Small-scale fishers and family-run businesses are often at a disadvantage in North American fisheries. Many explanations are offered: some say that small-scale fishers are inefficient, some say it’s the fierce competition, some say it is because of the economies of scale of the large commercial operators, and still others say it is the government’s policies. Regardless of the reasons, an important question is whether these small-scale / family fishers can continue to exist in today’s global economy.

I argue that if small-scale businesses can exist and dominate the world’s largest seafood marketplace, then the answer could be yes. Last year, I visited Tokyo’s Tsukiji seafood marketplace – an amazing experience that I had waited for a long time. One of the first exciting things I noticed was the vast number of operators in the market who all appeared to operate independently. At Tsukiji, the marketplace is dominated by small, family-run businesses. “Despite its enormous scale, the bulk of Tsukiji’s daily trade flows through tiny family businesses: some 900 trading firms are licensed to buy at Tsukiji’s morning auctions and to resell their purchases in the market’s stalls” (Theodore C. Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market At the Center of the World, p.10).

Thousands of others regularly supply the auctioneers with fish, and roughly fifty thousand people do business there each day (Bestor, p. 50). These small business do not exist in isolation; they carry on business with large transnational corporations. Further, the marketplace itself is a web of interactions between large- and small-scale businesses. Domestic and foreign producers, shippers, brokers, trading companies, as well as fisheries cooperatives, sell their products to a few large auction houses. These auction houses in turn auction the fish to smaller businesses, including intermediate wholesalers which are mainly family-run businesses.

Tsukiji is not the only example of where small-scale operation survive; the Japanese fishing industry itself is another example in which hundreds of thousands of people are employed.  “Thousands of small fishing ports cluster around the costal fisheries, which are largely in the hands of small-scale, family-based independent fishing enterprises” (Bestor, p. 30). Once again, the fishing industry isn’t working in isolation for large corporations. To the contrary, large ports and highly integrated conglomerates co-exist with their small counterparts.

Although there are many reasons why these network of small family-run businesses succeed what is important here is that they actually can succeed. One must also realize that it is not simply the economics of a market underlying the success of Tsukiji, there are social interactions and a culture which should also be analyzed. Further, Japan is not a developing country and labour cost is not cheap either, so there seems no reason to dismiss the comparison between Japan and North America on low-cost grounds.  Now that small-scale and family-run businesses can exist in major economies, two interesting questions remain:  why should we support small-scale fishers, and how can we do so in North America? These two questions will be addressed in subsequent posts.


7 Comments so far

  1. peter h flournoy on February 9, 2013 11:44 am

    Initially you list a number of reasons why it is tough for US fishermen and their families (and I might add for their suppliers, buyers, and processors when we are talking about domestically caught fish). Your visit to the Tsukiji market has apparently opened your eyes as to the fact that small scale fishermen and family run businesses can survive in the economic climate of a developed country. Let me point out a couple of differences.

    First, the plethora of Japanese marine products, from salmon eggs to ground anchovies, allows many nitch markets where specialists in one product or another can survive, because there is very little competition for their specialized product. I am not sure, unless our booming Asian immigration can supply it, that the same can develop in the U.S.

    Second, and more importantly in my view, you have initially mentioned government policies toward US fishermen, but found nothing in the Tsukiji market that was obviously different between Japan and the U.S. Well here it is — THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT SUPPORTS ITS COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN WHILE THE US GOVERNMENT POLICIES AND MANY STATE GOVERNMENT POLICIES SEEM TO BE DESIGNED TO BEAT US FISHERMEN INTO THE GROUND OF RUIN AND BANKRUPTCY.

    1. In international fisheries negotiations U.S. fishermen are continually used by the US government as an example of the ways fisheries should be regulated, whether we are talking about porpoise, turtles, sharks, forage fish, marine mammals, endangered species, or whatever — that is the US government places restrictions on domestic fishermen first, and then goes out internationally and says, in effect, look how we have regulated our fishermen’s operations — you Japan, or the EU or China, should do the same. Well possibly 10 years later there is an international agreement among other countries to take whatever new measure the US has imposed on its fishermen 10 years earlier.

