressively they have been incorporated into the insatiable appetite of global capital. “Suction harvesting” swallows up huge quantities that are processed, frozen and stored on newly outfitted ships. From here, the krill are to be used as feed for fish-farms (aquaculture) or transformed into omega-3 oil and other health supplements.[19]

Fleets of ships burning fossil fuels to harvest from the open oceans have exacerbated the deterioration of marine ecosystems. The depletion of fish stock increases the distance that is necessary to travel in order to catch certain species of fish, such as tuna and swordfish. It also expands the regional scope of exploitation, the number of species captured as bycatch and the scale of depletion. In 2000, 80 million tons of fish required the burning of 13 billion gallons of fuel and the release of approximately 134 million tons of carbon dioxide. This means that global fisheries used up to 12.5 times the amount of fuel energy that they provided as edible-protein energy.[20]

During the 1970s and ’80s fishing ships became more automated, with the trend toward full automation becoming common. Today, navigational aids, such as geographic positioning systems and weather prediction models enhance the ability of fishing fleets to catch the most amount of fishes in the shortest amount of time, with the least amount of human labour. The synthesis of technical development and transformed property rights under the competitive framework of global capitalism has resulted in the massive extraction of marine fish and an intensified social metabolism organised for the pursuit of profit.

Ecological degradation of marine ecoystems

The intensified extraction of fish from already stressed oceanic ecosystems—fueled by capital accumulation and the free appropriation of nature—has resulted in significant consequences to the metabolic interactions between marine trophic levels. Marine scientists note that the removal of 100 million metric tons (which includes both capture and aquaculture) of fish from the world ocean will lead to long-term, large-scale disruptions in marine ecology. Of direct concern are “species level effects”, in particular the removal of target and non-target marine life. Continued harvest of fish species to population levels that are below the sustainable numbers required for reproduction will eventually lead to extinction.

The orange roughy, for example, began to be commercially exploited ten years ago. This fish lives to be 150 years old and only begins to reproduce at age 25. By continually removing the oldest fish first, the industry has depleted the population of reproducing adults. (Harvesting this fish generally results in the destruction of coral forests.) The orange roughy species is now threatened with extinction. As mentioned earlier, the depletion of fish stock for commercial fishing in coastal waters led to the capture of fishes in the deep sea — such as roundnose grenadier, onion-eye grenadier, spiny eel, spinytail skate and blue hake — subjecting them to the dictates of the market, driving them to the point of extinction.[21]

Industrialised capitalist fishing allows for vast quantities of target fish to be harvested at once. At the same time, it leads to an immense amount of non-target marine life — bycatch — being captured. Bycatch are commercially unviable species, thus they are seen as waste. The “trash fish” are often ground up and thrown back into the ocean. Part of the bycatch includes juveniles of the target fish, which, if the mortality is increased among this population, undercuts the success of recovery. Obviously, the populations of the discarded species are negatively affected by this practice, furthering the depletion of marine life. The most wasteful operation is trawling for shrimp. The capture and discarding of bycatch disrupts the habitats and trophic webs within ecosystems. The scale of the disruption is quite significant. It is estimated that an average of 27 million tons of fish are discarded each year in commercial fisheries around the world and that the United States has a 0.28 ratio of bycatch discard to landings.[22]

Species extinction is the direct impact of overfishing, which is in part driven by the pursuit of capital accumulation and is facilitated by the technological innovations that are employed for this particular purpose, in what has become known as a “race for fish”.[23] Capitalist practices are creating a loss of marine biodiversity and undermining the resiliency of marine ecosystems. Valiela states, “The magnitude of the fishing harvest and the examples of major alterations to marine food webs by predator removal suggest that effects of fishing are ecologically substantial at large spatial scales”. The “major alteration to marine food webs” due to overexploitation provides the clearest example of ecological degradation in the metabolic processes of the ocean.[24]

Fishing down the food chain

Equally disrupting, but less apparent than species effects, are the ecosystem effects caused by fishery exploitation, especially “fishing down the food chain”.[25] As overfishing depletes the most commercially viable top predators (i.e., snapper, tuna, cod and swordfish), competition drives commercial fishers to begin harvesting species of lower trophic levels. The downward shift is global, according to the model analysis of UN statistics describing worldwide catches of fish over a forty-year time span. If this quest is pursued to its logical end, scientists warn it will lead to the wholesale collapse of marine ecosystems. Fishing down the food chain erodes the base of marine biodiversity and undermines the biophysical cornerstone of ocean fisheries. The recent discoveries of marine trophic interactions suggest that the lower trophic levels of marine food webs provide an integral and complex foundation — disrupting this base undermines the metabolic cycle of energy flows within marine ecosystems.

