Guest Contribution by Brett Tolley
Last week I had the privilege to join the Canadian Independent Fish Harvester’s Movement for their two-day meeting in Halifax. My purpose was to learn more about owner-operator policies in Atlantic Canada but to be honest, I was really looking to find hope and inspiration for our fisheries back home.
In New England I work as a community organizer for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. Our independent fishermen are facing nearly identical challenges to those of our Canadian counterparts: threat of corporation concentration to fisheries access, skewed government regulations, science that suffers major shortcomings, and market prices that strain fish populations and independent fishermen alike. One Nova Scotian fisherman at the meeting put it well:“It feels like we are sliding down an avalanche. All we can do is keep our head down and try to stay ahead of the impending disaster.” These could have been the same words from my own father and many other fishermen I know in New England.
Across borders fishing families share these struggles, and likewise, our fish populations suffer. That is why independent fishermen uniting for the sake of the fish and fishing communities is so important. If we truly care about protecting marine resources, working waterfronts, and a healthier food system, these are the movements that need to be highlighted, recognized, and listened to.
I could go on about the inspiring discussions and ideas we shared. But at the risk of this post turning into a book, I’ll just choose one.
David Decker from the Fish and Food Allied Workers Union asked, “How do we improve the incomes of independent harvesters?” While simple on the surface, the question actually has major ecological, social, and economic implications. David called our attention to a well-known mantra that we’ve all heard – too many fishermen chasing too few fish. Which actually, I have a bone to pick with (mainly because this phrase ignores scale of fishing) but that’s for another post.
He said that if we generally accept that too many fishermen (or too much pressure) are chasing too few fish, then the logical management response is to reduce the fleet. If the goal is to reduce the fleet, than it becomes easy to ignore concepts like owner-operator, scale of fishing, income to fishermen, and much more. This blind spot has allowed management programs like Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) (also known as IFQs, catch shares, and many other names) to seem logical because they achieve the goal of reducing the fleet. But perhaps this goal is wrong-headed.
Fisheries policy advocate Marc Allain called the present policy direction an “attack on rural Canada.” I agree with Marc and would expand to say these policies are an attack on rural communities everywhere.
What if, instead the goal was to improve the incomes of independent fishermen?
Trained economist Marcel LeBreton presented at the conference. He showed how improving incomes to independent fishermen can achieve outcomes that bring the most value to communities, local economies, and the marine ecosystem. The logic goes like this: when there is low profitability in the fishery it requires higher economic efficiency. Higher economic efficiency leads to fleet consolidation. Fleet consolidation (without safeguards in place) leads to concentration of fisheries access, fewer incentives for new entrants, vertical integration, and a loss of stewardship over the resource. This, unfortunately, is the road many fisheries have taken, which heads in one direction – corporate concentration of the fisheries.
If instead, the goal were to increase the incomes of independent fishermen, then a fleet reduction strategy might still be appropriate. But the parameters and how the fleet reduces would be completely different. Managers would be forced to consider policies that protect owner-operator and small-scale businesses, which we believe is key to improving stewardship over our marine ecosystem.
Overall, I left the conference with both hope and inspiration that so long as independent fishermen can unite, there may be a future for healthy marine ecosystems and fishing communities.
Brett Tolley has lived and worked as an advocate and community organizer in both Mexico and Brooklyn, New York. The son of a third generation fishermen, he is a Community Organizer with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.