Each fall, the Council for Healthy Food Systems – along with sister organization Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance – hosts the Farm & Food Leadership Conference for small-scale farmers, local food producers, and consumers of healthy local foods.
At its 2018 Conference, seafood was the subject of one of the sessions for the first time in the history of the Conference.
Brett Tolley, national program coordinator for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) and a member of a four-generation commercial fishing family in Massachusetts, revealed some of the ways that family fishers face issues that are very similar to those who are engaged in land-based stewardship, food production, and marketing.
“Big – and not good – food has destroyed a lot of communities and displaced family farmers, and the same is true for family fisheries,” he said. “I grew up on a boat and knew what it felt like to be out there and connected to the ocean and feel saltwater in my face and catch fish. I got that bug, but my dad told me at a young age he didn’t want me to pursue fishing. There was no hope in it.”
Brett’s response? “I decided to fight for sustainable fisheries.”
Just as small-scale farmers must compete in the marketplace with cheap, industrially produced food, much of it imported, family fishers are up against similar forces. “Ninety-two percent of all seafood consumed in the U. S. is imported,” he pointed out, a much higher proportion than anyone in the audience assumed. “Most seafood travels 5,500 miles from dock to dish. But this is not for a lack in our own waters. We catch way more than enough to feed us. But we export. And fishing families make very little.”
Family fishers and others who, like Brett, are fighting for sustainable fisheries realized they had to do things differently. “So we took cues from family farmers and CSAs and started community supported fishery programs at farmers’ markets,” Brett explained, “selling at fair prices, offering ‘under loved’ species, not just a few standard and over-fished species, connecting directly with people in the community, and keeping money local.”
Community supported fisheries are slowly increasing, and now exist not just in the northeastern U.S. but also in North Carolina, California, Oregon, and the New Orleans area. And a few may be in the works for Texas, something Brett was scheduled to explore in visits to several places on the Texas coast after the conference.
To gain greater presence and economic force than selling at farmers’ markets allows, however, Brett noted that NAMA also has been effective in creating marketing relationships between family fishers and institutions such as hospitals.
How can individual seafood consumers help in the movement to sustain healthy fisheries and family fishers? “Be curious,” Brett advised. “Wherever you buy seafood – restaurants, markets, wherever – ask where and when it was caught. Try to buy from community-based fisheries.”
And, as with land-based food production and marketing, seafood consumers should also join in efforts to reform policies and regulations affecting fisheries and seafood marketing and consumption. “We at NAMA recognize that voting with your fork is not going to be enough. We have these existing policies moving at such a rapid rate, and they’re squeezing out all our family, community-based fishing people,” he noted. “If we don’t address these policies, we’re not going to have anyone to apply our values to. So a lot of our work at NAMA is organizing a large network and providing action opportunities.”
We encourage you to check out NAMA’s work on healthy fisheries and the family fishing movement. “Fisheries are a public resource. We all have an inherent public right that whatever comes out of the ocean benefit all of us, not just a few,” he said.