Making Fishing Fair

by Sadie Beaton.

Our oceans are vast, and filled with mystery. Though we may enjoy seafood or even an ocean view, many of us don’t have a clue what happens on fishing boats, let alone under the water.

Unmistakable though, are the changes wrought by globalized industrial fisheries. Major fish stocks have collapsed around the world, fishing communities have vanished, and food insecurity has become a ubiquitous concern. Meanwhile, documentation of human trafficking, forced labour, and other abhorrent social practices along seafood supply chains is piling up. And too often, “sustainable fisheries” initiatives ignore inequitable policies and practices eroding the social fabric of our coastal communities.

Inside the boat barn.

Inside the boat barn.

Connecting the dots between the fish on our plates and the people who caught it is no easy task. Seafood is one of the most heavily traded resources in the world, and most of it flows along a long and slippery supply chain. In the last decade or so, a ‘sustainable seafood’ movement has grown in many parts of the world to try to bring more transparency to this supply chain. From wallet-card rating systems, to retail procurement policies to third-party certification, most initiatives have focused on environmental aspects of sustainability.

As FishWise has pointed out, “issues of seafood sustainability and human rights are inextricably linked, not only from an ethical standpoint, but also from a practical one.” But momentum has lagged significantly when it comes to improving social and labour conditions for fishing communities along the seafood supply chain.  The world’s leading sustainable seafood certifier, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), lacks social standards. Unfortunately, this means that their iconic blue ‘sustainability’ check mark can be found on seafood caught or processed under labour conditions bordering on slavery.

Coils of bottom longline. Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia.

Coils of bottom longline.

Recently, certifiers from the fair trade movement have turned their attention to seafood. Originally aimed at coffee growers, the fair trade model seeks “to change the behaviors of producers and traders in international trade by establishing production and transaction standards such as environmentally friendly production methods, minimum age for work, and fair prices paid to producers, as well as mechanisms to enforce these standards, in order to improve the lives of the producers and their communities (Schuler & Christmann, 2011).

Fair trade certification may seem like a natural fit for small-scale fisheries looking for better value and recognition for their products. However, concerns have been increasing over weaknesses in fair trade standards and certification processes. As promoting social responsibility is good for corporate bottom lines, fair trade certifications are at risk of being co-opted (Villalon-Soler, 2010). Unfortunately, social and labour standards currently under development for fair trade fisheries certification seem to be following this trend, aligning with corporate interests and failing to engage small-scale fishing communities.

Luckily, other movements and tools around equity and social sustainability in fisheries are emerging. As demand grows for more connection to the stories behind our food, the sustainable seafood movement is broadening. One such movement, Slow Fish, shows some promise to connect the dots around “good clean and fair” fisheries. Borne out of Slow Food in the mid 2000s, Slow Fish is active in over 20 countries, working in diverse ways “to promote artisanal fishing and neglected fish species and inspire reflection on the state and management of the sea’s resources.”

Small-scale hook and line.

Bottom longline, Nova Scotia.

Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been building useful guidelines for the recognition and protection of small-scale fisheries. These standards have been drafted with considerable participation from small-scale fishermen’s organizations from countries around the world, including Canada. These voluntary guidelines call for nations, markets and civil society to respect and protect the human rights of small-scale fishers when developing and implementing policies that impact fishing communities. This would involve rights associated with access to food, fish stocks and grounds, employment, fair wages and an acceptable living standard, along with the right to form and join trade unions.

The US-based Community Fisheries Network has also created elegant and simple fisheries sustainability standards. Unlike what seems to be happening within the fair trade movement, these standards have been built with fishing communities “from the bottom up,” and holistically address ecological, social equity and economic issues.

Hook and line caught halibut tagged with ThisFish traceability tag.

Hook and line halibut.

Innovative market-based tools like ThisFish are also well poised to contribute to a more inclusive sustainable seafood movement. An initiative of Ecotrust Canada, ThisFish has worked with fishing communities to develop a traceability system that can connect consumers to clear information about who, where, and how a participating bit of seafood was caught, and how it travelled to your plate. Recently, the Conference board of Canada endorsed the concept of seafood traceability as a way to increase fisheries competitiveness.

Direct marketing initiatives including community-supported fisheries are also growing more equitable seafood markets. In this model, based on community-supported agriculture, people sign up in advance of the fishing season for regular deliveries of sustainably harvested fish along opportunities to directly interact with local fishing families. Meanwhile, the participating fishing families are allowed greater control of their social and economic conditions, including setting a price for their catch that makes small-scale fishing viable.

