Review of Banoub, Fishing Measures

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Daniel Banoub, Fishing Measures: A Critique of Desk-Bound Reason. Memorial University Press, 2021. 264 pgs. ISBN 9781894725972.

Reviewed by Jennifer Silver.

Daniel Banoub’s Fishing Measures: A Critique of Desk-Bound Reason traces efforts to advance quantitative approaches and knowledge in the administration of the cod fishery and saltfish export from Newfoundland between the 1880s and 1930s. The book gives readers a well-researched account of arithmetical logics and practices intended to “reform and modernize the country’s saltfish industry… through the application of quantified forms of scientific measurement” (7). Banoub engages a range of archival sources to weave together a thorough account and introduce people like Sir John Hope Simpson, a Commissioner of Natural Resources appointed in 1934 and charged with growing and modernizing Newfoundland’s resource economy. Readers bearing Newfoundland’s history in mind – including that it was established as a self-governing Dominion in 1907, relinquished self-government in 1934, and entered Canada as a province in 1947 – will note the importance of the period to the region. It was also a time when ideas and approaches now seen to be the norm in knowing and managing ‘stocks’ of fish were beginning to gain clout in Newfoundland and other places around the world.

In Part I of the book, “Making Fish,” Banoub takes great care to ground the study and develop a theoretical framework. The framework is very clearly informed by Marx and other Marxist historians and political economists. Banoub’s description is methodical and articulates a historical materialist perspective. Perhaps the most original contribution here is the way in which Banoub relates commodity fetishism to histories of science. For example, he argues that “as banal and self-evident abstract forms of quantitative measurement may appear to the late capitalist Western mind, it is important to remember that the expansion of scientific consciousness did not emerge in a historical vacuum […] Despite scientific claims to neutrality, objectivity, and rationality, it was far from apolitical. The proliferation of quantitative measurement was imbued with social values” (15). Marxist thinking is relevant to histories of science, and a strength of Banoub’s framework is to establish that knowledge systems and the institutions, practices, and cultures that reify them emerge through social formations contingent to time and place.

Codfish on a trawler off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Atlantic Guardian photo. Library and Archives Canada, RG53, 3371456.

The empirical core of the book consists of “Fish Out of Water” (Part II) and “Water Out of Fish” (Part III). This structure gives Banoub opportunity to trace fish as they were pulled out of the ocean over the side of the boat, through on-shore processing, and then onward to Europe. Banoub presents archival evidence and characterizes these sections in terms of attempts and programs to control the quantity of fish harvested each year and improve the quality of fish intended for export. For example, in the early 1900s when administrators began turning their attention down the ecological web from cod to baitfish because uncertainties of “supply limited the quantity of saltfish produced and, therefore, the amount of value extracted by fisheries and distributed by merchants each season” (67). Regarding their role as a foodsource for cod, senior naval officer R.H. Anstruther commented: “the bait fishes… must claim their place as, so to speak, ‘the lanyard of the mainstay’ [cod] without which it [the cod fishery] would be no use” (66). Detailing efforts to improve quality, Banoub tells us about the ‘Coaker Regulations.’ Introduced starting in 1918, these regulations imposed new grading standards intended to encourage fishers to “produce uniformly high-quality saltfish in order to expand consumption in Southern Europe” (117). Of course, the view of the colonial administrator, bureaucrat, and manager is always partial, and, as a result, work to address quantity and quality is never complete. As Banoub’s accounts remind us, fish and fisherfolk operate according to diverse logics and do not always behave as expected.

Newfoundland cod being dried out on fishing flakes at Pouch Cove. Chris Lund photo. Library and Archives Canada, box TCS 01185, 4292667.

Part IV of the book, “Breaking Collar,” concludes with some reflection on what this history teaches us, and how it might inform new approaches to knowing fish and managing fisheries today. Banoub ponders “[how] can the opposition between fishing and arithmetic, between the dory and the desk, be overcome?” For answers, he looks again to Marx: “[s]cience, for Marx, offered the tools for both class exploitation and human liberation. It was a source of both material wealth and revolutionary consciousness” (162, 164). The question of exactly how to break from the past and generate new futures out of that tension reminds us of historical materialism’s limits. Indeed, Indigenous, feminist, and science and technology studies scholars have a great deal to teach us here, as Banoub briefly alludes to (175-176). While it is clearly beyond the scope of Banoub’s project to explicate these theories fully, it would have been valuable to hear more about them throughout the book and especially in the final chapter. Fishing Measures is a fascinating book that will be of interest to historians of Newfoundland, fisheries, and natural resources more broadly. Those who apply a historical materialist lens will be especially at home with the text, while those from other backgrounds and theoretical orientations may find productive grist in some of its limits and silences.

Cover image: Newfoundland summer fishing station, Boulter Rock, Labrador, 1880s. G.F. Briggs photo. Library and Archives Canada, 1981-073 NPC, box number C 0111, 3192365.
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Jennifer Silver is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Jennifer's research focuses on fisheries, oceans governance and digital technology, often adopting a political ecology lens. She also works within several interdisciplinary and locally-engaged networks that seek to advance coastal equity and sustainability in the Northwest Pacific.

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