by Andrew Christie
Apr 12 '00
address: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, po box 2616, Friday Harbor, WA 98250 
phone: 360-370-5500 


Perhaps the greatest environmental threat of the IMF/World Bank is the threat their policies pose to marine eco-systems: Pulling all the fish from the sea in the name of foreign exchange. India fought back and won.


Overfishing is an environmental consequence of the policies of the World Bank and IMF that is often only vaguely or peripherally remarked in the media. When reporters do stories on local overfishing problems, they may throw in a reference to the compulsion of developing nations to exploit the resource to the point of collapse in order "to obtain hard currency." Conversely, when critics of the Bank or the IMF refer to specific environmental consequences of Bank/IMF actions in the developing world, the focus is on deforestation, pollution, and inappropriate agriculture.

Yet in the pantheon of potential and pending global environmental disasters, the ultimate consequence of overfishing – removing fish from the sea at a rate beyond the capacity of species to reproduce – would be a holocaust without peer, and Bank/IMF policies are working in earnest to bring about that day. It is by now fairly well known that draconian Structural Adjustment Programs have aggravated or ensured human poverty and misery in many nations of the global south, but when these programs are applied to marine fisheries, they have the potential to bring about the end of life on Earth.

By the estimate of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 60 percent of the world’s fish stocks are overfished or nearly overfished. As the commercial fishing fleets have expanded – courtesy of government subsidies – the developed North has seen the populations of fish in its own waters crash alarmingly (cod, haddock, redfish, and swordfish off the U.S/Canadian Eastern seaboard; perch, salmon and king crab off the West Coast; and just about everything off the coasts of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea). The world’s trawler fleet doubled between 1970 and 1990 – from 585,000 to 1.2 million boats. From 20 million tons in 1950, the global catch hit 100 million tons in 1989, and has stagnated at that level, the fleets fishing their way down the food chain to replace higher-value species with lower-value ones as each is depleted in turn.

In the EU, the solution to this problem has been the granting of "exit credits" – a system in which a country pays its home trawler fleet to take itself elsewhere; essentially, go ruin somebody else’s eco-system. 

There is never much question where "elsewhere" is going to be.

To make that destination even plainer, the World Bank has mandated that developing nations open up their traditional fishing grounds to foreign trawler fleets, selling off fishing rights for hard currency and entering into joint venture export agreements.

Starting in 1991, the government of India approved over 100 international joint ventures for deep-sea marine fishing and processing in its waters. The goal was the massive export of fish to earn foreign exchange, the holy grail of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Program. The policy would have brought in more than 2000 factory fishing vessels, destroyed the livelihood of 8 million artiginal fishermen, and eliminated a primary protein source from the diet of millions of local consumers as the country’s marine resources were systematically plundered and shipped to the developed world.

Faced with their assured destruction, the people of India rose up. 

National strikes by a million local fishers and fishworkers rocked the country. A large contingent of India’s 300 million fish consumers deliberately cut fish out of their diet in protest. In June 1993, traditional fishermen from the port of Trivandrum torched 14 foreign trawlers, seized four more, and took a boat operator hostage. By 1996, the government threw in the towel and canceled the sale of deep-sea fishing rights to transnational corporations. Though this story is often reported as an example of how India saved itself from disaster at the hands of the World Bank, it should also be noted that they saved the fish and a marine eco-system.

Elsewhere, in African and Asian states where resistance to Bank or IMF policy has been weaker or less organized, the Bank is getting its way.

Fish is now the primary food export of the developing world. Left unchecked, the end result of this trend is bound to have dire effects on a global scale. John Madely, writing in the 1995 Panos media briefing "Fish: A Net Loss for the Poor," put it bluntly: "Unless management improves, the major ocean fishing grounds could be turned into empty wastes with appalling consequences. A knock-on effect might unravel the oceans’ entire eco-systems."