Slow Fish to Your Plate
Understanding the slippery issues around responsible seafood management
Do you know your local farmer? How about your local fishermen? Any fishermen?
It’s likely that many readers know at least one farmer. That’s due in part to the tireless efforts of the Slow Food community to shorten the distance between farmer and consumer. But many readers may not know there’s a similar campaign aiming to do the same for the seafood supply chain. Slow Fish is an international offshoot of Slow Food, with regional operations in different countries, but still aimed at streamlining the seafood path from boat to plate.
Why is this important to folks in Maine? As discussed in the July issue of Edible Maine, U.S. consumers don’t typically know much about the seafood they eat because up to 90% of it is imported—from countries with some pretty shocking harvest and farming practices, no less. On the other hand, odds are that if you know your fisherman, you know how your seafood was harvested, and you have a rough idea of the short journey that seafood took from the ocean to your fridge.
Slow Fish is a collaborative network of fishermen, fishmongers, chefs, researchers, educators, advocates, and others in and around the seafood supply chain working to ensure everyone has access to seafood that is all of the following:
Good: wholesome, seasonal, local, fresh.
Clean: preserves biodiversity, sustains the environment, and nourishes a healthy lifestyle for both humans and animals.
Fair: honors the dignity of labor from boat to plate, respects the diversity of cultures and traditions, and strengthens awareness of our ocean as a public commons resource.
Slow Fish works in the background to support community-based fishermen and promote policies that enable them to make an honest living. That’s important in a market dominated by huge corporations that care more about the bottom line than the welfare of either independent fishermen or the ocean itself. Case in point: A billion-dollar hedge fund recently purchased several boats, fishing permits, and seafood processing infrastructure (including five Portland-based trawlers and their permits) and is now poised to be the most influential player in New England.
Part of Slow Fish’s success stems from the collaborations and network building that connect different perspectives, business models, and geographies to tackle some of the industry’s toughest challenges, including consolidation, climate change, and fraud. One controversial policy that has forced the New England groundfish fleet to shrink dramatically in the last 20 years is known informally as “catch shares.”
In a nutshell, just for the right to fish, small-scale fishermen must pay a portion of their income, sometimes as much as 75%, to “sealords” (think ocean-based sharecroppers who may never set foot on a boat). This is in addition to the standard licensing fees the fishermen must pay to state and federal agencies to operate. Too often, this system, which was supposed to protect the resource but has instead threatened some fish stocks, makes it almost economically impossible for single-boat operators to survive.
Slow Fish has worked to build networks of fishermen and advocates to publicly decry the system’s inequities at federal and state fish management council meetings and push for meaningful policy changes that support community-based fisheries. Some Slow Fish successes include:
- The newly passed Louisiana law that mandates all imported shrimp and crawfish be labeled in restaurants so consumers know what they’re ordering.
- The unique coalition of commercial, indigenous, and recreational fishermen and women who have successfully opposed the proposed Pebble Mine at the headwaters of the world’s largest wild salmon run in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
- A series of webinars on seafood fraud.
- The coalition working to change policies like catch shares to support community-based fishermen like Capt. Tim Rider of Eliot, Maine.
Rider, who runs New England Fishmongers, has evolved his business model away from standard supply chain distribution; now, he sells direct to restaurants in Maine and seacoast New Hampshire, and to customers via farmer’s markets and drop-off points throughout southern Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He was one of the fishermen to speak most vocally against catch shares.
He will be one of several fishermen from across North America and beyond at the Slow Fish 2020 gathering at the University of New Hampshire in Durham this March, coming together to collaborate on solutions to common challenges faced by fisheries and celebrate responsibly harvested seafood.
“Since Slow Fish New Orleans (2016), I’ve made working relationships with many folks from New England up to Alaska,” says Rider. “It has allowed us to take a stand for policy together. This year’s event will look to expand on this and unite us further to provide the best seafood and an opportunity for all to access the resource.”
It’s good to know there’s that kind of energy and unity working to ensure more of the seafood we get here in Maine is responsibly harvested by fishermen in our communities.
Colles Stowell is president of One Fish Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit that brings the sustainable seafood message into classrooms (from elementary through college) and communities.