Distraction Free Reading

On the Harm in Valuing Fish as “Stock”

A 2016 Report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations remarks: “About 31.4 percent of the commercial wild fish stocks were overfished in 2013” (emphasis added). What is this authority saying—and what does it mean to say—when it uses the phrase “a fish stock?” What does stock as a native category reveal about the contemporary commitments of the experts most trusted to husband sea creatures under threat? What can be accomplished by attending to this and other terms that saturate discourse in the circles of marine conservation, the ones that treat fish as resources plugged into and benefiting ecosystem services like cogs in a fantastical machine? While conducting ethnographic research about ocean governance I found that even environmentalists regularly peddle the language of stock, so taken for granted and commonplace is the animal in its commodified form.

Row of large, dead bluefin tuna lined up on the ground, with the legs of fishermen and fish buyers visible in the background.

“Stocks” of bluefin tuna tagged, gutted and frozen dead, awaiting auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, November 2013. Photo by the author.

Keywords are important, as Raymond Williams (1983 [1976]) made clear long ago. I recently presented a paper at the meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) (November 2016) in which I traced the historical trajectories that contributed to the formation of the phrase “a fish stock.” Some of my conclusions appear in a blog published by the AAA about the social authority of number in statecraft. This Platypus post is an effort to get the word out about the need for a critical vocabulary that challenges not only models of being, but their components; not only grandiose vocabularies like “the Anthropocene” (Haraway 2015, Moore 2015) and the “tragedy of the commons,” but their parts. I am worried about inadvertently reproducing the harms embedded in the verbiage structuring these totalizing ideas, even as I use them for what I hope are critical and reformist—even transformative—purposes. The stakes could not be greater as the sixth mass extinction looms over the human imagination. Not since the age of the dinosaurs has the planet experienced such loss in life.

On Etymologies of Stock

In its earliest preserved form, recorded in 882, the Old English stocc signified a stump, trunk, post, stake, log or stem, devoid of branches. Since then stock has taken on roughly sixty additional meanings, according to Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Meanings now range from a senseless person to a hive of bees; from a foundation for soup to a government script; from a type of plant to the handle of a gun.

In stock, out of stock, on the stocks, to have stock in.

The important compound stockfish was documented first in Scotland in the year 1290. This word is based on the Dutch word stok, or “pole,” a name given to cod and other gadoids such as whiting, “because the fish were tied in pairs by the tail and hung over poles to dry, as is done on the lava fields of Iceland every winter” (Kurlansky 1998: 55). To cure fish in cold open air and wind, without salt, is a very old method of preserving food. But for the enterprising British in an expanding commercial economy, the competitive advantage was theirs. A modest supply of salt meant a year-round supply of cod (Kurlansky 1998: 54) with which, protected by the Royal Navy, they could vigorously participate in—and profit from—the next frontier in the Atlantic trade of sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton and, not least—slaves—in the thirst for empire by sea (Schmitt 1997 [1942]).

Today a fish stock predominantly refers to aquatic beings of commercial value. State bureaucrats, fisheries scientists, industrial wholesalers, marine policymakers, environmental advocates and fishers widely use this term. The universal adoption of this discourse—in the press, in policy circles, in marine advocacy campaigns—suggests that even the most conservation-minded do not realize fully what the word stock in practice commits them to (Williams 1977: 69). Environmental stewardship of even the most endangered marine wildlife is linked to domesticated, commercialized, terrestrial beings like pig, cow and goat.

Increasingly, I have become aware of two seemingly distant meanings of stock that are urgently relevant today: stock as asset, inventory or capital equivalent to an investment in a portfolio of bonds, cash, maybe gold; and stock as population, race or biological mark of a people, reflected in the phrase, “Mary is of good stock.” At first glance the meanings of stock as asset and population seem to share no mutual affinity. Yet it is precisely through their overlap in meaning that we gain access to the micro-scale violence operating through the language used in scientific management when deployed within a field of power. This language normalizes the cold, distancing metrics of financialized value, which get imposed on living beings to count profit stock by stock, independent of environmental cost or justice.

“Regimes of Value”

Etymologies are more than mere curiosities. I’ve learned in conversations with fisheries scientists to be clear: the point of this analysis is not to engage in formal linguistic gymnastics or to solve the problem by substituting one word for another. Harm is constituted elsewhere. The naming practice of treating fish as stock illuminates a “regime of value” (Appadurai 1986). A stock in tuna, halibut, dolphin, even whale works to identify animals as abstract, commodified objects rather than as individual subjects entitled to partake in the survival of their species. The logic of extractive capitalism renders biological beings—slave and animal, chattel and beast—into populations capable of being ledgered as assets appropriate for absolute possession and therefore for trade.

For commercial fishers to truck one lone sardine, its aggregate had to be invented, simplified, made uniform, standardized and secured as a commensurable, fungible stock. To be managed sea creatures first had to be devalued as life, rendered an animal endowed only with instincts: eating; defecating; hunting; making little babies, if they can still find a mate. Their biology reduces them to their profitable reproducibility as monetized, exploitable assets for market. In fact, marine scientists—including the ones that practice the statistical specialization of population dynamics—regularly gather for what are called “stock assessment” meetings in fisheries parlance. At these events fisheries scientists tally, inventory, model and account for fish of commercial value like any holding in stock.

Out of Stock

The terrible fact is that the counting of fish according to named stock has not—and will not—save them. The 2015 Living Blue Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London sounds the alarm: marine species have declined by 49 percent in just four decades between 1970 to 2012. Seventy-five percent of some fish species are gone from the planet. One in four sharks, rays and skates are threatened with extinction. A 2013 Report by the International Programme for the State of the Ocean (IPSO) states that the planet now faces “losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation.” It suggests that “high-intensity stressors” have contributed to “all the five global extinction events of the past 600 million years.” The overexploitation of fish is one such stressor experienced today. Does the treatment of fish as quantifiable stock underlie and register a cannibalizing logic that, unexamined, only assists in managing the animal’s demise? To what extent does stock expose the rationale by which many fish are gone, if the experts tasked to be their stewards primarily relate to them as fungible biological assets, rather than as, say, a mystery to be contemplated or a joy to be praised? That the language of a fish stock regularly appears in international regulatory agreements about marine conservation should give us pause.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.” Pp. 3-63 in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6: 159-165.

Kurlansky, M. 1998. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. New York: Penguin Books.

Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. New York: Verso.

Schmitt, C. 1997 [1942]. Land and Sea, trans. Simona Draghici. Washington, DC: Plutarch Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1983 [1976]. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *