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

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Accountability in the New Seafood Movement

Sea to Table Exposè Offers Valuable Teaching Moment for Community-Based Fisheries

Photo credit: Associated Press

This post comes from Brett Tolley, NAMA's National Program Coordinator. 
See our additional statement to the press.

A recent Associated Press (AP) report accused national distributor Sea to Table of seafood fraud, causing many of us in the values-based seafood community to ask deep questions. On the heels of the report's release, four ex-employees came forward revealing how they raised internal concerns to Sea to Table's leadership that were then either silenced or swept under the rug.

Sea to Table CEO, Sean Dimin, responded that the AP got it wrong, the ex-employees statements were false, and said, "the bottom line here is we may have been misled by one of our trusted suppliers."

For us at NAMA, in order to better understand this situation and its implications to our movement, we set out to talk to as many parties involved as possible. From those conversations, we learned that the bottom line is that Sea to Table demonstrated a significant lack of judgment in who they trusted and they dismissed early warning signs that should have triggered course correction. As a business committed to positive change in the seafood industry, they should have done better.

To the four ex-employees, thank you for speaking up. We know how much courage it takes to speak out as we've worked directly with many fishermen over the years who blew the whistle on those with power. In many instances the truths these fishermen brought forth were dismissed. In addition, they have been ridiculed, silenced at public meetings, bullied on the ocean, or threatened at their doorstep. We take your input very seriously and will continue our due diligence to understand what happened.

On a personal level, I know Sea to Table. They have bought fish that was caught by my family. For years I lived down the block from their original headquarters in Brooklyn and have known the co-founder, Michael Dimin, since Sea to Table began. Sean Dimin and I have spoken at events together and Sea to Table is connected through many of our networks, aligning themselves around a shared vision toward good, clean, and fair seafood.

Sea to Table misplaced their trust.

Sea to Table trusted their New York-based seafood supplier Gosman's Fish Market. We know Gosman's too. Local fishermen have walked us through Gosman's retail seafood display and pointed out mislabeled fish that couldn't possibly be 'local' but rather came from the world's second largest seafood wholesaler, Fulton Street Fish Market.

Read about Fulton Fish Market co-opting the term Community Supported Fisheries and a sign-on letter from 76 businesses across the country.

So it was no surprise when the AP revealed how Gosman's delivered 'Montauk' fish to Sea to Table that wasn't seasonal to Montauk and caught by a fisherman who wasn't bringing fish to Montauk docks.

If Sea to Table executives knew anything about the waters off Long Island or anything about the local fishermen, they would have known there was a problem long before ex-employees and the AP investigation brought this to light.

We believe the Dimin family created Sea to Table with the best of intentions. However, they have minimal boots-on-deck experience and a short history for knowing how working waterfronts operate. Sea to Table asks the public to "know your fisherman" yet they don't really know their fishermen.

What concerns us is that if Sea to Table trusted the wrong supplier who operates in their own backyard, how can the public trust Sea to Table's judgment with any of their other suppliers?

Trust is extremely fragile in the seafood industry and yet of utmost importance. Lucid trust, not blind trust. Conservation-minded family fishermen, who have been publicly and often wrongly demonized for years, have had to work hard to regain public trust. Sea to Table had the responsibility to ensure their supply chain aligned with their values and should have worked harder at building their chain of trust. Now they will have to work even harder to regain the public's trust.

Sea to Table Dismissed Early Warning Signs

Former Sea to Table employees and fishermen flagged early warning signs that should have caused Sea to Table to alter course. Their marketing materials contained information about fishing gear that didn't always match up with the correct boat, boat names didn't always match up with the fish, and fish didn't always match up with the season.

For most seafood dealers this is par for the course. But businesses like Sea to Table, who have a supply-based business model, depend on seafood sales being driven by local fishermen's catch, the story of the fishermen, and the seasonality of what is abundant in nearby waters.

As Sea to Table increased sales and expanded geographical reach the warning signs should have caused a moment of reflection. As one ex-employee put it, "The reality is that you cannot create this supply-based model on a national scale unless you are trying to change the buying habits of your customers. And Sea to Table wasn't willing to do that."

Sean Dimin told the AP, "It's a very unfortunate case of killing the good because everything is not yet perfect." But dismissing feedback from employees and fishermen is not good. Nor is putting trust in a seafood supplier whose practices were being called into question by many within Sea to Table's own community.

The bigger picture

In 2009 Cape Ann Fresh Catch was among the first to pilot the Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) model.

