Of lobsters and mobsters: Who are the companies poaching the oceans?

by GRAIN | 24 Jun 2021
Jagalchi Fish Market, South Korea; Photo: Justin De La Ornellas - Flickr

Ask anyone for the name of a food company and you will probably not get the name of a seafood corporation. How many people have heard of the Red Chamber Group, the world's number one trader in shrimp? Or Mowi, the largest producer of farmed salmon? But the big seafood companies are no small fry. They dominate a global industry worth over US$400 billion a year, and that provides around 20% of global animal protein and jobs for 60 million people.

We need to be much more aware of these companies. They are the main culprits in the industrialisation of the oceans which is utterly decimating the world's marine wildlife. They are largely behind the destruction of small scale fisheries, the collapse of global fish stocks and the plastic pollution crisis in the oceans. They are also lead contributors to climate change. The industry makes its profits off of labour exploitation, generous government subsidies and widespread corruption. They are doing most of this under the radar, with little public scrutiny or attention.

In an effort to get deeper information about these highly secretive corporations, GRAIN took a look at Undercurrent News' 2020 profile of the 100 largest seafood companies in the world. Below we share the main points we took away from it.

1) A small number of companies dominate the global market & this concentration is growing

For an industry that is so geographically vast and involves so many people, including tens of millions of small-scale fisherfolk, the level of concentration is quite shocking. The total revenues for the top 100 companies for 2019 were US$108 billion, which is roughly a quarter of the global market. But just ten companies made US$44 billion (see infographic), without including revenues from subsidiaries in which they are minor shareholders. Norway’s Mowi alone controls 23% of the world’s salmon market.

The industry is already highly concentrated, but more take-overs and mergers are happening all the time and expected to continue. Seafood companies are intensely competitive (price-fixing and joint ventures aside), with lots of bankruptcies and fights over expansions and quotas. Most companies are also vertically integrated, from trawlers to processing and from feed to farming.

2) Most seafood corporations are based in Europe, Japan, the US and China, even though most of the catch is elsewhere

Japan leads the pack, by far, followed by the US, Spain, Norway and China. It’s notable that there are no African or Pacific Island companies in the top ranks, given that plenty of the world’s leading seafood operators hyperactively fish in their waters. It should come as no surprise that fishing rights belonging to African, Asian and Latin American states are now a commodity bartered through free trade agreements, not to mention underhanded bribery schemes.

Large industrial trawlers that are behind this skewed picture are also the main beneficiaries of government subsidies, which now amount to US$35 billion per year, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. Nearly 60% of this public support is directly linked to overfishing, UNCTAD points out.

3) Aquaculture – or fish farming – is growing rapidly

Aquaculture, both offshore and onshore, is the world’s fastest growing food production sector, notes Hakai magazine. And, as expected, it is a major source of expansion for many of the largest seafood corporations. Over 50% of the top 100 firms have aquaculture operations. Salmon is probably the most farmed fish among the big players, but several Japanese companies have also started farming tuna. Top on the agenda for the big fish farming companies appears to be getting governments to give them more license to expand their operations. And in their quest to be environmentally sustainable, meaning more profitable, they are also looking into new digital, artificial intelligence and other technologies that allow them to build and run fish farms further out at sea.

4) Costs to people and the environment are huge

The global fish industry generates massive pollution and waste. According to the recent Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, industrial fishing is even the top source of plastic garbage in the oceans, which many people think comes from shampoo sachets, grocery bags and water bottles. Overfishing, especially for the production of feed (fishmeal and fish oil) for aquaculture, is rampant. Much of it takes place in waters that are poorly patrolled or easy to abuse, destroying the livelihoods of local communities. In terms of climate change, as Undercurrent News’ report makes clear, the top companies are still not reporting the full scope of emissions they are responsible for. All told, the environmental cost from this industry was US$50 billion in 2013-2019, according to DeadLoss.

5) Crimes are commonplace

It is rare, within industry publications, to see so much mention of criminality and health, labour or environmental scandals. Undercurrent News' profiles of the top 100 companies, as well as related reports, are replete with examples of price-fixing, factory fires, disease outbreaks, algal blooms, fish loss, slavery, bribery and fraud. In several cases, human trafficking and corruption in the seafood industry have made global headlines thanks to courageous whistleblowers. This is especially the case in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and parts of Africa. But apart from a few spectacular lawsuits, such as the one trying to get to the bottom of what Iceland’s Samherji did in Namibia, not a lot is changing.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has made this situation worse. The industry has been hard hit by the crisis, whether in terms of losing sales, losing distribution capacity or losing workers. This increases the drive to catch up, potentially cutting corners, especially through the raft of new free trade agreements currently being negotiated and signed.

6) Profits are huge

According to a recent report for The Guardian, the US$20 billion a year salmon industry is “enormously profitable”. Mowi’s Scotland operation alone rakes in £58 million (US$69 million) “in a good quarter.” Their global net profit in 2019 was a gobsmacking €476 million (US$524 million). It’s no wonder, then, that the private equity industry is so keenly involved in seafood companies – and vice versa. (Mowi’s longstanding CEO of 20 years just left and joined a private equity firm focused on aquaculture investing. Its new CEO comes from Deloitte.) Banks are also deeply attracted to this industry, as a recent Greenpeace report on the equally profitable tuna segment shows.

What needs to be done?

Netflix’s Seaspiracy has attracted a lot of criticism, from Madagascar to the Philippines, for not doing justice to the perspectives and realities of coastal communities. And rightly so. After all, they depend on fishing for their livelihoods, and artisanal fish industries are the basis of food, health, income and other benefits for nearby communities. However, global seafood consumption has doubled in the last 50 years and it’s clear that the senseless overconsumption driving this growth – for which trade agreements and corporate boardrooms are to blame, not individual consumers – has to stop.

It’s also clear that if we get rid of the incentives for industrial fishing, enforce antitrust and other regulations, and actively protect small fishers and their markets we would a long way to solving many of the problems we’re now grappling with. There is a lot of talk about “sustainable” fisheries, but who would trust an industry that has done so much damage to our planet, and demonstrated such contempt for wildlife and human life, to suddenly become a good steward? Especially when the certification system is also subject to racketeering?

We need to actively support small-scale fisherfolk and fishworkers in their struggles for survival. They are not responsible for the mess we are in, but certainly should be able to lead us out of it.

Author: GRAIN
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