At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Seeing the Larger Picture for Food Justice

 By Brett Tolley, NAMA's Community Organizer. 

My trip to California took an unexpected turn on day-three of the Community Food Security Conference when I got robbed at gunpoint. It was a normal quiet Monday night. I was leaving the subway around 10pm when a young man in a mask rode by on his bike, stopped in my path, and stuck a gun to my chest. And since my background is in community organizing/fishing and not street combat I didn't put up a fight. Like my mom says, "we're fishers, not fighters". Of course it was no laughing matter. He took everything I had. But he also taught me a few things.

The first thing he taught me was not to walk alone at night down dark unknown streets. The other lesson relates to a bigger picture of our food justice work at NAMA. But at the risk of jumping ahead too fast, let me start by explaining why I was in California in the first place.

I was in Oakland to participate in the US Food Sovereignty Alliance's inaugural Assembly and take part in the Community Food Security Coalition's annual conference. As in the past few years, National Family Farm Coalition worked with us to put a panel together discussing a topic that is relevant to both fishermen and farmers. This year we discussed the role of co-operatives.

Ben Burkett (right), Mississippi Association of Cooperatives and
the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, applauds as fisher
Mike Hudson (left) and farmer Joel Greeno shake hands in solidarity.

The Assembly was inspiring. Along with other food advocates, farmers, and community activists from around the world, we identified some common ground in our collective work on food sovereignty. It was no surprise to hear from farmers in places like Brazil, Mexico, and Iowa that they share many of the same struggles as New England fishermen. Issues including the corporate concentration of wealth and power, the degradation of our natural resources, and the exploitation of workers. Check out more on Food Sovereignty by reading our guest blogger piece titled "Fish Sovereignty" by Tristen Quinn-Thibodeau of WhyHunger.

Our friends at La Via Campesina have created a list of seven principals that guide the Food Sovereignty movement. My experience in Oakland makes me focus on principal number six:

I couldn't help but make the connection between my masked teacher - the gunman - and the conditions that led him to rob me that night.

There seems to be a connection between our food system, poverty, and violence. In fact, I would suggest poverty is itself a form of violence, especially when it can be prevented. In its mission statement the US Food Sovereignty Alliance specifically includes "working to end poverty". At first glance this may seem like a large departure away from food justice, but it's not. 

The right to healthy food and a just food system is about much more than just our food. It involves complex uses of the land, sea, and natural resources. It involves the people who harvest, raise, catch, and even eat our food. It involves the communities who help move the food to our stores, into our kitchens, and onto our plates. And it involves the health of every single person along that food chain because we depend on food for nutrition. Issues such as poverty and social injustice undermine this entire system.

That is why at NAMA we believe that connecting our local fishermen to the larger picture of food justice is critically important. Food overlaps so many of our social, economic, and environmental struggles and without paying attention to each piece we risk jeopardizing them all. For example, we can't displace our small-scale family fishermen only to be replaced by the larger-scale industrial model in the name of marine conservation. Click here to watch a fisherman's video testimony. We know all too well that doing so will not save the ocean, as getting rid of family farmers didn't save our land based environment. In fact, it increased ecological problems on land. 

Since that night in Oakland I've had endless questions and imaginary scenarios run through my head. Ultimately I will never know what led that man to rob me. But what I do know is that a broken food system is directly linked to poverty, which is directly linked to desperation and crime. Even if the young man is caught the conditions that foster violence still exist both on our land and on our seas. So until we address the underlying conditions then we can't expect this type of violelnce to stop.

Along with our US Food Sovereignty Alliance partners we at NAMA are working to address those underlying conditions. And we invite you to do what you can by taking any one of the following actions:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Occupy the Ocean?

By Niaz Dorry
NAMA's Coordinating Director

Is it time to Occupy the Ocean? Or at least take it back?

Even before Stephen Colbert suggested recently on his show to occupy the ocean because someone is testing lipsticks on dolphins, we thought the Occupy movement needs to include what’s happening on the water. Sorry Stephen, we call Trademark on this one!

So what is happening on the water? According to a recent report by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association (NOAA)"In 2010, 20% of vessels accounted for about 80% of the gross nominal revenues from groundfish sales." Hmm… this sounds awfully like the rest of our economic structure the Occupy movement is bringing to our attention. Management policies implemented last year were designed to consolidate the fishing industry. This means making sure fewer boats get to catch whatever amount of fish scientists consider to be safe to catch.

In response, fishermen have begun to speak up against the rapid consolidation happening in the New England fisheries and calling for fleet diversity while tensions on the water have increased. Some fishermen report being taunted on the water because of their position. This reminds me a lot of all the stories about farmers getting harassed because they didn’t want to sell their land to the developers or agribusiness. Well, now it’s happening on the water.

On land, things are also tense.

In recent weeks a few letters have been circulated by fishermen on different ends of the discussion. Some are asking for support for the Fleet Diversity Amendment 18 and some are using the word "stability" as an excuse to maintain status quo.

Unfortunately, this status quo is bringing with it some unwelcome ecological consequences. Because the new regulations got rid of some of the input controls associated with fishing, boats who have not fished in near shore waters have been migrating inshore. Why wouldn't they? There is no longer any reason for them to travel offshore. This new migration of what was traditionally an offshore fleet is causing too much fish to be caught in nearshore waters too quickly. Inshore fishermen have been telling us over the past year that they are seeing signs of decline in the cod stocks, for example. Which is shame because over the past 15 years the cod has been coming back because of their sacrifices. So seeing it go away because of errors in management is heart breaking. 

