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Neoliberal Niagara? Examining the political history of fish consumption advisories in New York State.

Abstract. Fish consumption advisories (FCAs), or voluntary state recommendations for foraging and consuming fish from compromised waters, place the onus of negotiating contaminated environments squarely upon individuals who consume local fish. As a result, peoples who eat fish caught from local waters for reasons of food insecurity, cultural practice, or religious practice are ignored, producing environmental inequalities. This paper examines the political history of FCAs in a specific geographical context, New York State, in order to assess the explicit environmental governance frameworks through which these inequalities are generated. It demonstrates that FCA policy is principally an outgrowth of a conservation movement geared towards support for recreational anglers and not those who fish for subsistence. However, conservationism is not the only governance framework at work, as this paper also demonstrates that commercialized processes of neoliberal environmental governance substantially mediate scientific data that inform FCA recommendations. In this way this study illustrates how multiple frameworks--conservationist, neoliberal, or other--can, and often do, intertwine to construct environmental policies.

Keywords: Fish consumption advisory, conservation, neoliberalism, environmental governance, consumption, foraging

1 Introduction

In March 2012 Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 Administrator Judith A Enck warned that chemical and other types of pollution have rendered fish caught from the Niagara River, a popular location amongst subsistence anglers in New York State, 'inedible' (EPA, 2012). Indeed, prior research has established that consuming fish contaminated with excessive toxic chemicals poses a serious health risk to human beings (Faroon et al, 2000; Karmaus and Zhu, 2004; Knobeloch et al, 2009; Stewart, 1999). Yet, angling remains an important recreational activity in New York, which the state has strongly promoted for over a century (Stradling, 2010). This tension poses a dilemma, for state actors must at once continue to encourage recreational angling while also now acknowledging its risks in order to remain legitimate environmental authorities. Like states throughout the country, New York has resolved this dilemma through the issuance of fish consumption advisories (henceforth FCAs), or voluntary state recommendations for foraging and consuming fish from compromised waters.

FCAs have recently garnered attention in critical scholarship through the work of Mansfield (2012a; 2012b; 2012c), who employs a Foucauldian biopolitical perspective to argue that FCAs are 'exemplary' of neoliberal approaches to public health (2012a, page 592). She claims they are exemplary chiefly because the intended consequence of FCA recommendations--to simply eat less or no fish--places the onus of negotiating contaminated environments squarely upon individuals who consume local fish, making them scapegoats for broader social and ecological problems. Furthermore, advisories for women of childbearing age and children are almost always more restrictive due to how common contaminants in fish are known to affect organ development in children (Dutta et al, 2012). Therefore, Mansfield shows, this dispossession is highly gendered in that advisories place the responsibility for a healthy pregnancy and thus for creating a healthy future generation squarely on women (2012a; 2012b). To make these claims, Mansfield deftly deconstructs the national level FCA issued jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (henceforth EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (henceforth FDA). Some form of this advisory has been in place since 1993, and it is the only national level advisory currently in effect.

Mansfield's account, however, while cogent, is incomplete. What is missing is an investigation of the political history of FCAs in a specific geographical context and an understanding of the environmental governance paradigms that initially spawned FCAs. These gaps are important for two reasons. First, by interrogating the political history of FCAs for a specific context, we can see more clearly connections between spatially and temporally specific political economic processes and specific forms of socionatural reproduction. Second, the FCAs that reach anglers (if they do so at all) are much more likely to be generated by states, not federal agencies, even if these FCAs are based on federal guidelines. This is because state FCAs, not federal FCAs, are distributed with fishing licenses, and state FCAs vary drastically in extensiveness and approach (Lauber et al, 2011; Scherer et al, 2008). State FCAs also have a wider impact because they have been in place across the United States since at least the early 1970s, well before the FDA released the first national FCA in 1993. Moreover, unlike the federal FCA that covers only particular species of fish, state FCAs cover specific waters that anglers might frequent.