Around the country, increased seafood fraud is giving rise to alternative solutions. Over a decade ago one those solutions emerged from the Port Clyde fishing community, which together with NAMA piloted the first ever "Community Supported Fishery", taking its cue from the land-based "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA) model.

Since then hundreds of other Community Supported Fisheries and values-based seafood businesses have popped up around the country and around the globe. We've been honored to work with several of those communities to create these new models and the many machinations that have emerged since. That's why we take this case very seriously and any others that compromise the intent and values that birthed the first CSF and the new seafood movement. Much like those whistleblowers, we consider it our obligation to speak up.

Since those early days, has emerged to provide a platform for this growing seafood community and is now the go-to hub for connecting and aligning seafood businesses, organizations, researchers and eaters around shared values, and re-imagining what the seafood supply chain could look like.

All this momentum and more helped pave the way for values-driven seafood businesses to thrive, including Sea to Table.

Leadership and Accountability

To start taking leadership for the collective movement, the network created a baseline set of values in 2016 to guide the seafood revolution (or, 'revolocean' as coined by fisherman Aaron Longton) that we would embody to help transform the seafood industry.

Our seafood community has a responsibility to protect these values and provide support to businesses seeking to align around our shared vision. Some of these core values include fair price, transparency, and eating in line with the ecosystem's rhythms. Embedded in these values is the concept that the public demand for seafood shouldn't dictate the supply chain. Rather, our eating patterns should align with the bounty of the ocean, community-based fishing, and much more.

But too commonly, we see seafood suppliers striving to fill orders that are misaligned with what local fishermen are catching. Rather than say "no, our fishermen are not catching this right now", they attempt to fill the order gap through the global commodities market that is fraught with mislabeling and labor exploitation. Our values along with those of the founding CSA and CSF models, however, compel us to educate eaters to 'eat with the ecosystem' and also share the risks with the fishermen. One way of sharing those risks is through eating outside of our comfort zone and embracing what is abundant in our nearby waters.

Moving Toward Solutions

Ultimately, as we've learned from other movements, we know that many of the systems we put in place will be manipulated by others for their own gain. This means we must work even harder to protect the values we stand for and create a diligent network whose members will be accountable to themselves and each other.

As part of the network, we've begun to operationalize the Core Values. The website now prominently features seafood companies and the values on which their practices are based so the public can make smarter choices in their seafood sourcing.

In addition, and leaders within sister networks such as Slow Fish are beginning to consider 'community accountability' models that would continue to enhance trust and transparency in seafood. In many ways, the fishermen and ex-employees who raised concerns to Sea to Table demonstrated what this looks like. However, rather than dismiss them, we seek to elevate these voices, engage in challenging and honest dialogue, and ultimately help each other make course corrections when growing pains present a challenge.

Sea to Table can take a step in the right direction by at least acknowledging the legitimate warning signs that were brought forth by fishermen and ex-employees and in addition, establish internal policies so that any future concerns are properly considered and addressed.

In the meantime, Massachusetts Senator Markey is calling for an investigation on Sea to Table. This type of action is one of many that are needed to bring forth solutions that will improve our seafood system. If the Senator is serious about his intent to find answers and justice, there is more than can be done.

For starters, he (and others) should address the main reasons for seafood fraud which includes the current corporate consolidation of fishing rights and concentration of power along the entire seafood supply chain. These solutions can be implemented in the reauthorization of the Fish Bill (Magnuson-Stevens Act) by including limits on fisheries consolidation, incentives for improving supply chains, and more.

Our hope is that the AP's expose on Sea to Table will add a new lens to seafood eaters, helping the public shift their purchasing practices to the businesses that truly embody the values. As for NAMA and our network, we will continue our role in moving toward good, clean, and fair seafood.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Kathy Ozer's Hat

A reflection by Niaz Dorry on the process of stepping into a new role. Dorry is NAMA's Coordinating Director and as of May 1st is also the director of the National Family Farm Coalition. NAMA and NFFC entered a shared leadership model on May 1st, 2018.

At the NFFC winter meeting in late February, after a long day of productive talking and planning, Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar came up to me and said, “I have an idea and you’re not going to like it.” Hmmm… that’s an ominous way to start a conversation, I thought, but hey, it’s Carolyn. Maybe she’s going to tell me we can get a fisherman on the Farm Aid stage this year! Or the SeaFire Kids are part of this year’s line up? Or I get to smoke a joint with Willie Nelson on his bus?

