The four hundred dollar fish

Mercado de Mariscos-Ensenada by Flickr user Rebeca Anchondo. Creative Commons 2.0 License.

When you see piles of fresh fish in a market, do you ever ask yourself whether or not the listed price accurately reflects the actual value of those now-lifeless creatures? How much is one fish really worth? I never thought much about that question until I attended a community meeting in the coastal pueblo of La Ribera, Baja California Sur. Who knew it would be a lesson in value?

The meeting itself was hosted by a group of marine scientists and other scholars from the nearby university in La Paz. The goal of the meeting was to change some minds. You see, fishermen from La Ribera weren’t exactly elated about the nearby Marine Protected Area in Cabo Pulmo (aka the Cabo Pulmo National Park), despite its immense national and international support. Some surrounding communities were not completely sold on the idea of a no-take fishing zone. La Ribera was among them; many residents felt that Pulmo’s MPA only benefited the residents of Cabo Pulmo. A group of marine biologists, economists and other scholars from the nearby university in La Paz (UABCS) arranged a community meeting to try to convince residents of La Ribera otherwise.

About 35 to 40 people showed up. One of the main speakers was a marine biologist who has spent more than two decades working in Cabo Pulmo. He began by talking about the “environmental services” that Pulmo’s MPA provides. He followed up with a brief overview about coral reef systems and how they benefit local communities. Next, he talked about why Cabo Pulmo is so famous–it is one of the few hard coral reefs in this part of the Pacific. This is why it was set aside as a protected area back in 1995.

Reefs provide many things, the marine biologist explained, including basic necessities such as food. Much of the value of reefs can be calculated in monetary terms, he told the audience, but not all of it. He explained that reefs produce billions of dollars annually around the world, and, for some countries, are the base of their economy. Reefs are places where commercially valuable fish live and breed, he added. Then he listed all of the raw materials and products that come from reefs. They also add to the beauty of places, he said, which draws in tourists.

The message: reefs mean money.

This is where things get interesting. He followed up by telling the audience that each fish on the reef is worth about $400 dollars. He was talking in terms of US dollars, not pesos. This is about 6400 pesos. Think about this. The minimum wage in Mexico is about 70 pesos per day (about $4.50 USD). For someone making double the minimum wage (140 pesos per day, or 3360 per month), one fish is equivalent almost two months of work (assuming six working days per week).

The notion of a $400 fish reverberated through the audience. Attention captured.

After the expensive fish bombshell, the marine biologist started to wrap up his presentation by talking about the relations between the communities of Cabo Pulmo and La Ribera. Both are communities of fishermen; both rely on the ocean for survival. He explained how marine reserves and no-take zones work: fish concentrate, populations grow, then they spread out to other places. The protected area at Cabo Pulmo directly impacts the fisheries in La Ribera, he told the audience. The MPA, he said, is like a McDonald’s for various species–they come to the reef, eat, and run. His final point was that there is room for the people of La Ribera to benefit from the conservation of Pulmo Reef–and the growing tourism market. This can happen without direct competition or conflict, he explained. He implored the audience to consider the idea that preserving Pulmo can be complementary for La Ribera, that everyone can benefit from conservation.

At the end of the meeting, the presenters asked the audience to evaluate and comment on everything they heard. All of the responses were positive. All of them. One man stood up: “This is the first time I have gone to one of these meetings,” he said. “Now, I understand the importance of Pulmo,” he declared. He also added that he sees there are many opportunities for his own community to create businesses, to make money. “We just need the training to do this,” he explained. He ended by telling the audience that he has seen the effects of environmental degradation–and recovery–first hand. In the past, he said, lobsters were hard to find. But today, there are many more, thanks to Pulmo’s MPA. This man made it very clear that he saw things very differently, thanks to this meeting.

I remember walking out of the meeting thinking “Well, that worked pretty well.” And it apparently did. The whole money/economic opportunities angle did seem to be compelling for the local fishermen. It made people stand up and pay attention. It seemed to change some minds, to get people to rethink the importance of Cabo Pulmo and its protected reef. But the whole idea of the $400 fish stuck with me. I understand the rationale behind telling people that one fish swimming out there on the reef is worth all of that money. It’s meant to express the value of something in clear, powerful terms. The point is to motivate people, using one of the dominant registers of our time. Money talks–I get it.