So why would anyone oppose fixing errors we know are having negative impact on the fish stocks and will destabilize the fleet economically down the line? This isn't just rhetoric. We have watched how consolidation and elimination of input controls have undermined the stability of so many industries. That's what the Occupy movement is bringing to our attention.

On the fisheries front, I hear the arguments as Alan Greenspan was making when he thought he knew what would fix our financial system: fewer, more efficient players that have ownership over the market and will take care of things. They’ll be easier to manage and ultimately the strong will survive and weak will either have to sell out to the highest bidder or amass capital at any cost to scale up their operations.

If you haven’t done so yet, I encourage you to watch this video, if not the whole thing at least the very beginning and then from 1:45 to about 2:10 where Alan Greenpsan talks about how wrong his assumptions were. That’s where we are headed when it comes to fisheries and why we need fleet diversity.

What’s worse, and once again mimics all that’s been happening with the rest of our economic structure, some who favor consolidation of the fishing industry instead of fleet diversity are actually asking for removal of yet more protections already in place – such as opening up certain areas that have been closed to fishing for the sake of the fish - to make it easier and more efficient for them to operate. Keep in mind it's these closed areas that have helped bring back the fish like cod. To remove them now will be a mistake and a slap in the face of the fishermen who gave up their traditional fishing grounds years ago because they knew it was the right thing to do.

We have an opportunity to do something about all this. The New England Fishery Management Council has voted to move forward with the Fleet Diversity Amendment 18. This amendment has the support of a lot of fishermen as well as local food advocates and fishing communities. Over the next few months, a public hearing process around this amendment will begin. I hope all of you who have been paying attention to what consolidation and concentration of power has done to the rest of our economic and food system pay attention to this process and participate. Without your voices we will end up adding another industry to the long list that currently include the financial, auto, health care, food and housing.

We can change the course. We need to empower the community based fishermen who can fish with the smallest ecological footprint yet have the broadest economic and social benefit. To do that we need to make sure the Fleet Diversity Amendment 18 corrects the errors that currently exist in fisheries management here in New England. And hopefully this work will provide other regions who are exploring Catch Shares to make sure the same mistakes are avoided from the get-go.

Consider the Fleet Diversity Amendment 18 your vehicle for Occupying the Ocean... or taking it back.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fish Sovereignty

By guest blogger Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau
Outreach and Partnerships Coordinator
Global Movements Program, WhyHunger

Community-based fishermen are facing tough times as access to fish is being consolidated into the hands of a few. We know small-scale community-based fishing favors jobs, stability and ecological protections necessary for a healthy society. As NAMA says, “Who fishes matters.”
The growing “food sovereignty” movement is all about making common sense decisions for the betterment of communities as a whole, based in the local food system – and fish is food. This movement isn’t treating food  as only a moral issue but also as a practical issue. We have to make sure our communities are strong with reliable work and sustainable social bonds, and food is absolutely essential for this. It is not by chance that our country is so divided politically at the same time as small-scale farming, fishing, and food retail are being taken over by impersonal big business.
What’s Happening?
Big business is gaining more ground than ever before, and they are expanding all over the world. Large, factory farm dairy “co-ops” have controlled prices and driven independent, small-scale dairy farmers into bankruptcy, causing many to sell their farms and cows. The industrial, “factory fishing” model is forcing fishermen off their boats so fishing rights can be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Farm workers are treated worse and worse, denied legal protections and endure slave conditions in the fields of the United States. One positive development in creating jobs and healthy communities are urban farms and gardens in places like in Detroit, but whenever real estate developers want the valuable land in which these gardens are rooted, the gardeners almost always lose. Unfortunately, political leaders we rely on to look out for the health of our communities are abandoning their jobs. Not only are they often corrupted by money, but they are weaker than ever and can’t seem to defend us, even if they want to.
Who are our allies?
The local food movement has been growing, but it does not embrace all of the people essential for strong communities that produce and provide food. A group of people in the United States has been joining the global food sovereignty movement. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin, farm workers from Florida and urban growers from New York are joining the movement to ensure all communities have access to healthy, local food and the necessary tools to provide that food. 
What is food sovereignty? Food sovereignty is the right of people to decide for themselves how to take care of their food—how to grow or harvest it, how to prepare it, and how to distribute it. Food sovereignty means farmers and fishermen can create local markets, have access to land and sea and participate in democratic regulatory processes. And the rest of the community has access to that local healthy food, creating a society that looks out and supports each other. Corporations and governments are violating our rights when they interfere with a people’s ability to take care of each other and have a solid economy built around food.
The only solution is to build a movement.
With a movement, different sectors cannot be played against each other for small benefits. With a movement, we share supporters and allies, building our numbers. With a movement, the actions we take help everyone involved in their everyday lives. Wins are not abstract or long-term, but should be apparent in our everyday lives. But building a movement like this is not easy.
The obstacle to building a movement is our separation.
One of the problems is that people who produce food are separated geographically and culturally. Farmers in rural areas don’t meet urban community gardeners. Some farmers employ farmworkers and can’t afford to pay them well because farmers themselves are under pressure. Fishermen living in coastal towns and cities might never meet farmworkers, much less identify with them. But the connections are there waiting to be uncovered and no one in the food system can change their conditions if they work in isolation. A hierarchy, with some on the top and some on the bottom, is always a threat—act out and you could be sent back down to the bottom.

