GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Fishing exploitation and the Origins of Capitalism


Andrea Vance is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s standout investigative journalists and columnists. Her political columns are value based, sharp and invariably hit the mark.

But it is her environmental, including oceanic, investigative pieces that impress even more. Her writings are empirically based and well-researched. Vance really drills down into issues.

Andrea Vance highlights massive underreporting of ocean wildlife deaths

This was evident in her recent piece in the Sunday Star Times (14 April): Massive underreporting of ocean wildlife caught out.

Vance’s revelations

In response to the suspected deaths of thousands of sea birds, dolphins and sea lions due to ocean fishing nets and lines, seven years ago the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) required commercial boats to install cameras on board.

- Sponsor Promotion -

Vance reports that MPI has just reported its first observations based on over 100 vessels. These revealed a high level of official underreporting of what and how much they were catching.

Almost all interactions between sea birds and fishing boats are regarded as adverse because they result in injury or lead to seabirds being attracted to vessels.

Further, the volume of reported discarded fish because they were undersized or not valuable increased by 46%.

Vested interests and politics are discussed. The cameras were introduced in the final year of the previous National-led government in 2017. The Labour-led government endeavoured to extend the scheme but was blocked by its NZ First coalition partner.

Relevant non-government environmental organisations would like the scheme extended but this is unlikely under the current Chris Luxon led coalition government. If anything it is likely to go backwards.

Shane Jones: ‘poachers’ should monitor ‘poaching’

Oceans and Fisheries Minister Shane Jones of NZ First is not only opposed to extension. He has asked officials to look at ways to hand back control of the footage to the fishing industry. This has resonance with asking poachers to monitor poaching.

Fishing and the origins of capitalism

Vance’s article reminded me of an earlier article published by Monthly Review in March 2023 by Ian Angus.

Ian Angus: insightful and historical eco-socialist

In the context of the origins of capitalism he discussed the significance of fishing: The fishing revolution and the origins of capitalism.

Angus is editor of the online eco-socialist journal Climate & Capitalism. He is the author of many books, the most recent (2016) being Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System.

Angus writes that fishing is older than humanity with evidence that lake and river fish were caught  in east Africa a million years ago.

For most of humanity’s  existence, fish were caught to be eaten by the fishers themselves perhaps with some trading  with neighbours.

Fishing for sale rather than consumption developed along with the emergence of class-divided societies about five thousand years ago. Incrementally this led to early environmental and fish supply damage.

In the eleventh century increased political stability and renewed economic growth led to a rapid expansion of commercial fishing in the North and Baltic seas.

Dried and salted fish for export followed as Europe-wide trade revived along with a shift from freshwater to ocean fishing.

Over the following centuries new more extractive methods were developed to increase fish catches, including bigger and better equipped votes.

Karl Marx: fishing a key part in a model capitalist nation’s economic development

In the mid to late nineteenth century Karl Marx regarded Holland as a “model capitalist nation” in which fishing was a key factor in its economic development. Angus observed that Holland had achieved absolute dominance of commercial fishing in the North Sea.

Over time the largely Dutch led ownership shifted from partnerships to companies and boosted the shipbuilding industry. Wage labour also developed.

Transatlantic trade and cod ‘gold mines’

Angus describes the increasing transatlantic trade from the 1500s, particularly Spain and England.

While the former focussed on plundering metals further south, plundering by the latter occurred in the expanding commercial fishing in the cod ‘gold mines’ of Newfoundland & Labrador in eastern Canada.

Commercial fishing concentrated around Newfoundland

Cod fishing was concentrated on Newfoundland’s east and south coasts. Whaling followed on its northwest corner in what Angus calls the world’s first oil boom.

He then progresses to discussing the developing first capitalist factories (sometimes called ‘fishing rooms’) in Newfoundland for both inshore and offshore fishing, including assembly line divisions of labour.

Spain endeavoured to compete with England over Newfoundland commercial fishing. What Angus calls a “cod war” was part of a wider escalating economic war between the two countries.

Francis Drake procured a 600% return for his investors

In 1585 Sir Francis Drake led an investor-financed fleet of 10 ships to Newfoundland. Such was its success that after defeating their Spanish competitors that it brought a 600% return to investors along with a knighthood to Drake.

Angus refers to Marx in Capital arguing that buying (for example, dried or salted fish) cheap in one place and selling dear in another (or “profits upon expropriation”) did not undermine the prevailing feudal mode of production.

Instead it was the integration of manufacture and trade that laid the basis for a new social order. It was part of the transition to capitalism rather than the capitalism mode itself.

Ecological impact

The ecological impact was discernible even back in this time. Cod in particular was in abundance.

But over time the average size of cod was driven down and relatively unexploited stocks became a “reminder of the past.” Reproduction rates appear to have slowly declined.

The increasing intensification of fishing in Newfoundland has led to what some environmental historians have called a ‘fish revolution’.

In their words, as quoted by Angus, historians:

…have grossly underestimated the historical economic significance of the fish trade, which may have been equal to the much more famed rush to exploit the silver mines of the Incas.

