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Who Fishes Matters

November 2012

I recently had a chance to interview Grassroots International friend and ally Niaz Dorry, Executive Director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA). The organization brings together fishing communities in Grassroots’ own backyard (from southern New England up to Atlantic Canada). As a self-organizing and self-governing organization, NAMA seeks to restore and enhance an enduring marine system supporting a healthy diversity and an abundance of marine life and human uses.  NAMA is a member of Grassroots’ the National Family Farm Coalition (a Grassroots’ grantee), which in turn a member and anchor group of the Via Campesina (a Grassroots’ partner).  I’m happy to share highlights of this interview during the month of World Fisheries Day (November 21).

  Can you tell me about NAMA – how and when did it start?  Niaz: NAMA was conceived in ’95 and incorporated in ’97 by a group of fishermen and some fishing community advocates who felt like things had to change. One of the elements they wanted to focus on was bringing together all the different stakeholders – especially the ones who never have a voice. They worked really hard to try to bring these different players together and particularly to get the fishing communities to figure out a way to organize themselves so they would have power and be able to impact their communities. These were primarily small- and medium-scale fishers and fishing operations that came together to do this. For the first 10 years, they focused on research – proving that communities have value ecologically, economically, socially… We created one of the first seafood seasonality charts in the early 2000s, to show people visually that just like our land-based food system, marine animals come in seasonal cycles.   After 2007, we went from focusing on research to actually now doing community organizing in a way we felt would work to build a political base for the answers we already had…so that’s what we’ve been working on for the past 4-5 years.   Can you give me a story of something NAMA has working on where you see some progress, success, or positive momentum in the direction you’re moving?  Niaz: In early 2008 we did a debriefing with existing partners, and based on that feedback, we decided not to pursue any new policy until the power base of the organization was strong enough to be able to step up and defend it…Almost exactly two years to the date of when we said that to the board, we went to our first fisheries policy meeting, but this time we weren’t alone. We actually did have some outside power, and you could see that it was actually beginning to confuse the policy makers because they weren’t used to this new audience. This new audience was the food people – the people eating the catch of the fishermen but who hadn’t been allowed to be at the table and didn’t know how to be at the table [before].    The way we went about building a base of food activists to start really being engaged in fisheries management was through the Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) movement. We started to create this model after Community Supported Agriculture – it allowed fishermen to meet the public, and the public could get a sense of who is catching their fish, to start valuing that who actually catches their fish is important if they want to see their values reflected on the water…   We found that CSF work allowed us to have those conversations in a really open and transparent way with the consumers. On the flip side of it, it was really important for the fishermen because the small- and medium-scale fishermen essentially had been under the impression that nobody cares about them…The CSF movement allowed them to get positive feedback from the public, and you could see the change in the fishermen involved, they felt suddenly more confident. You go up to the fisheries management table with all these people who are trying to intimidate you in this supposedly-public process, and now you suddenly feel a little bit more confident. And of course they were getting paid a little bit better prices through the CSF movement.    So it allowed us to reinvigorate the fishing base and start up a conversation with the consumer base. That’s really what allowed us to go back to the fisheries management table two years later with food activists testifying and fishermen beginning to speak up again, and that’s when we introduced our fleet diversity amendment, and every step of the way the base for support has grown bigger.    That’s a great story and lesson in organizing – victories are not just the policy wins but also the process of building power.  Niaz: We’re doing a power analysis for fisheries stuff. The people who’ve been controlling things still have a pretty strong pull. Back in February, right when the public comment period was ending, one of the biggest fleet owners pledged $10 million to fight our fleet diversity efforts. They have a lot to lose and they’re putting up a pretty good fight. It’s really important for us to keep the heat on.   One of the most important things happening recently is that other fishing communities (not just in New England) are realizing the importance of the fleet diversity policy for their own communities, because we’re not alone up here in New England in facing this privatization and industrialization agenda that’s happening on the water. Many communities are looking to see how they can prevent it from happening, and they see some of the fleet diversity safeguards that we’ve been talking about here in New England as a way to do that. So we’re beginning to branch out, working with folks in Alaska, west coast, internationally, and in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.    It’s happening in many communities and becoming harder for them to ignore, but it also means we have to approach it on multiple levels. The regional fishery management council process is where the fleet diversity amendment is currently in play. But starting 2013, the US fisheries law that manages who catches fish, how it gets distributed, whether or not it’s done for the greater benefit of the nation – it’s called the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act – is going to start a reauthorization process in US Congress. So we’ll have to look at how to strengthen the Magnuson Act to include the protections we’re talking about…So that’s going beyond the region, and I suspect that will be a big fight.   And then of course internationally, we have international colleagues that are beginning to look at the UN Committee on Fisheries, which is beginning to look at the value of small-scale fishing communities… [W]e’re going to have victories along the way whether it’s in the regional management councils, or on the national level with some amendments to the Magnuson Act, or internationally by pursuing the UN stuff – this is big change, framing how fisheries are viewed on such a broad level. It’s going to take some time.    