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

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Defining "family fishermen"

This post comes from NAMA's Coordinating Director, Niaz Dorry.

We often are asked "what do you mean by family fishermen" or community-based fishermen, or a Big Box Boat. I have often felt these questions are presented as a distraction to get us to all wound up in a defensive position.

As many of you know, we have been working really closely with the family farm movement through organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), Farm Aid, Rural Coalition, and others. Not surprisingly, they are also often asked to define a family farmer.

It wasn't until the recent passing of Kathy Ozer, NFFC's executive director, that I got to listen to a short video clip of her talking about this very topic. In it Kathy talks about the values behind the term, and in fact starts by saying how "sometimes people ask this question as a distraction." Her words really reinforced for me how closely the struggles of family fishermen align with the family farmers' movement. Brett Tolley, our community organizer, wrote a blog about this vey topic a few years back when some challenged us to define what we mean by Big Box Boats. To us, it has less to do with the size of the boat and more about the values its operations embodies.

So in case you are wondering, here's what we mean when we talk about family fishermen using Kathy's words:
"...sometimes people ask it as a distraction. Real issue is who controls, who makes decisions, is there an ability for that family to be in control of decisions and be able to recoup what they should be earning as a family for the work they are doing. We use independent, diversified, small and mid-size."
I realize that Kathy's answer - or ours - doesn't fit nicely in a soundbite or an elevator speech, especially when status quo is telling us to "keep calm and believe in the labels." Whether that is the organic label or seafood standards, we know that although they are a great start, they don't go deep enough. When it comes to landfood we now know farmers who are going beyond organic. Some are prioritizing who controls the farm - and in our case the fishing business - as their first battle along the path to achieving sustainability. 

In my opinion, any sustainable fisheries label or standard that doesn't address the ecological, social, economic, and food justice implications of who controls the boat and the rights to fish is falling short of achieving truly sustainable fisheries.

In the seafood world, there are so many fishing operations that are going beyond the red, yellow, green lists and other labels but are outmarketed, outpoliticked, and outspent by the current system. The values they bring to your dinner tables are outlined here. We hear similar values from the many farmers we have come to meet over the past nine years that we have been a member of the National Family Farm Coalition. 

Generations of the Eldredge family carrying on the family's fishing business. Photo courtesy of Shareen Davis Photography
Thanks, Kathy, for taking the words right out of our collective mouths when it comes to defining who we see as the true stewards of land and sea. And, thanks to all those who came to our Rock the Boat for Kathy Ozer event recently honoring her work and legacy, which clearly will be relevant for a very long time.

Over this next year you'll hear more about our work bringing family fishermen and family farmers together to highlight their values and fight for an equitable, just, and ecologically sound food system. So stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Defining ‘Sustainable Seafood’: Is it all about the fish?

This post comes to us from Taylor Witkin, Masters student in Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, and was originally posted on SustainFish on October 10, 2016.

Ask a Whole Foods customer at the fish counter to define sustainable seafood and he might refer to fisheries conservation or pollution-free aquaculture. Or he might tell you that sustainable seafood is a tuna steak with a green Seafood Watch label in front of it. Folke et al. 1998 suggest that sustainable seafood originates from practices that make use of an ecosystem’s capacity without degrading it whilst protecting it from economic and social forces that incentivize misuse of that ecosystem. Though these definitions fit the concept as it pertains to the practice of fishing, sustainable seafood is also a marketing tool. Similar to the ascension of organic in terrestrial food markets, to completely define sustainable seafood one must address the role of marketing and its impacts on fishers and seafood markets as the concept becomes more mainstream.

Multiple organizations have sought to define and promote sustainable seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), and others, have created guides like Seafood Watch that make it easy for other-wise unknowledgeable consumers to identify seafood that MBA deems sustainable. Seafood Watch’s guiding principles account for fisheries management structures, rate of bycatch, ecosystem degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions, to name just a few. However, these guides do not consider the social and economic complexities within the seafood industry. Tacking ‘sustainable’ onto seafood adds value to products. So the system can hurt fishers trying to compete in markets that value sustainability if certain regulations do not exist or equipment needed to receive certifications is too expensive.

In 2015, environmental non-profits like Oceana (which I worked for) lobbied for a bill that would allow Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries agents to enforce a federal law requiring turtle excluder devices (TED) on shrimp trawl nets. Despite the lack of enforcement, many shrimpers used TEDs to voluntarily reduce turtle bycatch. But before the bill passed, Seafood Watch listed Louisiana shrimp as “avoid” because Louisiana did not enforce the use of TEDs. Many Louisiana shrimpers’ fishing methods fit Seafood Watch’s guiding principles, but because of rigid rules defining sustainable seafood, those watermen could not add value to their catch; with a red “avoid label attached to their shrimp, they could not compete in markets that placed a premium on sustainability.

As a seafood retailer and then employee at a large environmental NGO, I have questioned the benefits of bringing sustainable seafood, as a marketing concept, into the mainstream since local, small-scale fishing fleets usually have lower ecological footprints than industrial fleets, despite ecolabels. Does excluding small-scale fishers from markets because of a marketing tool represent the concept of sustainable seafood? As consumers increasingly value sustainability, how can small-scale fishers compete with large operations that can pay for sustainability ratings? The concept of sustainable seafood must include economic consequences as well as ecological benefits. Truly sustainable seafood is harvested with minimal impact to an ecosystem and with as much benefit to fishers as possible.