But isn’t there something wrong with putting a price on nature? The moral indignation of this question was expressed perfectly by the late comedian Bill Hicks, who once shouted: “Quit putting a dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!” Yet, beyond all of the arguments and righteous indignation about the commodification of every possible aspect of our daily lives, what is actually the problem with standing in front of a room full of people and telling them that there’s a fish out there that’s worth two months of work? Do we really need to stay up late at night worrying about this?

Possibly. As Richard Conniff wrote on Yale Environment 360 (linked above), critics suggest that viewing nature in purely economic terms makes “a fundamental change not just in the world around us, but in ourselves.” Ok, so it changes the world around us, and it also changes us in a fundamental sense. Along similar lines, Marx once wrote,

Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of  its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.

Money robs the world of its specific value, says Marx.  For David Harvey, money is a corrupting, corrosive force. In Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, he also argues that the intrinsic value of nature exists beyond the imposed realm of money values (1996:157-158). Money, as powerful as it is, falls short–it doesn’t quite cover over our world. But we often don’t take the time to look, to see the holes in the facade. There is something about nature (land, trees–and fish) that cannot quite be captured or expressed by money–much in the same way that language can never completely express human reality and experience. Money is a social convention, Harvey reminds us, not an immutable fact or law. It exists within particular social arrangements (or, to use other terms, specific modes of production).

In Capital, Marx warned against naturalizing value as it is created and understood in capitalism. Because if we internalize particular ways of valuing the world around us, we may lose the ability to think outside of such conceptions and imagine alternatives (see Harvey 2010:45-46). This brings us back to that $400 fish. This way of thinking about fish–and nature–commits exactly the kind of naturalization of one form of value that Marx warns about. It takes something that exists within a complex, dynamic ecological system and reduces it to a very specific value within one particular human-constructed system. Such a discourse frames nature in terms of money, markets, and capitalism. Period. This presupposes a certain kind of world, in which the primary meaning (i.e. value) of nature is tied to its economic productivity (even if the money values that are often assigned to nature are often incredibly vague). And thus, nature is robbed of all other potential meanings and values. This reminds me of an Aldo Leopold quote (in this case about land, but equally applicable to “nature” in general):

It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for the land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense so that a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it trends otherwise” (1968:223-224).

So where does this leave us? Is the $400 fish a signal of immanent corruption and doom, as Marx seems to suggest? In speaking about nature in terms of money, are we opening up a Pandora’s Box that ultimately leads us down a destructive, end-of-the-world path that could only be painted by Hieronymus Bosch? Maybe, and maybe not. As Keith Hart writes, “Anthropologists might sign up for the sentiment that money is the root of all evil. But, in demonising money, they come close to endowing the institution with an evil power all of its own.” Clearly, both Harvey and Marx can be put into the “money is the root of all evil” camp. But are they right?

On the one hand, speaking about fish in terms of dollars sets up the kind of situation that often plagues many Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes. In essence, when you start atomizing nature and putting price tags on all of its various components, it becomes possible to start substituting money for those components. Especially when things go wrong. In the case of fish, imagine if a local developer wanted to put in a massive hotel that required an equally behemoth desalination plant. Let’s say this desal plant produces sludge that affects the reef, and ends up killing 30% of the local reef’s fish biomass. Well, if you know the specific money value of each fish, you can just pay for the damage and move on with your business. Pay the 30% in cash, and done. No problem…except for the degraded reef and all the dead fish.

But then there’s the other hand. One of the issues here is that it sometimes seems as if the rhetoric of commodification automatically transforms and reshapes the world in which we live. As if the mere mention of money completely washes over, corrupts, and distorts nature. Sure, discourse has its effects and all, but the act of speaking of fish in terms of (US-based) money values doesn’t instantly make it so. And although this comparison may have grabbed the attention of La Ribera’s fishermen, it doesn’t mean, from that moment on, that they completely forgot about all of the other meanings and values of the fish, fisheries, and local marine systems. Other values persist, despite the ubiquitous dominance of money, markets, and western economies. There are times, I think, when our critiques about commodification do indeed endow money–and capitalism–with a bit too much evil, almost magic, transformational power.

Despite the seemingly unending dominance of global capitalism, it’s vital to imagine alternatives, to see other possibilities. In the case of La Ribera, maybe the strategic framing of fish in terms of money accomplished just that for La Ribera’s fishermen. It was a rhetorical tactic, framed in one powerful register of value, that helped people think differently about the importance of local conservation. Maybe, in the final tally, the fish in Pulmo reef aren’t doomed to be swimming dollar signs after all–thanks to one imaginary four hundred dollar fish.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.