Overfishing of lower trophic levels has shortened the food chain and sometimes has removed one or more of the “links”, increasing the system’s vulnerability to natural and human induced stresses. For example, in the North Sea the cod population has been so depleted that fishers are now harvesting a lower trophic species called pout, which the cod used to eat. The pout eat krill and copepods. Krill also eat copepods. As the pout are commercially harvested, the krill population expands and the copepod population declines drastically. (In other areas of the ocean, krill are captured and used as an animal-feed additive, hindering the recovery of the whales that depend upon them for food.) Because copepods are the main food of young cod, the cod population cannot recover from initial fisheries exploitation.[26]

Fishing down the food chain illustrates how capture fisheries organised under competitive market conditions and the drive to accumulate capital are dismantling the marine ecological system that has been developing for millions of years. In addition, fishing for lower trophic level species deceptively masks marine fish extraction, as millions of tons of fish are harvested each year from the oceans. People continue to be provided with seafood on their menus, never realising the full impact of overfishing the top predators. Fishing down the food chain, due to overfishing in the higher tropic levels, depletes the food resources on which predatory fishes depend. As noted earlier, marine predatory species are extremely vulnerable to losses of prey.

Collapse of coastal marine ecosystems

The previous examples demonstrate how species extinction decreases the resiliency of trophic level interactions. Even more problematic, however, is the widespread collapse of entire ecosystems resulting from overfishing. Historical data suggests that species and population declines due to overfishing are direct preconditions for the collapse of entire coastal ecosystems. The collapse of whole-scale ecosystems not only threatens the ecological resiliency of the marine environment, but also disrupts the human populations that rely on the coastal ecosystem for subsistence or livelihoods. “Overfishing and ecological extinction predate and precondition modern ecological investigations and the collapse of marine ecosystems in recent times, raising the possibility that many more marine ecosystems may be vulnerable to collapse in the near future”.[27]

Kelp forests, coral reefs, seagrass beds and estuaries are examples of coastal ecosystems that have collapsed in parts of the world due to overfishing and other forms of environmental degradation. These ecosystems provide complex habitats for a multitude of species and often are the foundation of many local fishing communities. For example, the kelp forests of the Gulf of Maine experienced severe deforestation and widespread reductions in the number of trophic levels due to the population explosion of sea urchins, the primary herbivores that eat kelp. The following account details such a sequence of events:

Atlantic cod and other large ground fish are voracious predators of sea urchins. These fishes kept sea urchin populations small enough to allow persistence of kelp forests despite intensive aboriginal and early European hook-and-line fishing for at least 5000 years. New mechanized fishing technology in the 1920s set off a rapid decline in numbers and body size of coastal cod in the Gulf of Maine....Kelp forests disappeared with the rise in sea urchins due to removal of predatory fish.[28]

In other words, industrial fishing operations intensified the exploitation of marine ecosystems, transforming natural conditions.

A number of human activities are leading to the collapse of coral reefs. Overfishing is one of the causes. Deforestation is another. Clearing forests leads to muddy rivers filled with sediment, which moves downstream and smothers coral reefs. But the main force driving massive destruction of coral reefs is global warming. The increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes to a warming and increase in the acidity of ocean water. As a result, multicoloured, healthy coral reefs filled with a rich abundance of biodiversity are being bleached and turned into grey-white skeletons. Without radical changes to the social metabolic order, the death of the world’s coral reefs could take place within a few decades. When coral reefs die, the fauna dependent upon them also die.[29] Natural conditions, everywhere, are being transformed by the social metabolic order of capitalism. A general progression of environmental degradation accompanies this system of growth, creating ecological crises in the conditions of life.

