We all know the charms of a fishing village: the shoreside industries that make a stroll along a harbor compelling, the boats bulging with gear tied up to the pier, nets laid out to dry. That, and the small family fishing boat, may soon be another casualty of corporate driven fishing policies. Fishing culture – the vision of a boat chugging into port beneath a cloud of squawking seagulls, the chapel steeple pointing from the town rooftops to the skies, signaling home to the returning vessel – all this will soon be nothing more than photos in a heritage center if more effort is not made to preserve the small family boat and the rich culture that follows, just like those seagulls.
In the Good Food movement of the last thirty years we have learned that our soil, our land, our air, and our food is all healthier when farming is done in a small, manageable scale. Farm communities are thus healthier, diverse, more interesting places, not simply animal factories or thousands of acres of corn. The same is true of fishing: fishing on a scale that is human, supporting the small family fishing boat and its community, will make a healthier ocean, and consequently preserve the economies of fishing communities.
The United States fisheries are regulated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the Department of Commerce. The balance of commerce and healthy oceans has seemed like a tug-of-war since the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. An amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act – the Sustainable Fisheries Act – was added in 1996, strengthening the mandate to protect U.S. fisheries.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act created the 200 mile limit, declaring that no foreign boats were allowed within 200 miles of U.S. coastline. The Sustainable Fisheries Act’s was enacted “with the fundamental goals of preventing overfishing, rebuilding overfished stocks, protecting essential fish habitat, minimizing bycatch, enhanced research and improved monitoring.” (From the NOAA website.)
The “days at sea” program, enacted in the mid-1990’s, was one part of many actions born from NOAA’s new sustainability mandate. Under “days at sea,” New England groundfish boats, for example, were appointed a specific number of “days at sea” to go fishing.
In 2010, the days at sea program was replaced in the New England groundfishery (earlier in most other U.S. fisheries) under Amendment 16 to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, by the Individual Transferable Quota System – now called “Catch Shares.”
Catch Shares were a relatively new market-based strategy pushed since the mid-80s primarily by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and a few other big environmental groups. Catch Shares would be – mythically – where sustainability and commerce got along. The EDF and a few other environmental groups supported this big business agenda of deregulation, consolidation, and privatization. Starting in New Zealand’s orange roughy fishery in 1986, then the Mid-Atlantic surf clam or ocean quahog fishery, and then Alaska halibut and sablefish fisheries, and now being pushed on most U.S. fisheries, Catch Shares began to facilitate the big business take-over of the world’s fishing, not just America’s.
Some environmental groups, like the Environmental Defense Fund, believe only those with major investments – can be stewards of the ocean. Catch Share have thus been the place where commerce and sustainability are being touted as married. But here’s a fact to consider: some of these groups – like EDF – have received funding from the Walton family, and Koch Brothers and their various tentacles to support their Catch Shares agenda.
Catch Share have become a means by which fishing has become consolidated, privatized, and industrialized. Many small and medium sized boats, assigned too small a quota to make a living, sold or leased their quota to the larger boats who could afford to buy it up. The large corporate fleets are the ones left fishing.
As opposed to the industrialization of agriculture under President Nixon, this effort has been done under the cloak of “sustainability.” It has been supported by certain environmental groups, groups that don’t equate small family boats to ecological sustainability.
We do. The family farm movement taught us that although not perfect, the greatest potential in achieving our ecological sustainability AND food access goals is to support scale-appropriate independent family operations.
Even the term “fishing community” has been degraded by fishing policy: after the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson Act, in an effort to measure policy impacts on fishing communities, not just fishermen, NOAA attempted to define the term “fishing community.” Under pressure from the northwest corporate-owned factory fleet led by the American Factory Trawlers Association (later renamed At Sea Processors Association), NOAA included in that definition “fishing vessels that process fish far from their homeports.” An offshore factory fishing boat, therefore, is just as much a “fishing community,” and enjoys the same government considerations, as Stonington, Maine.
Just as we re-learned to accept whatever our local farmers were growing, picking up from our CSA’s or shopping at a farmers’ market, we must re-learn how to shop for local fish. Fish markets today buy fish from all around the world pushed onto consumers by the globalized seafood companies. There is almost no such thing as a “local catch.” As a result, consumers have lost touch with the realities of the ocean’s ecosystems and its “seasons.” Customers are upset if there is no salmon, tuna, and swordfish in the case, no matter where they live, regardless of what fish is swimming in waters nearby.
We must support the small boats fishing out of a harbor, if only to protect that fishing community. Otherwise all harbors zoned for maritime use will be rezoned for development – hotels, condominiums, and shopping – as fishing moves to offshore corporate trawlers.
Find a Community Supported Fishery, based on the same model as Community Supported Agriculture, in your community. CSFs are now the best, most reliable way to source truly local seafood that will taste far fresher and sweeter, with less overall ecological impact than anything that flew around the world to get to you, and you will be preserving the vision of that boat chugging into port trailed by a cloud of squawking seagulls.
Preserving the small family fishing boat may save the ocean’s health, for the exact same reasons saving the small family farm – preventing farming from being entirely industrialized – helps conserve the environment.
The fishing village stays just that, a fishing town that always knows its place in the ocean’s ecosystems.
Support local fishing boats, end of story. Buy local fish, whatever it is.