Based in Gloucester, MA, the oldest settled fishing port in the U.S., local fisheries champion Niaz Dorry finds herself in a hotbed of resource management issues: while she and a growing community of fishermen consider themselves stewards—versus “owners”—of the ocean commons, others promote privatization policies in the name of conservation.
Once named a Hero For The Planet by Time Magazine for efforts to advance the rights and ecological benefits of small-scale fishing communities, Dorry is a veteran Greenpeace campaigner who has fought for decades to protect global marine diversity. She now serves as the coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA).
NAMA “works to build a customer market for ecologically responsible, local fisheries” both to bring fresh fish to seafood lovers, and to build a foundation for the “long-term economic health of fishing communities and the marine ecosystems that sustain them.” The organization, founded in 1995, grew out of the need for a better approach to protecting the ocean commons and managing marine resources.
Here Dorry answers a few questions about how privatization has affected the ocean commons, why a policy change in New England would better protect family fishermen, and how the commons have influenced her own life.
How did you first learn about the commons?
The commons is an idea that I never gave much thought to, or named, until I started working on fisheries issues in 1994. That year I learned how access to just about anything that has anything to do with the marine environment—from fish to whales to shoreline to fossil- and even to renewable-energy sources—was being privatized in the name of conservation and environmental protection.
I couldn’t believe it. People were spinning the tragedy of the commons to rationalize their privatization schemes. But my instinct said it is values, not price, that will eventually determine how the ocean commons is governed.
And I still stand by that belief. Many national and international organizations did implement strategies to privatize areas of the ocean that are of particular importance to marine species—but we are not seeing the ecological outcomes they promised. Instead, we’ve witnessed economic consolidation, or fewer yet bigger and “more efficient” fishing vessels staking out larger chunks of the marine ecosystem in a race for high volume, low value production. We’ve seen the loss of small- and medium-scale fishermen, an increase in the global trade of marine species, a decline in local access to marine-based food, a decrease in economic benefit to fishermen and coastal communities, loss of traditional knowledge, migration of youth from coastal communities, and the list goes on.
How does the commons influence your work at NAMA?
It’s worth reiterating how firmly ownership is situated at the heart of fisheries and ocean work: many individuals and organizations advocate for privatization, industrialization, marginalization, and consolidation as solutions for overfishing and marine conservation.
But at NAMA, we believe that the ocean belongs to nobody—that we are all stewards of the ocean and the marine ecosystem, not owners. NAMA grew out of the idea that we need to either leave the commons alone, or use the commons to fulfill human needs without diminishing it.
We are often criticized by people who work in fisheries management and policy for being naïve and idealistic. But we push back. The language we choose for talking about fisheries is meant to attract people from other arenas. The fight to take back the ocean commons, after all, is also about the fight to restore its link to water, food, land, mobility, recreation, joy, nature, and even some of the renewable fuels, such as wind.
At NAMA, we want to find a real solution to marine conservation, and we advocate for policies that reflect our beliefs about the ocean commons. We make decisions, even about funding, based on our values, not based on who has power. Many of the fishing communities we work with also pay attention to who funds activities that diminish the commons, because they too believe the ocean belongs to no one individually.
Cultivating relationships with the fishermen who share our values has been so important. We now know there is a section of the fishing industry that advocates for fleet diversity and wants healthy fisheries management. The question is whether or not we can give them the political cover so they can speak freely about the ocean commons without being threatened or bullied or accused of conquering the fishing industry.
If NAMA’s Who Fishes Matters Campaign is successful—and policy passes that protects family fishermen—how will management of the ocean commons change?
If The Fleet Diversity Amendment passes, it will flip the current value system on its head. Today, scale of operation, where people fish, and who fishes doesn’t matter because managers say “a dead fish is a dead fish.” To us that’s like saying a dead chicken is a dead chicken—and we now know better.
So it’s all about values. Fishing kills marine animals, but it also fuels our local economies, supplies our food system, keeps our communities healthy, and fills our stomachs. Those four values would become paramount under Amendment 18, as opposed to the current thinking, which values the lowest cost of production and catch size above all else.
There’s a second reason why the Amendment is so important. Fishing communities around the world face the question of consolidation, and we’re finding that the work we’re doing here in New England serves as an important example for many fishing communities. They are watching to see how we establish fleet diversity in the face of privatization policies, and they want to know how, if those policies are not in place, we prevent them from coming into the picture to begin with. What we’re doing here is critical to the battle everywhere.
What other strategies do you recommend for making more people aware of the importance of commons?
To me, the most important strategy is to bring the commons into consciousness. It almost has to be a mantra. I like to walk in the woods near my home where there is a No Trespassing sign, but I know that the woods don’t really belong to anybody.
We need to use the commons as a way of thinking about things that we share with other people. I “own” a piece of property, but I like to call it the piece of property that I’m responsible for. It’s all about ownership versus stewardship, as opposed to ownership equals stewardship.
To stand up for the commons takes mental practice—it requires that we repeat the mantra everyday—and, to me, that is the most important strategy for making more people aware of the commons.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?
The biggest obstacle is the idea that ownership is the only way. We face this in fisheries all the time. People often quote the line from the bible that says humans have “dominion over the earth.” But what does that really mean? Does it mean that we have the right to “own” the earth’s resources? Or does it mean that you have to take care of them and make sure there’s something left for future generations? You can probably guess where I stand.
Have the commons inspired you to see the world in a new way?
I’ve learned that honoring the commons is about compassion. Not the sappy “I feel sorry for you” kind of compassion, but the kind of compassion that has the power to help us understand how important it is to share the experiences we find so valuable to our existence, wholeness, and happiness. As a result of this shift in thinking, over time objects have lost their value to me. I don’t remember the last time I locked my apartment door—not because I don’t care, but because there’s nothing in there, except my dog, that would make my life incomplete if it went missing. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got stuff, and I like a lot of my stuff. But watching people fight over fish that don’t even belong to them has made me rethink what ownership is all about.
Why do you consider yourself a commoner?
I’ve reached a point where I think the only way to maintain our ability to live well on earth is for us all to adopt a new way of thinking about what we share. It’s the only way we can take good care of everything that is important for our health and vitality, because it’s not just my health and my life that’s important—it’s everyone’s.
This interview has been edited and adapted.