New Zealand’s contemporary glimpse

Andrea Vance’s revelations about the deaths and harm to sea birds, dolphins and sea lions by ocean fishing nets and lines is a contemporary glimpse of the devastation caused by commercial fishing.

This carnage is a direct consequence of commercial fishing’s exploitation which itself is a direct consequence of the economic mode we call capitalism.

It is about maximising profit extraction. Or, as Marx put it, extract cheap in one place and sell dear in another; profits upon expropriation.

What has not been fully appreciated, but emphasised well by Ian Angus, is that commercial fishing, beginning in the Baltic and North seas, was part of the core origins of this economic mode.

If Shane Jones gets his way as part of the current coalition government, New Zealand will do its bit to continue this historical exploitation and ecological harm.



Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes


  1. It’s not just cod that shrank. I read a book about the history of oysters – yes I know it’s weird – but apparently oysters used to be up to a foot across. And they were regarded as the food of the poor. Not so much anymore.

    • I suppose this is why New Zealand could only afford to take crappy sausage rolls to the coronation of the new king.

  2. If N Z First thinks that fishing should be controlled by the fishers, then one could expect the health industry to be controlled by the medical profession rather than by bureaucrats, or the dystopian nightmare of call centre operators from Mumbai or Jakarta. Something stinks here, and it’s not the fish.

  3. It is not surprising that NZ First is plunging in the polls with, IMO, slippery-tongued Shane failing to protect our fish and our future. Flowery rhetoric won’t feed our children’s children. He needs to go.

  4. When the southern blue fin tuna is down to the very last fish, supply and demand economics dictate that Shane Jones and his cabal of like minded fools will be incentivised to hunt the thing down and kill it in the name of profit.
    He and his ilk have abandoned any philosophical rationale for their actions and replaced it with a constant stream of psychobabble to make the reprehensible sound desirable.
    He was sent to Harvard Kennedy School for a good reason and none of that reason was to benefit his people.

  5. You have to realise that in modern terms, the neoliberal global economy has turned the populations of nations such as ours, – where foreign ownership now commands much of our means of production and infrastructure -,we have become the fish, and it is our wealth that is being rapaciously extracted. It’s just a matter of time before the inevitable collapse.

  6. We need to ditch MMP & go back to FPP? MMP was supposed to act as a deterrent to the abuses of the Two main Political Parties & keep them in check but what we have now is a bastardisation of our Political system in which it is the minor parties of Act & NZF & others who are holding the Nation hostage & abusing the system for their own benefit, not the Country’s? Today we have the ridiculous situation where these minor Parties have to much power & wield that power by threats to closedown or even remove the dominant Party from power unless their demands & policies & ideologies aren’t implemented, this is blackmail & extortion & is unacceptable, it’s the Tails wagging the Dog, we have Act’s lunatic & failed Neoliberal idealogical imposed on the Country, despite 40 yrs of proof that show this Capitalist Economic model has been a complete failure & continues to fail Today, every Western Country based on Neoliberalism is in collapse right now with hyperinflation in our Products & Food & asset price expansion & Debt going through the Roof, like in Housing that’s beyond the ability for ordinary people to afford, Neoliberalism is based on thieving Public assets via Privatisation & extract wealth from the Public in a endless Wealth transfer loop that takes money from the poor & middle class & sends it to the Rich Elites, it’s reverse Robin Hood thievery that’s destroying the World, a return to Feudalism? NZF is also a decrepit Party of disgruntled Oldies run by a hateful, spiteful old GOAT called Winston Peters, it should be called Winston First & Fuck everyone else because when he either retires or dies a that will be the end of this Climate change denying, sell NZ to the highest bidder NZ Last Party of kickbacks & cronyism that go into the back pockets of Motel Porn king Shane Jones & his pin striped, whiskey & cigar breath mate Peters living the high life, flying around the World & thinking he’s a big shot Foreign Minister but he’s just making a fool of himself & become a embarrassment. NZF & Act are currently polling at what, 6-7% & NZF is at 4%, both can’t even muster 10%. Time for the Clown minor Parties to go back in their Political boxes & disappear & the easiest way to do this is too change our Political system to remove these pathetic minor parties who are only in it for themselves & who are destroying NZ.

    • You are certainly correct with what you say we are seeing.
      However I don’t blame MMP per se.
      I believe what we are seeing is down to the politicians not having the interests of the populace front and centre.
      More so they do not have the skills to take said populace with them on their journey hence they have to rely on passing laws that can only benefit those that are paying the bills. Eg mining, fishing, real estate, landlords etc.
      I have not noticed any talk about fast track development of schools, hospitals, or housing. In fact all of these are being deferred while the old boys are being tasked with coming up with reasons as to why these projects should be stopped completely or farmed out to the coalitions donors.

    • I don’t see how using FPP for elections would solve the problem, the vested interests would just hijack a major party. It would be interesting to ban political parties and have all MPs run as independent however with the bias within people you could only ever get what a majority of MPs want and not what is best for the country.

Comments are closed.