The US Food Sovereignty Alliance is overcoming this obstacle through a series of dialogues and consultations.
The US Food Sovereignty Alliance is new, but the people who are in it are not. We have young blood, but we also have veteran minds. We are organizing a series of conference calls for each group of the food system (fishermen, farmers, urban gardeners, and farmworkers) to decide how to pitch their own interests to the other groups. We need some common ground, and we need to find common interests. We want to move forward on work that affects everyone.
The US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) works to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control and access over the food system. It is a US-based alliance of food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based, and food producer groups that upholds the right to food as a basic human right and works to connect our local and national struggles to the international movement for food sovereignty. 
NAMA's note: We are a proud member of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). We had the option of joining other family farm organizations but joining NFFC was important as their work is driven by the principles of food sovereignty. NFFC has been an important link for us connecting fishermen and fishing community advocates to farmers, farm advocates, food system advocates and the broader food sovereignty movement. We look forward to continuing our work with NFFC toward fruitful changes to how our ocean and land are managed and the health of the food systems into which the fruit of the labors of fishermen and farmers enters.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tuna Fishing: the good, the bad, and the lucky

  By Brett Tolley, NAMA's Community Organizer

120 miles offshore is a long way for a 45 ft. commercial fishing boat. We headed east out of the small Chatham, MA fish pier at 3pm and arrived to the eastern George's Bank fishing grounds at 5am, a 14-hour trek! My father took the first two-hour watch, then my cousin, and then me. Upon arrival it was pitch black, the water was covered with a thick wet fog, and I was already exhausted.

During the 14-hour ride we had one thing on our mind, tuna fish. At 5am we jumped on deck and started prepping the rod and reels that would hopefully deliver us an early tuna. Rod preparation includes a few things: cleaning off the leader (the final stretch of line attached to the hook) to remove excess dirt, using a black marker to cover any exposed metallic pieces on the hook and leader that might deter a hungry tuna, and sowing the hook inside the mouth of the bate, which in our case was a tasty mackerel.

To attract the tuna fish we chop up frozen herring, called 'chum', and toss it overboard in light dosages. Chumming creates an attractive oily layer on the ocean surface, called a 'slick', which diffuses around the bate dangling down anywhere from 10-25 fathoms deep (60-150 ft).

Tuna tend to feed most during the morning day-break and the evening twilight. Most fishermen hope to catch one during each of these periods but if you are doing well you can get two. And in the most fortunate of times you can land three, which under federal regulations is the maximum amount per vessel per trip. We always hope for three.

My first morning was unfortunately slow and there were no bites. I was beginning to feel my father and cousin's doubt creep in, thinking I should have stayed at the pier. Perhaps I had brought bad luck to the boat. After chumming for about 30 minutes it was time to move on to another location. A bit discouraged and disappointed, we decided to reel in the rods, my father on one, my cousin on another, and myself on the third. As I reeled gingerly, I felt a gentle tug on the line. I figured it was a snag in the twine and didn't think twice. But after two more tiny pulls my cousin looks over and yells, "We're on!!"

In the blink of an eye my cousin jumped in between myself and the pole and started reeling furiously. I quickly learned that landing a tuna takes tremendous skill and effort. Mostly because there are a hundred things that can go wrong, the worst being a line that snaps. The trick to avoid this is to minimize any slack in the line. When the tuna swims toward the boat you reel like a madman, which was exactly my cousin's technique. Two hours later after a long battle, letting the tuna swim out and back in again, skillfully navigating the boat to set up the most strategic positions, we had the tuna on deck! It turned out what I thought was a snag in the line was in fact a 600 lb. blue fin tuna fish.

After the tuna was dressed (bled, removed the head and guts, and cleaned the insides) and was on ice we moved to the next spot. My father and cousin made clear that I was not a bad luck omen after all. A nice relief! In fact they had me touching each rod every 10 minutes or so believing my luck would hook us another big tuna. Although I didn't instigate another bite, we did get our three tuna for that trip. Luck, it seemed, had little to do with it as my father has been commercially fishing for over 40 years.


New England small-scale fishermen like my father have traditionally relied on groundfish (cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, etc.) as their primary catch. However, with recent trends in fleet consolidation many family fishermen are being squeezed out of the groundfish fishery. The squeeze, in spite of reducing the number of fishermen, does not reduce the effort or the amount of fish being caught. Instead it merely replaces fishermen like my father with larger-scale industrial operations. And in turn, just like a family evicted from a gentrifying neighborhood, small-scale fishermen move on to another fishery, in this case tuna.

What does displacing the small-scale fishermen do to a fishery? To the ecosystem? Communities? Our local source of seafood? These questions are critical to our work around fleet diversity and the Who Fishes Matters Campaign. Check in again soon to learn about a recent Fisheries Council vote to move fleet diversity policy forward. In the meantime, here's a link showing all the support we got!

As I watched my father smile at the site of three tuna on the boat's deck, knowing what great care and pride he takes in all his fishing efforts, I wondered if the person replacing him in the groundfishery will have that same ethic. I wondered if my cousin will have the chance to fish in the groundfishery just as his father, grandfather, and great grandfather did. Or will he be replaced by an industrial, vertically integrated fishing corporation?

