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.


  1. Thanks to Niaz for finding this clip. It really helps, especially the part about looking beyond the labels. I am increasingly frustrated when smart, well-meaning friends tell small farmers (like me) that we need to buy into this or that label, especially when the labels don't really tell what we do on our farms. Organic? Some of us are way better than organic! Humane? Some of us are humane plus! Maybe our farming has more to do with love or respect or values, but the industry co-opted those words a long time ago!

  2. Here's how we've defined it. Most of this was put together by Iowa CCI, perhaps 2 decades ago or more.
    1. Family-sized farm.
    2. Family either lives on or near the farm.
    3. Family does the work on the farm.
    4. Family generally owns the livestock, buildings, and land.
    5. Family makes the management decisions.
    6. Family patronizes local businesses when possible.
    7. Family concerned about land stewardship and their neighbors quality of life--not just the bottom line.

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