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

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.