Private Ownership of a Public Resource is No Laughing Matter

by Mark Butler. Photos by Adam Excell.

I just read the press release about the ‘new technology’ from FishPlenty Inc. What do you say when there is nothing left to say? Nothing, perhaps, but this news is so stunning that I can’t stay silent.

When I was fighting privatization of quota in the 1990s and questioning the rhetoric of Individual Transferable Quotas or ITQs – where individuals own fishing quota which can then be sold to the highest bidder – we used to quip that the big companies just wanted to own all the fish in the sea. Next, they will want to brand their fish, we laughed dryly.

genetically modified gmo fish

Genetically branded fish

Well, it seems like our jokes are coming true. Fishplenty Inc., a small Atlantic Canadian start-up is developing a technology which plays with the colouration of a fish’s scales. Through the insertion of genetic material from a couple of species of bacteria they have managed to create patterns on the exterior of the fish. When these genetically modified fish breed, their offspring will have the same pattern or logo as the parent fish. Yes, it means that you could be fishing and pull up a fish that is already branded!

Proponents of ITQs used to argue that making fish private property would lead to better stewardship. In other words, if you own it, you’ll look after it. This argument used to exasperate me because in practice no fisherman or fish company could go out there and say “this is my fish” the way you can with a car or building. So while ITQs allow an entity to own quota, it doesn’t bring with it the other benefits associated with owning property. You look after your car because it really is your car and you can find it in the parking lot. With fish swimming in the ocean, you can theoretically say “I own fish” but in practice “your” fish are elusive – as is the stewardship that was promised with the introduction of ITQs.

I should have known that rather than accepting this fundamental flaw in their scheme to privatize wild stocks, industry would try to find a way to truly own the fish. Without even getting into all the problems that come with GMO technology, I wonder – will this technology actually work? In ten or twenty years time, will every fish in the ocean be ‘branded’? The company behind this technology, FishPlenty, says that it’s early days but they figure they have covered all the angles. I asked their CEO, Dr. Pierre Avril, about interbreeding between fish of the same species but of different brands. He said they reckon that the offspring will be 50/50. The brand will ‘compete’ as does any other inheritable genetic trait in a species, said Dr. Avril.

Bioluminescent brand

Fishplenty Inc. fish glowing at night

If you can believe it – it seems nothing is too fantastical these days—the logos can even be detected at night. The scientists have used a species of bio-luminescent bacteria so the logo will glow or light up as the fish come aboard, allowing vessels to work 24/7.

The company is talking about how this technology could revolutionize the entire food industry. They see no reason why animals such as cows or pigs couldn’t be ‘branded’ in the same way.  It’s not hard to imagine a cow with a golden arch on its flank.

So my advice to you is to think again before making that cynical joke about your industry or issue. Who knows, it could come true.

Mark Butler used to be Marine Coordinator and is now Policy Director at the Ecology Action Centre. Before joining EAC, Mark worked as a deckhand in the fishing industry. He no longer makes cynical jokes about the future.

*In case you hadn’t guessed it, this was an April Fool’s joke. Hope we tricked you!*


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