Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 8

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part I. Man's Egosystems

Chapter 8. The Sardine Egosystem

After Hernando Cortez annexed Baja California {a} to New Spain in 1535, other explorers anchored their ships in the bays of Alta California but none established a foothold there. It was not until 1769 that an expedition organized by Spain's inspector general, Jose de Galvez, moved northward from Baja California to colonize Alta California. {14} Four expeditionary corps took part in this adventure, two by land, two by sea, arranging to meet in what one day would become the port of San Diego. The Franciscan Father Junipero Serra was responsible for the colonization effort; Gaspar de Portola was in charge of the military operation. After three months of travel marked by grave epidemics and the loss of one of the ships, two hundred of the original three hundred soldiers and colonists who had left from La Paz finally arrived in Alta California.

One year later, Portola continued his march northward and, on June 3 1770, Father Serra celebrated his first mass at the site where he would establish the Mission San Carlos Borromeo near the future village of Monterey. The latter would grow to become the capital of the Mexican California. In his hand Father Serra held the Bible by which he would subjugate this new land to the will of the West In that ancient book he read, "And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the ait and over every living thing that moves upon the earth'". {15} Perhaps God was surprised by how seriously these words were taken by His children, for they have amply fulfilled His mission - and then some!

The half-moon shaped Monterey Bay has a very interesting feature: an enormous canyon, deeper than the Grand Canyon and just as big, snaking through its middle and emptying eventually into the depths of the Pacific Ocean. This canyon makes the area an exceptional sanctuary for marine life. The plants and animals of the Monterey Bay would be thriving there still had it not been for the Europeans. The century that followed their arrival saw the wholesale slaughter of elephant seals, whales, sea otters, and other animals along the Central Coast. These species were almost lost forever. Fortunately, enough of them managed to escape the guns and harpoons of Man to reestablish small populations a hundred years later.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Monterey was the scene of an unusual business venture: sardine fishing, which quickly became so profitable that it spawned a major canning industry. This was no mere fishing party.

At first, the work was arduous. "Fishermen used oar-powered boats to angle into the schools of sardines and then dragged in their clumsy nets by hand. The ensnared were plucked out of the netting by hand and then transferred to buckets so they could be carried to the cannery. Once inside the cannery, the workers laboriously cut, cooked, and packed the sardines, can by can. Each can was then hand-soldered, hand-labeled, and hand-crated for eventual shipment. The entire archaic canning operation was done by hand." {16}

But that soon changed. The sardine business first took off during World War I. Production was so high that American soldiers were almost certain to find sardines on the menu no matter where they were stationed. The first small canneries were soon operating at full capacity and new ones continued to spring up for years. The tons of fish pulled out of the bay multiplied rapidly. At times as many as two hundred "lampara" boats trolled the bay for fresh cargo to bring back to the canning plants. The impressive row of canneries lined up for more than a mile came to be known as Cannery Row, and the town reeked so of sardines that it was soon dubbed Monterey by the Smell. The fish business was hard work, but it paid well, providing a livelihood for more than two thousand people. To remain competitive, most of the land-based operations were soon mechanized. At sea, the nets filled up so quickly that the fishermen could not empty them fast enough. This problem was cleverly solved by sardine pipelines, one end of which was attached to a buoy, the other end to a powerful pump on shore. Boats would pull up to the buoys to unload their catches, which were then pumped to the sardine plants of Cannery Row. In short, thanks to the ingenuity of the local residents, Monterey's fishing industry became the envy of the world.

Cannery Row was not famous just for the smell of its fish; it was also one of the best-known streets for nightlife in all of California. The reputation of its saloons sometimes even preceded that of its industry. With a little intuition and the right information, a fisherman might also find his way to a few clandestine gaming houses during his off-hours. The police were kept busy trying to instill order among the populace frequenting these houses of ill repute, but they were nearly always outwitted by the salty seamen, who knew a thing or two about escaping from a net. They also devised many a ruse to ferret out the ladies of the night, but even when the cops managed to uncover the whereabouts of their hidden lairs, the ladies would somehow vanish before they could be apprehended. Old Monterey was still very much the Wild, Wild West.

Life on Cannery Row was humming along beautifully until, one day, the bay's thick schools of silver fish suddenly grew thinner. Their numbers declined steadily in the years that followed until, by 1952, they were truly rare. By the 1960s, the town had to face the fact that the sardines were gone and might not reappear again for many, many years. By then the saloons had already closed and the scarlet women had migrated to more prosperous locales.

If Cannery Row was to stave off its own extinction, it had to change professions. The local residents eventually came up with the idea of attracting tourists to the area to keep their history with the sardine alive a little longer. Today, former cannery buildings house the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has given a wonderful new boost to the entire region. Other canneries were transformed into hotels or boutiques. The fishing industry has now been completely replaced by tourism. On the famous "Row", buses packed with visitors compete for parking where trucks once loaded heavy crates of sardines. The magnificent Aquarium is known throughout the world.