The most recent changes to coastal ecosystems caused by overfishing involve microbial population explosions. The microbial loop has been found to be more sophisticated and complex than ever expected. Population explosions of microbes are responsible for increasing eutrophication, diseases of marine species, toxic bloom and even diseases such as cholera that affect human health.[30] Chesapeake Bay is now a bacterially dominated ecosystem with a trophic structure unrecognisable from that of a century ago. This rapid and drastic change in ecosystem composition is due to the overfishing of suspension feeders that filtered microbes out of the water column. Bacterial domination of Chesapeake Bay and the deforestation of kelp beds in the Gulf of Maine serve as two examples of how depletion of top predators leads to the collapse of entire ecosystems.

The immense problems associated with the overharvest of industrial capture fisheries has led some optimistically to offer aquaculture as an ecological solution. However, capitalist aquaculture fails to reverse the process of ecological degradation. Rather, it continues to sever the social and ecological relations between humans and the ocean.

Aquaculture: The `Blue Revolution'?

The massive decline in fish stocks has led capitalist development to turn to a new way of increasing profits — intensified production of fishes. Capitalist aquaculture represents not only a quantitative change in the intensification and concentration of production; it also places organisms’ life cycles under the complete control of private for-profit ownership.[31] This new industry, it is claimed, is “the fastest-growing form of agriculture in the world”. It boasts of having ownership from “egg to plate” and substantially alters the ecological and human dimensions of a fishery.[32]

Aquaculture (sometimes also referred to as aquabusiness) involves subjecting nature to the logic of capital. Capital attempts to overcome natural and social barriers through its constant innovations. In this, enterprises attempt to commodify, invest in and develop new elements of nature that previously existed outside the political-economic competitive sphere: As Edward Carr wrote in the Economist, the sea “is a resource that must be preserved and harvested....To enhance its uses, the water must become ever more like the land, with owners, laws and limits. Fishermen must behave more like ranchers than hunters”.[33]

As worldwide commercial fish stocks decline due to overharvest and other anthropogenic causes, aquaculture is witnessing a rapid expansion in the global economy. Aquaculture’s contribution to global supplies of fish increased from 3.9 per cent of total worldwide production by weight in 1970 to 27.3 per cent in 2000. In 2004, aquaculture and capture fisheries produced 106 million tons of fish and “aquaculture accounted for 43 per cent”.[34] According to Food and Agriculture Organisation statistics, aquaculture is growing more rapidly than all other animal food producing sectors.

Hailed as the “Blue Revolution”, aquaculture is frequently compared to agriculture’s Green Revolution as a way to achieve food security and economic growth among the poor and in the Third World. The cultivation of farmed salmon as a high-value, carnivorous species destined for market in core nations has emerged as one of the more lucrative (and controversial) endeavours in aquaculture production.[35] Much like the Green Revolution, the Blue Revolution may produce temporary increases in yields, but it does not usher in a solution to food security (or environmental problems). Food security is tied to issues of distribution. Given that the Blue Revolution is driven by the pursuit of profit, the desire for monetary gain trumps the distribution of food to those in need.[36]

Industrial aquaculture intensifies fish production by transforming the natural life histories of wild fish stocks into a combined animal feedlot. Like monoculture agriculture, aquaculture furthers the capitalistic division of nature, only its realm of operation is the marine world. In order to maximise return on investment, aquaculture must raise thousands of fish in a confined net-pen. Fish are separated from the natural environment and the various relations of exchange found in a food web and ecosystem. The fish’s reproductive life cycle is altered so that it can be propagated and raised until the optimum time for mechanical harvest.