    2. Or, maybe it happens more quickly — agreement to ban shark finning for example, under environmentalist pressure all these countries agree to ban shark finning for their commercial fishermen — and then what happens — THE US IS THE ONLY COUNTRY TO SPEND SUBSTANTIAL SUMS TO ENFORCE THESE REGULATIONS, ALSO IN A MANNER THAT MAKES IT ECONOMICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR SMALL SCALE FISHERMEN TO AFFORD THE ATTORNEYS AND EXPERTS FEES AND/OR THE PENALTIES IMPOSED.

    3. Japan heavily (as do other Asian countries and the EU) their commercial fishermen in the areas of fuel subsidies, low interest loans, etc. The US does not to any extent that allows US commercial fishermen to compete internationally. The US government many years ago imposed duties on foreign fish imports — nothing drastic and now with free trade agreements many of those tariffs have been eliminated. Of those which remain, only 20-25% go to fund projects helpful to commercial fishermen — the rest goes to subsidize NOAA/NMFS general budget which increasingly is aimed at more regulations, harsher blanket penalties, programs which favor large corporate run fisheries like the current Administration’s catch share schemes, etc.

    4. Where do the US enforcement allocated monies go — primarily to enforce the US fisheries regulations or, through cooperative programs with Pacific Island States to enforce the laws, predominately against US fishermen since they are the easier targets for the Coast Guard and the Navy enforcement people — who know more about US fishing operations and have no language barriers such as they might have with Asian vessels — i.e. from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, China, Vietnam, etc. IUU fishing is a serious problem — the USG answer, let’s put more documentation, reporting, and port restriction burdensome measures on legally operating fishermen, rather than increasing enforcement efforts on the high seas — that is easier than doing more high seas patrols and over flights.

    5.When I started being involved in fisheries in the 1970’s the UNCLOS created EEZs were first being established. We passed the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act which belatedly established the US EEZ, and which had the aim of “Americanizing” fishing in the US EEZ. This worked well for a number of years, but unfortunately, as with many government artificially created economic programs, eventually lead to over capitalization in many US fisheries. This of course delighted the bureaucrats because now they could interfere even more by managing these over capitalized fisheries which they had helped create. There is a saying around here on bumber stickers “NMFS, putting fishermen out of business since 1976”. That is not very far from the truth when you realize that in the late 70s U.S. fishermen accounted for at least 25% of the fish Americans consumed. The most recent figures put that amount at 5% or less.

    6. But lets not put all the blame on the State and Commerce Departments. There is plenty to go around. Back in the days that fishermen had any real political power several statutes were passed intended to help US fishermen in their operations. Since the 80s and 90s any political power that US fishermen have in Congress has greatly diminished except for perhaps Alaska, Hawaii, and New England. With recent deaths, resignations, etc. that influence is almost totally gone. Congress doesn’t influence the Administration much on behalf of US commercial fishermen these days — rather it is the large East coast and Washington D.C. environmental and preservation groups that hold sway in the Congress and the Administration. I represent commercial fishermen. On behalf of their operations I have to negotiate with NOAA/NMFS and their office of law enforcement, the US Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs (and even though these three organizations are now in the combined Department of Homeland Security, they are more difficult to deal with than before — they, with the exception of the Coast Guard, have become black boxes into which questions and issues disappear with no response for years — except continued enforcement)FDA and EPA, which in addition to heaping more and more regulations on US fishermen had the timidity to publish confusing and little understood warnings against tuna and swordfish (and also pushing HACCP programs on fishermen where they are not necessary).

    So, of the possible causes you listed at the start of your piece such as inefficiency, competition, etc., I would pick out U.S. government policies as the cause of the death nell being sounded for the few remaining small scale family run commercial fishing operations in the U.S.