The goal of this paper is to enrich Mansfield's critique of FCAs through examining the political history of FCAs in New York State. This examination demonstrates that, in contrast to Mansfield's conclusion that federal FCAs are exemplary of neoliberal approaches to public health, in New York State FCA policy is principally an outgrowth of the conservation movement. This finding does not, however, categorically imply that FCAs are not 'neoliberal'. Rather, it demonstrates that the forms of neoliberal individualization that Mansfield identifies are not the only, or even the most important, political forces at work in FCA policy. Thus, this paper contributes to the growing literature revealing how forms of environmental management that may at first appear easily distinguishable as neoliberal are instead "articulated through often contradictory political economic processes" (Roth and Dressier, 2012, pages 364-365; also see McAfee and Shapiro, 2010; McElwee, 2012). Throughout this examination 1 show that it is essential to understand the institutional history of states and state agencies, as they play a central role in constructing the social categories and arenas within which environmental inequalities arise. For even seemingly benign state policies can structure different communities' understandings of and material relationships to the nonhuman (1) environment, and if we are to understand these policies--benign or not--the full context in which they develop is of fundamental importance.

To develop this understanding, the rest of the paper proceeds as follows: in section 2 I provide reviews of relevant social science literature on the conservation movement, FCAs, and neoliberal environments. Section 3 then connects these literatures to the history of FCAs in New York State. In particular I show how general principles of the conservation movement have influenced FCA policy. I also detail the indirect relationship between FCAs and forms of neoliberal environmental governance. The paper then concludes with consideration of the ongoing connections between the conservation movement, neoliberalism, and other forms of environmental governance as well as speculation about the increasing importance of paying attention to foraging in contaminated environments. Throughout, emphasis is placed on how FCAs ultimately reproduce inequality among anglers and other consumers of locally caught fish.

2 Background and methods

2.1 Conservation and Minamata

In New York, as in states throughout the country, the history of state water policy is strongly aligned with the history of the conservation movement. The conservation movement first received public attention in the 19th century, when it became obvious to many that the 'free gift' of nature was quickly becoming exhausted. (2) In response, conservationists (3) advocated for a new understanding of nature--one that appreciated the all too clear fact that nonhuman nature does not exist solely for our benefit. Nature was not a free gift from which capitalist enterprises could take at will, but rather a crop from which excess populations could be harvested in accordance with technical limitations (Brulle, 2000). In this way nature was conceived of as a machine to be well oiled and managed by technically proficient professionals employing then in-vogue Tayloristic principles of applied scientific management (Hays, 1959; Nash, 1967). The ultimate goal of this scientific management was twofold. First, the overriding concern was the establishment of technically proficient environmental governance schemas geared towards the rational and sustainable harvesting of natural resources. Second, however, there was the utilitarian belief that nature should be managed for the greatest possible number of people for the greatest possible amount of time. This belief took form in support for outdoor recreation. These twin conservationist goals--support for sustainable harvesting of natural resources and support for recreators--have driven New York State water policy since the 19th century (Stradling, 2010).

In addition to forwarding this agenda, state environmental agencies in New York (4) also had to respond to public threats from potential environmental crises. One such case was the outbreak of what is now known as Minamata disease in Japan in the 1960s. Minamata disease is the name given to illness or death caused by the consumption of fish and shellfish contaminated with methyl-mercury. The disease gained its name when many residents of fishing hamlets along the shore of Minamata Bay, in the Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, became fatally ill due to the consumption of extremely contaminated fish (Eto, 2000). The outbreak of Minamata disease, and the contestations that followed in its wake, set in motion a worldwide interest in illness from the consumption of contaminated fish.

As stated above, illness from the consumption of contaminated fish created a dilemma for environmental governance agencies. Agencies must acknowledge this risk in order to remain legitimate environmental authorities, but they must do so in a way that continues to promote recreational angling in order to remain in line with their conservationist history. The way the state has resolved this dilemma is through the issuance of FCAs. In the next section I will provide a short synopsis of the form and function of FCAs as well as an overview of the social science literature on FCAs.

2.2 FCAs

Persistent toxic chemicals in water bodies concentrate through aquatic food chains and bioaccumulate in the tissues of fish at levels 1 000000 times the concentration detected in the water column (EPA, 2002). Known toxic chemicals in New York waters--including mercury, PCBs (5), mirex/photomirex, DDTs (6), chlordane, dioxin, lead, toxaphene, hexachlorobenzene, arsenic, and PAHs (7)--reach waters through sewer system outfalls, industrial discharges, agricultural runoff, and other point and nonpoint sources (EPA Region 2 in conjunction with DEC Region 9, 2012). Ingesting water, fish, or shellfish contaminated with one or more of these chemicals is the primary means of human exposure to them (EPA, 2004). If contaminated fish or shellfish are consumed in high quantities, these and other chemicals found in certain species pose a serious health risk to human beings (Faroon et al, 2000; Karmaus and Zhu, 2004; Knobeloch et al, 2009; Stewart, 1999).