Aquaculture interrupts the most fundamental metabolic process — the ability of an organism to obtain its required nutrient uptake. Because the most profitable farmed fish are carnivorous, such as Atlantic salmon, they depend on a diet that is high in fishmeal and fish oil. For example, raising Atlantic salmon requires four pounds of fishmeal to produce every one pound of salmon. Consequently, aquaculture production depends heavily on fishmeal imported from South America to feed the farmed carnivorous species.[37]

The inherent contradiction in extracting fishmeal is that industries must increase their exploitation of marine fish in order to feed the farm-raised fish — thereby increasing the pressure on wild stocks to an even larger extent. Such operations also increase the amount of bycatch. Three of the world’s five largest fisheries are now exclusively harvesting pelagic fish for fishmeal and these fisheries account for a quarter of the total global catch. Rather than diminishing the demands placed on marine ecosystems, capitalist aquaculture actually increases them, accelerating the fishing down the food chain process. The environmental degradation of populations of marine species, ecosystems and tropic levels continues.[38]

Capitalist aquaculture — which is really aquabusiness — represents a parallel example of capital following the patterns of agribusiness. Similar to combined animal feedlots, farmed fish are penned up in high-density cages making them susceptible to disease. Thus, like in the production of beef, pork and chicken, farmed fish are fed fishmeal that contains antibiotics, increasing concerns about antibiotic exposure in society. In ``Silent Spring of the Sea'', Don Staniford explains, “The use of antibiotics in salmon farming has been prevalent right from the beginning and their use in aquaculture globally has grown to such an extent that resistance is now threatening human health as well as other marine species”. Aquaculturists use a variety of chemicals to kill parasites, such as sea lice and diseases that spread quickly throughout the pens. The dangers and toxicities of these pesticides in the marine environment are magnified because of the long food chain.[39]

Once subsumed into the capitalist process, life cycles of animals are increasingly geared to economic cycles of exchange by decreasing the amount of time required for growth. Aquabusiness conforms to these pressures, as researchers are attempting to shorten the growth time required for fish to reach market size. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) has been added to some fish feeds to stimulate growth in fishes in aquaculture farms in Hawaii. Experiments with fish transgenics — the transfer of DNA from one species to another — are being done to increase the rate of weight gain, causing altered fish to grow from 60 per cent to 600 per cent larger than wild stocks.[40] These growth mechanisms illustrate capitalist aquaculture’s drive to transform nature to facilitate the generation of profit.

In addition, aquaculture alters waste assimilation. The introduction of net-pens leads to a break in the natural assimilation of waste in the marine environment. The pens convert coastal ecosystems, such as bays, inlets and fjords, into aquaculture ponds, destroying nursery areas that support ocean fisheries. For instance, salmon net-pens allow fish faeces and uneaten feed to flow directly into coastal waters, resulting in substantial discharges of nutrients. The excess nutrients are toxic to the marine communities that occupy the ocean floor beneath the net-pens, causing massive die offs of entire benthic populations.[41] Other waste products are concentrated around net-pens as well, such as diseases and parasites introduced by the caged salmon to the surrounding marine organisms.

The Blue Revolution is not an environmental solution to declining fish stocks. In fact, it is an intensification of the social metabolic order that creates ruptures in marine ecosystems. “The coastal and marine support areas needed for resource inputs and waste assimilation [is]... 50,000 times the cultivation area for intensive salmon cage farming.”[42] This form of aquaculture places even more demands upon ecosystems, undermining their resiliency. Although aquabusiness is efficient at turning fish into a commodity for markets given the extensive control that is executed over the productive conditions, it is even more energy inefficient than fisheries, demanding more fuel energy investment than the energy produced.[43] Confronted by declines in fish stock, capital is attempting to shift production to aquaculture. However, this intense form of production for profit continues to exhaust the oceans and produce a concentration of waste that causes further problems for ecosystems, undermining their ability to regenerate at all levels.

Turning the ocean into a watery grave

The world is at a crossroads in regard to the ecological crisis. Ecological degradation under global capitalism extends to the entire biosphere. Oceans that were teeming with abundance are being decimated by the continual intrusion of exploitive economic operations. At the same time that scientists are documenting the complexity and interdependency of marine species, we are witnessing an oceanic crisis as natural conditions, ecological processes and nutrient cycles are being undermined through overfishing and transformed due to global warming.

The expansion of the accumulation system, along with technological advances in fishing, have intensified the exploitation of the world ocean; facilitated the enormous capture of fishes (both target and bycatch); extended the spatial reach of fishing operations; broadened the species deemed valuable on the market; and disrupted metabolic and reproductive processes of the ocean. The quick-fix solution of aquaculture enhances capital’s control over production without resolving ecological contradictions.

