Rules of Privatization: Contradictions in Neoliberal Regulation of North Pacific Fisheries


Correspondence: Department of Geography, Ohio State University, 1036 Derby Hall, 154 North Oval Mall, Columbus, OH 43210, e-mail:


Recent changes in fisheries regulation in the U.S. North Pacific reveal how neoliberalism is constituted in practice, and the forms that neoliberalism takes when it engages with environmental management and ecological processes. Whereas neoliberalism can be taken as a political economic philosophy that posits that markets, without state involvement, can best allocate resources, the history and practice of neoliberalism show that it is not as unified as it often appears. Analysis of contemporary fisheries policy reveals not only contradictions in neoliberal approaches, but also how those contradictions are shaped by the environmental context of the industry. This article discusses the rationale for neoliberalism in fisheries and the governance changes enacted in the 1998 American Fisheries Act, which privatized the fishery for Alaska pollock by closing the fishery to all new entrants, providing a set percentage of the yearly catch to “cooperatives” of participants, and allowing individuals to lease their shares. Karl Polanyi's notion of the “double movement” provides a framework to argue that even though regulators tout these reforms because they rely on market mechanisms to resolve recalcitrant ecological and economic problems in these fisheries, writing and implementing the act simultaneously involved complex rule making designed to protect the market. This form of neoliberalism results from the history of fisheries regulation, including recent emphasis on cooperative management, and the ecological characteristics of marine fish. Moves to privatize the oceans entail developing distinctive forms of neoliberal practice that uniquely combine private industry and government regulation. Because fish are one of the last great resource commons, neoliberal approaches to fisheries mark a profound geographical transformation in the political economy of the oceans.