Since the early 1970s, the issuance of an FCA is the primary means of state communication and management of the danger of ingesting contaminated fish in New York State. FCAs contain guidelines and recommendations for eating fish caught from many of the state's popular fishing waters synthesized from information about what species of fish are thought to be safer to eat than others; which aquatic ecosystems are thought to be less contaminated than others; and how a person's age or gender may affect his or her health risk. FCAs are obtainable online and occasionally supplied with the purchase of a fishing license. Their recommendations are not legally binding, nor are they enforced by any municipal, state, or federal agency. Advisories are officially issued by the New York State Department of Health (henceforth DOH) and available in English, Spanish, and, only in areas around the Hudson River, in Chinese.

There is much policy-oriented social science research on state FCAs. In most instances the focus of this literature is on how FCAs fail to account for the diversity of anglers most in need of information about contaminated fish. In both urban (Beehler et al, 2001; 2003; Westphal et al, 2008) and rural environments (Habron et al, 2008), many anglers, in particular those of minority status, either are unaware of government-issued advisories or ignore them in favor of traditional knowledge. Throughout the literature, advisories are deemed unsatisfactory communicators of risk, especially for women, low-income peoples, the elderly, youth, those with limited English proficiency, and migrants (Imm et al, 2005; Nordenstam and Daekwa, 2010; Steenport et al, 2000). Importantly, these populations often consume locally caught fish in a greater quantity than do elites (Silver et al, 2007). Indeed, in 2002 the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (henceforth NEJAC), an advisory committee to the EPA, released a report titled "Fish consumption and environmental justice" (EPA, 2002; see also O'Neill, 2000) that detailed many first-hand accounts of environmental inequalities from anglers across the country involving subsistence fishing.

With the exception of Mansfield (2012a; 2012b; 2012c), the response of the FCA literature to these inequalities is largely to urge policy makers to generate advisories that are more culturally appropriate. Prescriptions focus on calls for more careful attention to audience needs (Connelly and Knuth, 1998), the use of less complex language and data representation (Chess et al, 2005), or a greater public involvement in the creation of advisories (Burger, 2000; EPA, 2002). Consequently, in the bulk of this literature the goal is to urge policy makers to create better managerial advice for subsistence anglers so they can make more informed choices (Jardin, 2003). However, these local foci tend to construct the debate in terms of distributive justice and therefore miss the important critical analysis of broader historical and institutional contexts that produce local environmental inequalities (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003). (8)

In this paper I claim that the central historical and institutional context for understanding New York State FCAs is the legacy of the conservation movement, in particular the movement's support both for recreators and for the rational and sustainable generation of capital revenue from natural resources. I balance this claim, however, with the observation that these FCAs indirectly enforce forms of neoliberal commercialization and individualization. In the following section 1 add some analytical precision to how I incorporate neoliberalism in this paper.

2.3 Neoliberal environments

Within scholarship on neoliberal environments, the concept of neoliberalization is becoming increasingly difficult to discern, analyze, and synthesize (Bakker, 2009; 2010; Castree, 2011). This is because there is a growing recognition, becoming almost a truism at this point, that in every case processes of neoliberalization are incomplete and fractured. For, as many have pointed out (eg, Castree, 2008; Mansfield, 2004; McCarthy and Prudham, 2004; Peck, 2002), neoliberalization cannot be understood as a monolithic, singular process. Therefore, accounting for multiple processes of neoliberalization (Peck and Tickell, 2002) among various socionatural processes must be done delicately.

In her widely cited 2005 paper, Bakker provides a cogent framework for neoliberal processes of environmental governance--one well attuned to these complications--that will be employed throughout the rest of this paper. She writes that neoliberal environmental governance usually involves three interrelated, but not interchangeable, processes: privatization, commercialization, and commodification. Privatization refers to a change in ownership or management from the public to the private sector; commercialization entails the introduction of commercial principles, methods, and objectives to resource management practices (such as cost-benefit assessment); and commodification is the process of bringing new goods into the marketplace (page 544). These distinctions help to separate processes of neoliberalization when, as in the case of this paper, the object of study is a process of environmental governance in which the connection to neoliberalism per se is either unclear or partial.