As I'm sitting here at the pilots seat after our two-day trip I'm feeling proud of my family's tradition, exhausted from the long couple of days, and frustrated at the displacement of our small-scale fishermen. And now we have a 14-hour drive ahead! I'm hoping to bring more luck tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

More Reasons to Know Who’s Catching Your Fish

By guest blogger Joanna Shaw Flamm of Nona Brooklyn

Chalk up another piece of supporting evidence for the “know your farmer/purveyor/fisherman” argument. The Environmental Justice Foundation recently posted a video focusing on how catches from “pirate fishermen” are finding their way into legit fish markets. Pirate fishing outfits follow no regulations or laws, regularly damage fishing grounds by using brutally out-of-date practices, and devastate small fishing communities by wiping out their fish populations overnight.
  • Over a billion dollars in fish caught by pirates operating in African waters alone enters world seafood markets each year.
  • The number of pirate fishing vessels globally is estimated to number in the thousands.
  • On favored practice among pirates? Obtain one fishing license for one vessel, then paint the name of that vessel on multiple other vessels, give them all copies of the same license, and send them out to fish.
  • Due to the labrynthine nature of global seafood markets, and the complete lack of concern about traceability, it’s easy for pirate catches to enter the market and once there, impossible to tell them apart from from legitimate catches.
But what really sucks is that pirates are only one of many problems with the shadowy world of the global seafood trade: A few months ago, The New York Times reported on the disturbing prevalence of ‘fish fraud.’ Using new devices that make it easy to identify a species of fish through on-the-spot DNA analysis, The non-profit group Oceana found that 20-25% of fish sold at retail or served in restaurants was not what it claimed to be!

Even assuming your fish is caught the right way, and it is what the person you’re buying it from says it is, choosing what fish to eat can be as complicated as quantum mechanics. Who caught it? How was it caught? When was it caught? In the dominant commodity-style seafood marketplace, such questions are usually unanswerable by the time the fish reaches the consumer (which is often a matter of weeks after it’s been caught.)

And which fish are ok to eat? Which aren’t? Guides to sustainable fish have been accused of over-simplifying the issues. By color-coding fish species to indicate whether or not they’re ok to eat, they gloss over the fact that in well-managed fisheries, when caught the right way, it may be entirely ok to fish and eat species that are in decline on other parts of the globe.

And what about farmed fish?  How does the large-scale farming of fish affect the quality and nutritional content of the fish? How does it affect the environment, and the ecosystems surrounding them?

So what is a seafood lover to do? Pay attention. Try to understand the environmental and health impacts of the fish you choose to eat. Find sources you know and trust. Ask questions to understand who caught your fish, where it was caught, and how it was caught. And buy fresh, locally-caught stuff whenever you can find it. It tastes better.

Cayden Lovejoy of Blue Moon Fish at Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. Blue Moon catches their own fish, and sells whole fish and fillets, as well as local shellfish and their own smoked and pickled fish. Photo © Valery Rizzo - all rights reserved

Happily, many of our Greenmarkets host local Long Island fishermen selling their catch directly to the public each week. Blue Moon Fish of Mattituck is at the Grand Army Plaza market every Saturday; American Seafood of Hampton Bays is at the Borough Hall and Bay Ridge markets on Saturdays, and at the Windsor Terrace market on Wednesdays; Pura Vida Fisheries, also of Hampton Bays, is at the Fort Greene and Greenpoint/McCarren Park markets on Saturdays; Seatuck Fish Company is at the Carroll Gardens market on Sundays, and Gills Seafood is at the Cortelyou market on Sundays.

You can also find wild Alaskan sockeye salmon through Iliamna Fish Company‘s annual CSA. The salmon is caught by Christopher Nicolson, a Greenpointer, and his family each summer. Members pick up their flash-frozen share of the catch each September, at the close of the fishing season.
Clinton Hill-based Sea to Table has been sourcing sustainably-caught fish directly from small-scale fishermen working the waters of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Carolinas, the Northeast, and Alaska. They primarily sell to chefs, but if you (or you and a group of friends), can handle their multi-pound minimum orders, you can have fresh fish delivered from the dock to your door overnight.
Heritage Foods also has a rotating selection of sustainbly caught fish which they source directly from the people who catch it.

Who else has good fish out there in Brooklyn? The kind of fish that can be traced back to who actually caught it, how it was caught, and when it was caught? Tell us in the comments!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Community Weighs In and Fleet Diversity Moves Forward

 By Brett Tolley, NAMA's Community Organizer. 

At last week's Groundfish Committee* meeting we got a BIG VOTE to move the Fleet Diversity policy forward! For any football fans out there, we advanced the ball 10 years closer to the end zone. First down!

The vote approved the Fleet Diversity scoping document despite a few members of the Council and public who stood actively opposed. Council members tried excuses like - there is no current problem. Folks in the audience called Fleet Diversity a waste of time.

Click here to listen to the audio recording from the meeting.

But speaking in support of fleet diversity and accumulation limit measures were a majority of committee members, nearly 200 pledge signers, and a growing public support who believe that Fleet Diversity is NOT a waste of time.

We also had fishermen text messaging into the committee meeting, some from their boats. As part of our Organizing strategy we sent live up-date text messages from the Committee meeting out to 10 fishermen around New England. They texted back and we read their reactions into the mic. TEXTIMONY!

"Fleet diversity should have been addressed before the Amendment 16 was approved. The time is right to now approve the scoping document and move the fleet diversity discussion forward."
- Steve Welch, Commercial Fisherman, South Shore MA

"As we speak aggressive consolidation is occurring. Move the scoping prcoess forward and address fleet diversity."
- Chuck Etzel, Commercial Fisherman, Montauk NY

To view NAMA's comments to the committee click here.

The scoping process will allow the public and fishing communtities to guide our managers on these issues moving forward. Click here to read more about the scoping process and Amendment 18 to the Groundfish plan.

