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Fishermen First: Protecting the People Behind What We Eat

Boat Ocean

The Taste of Summer

With only a week of summer left, many of us will load up our beach chairs and don our flip flops for a final excursion to the beaches. Our final taste of summer would be incomplete without a stop at a local seafood shack to savor the delicacies of the sea dockside, amidst the fishing boats, cackling seagulls and salty dogs. We feel an intimate connection to the ocean diving into a crashing wave or savoring our first bite of lobster, oyster or crab, ingesting the smell and taste of the sea. Perfection!

This summer, consider taking a minute to talk to the person selling you the seafood—or better yet a fisherman on the dock. You will feel their sense of pride and maybe even hear a few great stories. These stories are similar the world over from San Pedro, Chile to Bath, Maine: fishermen are fiercely independent and proud of what they do, and have done for generations. On a recent visit to Chile we met a fisherman, nicknamed Chocolat, on the docks who told us:

“I love the work on the water because it’s diverse. I can do farming, catch squid, catch fish, go diving. I have the freedom of the water and the sea provides for me.”

We are conducting intensive research in places like Chile, Mexico, South Africa, Senegal and Indonesia to spread the stories of these individual ‘smallholder’ fishers—stories that we at The Rockefeller Foundation and our partners believe are critical to sustaining the wealth and diversity of our oceans—the foundation of the connection we may feel with the sea.


A Humanitarian Crisis

The New York Times recently ran an investigative series on fishermen which shared vastly different stories, highlighting brutal, de-humanizing conditions. In open oceans outside the reach of any government or enforcement agency fishers are stripped of their dignity and pride, shackled to boats and held in cages like circus animals, often murdered for any show of defiance, and dumped into the ocean when they are sick or unable to work for 20 hours a day. All to put shrimp on our tables, and fish sticks in our freezers.

Fisherman Net
Photo credit: Jano De Cesare

These unacceptable and egregious violations of human rights highlight how sustainable seafood is a human issue as much as it is an environmental one—in fact  the two are inextricably entwined. As our oceans get over-fished, the costs of fishing increase and the profits from fishing decline as boats chase fewer, smaller fish—all making the conditions for fishermen more and more desperate.

As a consumer, you might be tempted to stop consuming the seafood from Thailand, where there is a direct link to slavery, as it is common in US markets and restaurants and thus easy to boycott. But would that actually help the hundreds of millions of fishers across the developing world whose livelihoods depend on this export industry?


Painful Progress

While these heartbreaking stories help us see the world as it is, our response should not be to turn away. Amidst this dark landscape we are starting to see a few bright spots of hope.

Progress has been made on environmental issues throughout the supply chain. For example, about 10 percent of global seafood is currently certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, and an additional 10 percent is in a Fishery Improvement Project, meaning it’s not yet sustainable but working to get there. The large social movement and certification group Fair Trade also recently got involved in seafood, providing a direct financial benefit to retailers and fishers for socially and environmentally sound fishing practices—delivering ethically sourced food to our tables.

These are very promising developments. But on their own certifications and improvement efforts don’t currently address the fundamental issues driving slavery in seafood supply chains. The lack of transparency into who catches what, where it goes, and who buys it coupled with the absence of political will to create and enforce strong regulations creates a climate of uncertainty where lawlessness thrives.

These are both collective and individual failures of us as consumers, the politicians we elect, and an industry who benefits from our unquestioning goodwill. The end result is that the fish we eat is disconnected from the people who catch it. And this lack of connection means that myriad abuses and human indignities are ignored. While slavery is the worst among them, other deplorable conditions like life-threatening working conditions at sea, volatile livelihoods, and the misery of aging in a labor intensive industry are common. This is the price that fishers pay to provide the catch of the day to our groceries, restaurants and beachfront grills.


Reasons for Hope

We can do better. And it starts with rebuilding our connection to the sea, and the people whose lives are shaped by its vagaries and vicissitudes: the fisher.

We’ve heard inspiring stories from fishers that amaze us with ingenuity and entrepreneurship in places as far flung and different as Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia. And stories that pluck our heartstrings with the determination and will power to succeed against devastating odds.

Like the cooperative in South Africa who, since unbankable by traditional financial institutions, have created an ingenious and equitable financial system that divides their fishing quota on a rotating basis, to ensure everyone at least gets something. Participants also pay into a community fund to take care of those who are unable to fish—meeting their own economic and social needs without reliance on  banks or government agencies.

Or the crab fishers in Indonesia, who face the difficult choice of complying with a new regulation that drastically limits what they can catch in an effort to restore a damaged fishery, or to fish what they can now to put food on the tables and send their children to school. There are few options here, but fishers are working with our partners to succeed despite these odds.

Photo credit: Donna Sutton

We spent several weeks with these crab fishers—visiting their homes, exploring markets, meeting with middlemen and seafood buyers with a design team from the Dalberg Design Impact Group. We prototyped a loyalty program to help ease the transition to the new regulations that may drive fishers out of work. Fishers can earn points for delivering mature, healthy crabs and redeem those points for either cash or food to support their families with basic sustenance when fishing isn’t possible. Or they can upgrade or retrofit to more sustainable fishing gear (such as traps with escape hatches for juvenile crabs) at a reduced price, reducing the direct cost to the fishermen of the new law. While still  just an idea, we believe this loyalty program can make fishers lives less painful and get more responsible crab on our plates.

These stories begin to bridge the gap in our understanding of what it takes, from a human perspective, to put food on our tables. And they give us ideas of new solutions we can develop with fishers to improve their lives and make our food system more responsible for everyone.


The Resilience of the Sea


We think these solutions are innovative, and an exciting first step. But alone they cannot rectify the unacceptable human conditions in our global seafood industry and among fishing nations that result in the horrifying profiles of depravity like those portrayed in The New York Times.

The fact remains that our seafood system is broken, and we all bear some part of that responsibility: governments for failing to develop and enforce regulations, the seafood industry for turning a blind eye, and us as consumers for being all too willing to savor what’s on our plate without understanding the story of how it got there and demanding better.

But by bringing a focus  to the human aspects of a challenged industry, we may rectify a small, but critical part of the bigger challenge of our weak connection with the sea. The ocean—one of the most resilient resources on the planet—and the people who live off of it, are perhaps our greatest assets in figuring out how to make positive change happen that will benefit us all.

As one of the fishers we met in Chile said to us:

“We overfished the ocean, working only as individuals, only working for ourselves. We killed the species by working that way and [the result was that] for eight years no one could be a fisher. Now, our fishers are more concerned about working together to protect the ocean and protect our community.”

So as we all make our final visits to the ocean this summer, as you look out over the water and see the fishing boats on the horizon, think of the fisherman out there, or the many others thousands of miles away, pursuing the solitary, dangerous, skillful, backbreaking and at its best—deeply fulfilling—task of catching a fish for you to enjoy.

And perhaps being conscious of the labors and difficulties that got that fish to your plate adds a new taste to the end of summer—one that right now is bitter and rotten, but that has the promise of a deeper, richer deliciousness—if we could only dive in and fix a system that is broken, for all of us.

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