Using these three processes as a guide, I claim that the historical trajectory and contemporary processes involved in the creation and dissemination of FCAs in New York State can be understood in many ways as a process of commercialization. This claim, however, is complicated by the fact that the commercial principles and methods behind the production of FCAs are not employed to guide FCA policy per se but rather to guide science purposed towards the promotion of recreational and commercial angling. FCAs are merely a form of window dressing that allows state agencies to absolve themselves from the dilemma posed by contamination in fish and continue 'commercialized' environmental governance activities-activities that have been and remain strongly aligned with the conservation movement. The manner in which FCAs absolve the state of responsibility is through voluntary compliance. In sum, FCAs promote neoliberal forms of commercialization and individualization, but only as a side effect of promoting conservationist ideals.

2.4 Data and methods

To illuminate the political history of subsistence angling in contaminated environments I conducted a thorough review of FC A policy in New York State. This review involved gathering and indexing a variety of material. I began by gathering previous incarnations of the New York State FCA in order to develop a sense of the trajectory of the policy. I then gained access to press releases and internal memos regarding FCA policy, specifically memos before and after a key turning point in FCA policy: the 1985 issuance of the "Environmental impact statement for policy on contaminants in fish for NYS Department of Environmental Conservation". I also gathered public documents regarding water quality in New York State, including EPA and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (henceforth DEC) annual status updates documenting the progress of hazardous waste reduction efforts in various state waters. Finally, I gathered DEC and DOH materials regarding fish and wildlife policy, in particular angler surveys and annual reports regarding rule changes in fish and wildlife policy, efforts to communicate with angler groups, and efforts to promote angling in New York.

Beyond New York State materials, I researched interstate reports regarding FCA policy. The bulk of these reports surround efforts to bring together Great Lakes states and provinces in order to streamline FCA information and make it consistent. The principal organization to release such reports is the Great Lakes Consortium for Fish Consumption Advisories. Finally, I also reviewed general EPA policy regarding FCAs and EPA technical guidance documents from when they were first released in 1993 to the present.

To get a better sense of the current debates surrounding the current New York FCA and its implications, during 2011 and 2012 I also worked as an Environmental Justice Fellow for a nonprofit organization that focused in part on water quality issues in and around Western New York. I concurrently worked with various state agencies, including the DEC, DOH, and EPA, as well as other nonprofits, to learn more about this history and context of FCA policy and to raise awareness of the peoples and places often ignored in FCA policy.

3 The trajectory of FCAs for New York State

3.1 Establishment

After the outbreak of Minamata disease, New York State, like other Great Lakes states, began testing waters for mercury and continually found fish with excessive contamination (Imm et al, 2005). In order to decide whether to close these waters to anglers who might eat these fish, the state agencies used FDA action levels as a guide. (9). Many fish were found with levels of mercury well beyond what was considered safe, resulting in the closing of many waters to anglers. FCAs were issued for these waters and made public through press releases. The first release was issued in 1971 and recommended that no more than one meal of fish per week be eaten from any water body throughout the state, a recommendation that is still in place (DEC, 1985; DOH, 2012). Soon after, the DEC began testing waters for other chemicals in addition to mercury, such as PCBs (banned by the United States Congress in 1979), DDT (banned by the United States Congress in 1972), mirex (banned by the United States Congress in 1976), and dioxin (banned by the Stockholm Convention of 2001, of which the US is a signatory). As a result of excessive contamination found throughout the 1970s, angling in a host of waters was banned, the possession of seven species of fish was banned, and the DEC stopped stocking fish in specific waterways (DEC, 1985).

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the initial response of the DEC and DOH (the two state agencies that work together to produce FCAs) regarding these waters exclusively revolved around environmental threats to public safety. As they do today, the agencies rather worked together to balance public safety with managing various ecologies as resources for human activity and continued profit through the conservation management framework described in section 2.1. As I will detail, FCAs were (as they are still) merely tacked onto existing and well-funded ecological resource management responsibilities. As a result, the creation and distribution of state FCAs were and are limited to financially driven managerial activities already in process.

Yet how can one infer a lack of attention if the state took the seemingly drastic action of closing water bodies? The answer is simply that the state was acting as a crisis manager, deflecting criticism until state agencies could determine a solution to the problem of contamination in fish that still supported the goals of conservation management. The closure of water bodies was a temporary measure taken by the state to insulate itself from public scrutiny until the state-defined consumers of pertinent ecological resources could be consulted through an environmental governance strategy already in process, the decennial angler survey. This consultation, it turns out, is what led to governance through voluntary compliance.