It is wise to recognise, as Paul Burkett has stated, that “short of human extinction, there is no sense in which capitalism can be relied upon to permanently ‘break down’ under the weight of its depletion and degradation of natural wealth”.[44] Capital is driven by the competition for the accumulation of wealth and short-term profits provide the immediate pulse of capitalism. It cannot operate under conditions that require reinvestment in the reproduction of nature, which may entail time scales of a hundred or more years. Such requirements stand opposed to the immediate interests of profit.

The qualitative relation between humans and nature is subsumed under the drive to accumulate capital on an ever-larger scale. Marx lamented that to capital, “Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most, time’s carcase. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything.”[45] Productive relations are concerned with production time, labour costs and the circulation of capital—not the diminishing conditions of existence. Capital subjects natural cycles and processes (via controlled feeding and the use of growth hormones) to its economic cycle. The maintenance of natural conditions is not a concern. The bounty of nature is taken for granted and appropriated as a free gift.

As a result, the system is inherently caught in a fundamental crisis arising from the transformation and destruction of nature. István Mészáros elabourates this point, stating:

For today it is impossible to think of anything at all concerning the elementary conditions of social metabolic reproduction which is not lethally threatened by the way in which capital relates to them—the only way in which it can. This is true not only of humanity’s energy requirements, or of the management of the planet’s mineral resources and chemical potentials, but of every facet of the global agriculture, including the devastation caused by large scale de-forestation and even the most irresponsible way of dealing with the element without which no human being can survive: water itself... In the absence of miraculous solutions, capital’s arbitrarily self-asserting attitude to the objective determinations of causality and time in the end inevitably brings a bitter harvest, at the expense of humanity [and nature itself].[46]

An analysis of the oceanic crisis confirms the destructive qualities of private for-profit operations. Dire conditions are being generated as the resiliency of marine ecosystems in general is being undermined.

To make matters worse, sewage from feedlots and fertiliser runoff from farms are transported by rivers to gulfs and bays, overloading marine ecosystems with excess nutrients, which contribute to an expansion of algal production. This leads to oxygen-poor water and the formation of hypoxic zones—otherwise known as “dead zones” because crabs and fishes suffocate within these areas. It also compromises natural processes that remove nutrients from the waterways. Around 150 dead zones have been identified around the world. A dead zone is the end result of unsustainable practices of food production on land. At the same time, it contributes to the loss of marine life in the seas, furthering the ecological crisis of the world ocean.

Coupled with industrialised capitalist fisheries and aquaculture, the oceans are experiencing ecological degradation and constant pressures of extraction that are severely depleting the populations of fishes and other marine life. The severity of the situation is that if current practices and rates of fish capture continue marine ecosystems and fisheries around the world could collapse by the year 2050.[47] To avert turning the seas into a watery grave, what is needed is nothing less than a worldwide revolution in our relation to nature and thus of global society itself.

[Brett Clark teaches sociology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Rebecca Clausen teaches sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.]


1. Ivan Valiela, Marine Ecological Processes (New York: Springer, 1995); Jeremy B. Jackson, et al., “Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems”, Science 293 (2001): 629–37.

2. Pew Oceans Commission, America’s Living Oceans (Arlington, Va.: PEW, 2003), v; Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (Rome: FAO, 2002), 23; Ransom A. Meyers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities”, Nature 423 (2003): 280–83; Jennie M. Harrington, Ransom A. Myers and Andrew A. Rosenberg, “Wasted Fishery Resources”, Fish & Fisheries 6, no. 4 (2005): 350–61.

3. Benjamin S. Halpern, et al., “A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems”, Science 319 (2008): 948-952; Jennifer L Molnar, et al., “Assessing the Global Threat of Invasive Species to Marine Biodiversity”, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6 (2008), doi:10.1890/070064; Callum Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007).

4. István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 40–44; John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).

5. Metabolism — the relationship of interchange within and between nature and humans, of regulatory processes that govern the regeneration of a system — is a foundational concept in ecology. Marx used a metabolic approach for studying the environmental problems of his day, looking at the metabolism of natural systems. Whereas the metabolic rift was originally described in the context of agriculture and the soil crisis, we extend its usage to study the interaction between society and the oceans. Mészáros notes that each mode of production creates a particular social metabolic order, which can be characterised by the material interchange between society and nature. See Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 40–45; John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review). This essay, here, draws upon our article, “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology”, Organisation & Environment 18, no. 4 (2005): 422–44, in which we extend and develop in detail metabolic analysis as it relates to marine ecosystems.