Huge thanks to everyone who signed the pledge, wrote letters to the editors, passed the word, and gave us the push we needed. We're going to be asking for your support again come September, so please be ready. Our next step is to advance the scoping document at the full Council meeting in September and begin the formal scoping process.

Who fishes matters!

*The Groundfish Committee is part of the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC). The Council is one of eight regional Councils established by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (since renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Act) The NEFMC manages fishery resources within the federal 200-mile limit off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.  Click here to read more. 

Emerging science workshop challenges fish paradigms

by Sean Sullivan NAMA Marketing, Development and Outreach Associate

Everyone knows that salmon are born in rivers, spend their adult lives in the ocean and return to the very same rivers in which they were born to spawn. Until recently most people thought that anadromous Salmon were exceptional among fishes in their loyalty to spawning grounds. It is commonly thought that most marine fish were broadcast spawners and did not exhibit natal homing (returning to spawn where they were born). It was assumed that spawning areas attracted aggregations of a genetically diverse group of fish from regional stocks that found the areas suitable.

It turns out that many if not most fish that live their whole life in the sea are more like salmon than we ever thought. In fact, we are just learning that many fish return to the location where they were born (or nearby that location) to spawn. Cod, for example, return to spawn year after year in the exact same piece of desirable real estate where they were born. It may be a notable bank or simply a small pebbly plateau that is somehow just the ‘right spot.’  This is just one of bits the emerging scientific knowledge that was reported recently at a workshop on Reconciling Spatial Scales and Stock Structures for Fisheries Science and Management.

The implications of this emerging scientific consensus are fairly drastic if you are a fisherman, fisheries manager, fisheries scientist, or, as in the case of us at NAMA, advocates for community based fishermen.  Not surprisingly, fishermen whose scale of operation best matches the scales of fish distributions in the ecosystems where they choose to fish are more likely to be successful stewards of their ecosystems and their fisheries more diverse and sustainable over the long haul. The conference produced a slew of other earth shaking ideas and notions, but before we get to those, lets walk down the path of understanding the example above --our beloved codfish.

One of the great mysteries scientists, fishermen and others have been struggling to understand is how in some areas such as in the Western Gulf of Maine, overfished cod have rebounded, while in the Eastern Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, they are still struggling or absent. It turns out part of the problem is that it has always been thought that breeding fish would over time re-stock the ocean just through the magic of winds and currents moving those very young cod around and mixed populations converging on suitable spawning sites. So if we weren’t managing with cod’s homing tendencies in mind we were missing the boat – pun sort of intended.

But if cod are like salmon, and humans put up a barrier - in the case of salmon say a dam, in the case of cod say a net - that prevents them from returning to their natal spawning grounds, an entire genetic population of fish may disappear. A river or other spawning habitat may be repaired and regenerate, but it is thought that the timeframes for nature to re-stock a river may be in the hundreds if not thousands of years. If a cod breeding ground, say in the Eastern Gulf of Maine, is wiped out by overfishing or habitat changes, there are no more fish that have that specific genetic code linked to them returning to that specific location. A distinct fish population suffering such a fate is GONE for good.

Cod population crashes are well documented in many North Atlantic fisheries, as in the North Sea and of course here in Northwest Atlantic region, including Canadian waters, Georges and Grand Banks, and of course in the Gulf of Maine. A recent sentinel fishery (a fishery designed specifically to gauge fish populations) in the Eastern Gulf of Maine conducted in conjunction with our friends at the Penobscot East Resource Center, has shown that there are more halibut in the Eastern Gulf of Maine than there are cod, and even the numbers of halibut are extremely low. And with little to no fishing pressure these formerly abundant fish are still not returning.

Why they are not returning could in fact be the result of fishing pressure and/or environmental changes resulting in the disappearance of a sub-stock (or distinct population).  In addition to overfishing the population in question and/or overfishing their food fish, toxic pollution, climate change, excess fertilization and a variety of changes in the food web can lead to collapses in fish populations.  So somehow the breeding cod for that area were wiped out and couldn’t replenish themselves; and because of that, there are no adult cod in those areas. Quite literally, the Eastern Gulf of Maine used to be one of the most productive fishing areas, equal to Stellwagen Bank, Georges Bank and other well known historical fisheries. Today there is no commercial fishery for cod there at all.

Complicated interdependencies between species may also result in dramatic changes in fisheries.  Again in this case we will use cod as an example, and that species dependence on specific prey. For example, cod in parts of Canada fed primarily on capelin, a small fish related to herring. The capelin provided the nutritional basis for cod to spawn successfully. If there are no capelin, cod will feed on shrimp. However, if they are feeding on shrimp, they are less successful and in some cases will not spawn at all.  A similar disappearance of river herring from cod spawning grounds in Eastern Gulf of Maine may similarly be linked to the disappearance or non-recovery of sub-populations of cod there.  And we should not forget that fishermen are also interwoven into these interdependencies.  We cannot forget the human element in the marine ecosystem.

I am not a scientist, and I am sure there are nuances I may not be getting right. But, the example of cod and other species returning to their natal spawning grounds is a "spatial" issue as well a biological one. The behavior argues that the animals are related more closely to a particular spot in the ocean than was previously thought. Fisheries managers largely manage fish as though they are a single uniform stock that doesn’t have strong preferences for where they live, breed or eat as long as fundamental needs are met. We now know that is not true. Management will have to change to acknowledge and accommodate this "spatial" relationship.