3.2 The first surveys

In 1973 the DEC, established only three years before, issued its first decennial survey to license-holding anglers in order to assess what waters were heavily fished and how much revenue anglers brought to specific waters. The DEC then managed and stocked waters according to this information. In other words, the DEC articulated socionatural relationships (and directed its limited scientific resources) in terms of economic development in the conservationist model of supporting both long-term profits and recreation. For example, the report generated from the 1973 survey claims that anglers spent $1 251 040 and approximately 534000 angler days fishing the Niagara River, making it the fifth most fished waterway in the state (DEC, 1973).

The 1973 survey, however, made no mention of water contamination or FCAs (DEC, 1973). This fact illustrates one of the finer points underpinning the argument of this paper; the principal goal of angler surveys, from their inception, was not to assess exposure to contamination but to assess angler satisfaction and the economic impact of each fishery.

In 1976 the DEC issued a more robust survey (10) that did include questions regarding water contamination issues. Four times as long as the 1973 survey (11) yet relatively consistent in format, the report generated from the survey spent eight of its 213 pages gauging the reactions of anglers to the closings of contaminated waters. As expected, results showed that many of these license-holding anglers, the citizens the DEC understands as its primary constituency in this arena, did not endorse this method of environmental governance (DEC, 1985). When asked about the DEC and DOH approach to 'toxic substance problems', only 12% approved of the closing of recreational waters. In addition, the survey found that these closures were often violated; that anglers found conflicting advice in other states' advisories; and that many businesses and angler tourist municipalities that relied on anglers coming to now prohibited waters were angry about losing their customer base (Kretser and Klatt, 1981). The result of this consultation process was that the DOH and DEC decided to delay any further action until they could reconsider their policy so that it was more in line with the needs of recreational, license-holding anglers and with the interests of local businesses and municipalities.

In the next subsection I will discuss state environmental officials' reactions to these surveys, but first I will ensure that the main argument is in place. First, it is already clear that the historical root of FCAs as a form of environmental governance is in the biological and natural resource management efforts of state agencies--agencies unwilling to deviate from conservationist principles that value nonhuman nature for its potential to be both the material basis for long-term profits and a resource for human recreational purposes. The primary driver for this specific governance strategy is the angler survey. As is further detailed below, it is from these efforts that governance through voluntary policies derives. Second, angler surveys constitute a form of 'commercialized' environmental governance that dovetails well with neoliberal environmental governance schemas because they serve to manage nature through placing a price on specific ecosystems and oversee these ecosystems according to the revenue they generate. The DEC uses these surveys in order to perform a cost-benefit assessment of waters in a mold that conforms to the commercialized processes of environmental governance that Bakker (2005) outlines. As I will show in the following subsection, these commercialized principles and methods steer the science behind FCAs, yet they do not steer the employment of FCAs themselves. This is an important distinction, as it complicates the relationship between neoliberal environmental governance and FCAs.

3.3 A change in governance

By 1985 the DEC and DOH had fully reconsidered their policy regarding the consumption of contaminated fish. In October of that year, the DEC issued its "Environmental impact statement for policy on contaminants in fish for N.Y.S. Department of Environmental Conservation" (henceforth 'impact statement'). This document is significant in that it set the formal agenda for much of the official response to health risks associated with the ingestion of locally caught fish and distinguished the roles of the two primary agencies involved in this process (DEC, 1985).

The basis for reconsidering state policy was twofold. First, anglers, sport angler groups, businesses, and politicians were contacting the DEC and complaining that they felt confused about the lack of transparency of the processes behind the closure of contaminated waters. In response, the DEC set up a clear framework for their relationship with the DOH when creating FCAs. This framework, which is still in use, begins with the DEC collecting fish samples from various water bodies across the state and analyzing these samples for levels of various contaminants with known health effects, such as PCBs, mirex, dioxin, and mercury. In a typical year, the DEC will sample about 2000 fish from around fifty waters. Importantly, what fish and which waters are tested are strongly influenced by angler surveys--surveys whose principal aim is to assess the satisfaction of license-holding anglers and the businesses that serve them, not where peoples most at risk of becoming contaminated may be subsistence angling. These data are then sent to the DOH, which reviews them in conjunction with data from previous years. If contaminant data from a particular fish in a particular water body have a central tendency higher than a threshold considered safe for human consumption, the DOH issues an advisory.

