Mar 28, 2013 - Issue 510 Cover Story: Hunger - Some Lessons Never Learned - Solidarity America By John Funiciello, BC Columnist

In the early 1970s, there were news stories for a very short time about the foreign fishing boats that were taking thousands (millions?) of tons of anchovies on a regular basis off the west coast of South America and some warned of overfishing of those stocks.

Fast forward four decades and the same warnings are being given, not only about fishing for anchovies, but for the possible depletion of fishing stocks all over the world.  It apparently takes humans a long time to learn anything and, often, it’s too late when the lesson is learned.

Forty years ago, the anchovies were being fished by, among others, the U.S. fishing fleet to provide high-protein feed for the fast food chicken industry that was just starting in the country.  And this was being done right off the coast of a continent full of nations that had millions of hungry people.  Doing business as usual, however, required foreign fishing fleets to roam the globe to find the easiest place to fill their holds with high quality protein, so another industry, fast food, could flourish in the U.S.A.

As a result, poor people in countries like, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile struggled on, while a cheap food source was right off their coasts.  Tons of fish on the dock do not translate directly into wealth and profits for the political hierarchy.  Contracts for permits to fish offshore from companies that do business in the richer nations can bring their own riches. 

For many years, there have been warnings of the depletion of fish stocks all over the world, especially the species that look good on a dinner plate.  For example, from the late 1970s, the fishing fleet in Provincetown, Mass., slowly came to a halt over a few short years, because they could not catch enough cod to pay for the diesel to get out to the fishing banks, let alone make a profit from the run.  The fleet just stopped fishing or converted their boats to whale watching.

We know now that the cod stocks in the Atlantic Ocean are dangerously low, having been overfished for generations.  So it is with many other fish species around the world.  There are places where it seems that the fish have recovered, but those areas are small and isolated or are in places where the destructive factory fishing fleets have a hard time reaching, usually because of the economics involved.

The fish don’t have a chance, however, because of the high-technology instruments that are used to find them.  The seafarers of old had to use natural signs to determine where the fish might be going or gathering.  They used experience, knowledge, instinct, and intuition.  Sometimes they were successful and sometimes they came up empty-handed.   And they had equipment, nets and the like, which had not changed appreciably over hundreds of years.  Now, the fish are like the airline passengers who go through the full body scanner.  The factory fishing fleets live up to their name, using every kind of high technology to find and catch what their boats will hold.

No “stock” of fish or anything else can withstand that kind of pressure.  When natural cycles are pitted against technology without any limits, the stock (living creatures) in that natural cycle is bound to shrink in number or they disappear, just because they need a minimum number to maintain their populations.  Recent press reports show barrels of shark fins destined for the Asian markets.  They get them by catching the sharks, cutting off the fins, and returning the bodies into the water.  It’s that lucrative to just take the fins, which are used for soup and other, possibly medicinal, purposes.

People who fish for the shark fins do not care that sharks take a long time to reach maturity and breeding age and that taking any shark, of any size, is not the best way to ensure the continuation of the ecosystem in any given area.  The shark in the sea, like the wolf on land, is an important, if not vital, factor in its ecosystem and its extirpation in any given range will have an effect on most of the other species far into the future.  No one knows for sure, but we are sure to find out.

The human species is notoriously without thought, when it comes to its own wants.  If they want to eat shark fin soup, they kill a 400-pound shark to do it.  If they want to eat a swordfish steak, they will order it in a restaurant, even though some marine environmentalist organizations sounded the alarm a few years ago and a moratorium (including dozens of celebrity chefs) on fishing as usual was observed for some 30 months.  Some swordfish stocks are recovering and the unique species is not endangered at this time.

A report of the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2008 said that half the world’s fishing fleet could be eliminated with no change in the total catch and the same report showed that fishing fleets around the world were losing $50 billion (U.S. dollars) a year.  There is a problem and there is little discussion about it among the people who count:  Those who eat seafood.  If they knew what is happening in the oceans around the world to the seafood they love to eat, they might be inclined to do something, but there is little about it in the mass press.  When there is some kind of reporting, it is as shallow as the water that washes up on the coast.  Governments and others should be telling people that there is danger…there is a crisis brewing.

As in so many other aspects of modern life, no government and certainly no politicians are going to tell the people that the way they live is not sustainable and that the lives we lead (at least in the so-called First World) cannot go on forever.  We’re running out of so many things that we’ve taken for granted.  The harvest of the sea is one of those things, and hundreds of millions depend on that food for sustenance.  Which nation is going to be the first to call back its fishing fleet, until the fish stocks are replenished by the natural order of things? 

Sustainability is something that Americans are not that interested in and that attitude is spurred by the Right Wing in the U.S., which considers sustainability to be a United Nations plot to take over the world with a one-world government.  All they see in the concept of sustainability is the end of exploding profits.  But, if we are to maintain life as we know it on the planet, sustainability is what we have to aim for in agriculture, forestry, mining, oil and gas drilling, and of course, fishing.  These are all extractive industries and they all will come to an end, eventually, sooner than later, if we don’t change our ways.

Considering where much of the feed for our fast food chicken has come from over the past four decades and considering the negative effect fast food has had on the people who eat a steady diet of it, a direct (and seemingly endless) line of exploitation can be traced, from the west coast of South America, to U.S. feed processing plants, to the fast food outlets in New York City, where last fall, the workers in those outlets struck after the Thanksgiving holiday for higher pay.  They are seeking a $15 an hour rate, rather than the $7.25 most of them are paid now.

According to, the workers’ website, the fast food industry grosses some $200 billion annually, while their average pay is about $11,000 a year, far from enough to live on in New York City.  For comparison, they note that $25,000 is the average daily pay of a fast food company CEO, twice what the average workers makes in a year. 

The $200 billion fast food industry gross would not be possible, and the $25,000 daily pay of fast food CEOs would not be possible, without the vast volumes of fish from other countries’ waters and without the minimum wage jobs of the people who hand out the chicken and burgers in their restaurants.  Just as the chicken (and other fast food) industry literally takes the food off the tables of poor people in developing countries, they are doing the same to the workers who make their money in New York City. 

These are not jobs that only teenagers take.  In today’s economy, people with families (especially minorities and immigrants) are taking these jobs and must try to survive with two or three similar jobs.  In those families, everybody works.  That’s why even the New York State Legislature has recognized that the current minimum wage is inadequate and legislators and the governor are considering raising the minimum to $9 an hour, over the next few years.  That’s not enough.  What the fast food workers are demanding, $15 an hour, is what is required now, not sometime in the future.

But, overall, the world’s people need to learn that we can only sustain ourselves on Earth, if we extract only what we need to live (to sustain ourselves).  Without political leadership that is unafraid to tell the people, especially those in the “developed world,” that life as we know it is not sustainable and that we should be preparing for a new way of viewing our lives and the lives of others, this knowledge will not be imparted.

That is not happening and the hour for such preparation is late.  The obscene disparity between the rich and the corporations in the U.S. and the rest of the people should not be, but it is an indication of the lengths they will go to maintain that disparity, here at home, and in the rest of the world.  It is structured that way and will not change, unless there is a concerted effort on the part of peoples around the world.  The structure that allows this has to be changed. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.