6. Valiela, Marine Ecological Processes, 275.

7. Pew Ocean Commission, America’s Living Oceans; Elisabeth Borgese, The Oceanic Circle (New York: United Nations University Press, 1998).

8. Farooq Azam, et al., “The Ecological Role of Water-Column Microbes in the Sea”, Marine Ecology Progress, Series 10 (1983): 257–63; Valiela, Marine Ecological Processes.

9. James A. Estes, “Exploitation of Marine Mammals”, Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada 36 (1979): 1009–17; M. Omori, “Zooplankton Fisheries of the World”, Marine Biology 48 (1978): 199–205.

10. Richard Ellis, The Empty Ocean (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2003), 13.

11. Mark Kurlansky, Cod (New York: Walker and Co., 1997), 138–39.

12. Northeast Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed April 10, 2005, from Kurlansky, Cod.

13. Today’s trawlers now use technology developed by the military to fish waters as deep as one mile from the ocean’s surface. They cost as much as $40 million to build and they reach the length of a football field. There are currently over 37,000 industrial trawlers in the world’s oceans, aiding in the total annual harvest of over 80 million tons of fish. See William Warner, Distant Water (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), viii.

14. Kurlansky, Cod.

15. Javier Perez de Cuellar, “International Law is Irrevocably Transformed”, in United Nations, The Law of the Sea: Official Text of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea with Annexes and Index, A/CONF.62/122 (New York: United Nations, 1983), xxix; Mike Skladany, Ben Belton and Rebecca Clausen, “Out of Sight and Out of Mind: A New Oceanic Imperialism”, Monthly Review 56, no. 9 (February 2005): 14–24.

16. Sharon Lafraniere,“Europe Takes Africa’s Fish and Boatloads of Migrants Follow”, New York Times, January 14, 2008; Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Europe’s Appetite for Seafood Propels Illegal Trade”, New York Times, January 15, 2008; John W. Miller, “Offshore Disturbance: Global Fishing Trade Depletes African Waters”, Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2007.

17. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (Rome: FAO, 2004), 6, 123; FOA, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006 (Rome: FOA, 2006), 3; Harrington, Myers and Rosenberg, “Wasted Fishery Resources”. Rebecca Clausen and Richard York, “Economic Growth and Marine Biodiversity”, Conservation Biology 22 no. 2 (2008): 458–66; Jennifer A. Devine, Krista D. Baker and Richard L. Haedrich, “Deep-Sea Fishes Qualify as Endangered”, Nature 439 (2006): 29.

18. Richard Ellis, “The Bluefin in Peril”, Scientific American (March 2008): 71–77.

19. Juliette Jowit, “Krill Fishing Threatens the Antarctic”, Guardian, March 23, 2008.

20. Peter H. Tyedmers, Reg Watson and Daniel Pauly, “Fueling Global Fishing Fleets”, Ambio 34 no. 8 (2005): 635–38.

21. Valiela, Marine Ecological Processes; A. Lack, Katherine Short and Anna Willcock, Managing Risk and Uncertainty in Deep-Sea Fisheries (Australia: World Wildlife Fund, 2003); Devine, Baker and Haedrich, “Deep-Sea Fishes Qualify as Endangered”.

22. Dayton L. Alverson and Steven E. Hughes, “Bycatch”, Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 6 (1996): 443–62; Larry B. Crowder and Steven A. Murawski, “Fisheries Bycatch”, Fisheries 23 (1998): 8–16; Harrington, Myers and Rosenberg, “Wasted Fishery Resources”; Lance E. Morgan and Ratana Chuenpagdee, Shifting Gears (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2003); Dayton L. Alverson, Mark H. Freeberg, Steven A. Murawski and J.G. Pope, “A Global Assessment of Fisheries Bycatch and Discard”, FAO Fisheries Technical Paper 339 (Rome: FAO, 1996).