But no… instead, she asked if NAMA had ever thought of sharing leadership and resources with NFFC. Again… hmmm… what? Although I wasn’t surprised by what Carolyn was asking, I wasn’t expecting it. My first thought was that I don’t want the family farmers to think we – those of us doing fisheries work – are trying to derail or usurp their power and agenda. I’ve seen that happen too often to want to be “that person.” And then there was another issue: the expectation of having to wear Kathy Ozer’s hat. Will I ever measure up in the eyes of those who knew her and worked so closely with her for decades?

On the fishing front, Carolyn reminded me of how engaged everyone was during the morning session when Amy MacKown of the NAMA team discussed the Fish Bill. The similarities with family farmers’ struggles -- just on the policy level -- were enough for everyone to be nodding their heads in unison. Carolyn was right. And, honestly, I already knew that, deep down inside. Still. I had to think about this.

On the Kathy front, I needed divine intervention.
My head was still swimming the next morning, the final day of the NFFC board meeting. David Battey, Kathy’s husband, came into the room. There was palpable emotion in his presence. He had a brown paper bag in his hand, and he walked over and sat next to me. With tears in his eyes, he took a green hat out of the bag and said, “I think Kathy would want you to have this.”

As if my mind wasn’t already blown by the conversation with Carolyn… I hadn’t told anyone about that -- how did he know?? I turned to David with disbelief.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Are you really giving me Kathy’s hat?”
He said, “Yes, she would want you to have it.”
I took the hat, and in a clownish fashion, wore it for a little while -- crying most of the time. I tried to explain the gift from David to those in the room without giving away what was really going through my mind. I didn’t tell anyone of the conversation with Carolyn. I just wore the hat. Which didn’t fit, by the way. I had to tweak it quite a bit just to get it to sit on my head properly.

The tweaking of that hat became a metaphor for what happened over the course of the next few weeks. I went into an extreme soul searching mode, and I thank many of my dear friends – especially Paul Bogart, Harriet Barlow, and Tom Kelly – for their ears and sage advice. They helped me get through my insecurities, tackle the “what if”s, apply a creative lens to the situation, declare radical acceptance, and finally step onto the road.

What I learned along the way is that Kathy’s hat won’t fit me. Not as she wore it. Not to (non-violently) beat the metaphor to death, but the truth is that our heads are shaped differently. Kathy’s head left an indelible impression on the movement for a more just food system that honors family farmers. None other can erase or replace that impression.

Finally at peace with the idea, the next steps of the process – board level conversations, developing plans, talking to key stakeholders, etc. – seemed to fall into place. As Jeremy Phillips, who has been expertly and thoughtfully guiding us through this process, put it:

“The (non-profit) Universe is aligning behind this!!”

The boards of both organizations expressed willingness to go where most won’t. As Pat Sweeney of Western Organization of Resource Councils said recently: we are making the road by walking. The boards decided to walk.

The day after both boards’ votes on the shared leadership proposal was cast, David called me. I thought maybe he had heard something through the grapevine? He said he was calling to see how things were going. How was NFFC doing? Have we found a new ED yet? I kept asking him if he had talked to anyone, and he said no… that’s why he was calling. He hadn’t heard anything.

So I told him the whole story, and the role he played in my taking the conversation with Carolyn seriously by giving me Kathy’s hat the next day. And now here he is calling the next day after the decision is made. He is clearly tuned into the right signals! His response to the news was that Kathy would be really happy about it and that he is fully supportive.

I wrote a note to both NFFC and NAMA boards and staff about this because this kind of stuff doesn’t happen every day. How Rosanna Marie Neil, who has been serving as NAMA’s indefatigable policy consultant the past few months, responded to that note says it all:

“I'm amazed at how you were shown that she literally wants you to wear her hat, and her husband called to offer his support the day after the proposal was approved.”

We got our divine intervention. Anchors away and onward we go, and we know that Kathy has our back.

Kathy in the famous green hat with her husband David.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Talking Fisheries Activism with Naseegh Jaffer

Dateline: Cape Town, South Africa
Author: Paul Molyneaux

The International Planning Committee (IPC) comprised of representatives from grassroots organizations around the world, brings the voices of small scale food producers, including fishermen, to the highest levels of global policy making. The committee meets every two years and this year was unique in that representatives from the United States, including this reporter, joined those from the officially recognized regions of Africa, Asia, Europe, South Pacific, and Latin America.

