Can small-scale fishers and businesses survive in todays global economy?

Posted By on Feb 8, 2013 | 6 comments

by Adam Soliman

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.