These emerging scientific ideas are forcing a new understanding that requires fisheries managers to expand their age old practice of looking at the ocean only temporally (fluctuations over time) to include spatial needs in a much more detailed way if they want to be successful at managing the ocean. While it was acknowledged at this workshop that spatial considerations would be key in the transition from single species management to ecosystem based fisheries management the path to get there was not laid out and is clearly the next step that must be taken.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Fish Pages - Weekly Wrap Up

by Sean Sullivan Marketing, Outreach and Development Associate

Back in the day fishmongers used newspaper to wrap up fish for customers. Newspaper was used because not only is it plentiful, but it is relatively free of bacteria and absorbs oils and smells. In the tradition of Friday fish and fish being wrapped in newspaper, I am going to begin a weekly wrap up of the world according to NAMA. Hopefully you'll find what's inside tasty and deliciously healthy.

The first news item comes from yesterday's New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) meeting of the Groundfish Comittee. Some good news comes out of the meeting as the council voted to approve the scoping document about fleet diversity for Amendment 18 to the Magnusen-Stevens Fisheries Act....I am sure that paragraph just put at least a few of you to sleep. So let's repeat that in plain english....

The people who make the fish rules agreed to begin the process of making formal rules to protect a diverse fleet. Its a really important first step in having our Who Fishes Matters campaign achieve it's objectives.

We are constantly seeking ways to make sure fishermen's voices get heard at the council. At the latest meeting Brett Tolley used text messages to provide fishermen out on the water with live updates on the debate on Amendment 18. When he got up to testify he was able to convey their feedback in essentially real time. If they cannot come to the meeting we'll bring the meeting to them!

We also had a thrilling Seafood Throwdown at the Cape Ann Farmer's Market featuring celebrity judge Christian Collins from TV's Master Chef program (click on this link to see Christian on local TV as he gives NAMA a big shout-out) . The secret seafood was skate! Skate is a wonderful fish. It is considered a healthy stock, and is one of those "underutilized*" species. You can read all about the Throwdown here.

Next up we'll be hosting a Seafood Throwdown on Martha's Vineyard at the West Tisbury Farmers Market tomorrow morning. Stop by if you are on island. Things kick off at 9:30AM!

Among the interesting items that swept across my desk this week like a summer thundershower are the news that there will be a new CSF on Nantucket. Details to come on that one. And there is growing momentum in Southern Maine to develop a CSF. Get in touch with us for details or if you would like to be involved.

In Rhode Island there are some really cool things going on using technology to direct market seafood. The farm to market connection has shown that people care about where there food comes from. I think we'll see pretty soon that some fishermen will be able to challenge the current seafood paradigm by using technology to escape the "at the hands of the processors" situation they are currently in. The more the market diversifies, the more fishermen will be rewarded for fishing sustainably, and the easier it will be for consumers to put their food dollars where their values lie.

In other notes, the Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF is now taking orders for Fall shares with deliveries to 20 Boston Metro area stops including new stops in Somerville and Needham.

*The term "underutilized" and "trash fish" are sometimes synonymous with "by-catch" but almost always refer to a species that has low or no commercial value. The reason for this can be because there is no market for the fish or the value of the fish is very low. I have a philosophical problem with the idea that anything that swims in the ocean is trash. In fact historically, bluefin tuna and lobsters were considered trash fish. And "underutilized" is a similarly human centric term that implies that species exist for our purposes only. However the term(s) seem to be gaining traction as a way to highlight that there are more things in the ocean than cod and haddock, which is something we like to promote. If you read Audubon magazine there will be an article in the September issue about "trash fish" that will also talk about CSF's.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fleet Diversity Amendment Looks to Advance - We Need Your Support

By Brett Tolley, NAMA's community organizer

They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistake over and over again and expecting different results. So imagine our frustration when fisheries policies aim to consolidate the fishing fleet into one that consists only of large or industrial scale operations. Did we not learn anything from agriculture or the banking and financial institutions? Or housing? Do we have to repeat the same mistake on the water? (Read fishermen's testimony on consolidation)

Aside from repeating past mistakes, this approach fails to recognize the ocean is made of many different ecosystems that if we are to fish them, we need to make sure we are fishing them at the right scale so not to compromise their unique characteristics. (View a position paper signed onto by scientists from throughout New England)
That’s in part why we have taken the issue of fleet diversity so seriously. In New England not only are the small and mid-scale fishermen the cornerstones of the fishing industry they are critical to ensuring the scale of fishing operations here are diverse enough to not undermine the health of the marine ecosystem.  It’s worth noting, that it just happens that the small and medium scale fishing operations also happen to provide more jobs, have less impact to the ecosystem, and ensure a more local and secure source of seafood. 

Right now small and mid-scale fishermen face a dramatic consolidation squeeze and for many family fishermen (including crew!), access to fishing rights is now unaffordable and these fishermen are facing the same decision family farmers did a few decades ago: do you scale up or sell out? Selling out is slowly becoming the option of choice with small and medium scale operations as it is becoming more attractive to lease their quota out than actually fish. And according to a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) report the groundfish fleet lost 458 crew positions in the last year.

Hear Fisherman BG Brown discuss his personal experience 
Recognizing some of these issues, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) voted in June to proceed with an Amendment to address fleet diversity and excessive consolidation in the Groundfish fleet.
NAMA weighed in, urging NEFMC to take action, with a PETITION signed widely by fishermen, food activists, restaurant owners, fish market owners, environmental advocates and community members. Folks agree that fleet consolidation is squeezing out family fishermen only to be replaced by larger industrial-scale fisheries. They also agree this flies in the face of managers’ own goals and objectives, which include protecting fleet diversity and preventing excessive consolidation.
In order to lesson the squeeze and level the playing field we are calling on managers to prioritize THREE things: 1) foster a fishery that is affordable to independent fishermen, 2) enable a fishery where active fishing is more attractive than leasing and 3) incentivize a fishery that is more diverse.