As a fisheries focused delegate from the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, I spoke with Naseegh Jaffer who is secretary of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) and a member of the IPC working group on fisheries, about how U.S. fishermen can participate in global policy making that will affect them whether they realize it or not.

The first issue that needs to be settled as U.S. and Canadian organizations join this global policy making process through the IPC, is whether they will form a new officially recognized region of North America, or join with Latin America as The Americas.

“The first consideration is who will be join the IPC,” said Naseegh, a native of South Africa. “Organizations that work globally like the WFFP, should be the first to become members. Other organizations that work regionally need to consider whether it is important for them to have a global voice, and if it is, they too should join.”

Once U.S. and Canadian organizations decide they want to participate they will need to think about how they want to organize regionally.

“This is a political discussion that they will need to have,” said Naseegh. North America is better resourced and more deeply rooted in the neo-liberal agenda. The North Americans could join with Latin America and as one region, but I think it would be good as its own region. It would be proving to the world that there are progressive organizations in North America, and this is something we need to acknowledge, support and encourage.”

The WFFP that Naseegh leads represents many small scale fishing people around the world, many of whom have seen their livelihoods threatened by things like pollution from oil drilling, privatization and consolidation of fishing rights, and a host of other ills often driven by multinational corporations based in the United States.

“You are living in the heart of the beast,” says Naseegh. “You need to speak out.”

At present two umbrella organizations represent small-scale fishing people on the world stage, the WFFP and its sister organization, the World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fish Workers (WFF) lead in part by Arthur Bogason of Iceland. Both organizations sprang from one that was formed in Delhi, India in 1997.

“It’s okay that we are two movements,” says Naseegh. “That way we get more seats. We’re not competing. We work together. Of course it wasn’t always like that. There was a lot of animosity when we first split, and some people didn’t talk for a long time.”

There are two stories to the split, and they belong to leaders: Pedro Avendaño and the late Thomas Kocherry. According to the story I received from Arthur Bogason it was over the very issue of regions. Arthur and Pedro’s contingent felt that North and South America should each get a vote in the original organization, but Arthur felt that Thomas Kocherry and his contingent from the developing world, wanted to weaken the power of the developed world by giving North and South only one vote, as “the Americas.” When the organization voted in favor of Kocherry, Avendaño and his group walked out.

Naseegh heard a different story from Kocherry, who said that the split was over the matter of scale. “What Thomas said was that he and Pedro Avendaño of Chile got into an argument over what was small-scale. Thomas felt that if your boat had an inboard engine and could go far out, it was not small-scale. He said only your small boats with outboards and rowing were truly small-scale. They could not agree, so they split.”

Avendaño and Bogason went on to lead the WFF, and Kocherry’s group formed the WFFP. “That’s in the past,” says Naseegh, who believes both groups have always been fighting the same fight.

“The point is we have to look at who has been using a resource for hundreds or thousands of years and protect their right to continue to do so.” Naseegh argues that the large extractive industries, industrial trawlers, oil rigs and other extractive industries must be controlled in ways that protect the ability of small scale fishing people to harvest resources close to shore. “You can’t have extractive industries without pollution, habitat degradation,” he says, noting the social and cultural degradation that small scale fishing communities experience when they lose their resources. “The big extractive industries, the big boat, these guys are killing us,” says Naseegh. “And because they take control of the resource and have the money, they are elevated and we are nothing.”

Naseegh was surprised to hear that Maine fishermen face challenges such as encroachment by aquaculture and wind farms, habitat degradation, and a challenges to local control of the intertidal zone and working waterfront. “This is the same as us, you need to join us,” he says. “It’s not hard.”

According to Naseegh an organization that wants to join the WFFP must be composed primarily of fishermen. “And the organization to be nominated by a member organization, which is easy. Then they must write a letter of motivation that tells how they hope to benefit from being part of a global organization and what they bring to us. Also they must have a constitution consistent with our values and mission to protect small scale fisheries.”

Many fishermen don’t realize that policy formulated at the UN often influences national and regional policies, which can sometimes lead to conflict on the water. By being part of the WFFP—or WFF—Naseegh believes, even the smallest scale fishermen—clammers, wrinkle pickers and wormers for example—can gain a voice at international forums. “And when you fight your local fights, you will have solidarity. We will support you and voice that support. If an organization is community based and supports democratic principles, we would welcome them,” says Naseegh.

This piece was originally featured in the April 2018 issue of Fisherman's Voice.

Learn more about the World Forum of Fisher Peoples by checking out their website here.