Book Review: The Fish Market

The Fish Market: Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate

By Lee Van Der Voo

Reviewed by Sid Dobrin

Award-winning, freelance journalist Lee Van Der Voo has recently published an eye-opening exposé of the nation’s federally-managed catch shares program. The Fish Market: Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate (published in November by St. Martin’s press) is the story of the privatization of America’s fisheries resources through what have come to be known as catch share policies. Catch shares, a generic term used to describe several approaches to fisheries management policies, restrict harvesting rights to a limited number of organizations or individuals. Catch shares have been implemented in the U.S. since 1990 when the Mid-Atlantic Surf Clam and Ocean Quahog Fishery began restricting quahog harvests. There are now 16 catch share programs in place, managed by six of the eight management councils that operate under the authority of NOAA/NMFS. More catch share programs are being proposed. Van Der Voo’s The Fish Market is a book of significant importance to all anglers, and of particular seriousness to those of us alert to fisheries conservation. Its timeliness is critical and relevant.

This week at the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) public hearing in Jekyll Island, Georgia, a pilot snapper and grouper catch share Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) application was essentially killed—for now—by an overwhelming public outcry against the permit application, specifically, and against the insidious proliferation of the privatization of our ocean resources, more generally. A small victory in a global conflict. The EFP application had been championed by SAFMC sitting members Charlie Phillips and Chris Conklin and former member Jack Cox, all of whom are commercial snapper/grouper fleet owners and dealers. But, unlike EFP applications submitted over the past six years in fisheries in New England, Texas, Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico, the fishing community from around the region stood in opposition to this disingenuous attempt to take ownership of a public resource. Of the 600 comments registered, 97% voiced opposition. Finally. Opposition.

“Public sentiment against this EFP was overwhelming, which shows that the angling public is very much aware of these privatization schemes and they’ve had enough of them,” said Bill Bird, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s National Government Relations Committee. “There should be no place for privatization of our public marine resources in the federal fisheries management system, but our fear is that this EFP will be retooled and reintroduced in the future when the noise dies down. Anglers in the South Atlantic will have to remain vigilant.” The warning of vigilance is proclaimed not from unfounded paranoia, but from a recent history of catch share conquest.

The stealthy move by the federal government and influenced by corporate heavyweights to privatize a public resource through catch share policies is one of the most devious federal programs to be pushed on American citizens—and now the world. Frighteningly, powerful lobbies for catch share programs are being financed by organizations claiming environmental and conservation platforms, but are, in fact, funded by corporations seeking monopolies on global seafood stocks. Leading this pack of corporate wolves is the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which self-identifies as an environmental advocacy group, but is more accurately described as a greenwashing platform. By 2013, Sam Walton had provided the EDF with more than $91 million to lobby on behalf of catch share programs. Walton is one of the country’s largest holders of catch share rights. Alarmingly, the majority of the public remains uninformed not just about the programs, but about the ramification such programs have for global fisheries management and citizen access.

In the past few months, several well-thought and well-delivered journalistic exposés have begun to reveal the inner workings of catch shares. Chief among these are Ben Raines’ series of reports in, an online media amalgam of The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, Mobile’s Press-Register and The Mississippi Press in which he exposes the contentious battle over catch shares in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly those surrounding ownership of Red Snapper harvest rights in the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, Lee Zurik, Chief Investigative Reporter for WVUE Fox 8 of New Orleans, produced a three-part news report called “Sea Lords and the Secret Votes that made them Rich” that takes up the detrimental effects of catch share programs. The reports, which include eye-opening interviews with Louisiana Representative Garret Graves and documented evidence of the catch share program’s function to limit harvest access rights to but a few federally-appointed companies, have begun what needs to be a much more prevalent discussion among not just anglers, but all Americans.

While Raines and Zurik’s reports are fundamental to exposing the catch share programs, Their reach is limited to the circulation of local news outlets, despite efforts of a few advocacy groups to push their stories beyond their usual readerships. However, the recent release of Van Der Voo’s The Fish Market: Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate makes one of the most in-depth interventions into exposing and understanding he catch shares programs. Van Der Voo, who is an award winning journalist who regularly writes about sustainability, food, policy, and class, offers not merely an overview of the catch share programs, but a deeply political and deeply personal examination of the evolution of catch shares in the United States and the transition of those programs to other countries’ waters. Her book is exactly the kind of starting point that opposition efforts have needed to inform and expose. Her research is rigorous and sound, verging at times away from the traditions of investigative reporting into exposition and narrative to elucidate the complex territories of federal policies, public rights, and corporate maneuvering.

Van Der Voo traces the story of catch shares through narratives of those tied most closely to the federal programs, those who have benefitted and those who have been harmed. She does the work of not merely telling us about the business of catch shares, but of tracing the policies of allotments to the lobbyists and interest groups that influence the policy decision makers. It’s a discomforting cartography of corporate control, privatization, and jurisdiction; it’s a diagram that works to reveal connections between corporations and federal policies and the ways in which those connections result in material consequences for the world’s oceans.

The book betrays Van De Voo’s commitment to journalistic impartiality; no matter her reporter’s tenacity to convey bias-free details, the underlying tenor of the situation demands we read a persuasive message of concern—of deep-seeded, conservation-minded, concern. Van Der Voo’s reporter’s ethics remain intact, but the very act of telling this story results in an act of exposure, of rolling the situation over to show off its soft white underbelly. It is in that exposure that Van Der Voo’s book finds its ultimate strength: in showing us not the history of catch shares, but in where and how to strike back at this gluttonous approach to fisheries management.

To be fair, The Fish Market: Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate is a book that I will recommend to any that will listen to my recommendations. However, it is a book that risks falling between cracks, missing its mark with readers. As nonfiction, it is substantial, but it does not accomplish a non-fictional depth in the way that writers like Paul Greenberg or Mark Kurlansky have in writing about fisheries and conservation. It reads, as one might expect, like a patchwork of journalistic components. As a narrative, the story is fragmented, small pieces of a bigger puzzle woven together to give us a broader view, but it is not a narrative structure or style that stands as remarkable—adroit, surely, but not remarkable. It is the topic taken up in the book that demands our attention—no matter how Van Der Voo has chosen to craft it. It is the very historical moment in which the book appears in which Van Der Voo pulls back the curtain to show us what we have failed to take into account that makes this book matter.

I read this book as a vanguard in what I can only hope is a flourishing of other books, articles, films, and videos that take up the charge of resisting catch shares, of fighting against the privatization of the world’s oceans and the organisms that inhabit them, and of exposing the structures that put in place such protocols. It is a book that needs to circulate, needs to be addressed. This is an important book about a dire, important moment.

Sid Dobrin is Professor and Chair in the Department of English at the University of Florida where he is also Director of the Trace Innovation Initiative. He publishes extensively about writing, ecology, technology, and fishing.


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