In exploring the history of the Monterey fishing industry, I was surprised to learn that the sardine's disappearance was not considered an ecological disaster locally. But after listening to Monterey's senior residents and reading books about Cannery Row, I realized that one rarely mentioned factor, in particular, had contributed enormously to the depletion of these fish: a
new offshoot of the sardine business known as "reduction". {17} Reduction was the process of transforming the inedible parts of the fish into an industrial product, usually fertilizer. It became systematic at the canneries around 1914. Things changed in 1920 when the Fish and Game Commission began authorizing canneries to "reduce" large portions of their catches. Sardines sales had been dropping, so fishermen had had to find a way to save their livelihood.

But the entrepreneurs of Cannery Row did not restrict themselves to these legally authorized, land-based operations. To push fertilizer production beyond legal limits, they set up "reduction processing units" on boats, which were kept at sea outside the controlled area. The scale of these operations was huge and chemical transformation of the sardine at sea was a very lucrative business. It required little manpower and was immune to the volatility of the fresh fish market - not to mention the demands of the labor unions on Cannery Row. It was not even taxed. During the 1936-37 fishing season alone, more than two hundred thousand tons of sardines were "reduced" at sea, nearly twice the amount that was canned on Cannery Row.

The off-shore "reduction platforms" formed such a huge industry that their production can only be appreciated by comparing it with that of the petrochemical industry. At its peak, the reduction platforms processed over a thousand tons of fish a day, a colossal amount. It would be twenty years before petrochemical plants produced nitrogen fertilizer in such volumes from petroleum derivatives.

Those who lived through the sardine era in Monterey remember it as a very hard time. For half a century, fishermen and plant owners worked together, faced off, split apart, and competed with one another. Politicians clashed. Attorneys had their work cut out for them. Enormous fires raged through the canneries. But, when all is said and done, the general attitude of Cannery Row toward the marine environment was one of massive indifference. The practice of reduction diverted the fishing industry from its normal purpose. Greed ruled the day. If some enterprising engineer had suggested setting up a turbine to pump sardines directly from the bay onto Cannery Row or the offshore reduction platforms - bypassing the brotherhood of fishermen altogether - he would have found an attentive audience.

Monterey's adventure with the sardine in the first half of the 20th century tells us a lot. It illustrates how little regard Man has for the natural environment that nurtures him when he can use it to turn an immediate profit. It shows how little attention he pays to Bible verses that do not concern him directly, in particular those that remind him he is not alone on Earth: "And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. And it was so." {18} Saint Francis of Assisi, for whom San Francisco is named, took this biblical message very much to heart.

BOX: Man creates systems that exploit Nature for his sole benefit. Such systems may be called egosystems. The definition of an egosystem is simple. It is an ecosystem made to serve the interests of a single species: Man. As for the other species or their habitats, those that get in the way are eliminated; those that offer some advantage are domesticated or consumed. An egosystem can also be set up to exploit raw materials. Once an egosystem is established, it can spin off other egosystems that have no direct relationship with Nature. Human egosystems function until they exhaust the resources that supply them or until their consumers disappear.

Monterey's sardine egosystem is a prime example. Monterey's sardines went the way of the Sierra Nevada gold veins. Human beings simply depleted the stock. Of course, Western civilization did not wait for the discovery of California to create the first egosystem. European colonizers already had plenty of experience under their belts when they arrived in the New World.

Unlike natural ecosystems, in which everyone finds a place in the circle of life, egosystems have room for only one species - sometimes for only one individual. The most important thing to the creator of an egosystem is that there be a market for what it produces. Human beings rarely concern themselves with the collateral effects, as long as other people are not prevented from exploiting their own egosystems. Sustainability is not necessarily an issue either. One can always resort to the ultimate insurance devised by Man to avoid all responsibility: bankruptcy.

Western civilization pushes us to consume everything on Earth. Most of us do not understand that we are links in the chain of life and that we can damage other links, sometimes irreversibly, in the environments we exploit.

We in the Northern hemisphere behave as if the Earth belongs to us. Gone are the spirits of the forest. Gone are the spirits of the rivers and the seas.

We are in the "Era of the Egosystems". The planet's ecosystems are disappearing one by one, exhausted for Man's sole, immediate benefit. Many areas would already be no more than a juxtaposition of egosystems, had not a few brave, altruistic souls kept faith with their Homo sapiens ancestors and fought to preserve a handful of pared-down ecosystems. The natural parks of California and elsewhere testify to their efforts. Hats off to those who saved them!


{a} Baja California is now part of Mexico, New Spain corresponds to modern-day Mexico, and Alta California is now known as the state of California.

{14} Andrew Rolle, California: a History, (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1998), 29-33.

{15} Genesis 1:28 RSV.

{16} Tom Mangeisdorf, A History of Steinbeck's Cannery Row, (Santa Cruz, California: Western Tanager Press, 1986), 20.

{17} Ibid, 8. During the reduction process, "the fish offal was first compressed to extract the oil and then baked until it was completely dry. The dry product was sold as commercial fertilizer or poultry feed; the fish oil was used in a number of other applications including vitamins, cooking oil and paint additives."

{18} Genesis 1:30 RSV.

Bill Totten


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