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Wal-Marting the Oceans

by DAN BACHER

The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), a national grassroots recreational fishing organization, this week slammed Wal-Mart’s contribution of $36 million to ocean privatization efforts through “catch shares” programs and the creation of so-called “marine protected areas.”

“Wal-Mart announced this week its efforts to help fund the demise of both the recreational and commercial fishing industry while also working to ensure that the next generation of sportsmen will have less access to coastal fish stocks than at any point in U.S. history,” according to a news release from RFA.

In a August 16th news release from Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, the Walton Family Foundation announced “investments” totaling more than $71.8 million awarded to various environmental initiatives in 2010. The foundation handed over $36 million alone to Marine Conservation grantees including Ocean Conservancy, Conservation International Foundation, Marine Stewardship Council, World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The five top grantees were: Conservation International, $18,640,917; the Nature Conservancy,$9,305,449; Environmental Defense Fund
$7,086,054; the Marine Stewardship Council, $4,500,000; and the Ocean Conservancy, $3,757,768.

Critics of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, have blasted the company for decades for being able to sell its products at cheap prices only by employing sweatshops, undercutting competitors, wielding its market power to cripple both competitors and suppliers, and flouting national and international health, safety, labor, and environmental standards. Anti-corporate globalization opponents have long regarded Wal-Mart as a virtual “Darth Vader” of retailers, as documented in the film, “The High Price of Low Cost.”

Greenwashing Wal-Mart’s image

However, in 2006 the retail giant hired Adam Werbach, former Sierra Club president, to “polish” its image. This latest Wal-Mart release is apparently part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to greenwash its image – and extend control over public trust resources.

According to the release, the Walton Family Foundation “focuses on globally important marine areas and works with grantees and other partners to create networks of effectively managed protected areas that conserve key biological features, and ensure the sustainable utilization of marine resources – especially fisheries – in a way that benefits both nature and people.”

“We focus our work in the United States’ primary river systems and in some of the world’s most ecologically significant marine areas,” said Scott Burns, director of the foundation’s Environment Focus Area and the former director of marine conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. “It’s important to us to protect and conserve natural resources while also recognizing the roles these waters play in the livelihoods of those who live nearby.”

The RFA countered that these specially managed areas of coastal waters are also referred to as “marine protected areas” or “marine reserves,” and the end result is denied angler access, of little or no benefit to the very people whom Wal-Mart claims to benefit.

Marine protected areas without real protection

“A quick visit to the Ocean Conservancy website should be telling enough for anglers interested in learning where Wal-Mart’s profits are being spent,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. “These folks are pushing hard to complete California’s network of exclusionary zones throughout the entire length of coastline, and they’ve made it very clear that they would like to see the West Coast version of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) extended into other coastal U.S. waters.”

Grassroots environmentalists, fishermen, California Indian Tribes, civil liberties activists and environmental justice advocates have criticized Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative, privately funded by the shadowy Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, for its numerous conflicts of interest, institutional racism and the violation of numerous state, federal and international laws.

The so-called “marine protected areas” established under the MLPA Initiative fail to protect the ocean from oil drilling and spills, water pollution, wave and wind energy projects, military testing, corporate aquaculture, habitat destruction and all other human impacts upon the ocean other than fishing and gathering. In an extreme case of corporate greenwashing, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, served as chair of the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force that created these questionable “marine protected areas.”

The release also said that targeted marine protected areas moving forward include Indonesia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico. It will be interesting to see if these marine protected areas, like California’s MLPA Initiative, will disrespect and fail to acknowledge the sovereign gathering rights of the indigenous people of these countries and regions.

Will these marine protected areas be like the one imposed by the Mexican government that denied members of the Cucapa Tribe the right to fish in the Colorado River Delta, spurring the Zapatistas (EZLN) and the Tribe to set up a “peace camp” from February to May 2007 to affirm their sovereign rights?

Donofrio said of Ocean Conservancy in particular, “Here’s an organization which has publicly opposed creation of artificial reefs used by Wal-Mart’s tackle buyers, in some cases openly advocating for their removal, yet the Walton family is handing over tons of money for support.”

Wal-Mart boycott follows Safeway boycott

“Shopping for fishing equipment at Wal-Mart is contributing directly to the demise of our sport, it’s supporting lost fishing opportunities and decreased coastal access for all Americans,” Donofrio said. “I hope all RFA members across the country will remember that when it’s time to gear up, but I would also wonder if perhaps our industry can help spread the message and support our local tackle shops by also pulling product off Wal-Mart’s shelves.”

RFA in April announced its support of a national boycott of the Safeway Supermarket chain, including Genuardi’s in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, because of that corporation’s support for California’s widely-contested MLPA initiative.