The Council’s motion to advance fleet diversity protections is a critical step forward but we need more support. We anticipate strong resistance from those who stand to benefit from a highly consolidated fleet where family fishermen are left in the wake. Recently a lawsuit led by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, calling attention to the consolidation issue and challenging the legality of the new management system, failed after a judge’s ruling in early July. (Read more here)

We’re calling on folks who believe that Who Fishes Matters to join us, heed the advice of New England’s family fishermen, and hold our fishery decision makers accountable to their own standards, goals and objectives. Advancing the fleet diversity amendment gives us the opportunity to level the playing field, prevent a homogenous fleet that isn’t sensitive to the scales of the marine environment and secure a future for small and mid-scale family fishermen.


Sign our pledge.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Counting on Living Fish

by Boyce Thorne-Miller NAMA's Science and Policy Coordinator

Fish swim, unseen.
The fisherman senses
they are present.

We are entering a moment of transition as Ecosystem Based Management has become part of our nation’s Ocean Policy and Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management (EBFM)*, following the lead of  the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, is becoming the key component of a regional vision for the future of New England fisheries management.

Times of transition offer opportunities for creativity, and that is just what we should expect from our fisheries managers and our fishermen.

Ecosystem Based Management is a sterile term that can be defined many ways.  I prefer to think that we are about to move from dead fish management to living fish management.  I welcome that change! I am convinced it will be far more successful in recovering and maintaining diverse fish populations and in nurturing the ecosystems that support them.  And I believe many of our New England community fishermen are capable of playing a key role in providing essential scientific information that will be required to make this management work.

Biologists and ecologists in the past were natural scientists who spent much of their lives in the field, and through experience and knowledge the best of them learned to enter a wilderness environment and integrate a vast amount of information perceived through their six senses. Living ecosystems and wildlife provide far more complex and important information than a collection of dead animals can give us.  But you have to know how to read living systems. 

The old time biologists were able to interpret a great deal of the character and biological interactions of the living ecosystem simply through keen observation and knowing how to integrate and interpret that information.  Now those same kinds of scientists spend much of their time reading instruments and interpreting data through computer models.  But where does their data come from – all too often from dead fish.  Models enable a new ability to predict a variety of outcomes under different possible conditions, but often the full complexity of an ecosystem is sacrificed in order to make the models manageable. 

A cadre of fishermen, with on-board instruments, keen senses and understanding of the environment in which they work each day, have taken over the role of field naturalists in the marine realm.  They possess real-time information about the living ecosystem. Science makes a grave mistake if it chooses to rely exclusively or primarily on the information provided by dead fish and ignore what is known about the living fish that remain.  The numerical data about catches that must be reported to fisheries managers is important, but so is information about how living populations of fisheries and their support species are behaving and moving. 

Nevertheless, it is important that such information be reported in consistent format that makes it useful in ecological models and stock assessments.  Fishermen should work with scientists to design a useful system.  And scientists need to find a way of using that information effectively in their models – even non-numerical data, such as fish behavior and food-web observations. As the new management models tackle the difficulties of incorporating social science information to incorporate humans as part of the ecosystem, they are also obliged to better incorporate information about living species networks. It’s time to move beyond counting dead fish one species at a time.

The ability of the best naturalists, be they PhD biologists or fishermen-scientists, to integrate information and understand the whole that is more than the sum of the observed parts is unique to the human brain.  So far computers cannot accomplish that without detailed instructions and the right kind of data.  Intuition is a valuable tool that is only available to human observers.  Fishermen who can do this well are themselves scientists, and their information is critical to the success of new living fish management.

Data can and should be collected and used at different scales, from smaller local scales that detect critical habitat areas and spawning populations to larger regional scales that integrate regional stocks and larger ecological processes affecting them. A variety of tools can be employed – from satellites and models run on computers, to sampling tools on large research boats, to diverse fishing gear and daily observations from fishermen on small vessels, to catch reports and observers reports required under fisheries management.  Data and observations from government scientists, academic scientists, social scientists, and fishermen-scientists alike will be needed to make this new management work.  And that means the toxic mistrust among these groups of professionals must end and a mutual willingness to improve techniques and coordinate information must begin.

A new era of close cooperation and mutual respect between government, academia, and fishermen is the creative catalyst that is needed for the new management to work.  Just such a spirit of cooperation and the sharing of power that comes from the sharing of information was described at length in a discussion of the California spiny lobster fishery as their research program, CALoster got underway a couple of years ago.

The integration of different types of knowledge and different scales of key biological information will enable holistic pictures of fisheries ecosystems essential to successful fisheries management. How to make this happen and what new management structures should look like are topics for future blogs as we travel with fishermen and fisheries managers down the road of EBFM – or living fish management.

*For details and emerging plans, check out some of these links:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Seafood Throwdown Kick Off - Brooklyn Style

 By Brett Tolley, NAMA's community organizer

Two local chefs. One mystery fish. A spot light on local fishermen and locally-caught seafood. By the end of the day only one winner emerged, but for our 2011 kick-off Seafood Throwdown it was a win-win-win for all involved.

Kicking it off Brooklyn style - check out our Seafood Throwdown video post. 