You’ve described one of the biggest challenges you are facing from the large-scale industry that’s putting so much money into trying to defeat the efforts of small- and medium-scale fishing communities to create more fair rules. Are there other challenges you’ve been coming up against?   Niaz: First, economic efficiency: We’ve been told to think of fisheries and the ocean in a certain way. Fisheries and ocean management have been done using the economic efficiency model that we all now know is outdated – where the lowest cost of production is the only value that “matters.” That’s what’s leading to the privatization, industrialization, consolidation – who can catch the most amount of fish in the cheapest way possible.   Second, a consumer protection model: Fisheries management has been done in a single species myopic way. We need to have an ecosystem-based approach. Consumers are focused on single species as opposed to values that are really important to us. People look at those lists and they’re important, but now that we know there are other values to take into account, it’s time for those lists to go deeper….That’s a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow. Many organizations are so wedded to those lists, they’ve invested millions of dollars – the Marine Stewardship Council has invested tens of millions of dollars in creating their label, which we feel is actually green-washing. But consumers have already been using it, they feel like “I would rather buy seafood that has this label than seafood that doesn’t,” even if that label is from an industrial factory-style fishing operation that’s affecting the broader ecosystem and putting communities in jeopardy economically, ecologically, socially. So changing that consumer perception has been really a big challenge. The CSF conversation helped with that – we have our seafood cards with “Who Fishes Matters” with values rather than species.    For both of the challenges I was talking about – economic efficiency and consumer protection model – the biggest help has been food system lens. Rethinking economic efficiency and rethinking labels has already proved itself as being important in the broader food system conversation. That’s why we’re putting so much value on family farmers, and that’s why we’re focusing so much in collaborating with other people in the food system and food sovereignty organizations. We’ve already proven that if the rationale to kill marine animals is to feed people, we have got to see whether or not we’re doing that right. There are lessons to be learned from land-based systems. The “green revolution” isn’t feeding people right, and it’s having ecological, social, economic implications. It’s the same thing here! The blue revolution is undermining the purpose of fisheries management. So the work that you and others have done on defining food sovereignty and raising the value of family farmers and local food systems has been really key to us being able to redefine the conversation around fisheries.   Can you say more about what food sovereignty means for people working in fisheries?  Niaz: The Magnuson Fisheries Act I was talking about has national standards that all fisheries bodies are supposed to live up to, but they don’t. The majority of fisheries management rules don’t sufficiently address those requirements. For example, [the act includes] “National Standard #1” – its purpose is to have the greatest benefit to the nation, and it talks about economic, ecological, social values. It talks about the need for local communities and to be able to feed themselves from fishing activities. But fishery management itself is actually based on global trade of marine animals. It’s all about how much seafood do we catch that can end up somewhere else so we can increase GDP. That’s what fishery management has become. When you look at National Standard #1 and some of the language within Magnuson it’s actually completely opposite – it’s about self-sufficiency, and killing marine animals for the purpose of greater benefit of the nation is defined as food and access in the law, but is practiced as the global movement of capital when it comes to policy making.    So if we look at food sovereignty language we can see where some leverage is available to push for food sovereignty rules within fishing, because it’s actually already there, just nobody values it.…Up until last year when we started talking about fish grabbing, nobody was talking about fisheries issues in the same way as land grabs are impacting farming and communities’ food.   We are connected to fishing communities organizing in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Iceland, and Canada. Here in the US we’re so far behind on really taking this issue seriously in the context of fisheries management because we consider some of it “progress.” It almost has racist and classist language that’s associated with some of the way that this fish grabs and water rights are talked about – in some circles, at fisheries management the language is elitist, language of taking fisheries out of the hands of these people and “professionalizing” it. What does that mean? You take oil skins off of the fishermen and put suits and ties on…Some are selling it as social improvement because there are less “hobo-style fishermen” fishing, but those are the ones with the smaller ecological footprint, so you lose those who are somehow “subclass” to the economies-of-scale model, and you gain the big business model. There’s something wrong with that picture, but we have to get other people to see it.   Is there a take-away message you want people to know about fisheries, or about supporting small-scale fishing communities in the U.S.?  Niaz: The big message for me is we really have to rethink how we have been taking care of the ocean and the fisheries… One way we can change things is to force policymakers to think about how we take things from the ocean in a similar way that we’re learning to think about how we take from the land. Impressing upon how you get your seafood, who is it supporting, where does the money go, the stuff we’re applying to all different aspects of our lives, start applying to our seafood. All these other industries (agriculture, health care, auto, finance) have gone through privatization, gone through deregulation, takeovers, seeing problems, and now we’re learning that in order to fix it we have to go back to our roots and focus on our communities. This is the same thing we’re going to learn in a few years about the oceans. So let’s not go down that road – let’s stop now and change paths instead of waiting 10, 20 years to start undoing and rebuilding things.  

We have plenty of lessons to learn from – for some reason we’ve chosen not to apply them to the ocean, but the time has come. Ultimately, all this fish that we’re taking is being paid for by somebody. We need to start leveraging that money towards changing things so we can actually have access to them for many generations to come. We say “Who Fishes Matters” – we really want people to think about what that means much more seriously.


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