  2. Darren on February 11, 2013 9:12 am

    We must change policy’s and the men and womens minds that make them in govt in order to allow small fishes to once again survive, I worked for five years in PEI and they still have a strong family fishery! And the provincial govt is on their side. When I moved back to NS I realized how this govt is so very different, all it takes is one person with in the govt to change this. It would be an answer to a lot of economical problems in the maritimes, allow the family back into the fishery and not just one or two corporations making the profits, I survive and I am a family run operation, but I am the only one that I no of in my entire county that makes 100% of his living from fishing! And there are room for many more like me, it seems to be just to hard for someone new to go though the maze of road blocks set out before them by our provincial govt!

  3. Adam Soliman on February 11, 2013 5:22 pm

    Thank you very much Peter for your comment and great insights.You bring many important points to the discussion and I agree with you that government policies is a major contributor to the current position. Your comment on the diminishing political power is particularly interesting. This can perhaps explain why some small-scale fisheries are aligning their interest with environmental groups.


  4. Adam Soliman on February 11, 2013 5:33 pm

    Thank you very much Darren for your comment. I am glad that you agree that there could be future for small-scale fishers. Its very interesting that you mention the “impediments to new entrants” issue. I am curious as to how you think this can be resolved. I believe that fishing, as agriculture, needs a re-invention where we start looking at how to maintain jobs & even attract new entrants. Some suggest that aquaculture should be brought in to complement fishing & processing activities coastal communities.

  5. Neil MacDonald on February 12, 2013 4:12 pm

    Thanks for posing the question – the answer is a clear YES. But as everyone who has contributed has acknowledged not without a proactive and committed industry, a government that sees value in regional employment and small business (of all types). Together with a framework that supports (without subsidies) those that want to produce a high quality premium local product that is appreciated and valued by the community.

    I represent several small scale inshore fisheries in South Australia all have a significant role to play in providing local seafood in a manner that is very environmentally friendly. They too suffer from Governments that see the green / recreational lobby as more important than food production. The general community want local seafood but are removed from it and its producers because the industry does not invest in effective promotion and most consumers are too ambivalent to appreciate what they are progressively loosing.

    The excessive zeal with which researchers and managers apply the use of the precautionary principle, and other principles such as ESD, lead to the finger of blame falling on those that are easiest to target – those they licence and regulate.

    In Australia most fisheries agencies see their role as regulators not managers and they have forgotten that the D in ESD stands for development.

    One of my groups(the Lakes & Coorong Fishery) works in an environmentally sensitive area, with strong community support (built over many years of supporting the region and community)and broad recognition of their role in fighting for the regions environmental future. The recognition of this dedicated group of fishers goes beyond the region and their survival in the past has been secured without a positive and supportive regulator, but with a strong political profile.

    I look forward to the day when the regulators stands up within the community and say clearly and loudly that their systems of management are effective and adequate. Then declare those they regulate deserve the full support of the community, then and only then will I feel the place for small scale inshore fisheries is secured.

    There are many stories of success and failure for our small scale fisheries (mainly inshore), the Industry should learn from them and needs to commit to rebuilding a profile where the community not only acknowledges their role but values their contribution.

  6. Jimely on February 12, 2013 5:34 pm

    The small scale businesses may actually be the answer to the problems of non-traceability, illegal activities both in trades and production as well as the manufacturing malpractices of the super huge companies. As a consumer, I feel safer consuming products from the small businesses in my neighborhood which practices and sources are known to me.

  7. Veronica O. Ombwa on March 13, 2013 2:39 am

    Thank you so much for your moving experience on the subject. The same is being felt in Kenya, especially those doing their businesses around Lakes Victoria and Turkana respectively. I 100% agree with peter and suggest that we must be patriotic in all our end-overs so as to correctly implement the laid down policies in order to keep the small scale fishers’ businesses running. But remember! they must be there.

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