The second basis for shifting state policy was that, according to the 1976 angler survey and other angler outreach efforts, many of these same anglers, politicians, and businesses did not support the closure of recreational fisheries as a means of protecting public health. Reacting to this finding, the DEC stated it would no longer ban angling in contaminated waters. Instead, the agency would now rely exclusively on FCAs when attempting to regulate the human consumption of contaminated fish. The only way a water body would be banned from this point on was if the DOH Commissioner of Health were to certify in writing that such an action was needed (DEC, 1985).

The impact statement laid bare a two-part rationale for this policy shift. First, since "the economic impact of closing recreational fisheries can be dramatic, simply issuing advisories as opposed to closing a fishery would represent a less dramatic economic loss" (DEC, 1985, page 26). Consequently, in the name of stable economic development, the impact statement determined that the community around a fishery could succeed only if the fishery was not closed to anglers or if advisories were more lenient (DEC, 1985). Socionatural welfare was then addressed only after economic growth was considered. Importantly, this emphasis on economic growth before socionatural welfare was already in place with angler surveys and was therefore not a new development. Rather, the conservationist-inspired logic of angler surveys, one geared towards the rational harvesting of natural resources and towards support for recreational anglers, was extended to the logic of policy created to confront contamination in fish.

This same extension of logic applies to the second rationale for the policy shift from governance through place-based bans to governance through the FCA. It is in this second rationale, quite plainly, that policies aimed at voluntary compliance are solidified. According to the impact statement, health risks associated with eating contaminated fish were either 'involuntary' or 'voluntary'. Consuming contaminated fish bought and sold at restaurants and stores was 'involuntary' because it is not a risk a consumer took 'both willingly and knowingly'. Consuming fish from a 'recreational' fishery, however, was 'voluntary' in that, with the help of FCAs, the angler was an informed consumer who willingly made the choice to eat contaminated fish (page 7). The choice of fishing in a contaminated body of water, as opposed to a clean body of water, is ostensibly up to the angler.

Through this articulation, the new policy treated all anglers as self-sufficient 'recreational' consumers of the river, a term that obscures the fact that many people fish for subsistence (Emery and Pierce, 2005). Indeed, even though neither the 1973 nor the 1976 angler survey included secondary consumers of caught fish, those who cannot afford a license, those who do not understand the need for a license, those who do not speak English, and many others, results from the survey still showed that 36% of respondents said they fish for food. While this finding signaled a need for stronger and more politically active social policy, the impact statement conversely placed emphasis on nonconsumption, stating "this strongly indicates that a sizable proportion of anglers fish without the motivation of eating their catch.... [therefore] the public health impact of contaminated fish is probably small" (DEC 1985, page 15, italics added). It is through this logic that, for New York State, FCAs came to regulate the environmental risk of eating contaminated fish from a local water body exclusively through a policy of voluntary compliance.

So what was the driver of this policy? The most direct pressure to change policy came from license-holding recreational anglers, recreational angler groups, politicians, and business owners. As mentioned above, these are the primary actors that take part in the arena of angler tourism, and angler tourism was (and still is) the driving force behind much of the agencies' fisheries management schemes. Alienating this constituency would have been tantamount to alienating their primary customer base, and therefore they would not be efficiently maximizing the state's ecosystem resources.

In turn, communities of subsistence anglers are almost completely excluded from this process, simply because they are not considered angler tourists. Consider the survey's methodology. In order for someone who consumes locally caught fish to take part in this survey, they need to have a consistent address, consistent phone number, willingness to trust and respond to a government survey, English literacy, the prior knowledge of a need for a license, the money to buy one, and they must catch the fish they eat themselves (in other words, secondary consumers are excluded from consideration). These criteria are not met by many who consume fish for reasons of food security--the population much of the present literature on FCAs attests is most in need of information about the health effects of eating contaminated fish. Indeed, at least one study has shown that a group of recent immigrants have a higher exposure to PCBs through subsistence fishing (Schantz et al, 2010), and another shows that a community whose tradition and culture center on fish--Mohawks living on the Akwesasne Reserve--have a higher risk of exposure to PCBs (Fitzgerald et al, 1996). Given that the state's two most populous cities, New York and Buffalo, have been categorized as two of the nation's 'hypersegregated' urban areas (Massey and Denton, 1993), and given the large immigrant, refugee, and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations in the state, it is likely that many who fish New York waters for food do not meet the DEC's implicit criteria for survey inclusion.