“Apparently Safeway has gotten some bad advice from the people in the ocean protection racket, a community to which the California-based mega-corporation is now donating profits,” said Jim Martin, West Coast Regional Director of the RFA. “Safeway says it is supporting groups that make a difference like the Food Marketing Institute’s Sustainable Seafood Working Group, the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions and the World Wildlife Fund’s Aquaculture Dialogues, but it’s little more than corporate greenwashing.”

Donofrio believes it’s time that Wal-Mart was added to the angler boycott list as well.

“The Walton family created this huge corporate entity that has threatened the vibrancy of our local retail outlets, and now they’re essentially doing the same thing with our fishing communities,” Donofrio said.

“Much like Safeway has done with their financial investment in the environmental business community, Wal-Mart apparently prefers customers buy farm-raised fish and seafood caught by foreign countries outside of U.S. waters, while denying individual anglers the ability to head down to the ocean to score a few fish for their own table,” noted Donofrio.

Wal-Mart pushes catch shares program

The Walton Family Foundation is also working “to create economic incentives for ocean conservation,” while candidly pledging their support for “projects that reverse the incentives to fish unsustainably that exist in ‘open access fisheries’ by creating catch share programs,” according to the official news release.

A broad coalition of commercial and recreational fishing, consumer and environmental groups is opposing the catch shares programs being pushed by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, a former vice-chair of the Board of Directors of Environmental Defense, because these programs amount to the privatization of public trust resources by concentrating fisheries in the hands of a few corporate hands. Wherever catch shares have been introduced, local fishing communities, fish populations and the environment have been devastated.

“A catch share, also known as an individual fishing quota, is a transferable voucher that gives individuals or businesses the ability to access a fixed percentage of the total authorized catch of a particular species,” according to Food and Water Watch. “Fishery management systems based on catch shares turn a public resource into private property and have lead to socioeconomic and environmental problems. Contrary to arguments by catch share proponents – namely large commercial fishing interests – this management system has exacerbated unsustainable fishing practices.”

“Fish are a public resource,” explained Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch Executive Director. “Unfortunately, private investment groups and even some public interest groups have shamelessly and publicly compared access to fish to the stock market and are treating it like an investment that can be bought and sold for personal profit. They’re aiming to model the fishing business after big agribusiness on land, with giant commercial operations controlling the market.”

Donofrio emphasized, “Our local outfitters and tackle shops along the coast have had to face an immense challenge by going up against Wal-Mart’s purchasing power during the last decade, but now that the Walton family is so up front about their opposition to open access fisheries, it’s hard for me to believe that any sportsmen would ever be interested in shopping there again.”

“California anglers have been outraged to learn that money they spend at a Safeway grocery store might end up in the hands of anti-fishing groups like the EDF and the Ocean Conservancy, so I hope more anglers will join the national boycott by sending a message to Wal-Mart as well as Safeway,” Martin added.

Sam and Helen Walton launched their “modest retail business in 1962” with guiding principle of helping “increase opportunity and improve the lives of others along the way,” according to the Walton Family Foundation website. It is that principle the foundation says, that makes them “more focused than ever on sustaining the Walton’s timeless small-town values and deep commitment to making life better for individuals and communities alike.”

RFA said grassroots efforts to combat the corporate anti-fishing, pro-privatization agenda are more than just an uphill climb.

“The EDF catch share coffers are already filled to the top, while Pew Charitable Trusts has billions in reserve,” Donofrio said. “When you add another $36 million annual commitment from the Walton family each year, I can’t see how our local efforts can get anywhere unless the national manufacturers step up and openly denounce this corporate takeover once and for all.”

“The individual anglers and local business owners are being denied opportunity, and I hope the federal trade representatives are willing to get onboard with their support of real small-town values,” Donofrio said, adding that Ocean Conservancy and EDF combined received more than $10 million in Walton Family Foundation grants in 2010.

Commercial fishermen join recreational anglers in denouncing Wal-Mart’s support of privatization

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), praised the RFA for criticizing Wal-Mart’s contributions to ocean privatization efforts and welcomed the organization’s call for a Wal-Mart boycott.

“Wa-Mart is wrong on this issue, just as it has been in the past on labor and community issues,” said Grader. “The privatization of public trust resources is the antithesis of conservation.”

“I’ve been boycotting Wal-Mart for decades and it’s absolutely great that recreational and commercial fishermen are together on this,” noted Grader.

It is worth noting that Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, the two top recipients of Walton Family Foundation funds, are known throughout the world for their top-down “environmental” programs that run roughshod over local communities to achieve their corporate greenwashing goals.

The Nature Conservancy in California is a strong backer of state and federal plans to build a peripheral canal or tunnel to export more Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta water to corporate agribusiness and southern California water agencies. Canal opponents, including recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, Delta residents, family farmers and California Indian Tribes, believe the construction of the canal would result in the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other imperiled fish populations.

Dan Bacher can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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