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More Fish in the Sea

Fisheries trusts can undo the tragedy of overfishing in our oceans

The dramatic decline of fish in the oceans due to overfishing is one of the most dramatic examples of the “tragedy of the commons”, a case where scant regulation of a shared resource leads to its depletion. Eric J. Siy, former director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council is promoting a commons-based solution to this tragedy: sustainable fisheries trusts.

During a recent NPR interview with noted ecologist Carl Safina a listener called in to offer her idea for fixing the troubled relationship between human beings and the natural world. An avid consumer and conservationist, she suggested that these two seemingly incongruous activities needed to somehow be linked to make buying benefit conservation. Safina was talking about his important new book, “The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World” and the caller sounded eager for a reaction. Indeed, it was Teddy Roosevelt who, over a century ago, called the economy and the environment opposite sides of the same coin. Yet, to this day most people just view them as opposite, including the radio interviewer whose flip response—Yeah right, we’ll make trips to air conditioned shopping malls good for the environment—(paraphrased) stranded the idea. Safina had no response.

This felt like a missed opportunity to discuss just what it will take to make “the next great leap from merely civilized to humanized” society as Safina calls for in his book. In Safina’s words,the basic challenge is “to advance compassion and yet survive in a world of appetites.” With an economy tied nearly noose-tight to consumer spending, rather than demonizing the purchasing transaction, developing its potential as a springboard for propelling us in the right direction makes sense, particularly now. More and more, consumers crave opportunities to do and buy the right thing. Witness the exploding demand for Fair Trade goods, now a multi-billion dollar industry. Not only does this show the scale of the potential, it makes clear the ability to engage communities in supplying that demand. Yes, there are serious environmental impacts in bringing supply to demand, especially across vast distances. But, as proposed below, these can be accounted for in an integrated new business model that captures both internal and external costs, giving consumers a real choice to reduce (or even reverse) impacts through the purchases they make.

Fair Trade is a first wave in what needs to become a sea change in consumer spending practices ultimately aimed at connecting the communities of supply and demand in ways that improve and sustain economic, social, and environmental health. While this may not work for every product or everybody, the principles and purpose driving this shift create a new context capable of influencing broad swaths of the economy, evolving society from conspicuous to conscientious (and compassionate) consumers. Beyond the controlled settings of farms, vineyards, and plantations, the source of so many Fair Trade products, is a promising opportunity from the Commons—in this case, wild marine fisheries—a far bigger and more complex fish to fry, literally.

Still in their infancy, sustainable fisheries trusts were born of the mounting need for new ways to aid community-based fishermen who stand as frontline stewards of the fisheries they have depended on for generations. Trusts now emerging in selected U.S. ports provide footholds for transforming the act of buying fish into a direct investment in the health of the fisheries where they are caught and the livelihoods of the fishermen who catch them. For example, calling it the “best investment you will ever taste,” Alaskans Own ™ seafood “is harvested by independent fishermen whose commitment to conservation is supported by the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust.”

This marriage of mission and marketing represents a bold strategy for confronting the threats to Alaska’s wild fisheries and coastal communities—from industrial fishing practices, inadequate regulation and lack of financing—by empowering the very interests most at risk. Over time, proceeds from the sale of Alaskans Own ™ seafood will enable the Trust to provide increasing support for community based programs to improve fisheries conservation and local fishing economies. Profiles of the fishermen and examples of their hands-on conservation work are highlighted on the website. As promoted, “Through Alaskans Own ™ the Trust offers a better choice for consumers that benefits coastal fishermen, their communities and the marine resource that sustains us all.”

As now being explored by fishing interests on the U.S. East and West Coasts, sustainable fisheries trusts in Alaska, Cape Cod, and other locations could be coordinated as a network—in the U.S. and beyond—that connects wild fisheries and fishing communities to each other and to markets hungry for their value-added products. Europe seems especially primed to become a partner in such a venture. Faced with similar threats and opportunities, “small-scale fisheries represent the overwhelming majority of fishing activities in all EU Member States; provide the most employment; are highly adaptable; and lend themselves readily to integration into the diversity of regional particularities across Europe” according to a recent blog. As in the U.S., deliberate actions aimed at engaging and empowering these fisheries by strategically harnessing demand would contribute directly to resource and community health. Reaching across regions and continents could also induce a significant multiplier effect, delivering a diverse array of community- and conservation-based seafood products while expanding benefits to fishermen and fisheries.

Among the defining elements of a responsive, integrated business model to accommodate this strategy are: guaranteed product quality and traceability; state of the art distribution from supplier to buyer—cutting costs, reducing food miles and carbon footprints, creating efficiencies and ensuring better prices for fishermen—accurate cost accounting; direct support of fishermen conservation programs; and sustainable fishing of fish sourced from healthy stocks.

Even more exciting than expanding fishermen participation in such a model is expanding its products to include more than just seafood (and, potentially, more than just food). Another initiative helping feed consumer consciousness and opportunity is the National Good Food Network focused on bringing economic benefits to farming communities. In both structure and function the Network could become a working partner in advancing the needs of fishermen as well as farmers. Their stated purpose reinforces the possibilities at hand: “bringing together people from all parts of the rapidly emerging good food system – producers, buyers, distributors, advocates, investors and funders – to create a community dedicated to scaling up good food sourcing and access… The challenge presented by the food system is our opportunity—to revolutionize business models, develop new market relationships, and add value to traditional supply chain infrastructure, so that the growing business of good food is sown in the values of good food – all the way from farm [or fishing boat] to fork.”

Ultimately, these activities offer the promise of an evolved system of supply and demand that applies new models, technologies, and understanding to re-connect society to those essential values it holds dear—quality, community, health, authenticity, and optimism—but that have become increasingly fragmented and hard to find. In this system, consumers function as shareholders and their purchases as direct investments in the shared needs of commerce, communities, and conservation, providing returns now and for generations to come.

Back to that caller who was left wondering whether she could have her cake (or fish) and eat it, too, as a consuming conservationist the answer is yes, potentially, and like everything else for a price—one that a growing segment of the buying public feels is worth paying.

Humanizing society will be fostered by harmonizing its wants and nature’s needs. Transforming how, why, and what we buy holds the power to make consumers the change they seek, whether they are looking or not.

Eric J. Siy is former Executive Director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and co-creator of the Sustainable Fisheries Trust strategy.