3.4 The 2007 survey

This exclusion of disadvantaged populations is as true today as it was in 1985. According to the latest DEC survey in 2007, the function of an angler survey is to develop "comprehensive information ... on fishing patterns, preferences, and attitudes of anglers as well as the economic impacts of New York's fisheries" in order to "efficiently manage" the region's waters for recreators and those who rely on income from recreators (DEC, 2009, page 1). In fact, the official objectives of the survey do not include any language on the consumption of contaminated fish, nor have any of the survey questions since 1988 (Connelly et al, 1988; 1996; DEC, 2009). The survey's exclusion of subsistence angling from consideration is despite the fact that, along with an understanding of which waters have known water quality problems, these surveys drive much of the data behind FCAs, such as which fish to test and in which bodies of water to test them. Instead, the stated focus is on accessing 'angler satisfaction', 'angler effort', and "angler expenditures statewide, by region and major water body" (DEC, 2009, page 1). Thus, waters are treated as tourist destinations, while anglers are understood as consumers of the river, and state institutions use this information to manage these places as efficiently as possible so that their goods and services may be delivered in a manner satisfactory to these angler-consumers. Indeed, the agency would be shooting itself in the foot if management was not conducted in this manner, for the primary sources of funding for the DEC division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources--the division responsible for the creation and distribution of angler surveys--are hunting, trapping, and fishing license fees (DEC, 2013). It is thus to this community, and to those who cater to them, that the DEC must be primarily responsible in this matter. The economic concerns of the agency therefore ultimately take precedence over the confrontation of environmental inequalities.

In sum, angler surveys fit Bakker's (2005) 'commercial' framework of neoliberal environmental processes. They are generated through a process that values each water largely according to the revenue it creates and are managed through a form of cost-benefit assessment that is guided by the "economic impacts of New York's fisheries".

It is important to remain consistently aware, however, that angler surveys are not generated in order to direct science for the use of creating better FCAs. Rather, those involved in the creation of FCAs borrow information only regarding what waters are frequently fished and what fish are frequently caught from this existing and well-funded ecological resource management strategy--one focused on satiating recreational anglers and the businesses that serve them. One that, through its very blueprint, excludes disadvantaged peoples. It is here, in full force, that the contradictory articulation of this environmental governance strategy is laid bare. For the decisions regarding how to collect the most basic data used to generate an FCA, decisions about what waters and what fish to test for contamination, are made without regard for the FCA itself or for the peoples who observers unanimously agree are most in need of the information contained within FCAs. It is thus through this strategy that the state may publicly recognize the environmental risk of consuming fish from contaminated waters without deviating from its support for the conservation movement's twin emphases; valuing nonhuman nature as a source for long-term capital accumulation and support for outdoor recreators.

4 Conclusion

In this paper I have detailed the institutional origins of how and why FC As became the primary official response to the dangers of subsistence fishing in contaminated environments in New York State. I have demonstrated that, once illness from eating fish from contaminated waters became a public issue in the early 1970s, state environmental agencies faced a dilemma. They had to acknowledge the risk of subsistence angling in contaminated environments in order to remain legitimate environmental authorities, but had to do so in a way that continued to promote recreational angling in order to remain in line with their institutional history. This history was and remains strongly aligned with a conservation movement geared towards both support for recreators and the rational and sustainable generation of capital revenue from natural resources. FCAs provided a fix that allowed the state to continue to work towards these conservationist goals while also publicly acknowledging the risks of subsistence angling in contaminated environments. In addition, the scientific data that inform recommendations found within FCAs have been and remain substantially mediated by this political and institutional history. For this science is generated not for the purpose of assessing contamination in New York waters, but for the purpose of assessing the economic impacts of recreational fishing so the state may manage waters as efficiently as possible. In effect, FCA policy is fundamentally guided by the revenue generated by sport anglers, meaning that peoples who do not generate revenue, such as subsistence anglers, are absent from managerial processes. Therefore, this state response is ultimately one that regulates individuals' exposure to environmental risks and inequalities independent of their racialized, classed, or gendered positions, along with other forms of difference such as immigrant status and literacy level that, taken together, structure people's interactions and relationships with the state, water, contamination, and fish.