23. Harrington, Myers and Rosenberg, “Wasted Fishery Resources”, 358.

24. Valiela, Marine Ecological Processes, 514.

25. The concept of “fishing down the food chain” was first introduced in 1998. Since then it has received international attention. See Daniel Pauly, Villy Christensen, Johanne Dalsgaard, Rainer Froese and Francisco Torres Jr., “Fishing Down Marine Food Webs”, Science 279 (1998): 860–63.

26. In addition to fishing pressures, cod populations are confronting different environmental conditions, which are making population recovery difficult. Global warming is increasing the temperature of the oceans. A warm-water copepod plankton available in late summer has displaced the cold-water copepod plankton, which bloomed at the same time that baby cod needed such food. The shifts in plankton species due to the warming of the oceans has further complicated the conditions for cod to regenerate their numbers. Additional capture of cod in the North Sea could decimate the population to the point of no recovery. See Debora MacKenzie, “Cod Starved to Extinction”, New Scientist 180 (2003): 8.

27. Jeremy B. Jackson, et al., “Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems”, Science 293 (2001): 629–37.

28. Jackson, et al., “Historical Overfishing”, 631.

29. Carl Folke, et al., “Regime Shifts, Resilience and Biodiversity in Ecosystem Management”, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, & Systematics 35 no. 1 (2004): 557–81; O. Hoegh-Guldberg, et al., “Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification”, Science 318 (2007): 1737–42.

30. Jackson, et al. “Historical Overfishing”, 636.

31. Aquaculture can be broadly defined to include all historic forms of controlled rearing of aquatic organisms. For the purposes of this paper, we solely address capital intensive aquaculture of high trophic level species in the marine environment. For the remainder of the essay, the term “aquaculture” will only be referring to this contemporary form of capitalist aquaculture.

32. Snigda Prakash, “Soybean Industry Looking for Ways to Make Soy-based Food More Palatable to Farm-Raised Fish”, National Public Radio, Morning Edition, May 26, 2004.

33. Edward Carr, “A Second Fall”, the Economist 347 (1998): 3–4.

34. FAO, State of World Fisheries, 2002; FAO, The State of World Fisheries 2006, 3.

35. Rosamond L. Naylor, et al., “Nature’s Subsidies to Shrimp and Salmon Farming”, Science 282 (1998): 883–84.

36. Fred Magdoff, “A Precarious Existence”, Monthly Review 55, no. 9 (February 2004): 1–14; Fred Magdoff, “The World Food Crisis”, Monthly Review 60, no. 1 (May 2008): 1–15.

37. Naylor et al., “Nature’s Subsidies”.

38. Given the continual pressures placed on the fish stock in the oceans, compounded by the demands of aquaculture, capital is seeking out other forms of fishmeal as a substitute for marine derived protein sources. Corporations are working to modify soybeans as a fish feed substitute. See Prakash, “Soybean Industry Looking for Ways”.

39. Don Staniford, “Silent Spring of the Sea”, in Stephen Hume, et al., (eds.), A Stain Upon the Sea (Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbor Publishing, 2004), 149; Ronald Hites, et al., “Global Assessment of Organic Contaminants in Farmed Salmon”, Science 303 (2004): 226–29; Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

40. Sea Grant News Media Center, “Bovine Hormone Could Provide Boost to Tilapia Aquaculture”,; Thomas T. Chen, et al., “Transgenic Fish and Its Application in Basic and Applied Research”, Biotechnology Annual Review 2 (1996): 205–36.

41. Naylor et al., “Nature’s Subsidies”.

42. Nils Kautsky, et al., “The Ecological Footprint”, EC Fisheries Cooperation Bulletin 11, no. 3–4 (1998): 5–9.

43. Tyedmers, Watson and Pauly, “Fueling Global Fishing Fleets”.

44. Paul Burkett, “Natural Capital, Ecological Economics and Marxism”, International Papers in Political Economy 10, no. 3 (2003): 47; Paul Burkett, Marx and Nature (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

45. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 54.

46. Mészáros, Beyond Capital, 174; Foster, Ecology Against Capital.

47. Boris Worm, et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services”, Science 314 (2006): 787–90.

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