Small-scale owner-operator fishermen are Atlantic Canada’s biggest private sector employer. However, in a marketplace that increasingly rewards large industrial fisheries, these important livelihoods are at risk.  Momentum is building among small-scale fishermen to work together (and with other organizations), and a national federation has recently formed to defend and promote Canada’s community-based fishing fleets.

Participants discussing regional branding ideas at Seafood Value Chain workshop

Seafood Value Chain workshop participants.

Last October, the Ecology Action Centre hosted a two-day workshop in Halifax called ‘Creating a Sustainable Value Chain for Atlantic Canada’s Small-scale Fisheries.’ Fishermen, processors and distributors gathered with market specialists for two days to explore alternative marketing tools that recognize and reward sustainable catch methods while supporting owner-operator fishermen and their communities. A consensus emerged from this workshop that current sustainability certification schemes don’t capture the full range of values represented by small-scale, community-based fishing. Several common values that could be reflected in a regional branding or set of standards were expressed, including ensuring a fair price for fishermen, maintaining independent owner-operators, sustainable fishing practices, safe working conditions, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility.

Boats at Deer Island

Boats at Deer Island, New Brunswick.

Sustainable seafood standards are an important tool, and ideally encourage fisheries to move towards low-impact, science-based management and practices.  But a truly sustainable vision for fisheries needs to be more holistic, protecting human rights in the form of equitable social policies and standards. Making fishing more fair will involve not only the creation of robust standards, certifications, and policy, but also better connecting the people who love seafood and coastal communities with the faces and stories that make up the social fabric of our small-scale fisheries. And a whole lot of working together.

How do we go about creating effective sustainability standards that ensure fair social and labour practices along the seafood supply chain? Leave a commment or send us a note to share your thoughts at SmallScales@ecologyaction.ca

7 thoughts on “Making Fishing Fair

  1. Can I be added to an email list for events and/or workshops please? My MSc. research directly relates to the subjects in this post.

  2. CANADIAN FISHERS ARE BEING DESCRIMINATED AGAIST AS OF JAN 1, 2014 BY— MANDATORY— FISHERS REGISTRATION TO BE DONE ONLY “ON LINE”, INSTEAD OF BY POST OFFICE BEING FORCED UPON US BY DFO, NOT ALL OF US HAVE COMPUTERS, OR ACCESS, OR ABILITY TO USE,SOME DONT KNOW HOW TO READ OR WRITE, I TRIED TO APPLY ON LINE AND COULDN’T MAKE ANY SENSE OF IT LAST JUNE(2013), phoned LICENSING to inquire what to do, THEY SENT THE SAME LETTER THEY SENT ME IN MARCH, 2013 ,DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO DO IT THEN AND STILL DON’T. I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT WE AS CANADIANS HAD THE RIGHT TO UNDERSTANDABLE COMUNICATIONS. THEY TALK ABOUT REPRSENTATIVES BEING APPOINTED TO HELP WITH THIS BUT WHO AND WHERE ARE THEY? SOME FISHERS WILL BE LOSING THEIR LICENSE BECAUSE OF THIS NEW SYSTEM, MANY ARE STILL UNAWARE THAT THIS SYSTEM IS ALREADY IN PLACE.CANADIAN FISHERS ARE BEING PHASED OUT BY OUR OWN GOVERNMENT!….THE CLAMMER.

  3. Sadie, This is a great article! Including social standards , regional branding, and fair trade are key for equitable fisheries economy / livelihood. This should guide our legislature when making laws: a clear objectives for making policies that values small-scale fisheries and not one that is shortsighted and uses flawed efficiency arguments excluding social factors.

    One reasons why the focus has been on environmental issues only, is that definitions of “sustainability” often only addressed environmental issues and excluded social factors. That needs to change.

    In a conversation with a a group representing grocery stores in the U.S., I was asked if certification (that includes these attributes) is available. This group’s sustainability office was very interested in promoting small-scale / fair trade products to their members. Hope is there I believe! Keep up the great work.

  4. One thing we could do is get rid of factory trawlers and draggers and it
    >wouldn’t hurt to get rid of gillnetters aswell factory trawlers (forgin
    vessels) come to the 200mile limits and rape everything fish draggers tow
    big steel plates “doors” across the bottom smashing fish habitat and if a
    gillnetters looses net it never stops fishing but never resurfaces either
    unless hooked just want to put my 2 cents worth in coming from a guy who
    had to leave the fishery and peruse other industry to make a living

  5. Pingback: Reeling in Big Value from our Small-Scale Fisheries | Small Scales

  6. Pingback: Community Fisheries Network | Ecology Action Centre: Making Fishing Fair

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