While the connection of FCAs to the conservation movement is clear, the connection of FCAs to neoliberalism is now less so. As I have stated, FCAs are guided by processes of neoliberal commercialization through their foundation in angler surveys. Yet the fact that a conservationist management policy employs principles we can now understand as commercialized, and therefore neoliberal, should hardly be surprising. As Roth and Dressier (2012, page 364) note, "conservation as a practice has long relied upon capitalist markets to help meet conservation objectives." Indeed, some forms of commercialized principles are built into the fabric of conservationism. For the principal environmental governance legacy of the conservation movement may be practitioners' continued insistence that nonhuman nature be managed first and foremost for the purpose of sustained capital generation. And efforts to achieve this goal have historically taken form and continue to do so through such principles as cost-benefit assessment, managing natures in terms of the revenue they generate, and other forms of what we would today recognize as neoliberal commercial principles. Certainly, I am not questioning the worth of examining the neoliberal project, nor its connection to environmental management schemes. Though its connection to specific socionatural contexts must be clear and analyzed with care. For it is most likely that multiple approaches--whether they are conservationist, neoliberal, or other--intertwine to construct environmental policies.

Finally, looking forward, this case study demonstrates that scholarship must start paying more attention to foraging in contaminated environments, and to the broader historical and institutional contexts in which foraging and related activities are regulated. Filling this gap is essential given the combination of two disturbing trends. First, across the globe, socioeconomic inequality is growing with great speed. Second, many of the planet's biophysical boundaries, such as climate change, chemical pollution, and the nitrogen cycle, are presently being breached and thus we can expect a much more dynamic relationship with the nonhuman world in the near future. This tandem--the increase in global inequality and the breaching of many planetary boundaries--will likely soon produce drastically different, and increasingly unequal, relationships with the nonhuman world (Rockstrom et al, 2009; Rudel et al, 2011). Climate migrants, refugees, and many others may thus turn to foraging for food by subsistence fishing and other means. These people who turn to foraging would be in addition to the many peoples across the United States and across the world that already engage in a variety subsistence activities, activities that often go unnoticed by policy makers (Emery and Pierce, 2005). Therefore, considering the road before us, understanding the political history of the regulation of foraged food in contaminated environments (12) is vital.

doi: 10.1068/d13073p

Jordan Fox Besek

Department of Sociology, 1291 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-1291, USA; e-mail:

Received 5 July 2013; in revised form 28 September 2014; published online 27 February 2015

Acknowledgements. The author wishes to thank Marion Werner, Katy Brown, Jim Elliott, Richard York, Erin Robinson, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts.


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(1) I use the term 'nonhuman' throughout as an abstract analytical category for the purpose of distinguishing between (relatively) anthropogenic and nonanthropogenic processes. It is merely a term of convenience, and should not be understood as implying any full separation between human and nonhuman processes.

(2) For example, the bison that had once roamed the majority of North America were suddenly being sentenced to a wanton holocaust by tourists shooting from passing train cars; the nation's forests were being felled with little care (Cronon, 1991); and the fisheries of the Great Lakes and elsewhere were nearly exhausted from overharvesting (Bogue, 2000).

(3) It must be noted that 'the conservation movement' is a broad term that encompasses many discrete movements and ideologies--from game protection to laissez-faire capitalist to socialist to preservationist, and many beyond and in between--that there is not space to detail here. See Barnett and Morse (1963), Brulle (2000), Hays (1959), Nash (1967), Taylor (2002), Wyant (1982), and Wellock (2007), among others, for more detailed descriptions.

(4) At the beginning of the 20th century the primary state agency responsible for water issues in New York State was the Fisheries, Game, and Forest Commission. This agency was renamed the Conservation Department in 1911, and then reorganized and renamed the New York Department of Environmental Conservation in 1970.

(5) Polychlorinated biphenyls.

(6) Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane.

(7) Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

(8) The work that comes closest to recognizing the scale and complexity of these vast and deep-seated inequalities is the NEJAC report, which recommends that FCAs should be used as a temporary strategy only while the EPA and other environmental agencies assist responsible parties in reducing contaminants in the waterways (EPA, 2002, page iv).

(9) FDA action levels are the limit of contamination that will trigger legal action to remove a product from the market.

(10) From 1976 they would be issued decennially.

(11) The 1976 survey was sent to 25 564 (out of 822 813) license-holding anglers, of which 11 037 were returned.

(12) The scale of contamination we still do not know (Colton, 1990; Elliott and Frickel, 2013).
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Author:Besek, Jordan Fox
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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