GrowNYC/Greenmarket invited us back for our second annual Seafood Throwdown, this year to be held at the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Local fisherman Alex Villani was on site and capturing the crowds curiosity and appreciation with stories about locally-caught seafood. The fish of the day was

Seafood Throwdowns, in a nutshell, are educational and community driven events to engage the larger community in issues affecting our ocean, fishing communities and fisheries. They help us promote the ecological and economic importance of locally-caught seafood and build a broader base of support for efforts to transform fisheries and ocean policy. Read more here. And not to mention, they produce some darn-tasty food!

Under the hot Brooklyn sun the event had a great turnout and was certainly a true collaborative effort. The two local restaurants, iCi and Thistle Hill Tavern, battled for the most creative and delicious dish. Judging the event was Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn's deputy editor and James Beard award-winning writer, Rachel Wharton, Blue Moon Fish's Alex Villani, and GrowNYC's David Hurd, director of the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education. Matt Timms, famously known for his rollicking Takedown series was our Emcee, giving the play-by-play for all the action.

Check out more pics from the day. 

After all was said and done iCi Restaurant nudged out a one point victory over Thistle Hill Tavern. Congrats to their head chef Nate Courtland! And congrats to Thistle Hill Tavern's head chef Rebecca Weitzman, because really it was an extremely close call. Both dishes were superb!

Hope to see you at our next Seafood Throwdown. To check when a Seafood Throwdown might be coming to a neighborhood near you please see our events page.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


By Cary White, NAMA's Outreach and Policy Intern

When I told one of my professors at school that I would be spending the summer doing advocacy for New England’s small-scale fishing fleet, he said, “Wow, so you’re actually doing something interesting over your break.”  That’s when I began to think, yea, I guess I did sort of luck into this internship.  While the rest of my friends are home waiting tables or doing busy work at some big, impersonal firm, I have attended a Fisheries Council meeting, fished out of Portland with Maine’s only commercial jig fisherman, and worked at the heart of one of the most important social events in the history of New England’s coastal communities.

My path to NAMA began in mid-November while I was participating in the Williams-Mystic maritime studies semester program.  For a final project, all of the students were required to write a research paper on some marine policy issue.  Being a little na├»ve at the time, I decided to write about Amendment 16 (The policy that set up sector management in New England).  Little did I know the scope of what I was getting myself into.  Having not grown up near the coast, I was surprised to discover the range of emotions and viewpoints concerning what seemed like a simple management strategy on paper.  Luckily, I stumbled across the NAMA website and gave their Community Organizer Brett Tolley a call.  Brett was very helpful and opened up sides of the issue that many of my other sources were ignoring and helped me grasp the source of the fishermen’s outrage.  I soon found that the fisheries debate had much to do with my own political inclinations.

When I tell people that I’m working in fisheries, most people assume that I must be interested in biology or marine sciences.  However, what always drew me to fisheries was in fact the social side of things.  The commercial fishing profession is very unique in today’s world.  Almost everyone today chooses or is pushed into making a living by selling their time to someone else.  What most people fail to fully appreciate though is that for the majority of human history, this was not the case.  In fact, up until about 150 years ago in America, it was considered embarrassing to have another human being be in charge of your own labor.  With the demise of our country’s farms, the small boat owner-operator fisherman has become America’s closest thing to a “traditional” worker; that is, he is able to decide when, where, and for how long he works as well as choosing to whom he markets his product without having these decisions dictated by someone up the management chain.  This is not to idealize the conditions of the small-boat fisherman—it is difficult, dangerous, and uncertain work—but rather to point out that, in a perfect world, he or she can lay claim to a certain degree of freedom that most other working men and women can’t.  I believe that it is important for us as a society to keep alive and to take seriously these alternative structures of labor so that we have a better frame of reference when faced with choices that will impact our world.

As I’ve been with NAMA for a few weeks now, I have also begun to think more and more about the possibilities of area—or ecosystem-based—management.  While almost everyone seems to have a hard time pinning down just exactly area management would look like, everyone seems to agree on its benefits.  Area management aims to cut the management units up in to more bite-sized pieces and thus provide a much more holistic idea of the relationships in a marine ecosystem and better inform quota levels and fishing rights.  If we read between the lines, the drive towards area management has shown us above all that science needs local knowledge.  I firmly believe that while scientific studies are often useful and insightful in their own right, they can just as often turn our attention away from the statistically improbable events that might be happening before our eyes.  When I went groundfishing with Ed Snell out of Portland, I caught a small glimpse just how it might feel for a fisherman who has used up his cod quota, but who still knows that the cod population is booming below his boat.  Almost no one is better equipped to judge the heath of the marine environment than the fisherman himself.

Just the other day, Brett and I were talking to a couple fishermen down at the Gloucester piers and one of them remarked, “We’re the last hunter-gatherers.”  I think this is almost dead on.  Fishermen fill a vital role in providing food for the rest of us while ensuring the future sustainability of that food source.  However, I don’t think that they need to be the last.  Down the road, I believe that a successful area management program can set an example of a new way for us all to think about our relationship to the natural world; a frame of mind that is far less destructive of the natural world while simultaneously providing a more relevant and fulfilling experience for those humans who interact with it.  It will provide channels for fishermen to become better conservationists and for scientists to have better access to local knowledge.

So that’s my spiel.  I’ll be working with Niaz in Gloucester this summer so if anyone is in the Cape Ann area and wants to say hi, I’d be more than happy to meet you.  I’m definitely an outsider to the fisheries world, so I’m grateful for any insight on navigating it.
Glad to be onboard