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A policy-focused history probes the factors driving the decline of global fisheries

All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing

Carmel Finley
University of Chicago Press
219 pp.
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The global fishing industry was transformed in the 20th century by an interplay of technology development, emerging economic opportunities, new fishery science, shifts in societal norms, and evolving geopolitical priorities. In her book All the Boats in the Ocean, Carmel Finley explores the effects these factors had on fisheries, emphasizing the role of government regulation and subsidies.

Fisheries are the prototypical commons: a natural resource located in a jointly held area, available for exploitation by any individual or company with access to harvesting equipment. The potential for tragedy, as enunciated by Garrett Hardin in 1968 (1), is compounded by the complexity of marine ecosystem dynamics and the difficulty of placing effective limits on the disparate elements of the international fishing industry.

Citing statistics and anecdotes, Finley documents the rapid rise in postwar marine fish production, followed by its drastic decline in the late 20th century. The book offers an exploration of these developments through the prisms of domestic political pressures and international interests and trade-offs. The story principally focuses on the interests and activities of four nations: the United States, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Iceland.

Prior to World War II, the fishing industries of these countries developed essentially in parallel. However, Finley argues that in 1945, the United States began extensive use of fisheries technology and fishing rights as a geopolitical tool. For example, during the allied occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, the United States subsidized the modernization of Japan’s fishing fleet. Funds from the Marshall Plan, the initiative to support Western Europe after World War II, did the same in Iceland. Fish-processing plants were established in American Samoa in the early 1950s, with wage and tariff terms that Finley links to weakening of the U.S. tuna industry.

At the same time, U.S. officials sought policies to balance the economic interests of the United States’s distinct fishery-dependent communities. Such efforts included extending fishery jurisdiction adjacent to the U.S. coast and adjusting tariffs to protect markets threatened by imports.

Finley is an engaging writer, weaving together historical, economic, and societal threads in a narrative that anchors global developments in the accounts of local actors. Fisheries industrialist Nick Bez represents the growing role of industrial-scale fishing enterprises, whereas fisheries scientist Wilbert Chapman personifies the increasing incorporation of data into fishing regulation and practice. Fisherman George Moskovita is the face of the small-scale fishing entrepreneur.

The tension between the priorities and goals of these competing actors forms the essence of the book. Each faction has its victories and defeats, but the fish are the ultimate losers, as evidenced by the decline or collapse of fishery after fishery: California sardines in the 1950s, Pacific ocean perch in the 1970s, bluefin tuna in the early 2000s.

Although the book has many rewards, it also suffers from a number of weaknesses. The narrative skips around in time and space, often leaving the reader uncertain about when one or another development occurred or how a specific anecdote relates to the point being made. Chapter titles, meanwhile, do not relate clearly to the text: Chapter 5 (“Industrialization”) is mostly about tariffs, for example, and Chapter 6 (“Treaties”) barely mentions international agreements at all.

Finley frequently ascribes actions and motives to “the government” as if it were a monolith, only making glancing reference to the economic stresses and industry demands that drove specific policies. This is unfortunate because her opening and closing chapters make it clear that she understands the conflicting pressures that have brought fisheries to today’s perilous state.

Ultimately, the book does not make a compelling case that “government subsidies led to global overfishing.” Government subsidies and regulations (or lack thereof), as well as evolving international agreements, provided the framework and perhaps served as accelerators. But governments respond to conflicting pressures, interests, and goals, and overfishing is too complicated a problem to ascribe to a set of subsidies.


  1. G. Hardin, Science, 162, 1243 (1968).

About the author

The reviewer is at Friends of IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), Falmouth, MA, USA.