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From Fishermen's News of November, 2001

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By Pietro Parravano, Glen Spain, Zeke Grader

Whether we want to admit it or not, the events of September 11th have changed the way we all see the world. It's not just the grief we shared with the victims; it's not just about increased security at airline terminals or the caution now used opening the mail; and it's not just that many of the world's priorities have changed as we go to war with a largely unseen enemy, it's that the world suddenly seems a much smaller place. It was already growing smaller because of global trade and advances in transportation, but September 11th brought that reality home. Obscure decisions half a world away affect us all. Many American fishermen no longer feel safe about their markets because of fishing or aquaculture operations taking place a half world away or in another hemisphere.

September 11th brought home anxieties in Americans that many in the fisheries have felt for a number of years. Suddenly the world seems a much more hostile place. We can no longer hide within our borders, ignoring what is taking place outside them. As a nation we are feeling under siege. As Americans our way of fighting back has always been to find strength in our families and communities, and in the values we espouse, being thankful for the beauty and bounty of our lands and waters, reflecting on what we're about and making the changes we've neglected or denied, and doing all of this with, it is hoped, determination and pride.

As a fishing community, too, we have been under siege, not just here in the U.S. or North America, but all over the world. Many fish stocks are depleted due to overfishing, much of it caused by governments promoting fleets to exploit the "unlimited" resources of the sea or some "underutilized" species or another. Now we're taking the brunt of the blame for this government subsidized excess exploitation, enduring scientists and bureaucrats alike misquoting Garrett Hardin about the tragedy of the commons or delivering superficial sound bites ranging from "too many boats chasing too few fish," to "serial depletion," to "fishing down the food chain."

Far worse, many governments have directly participated in or condoned the destruction of fish stocks through the building and operation of dams and water diversions, and they have encouraged the destruction of habitat and polluting or poisoning of rivers, bays, and nearshore ocean waters. They have subsidized and promoted many aquaculture operations at the expense of fishermen and the environment. They have pushed trade deals that undermine conservation and their own fishing communities.

Coupled with all of this has been what seems an unrelenting criticism from some scientists and many within the NGO community who have been unwilling or unable to distinguish between the many fishermen working to fish sustainably and responsibly from those few that do not, as they make fishermen their convenient scapegoat to generate grants or build memberships. The simplistic solutions, from ITQs to MPAs, proposed by some scientists and NGOs for fishery problems are too often vague, glib, poorly researched, poorly thought out, inequitable and would be implemented with no respect for human needs. Even what should be a straight-forward, common-sense approach such as the Precautionary Principle now scares the hell out of people when some of these same short-sighted scientists and NGOs begin touting it. Government, big business, academia, and non-government bodies -- it seems as if we're under siege from all sides, from all of them, nearly all the time.

All of this is not to say that we as an industry shouldn't bear some of the blame for the current maladies we are faced with. Greed, or simply an unwillingness to listen to the science, has gotten us into trouble many times, putting too much pressure on some stocks. In other instances we didn't stand up for the fish when they were threatened and we're now suffering for it.

We Are Not Alone

The anxiety felt by most in the fleet is justified. Whether it's the codfish closures off New England, the banning of nets in nearshore waters in the southeast and Gulf of Mexico, the salmon listings along the Pacific where it is also getting hard to even sell salmon from healthy runs because of the dumping of Chilean farmed fish in our markets, to the groundfish closures ordered in Alaska to "protect" Steller sea lions, to the vast areas of the Western Pacific near Hawaii now off limits to longliners due to concerns for sea turtles, there seems to be crisis occurring everywhere in our fisheries. In Canada, meanwhile, the government's response to the fisheries crisis there seems to be to simply close down more fisheries and push aquaculture -- even as those fish farms are shown to have a detrimental impact on the marine ecosystem itself.

We're not alone, however. Consider the fishermen in nations of the Asian subcontinent and Africa who are watching as their cash-poor governments sell off valuable fishery quotas, not to local fishing interests, but to company-owned factory trawlers from Europe and other western nations. The fisheries that once employed local fishermen and whole fishing communities are now no longer seen by those fishermen, and those fish will never again reach the shores of their villages. Instead, the fish are processed at sea, unloaded in some western port to feed first world nations, and the cash that returns goes to the government and the capitol. Fishermen and local communities are left holding the bag. Only now, after years of struggle, are there some bright points, such as in the Russian Far East where the fish quotas that were put up for bid there the first time this year were supposed to only go to Russian companies. Still, that remains the exception.

Consider fishermen in Central and South America where large shrimp farms have destroyed mangrove habitats and displaced many traditional fishing communities. Or consider the salmon farms in Chile, often owned by foreign corporations that have polluted coastal waters and also displaced local fishermen. Indeed, fishermen there are not even allowed to harvest the invasive Atlantic salmon that have escaped company net pens. If it's not large aquaculture operations threatening traditional fishing fleets, then it's new tourist resorts developed in the name of "eco-tourism," but displacing coastal fishermen and their communities to provide playgrounds for the wealthy from Europe and North America.

Consider also the plight of fishermen in Europe, who must now answer to a European Union Fisheries Minister in Brussels because they have lost regional control of their fisheries. Management of seasons, quotas and gear is no longer made at the national level, but at a super-national level where outside political considerations can influence and even dominate fishery decision making. Consider the salmon netters off England's southeast coast, engaged in a sustainable operation that is regarded as the best managed fishery in Europe, and who are the last suppliers of wild Atlantic salmon into the European market. As well-managed and sustainable as their fishery is, however, it is slated for elimination due to political pressure from wealthy angling groups and riparian landowners wanting the salmon for themselves. Shetland fishermen, too, are beginning to feel like their counterparts in Chile as they lose fishing grounds to salmon farms and worry about the pollution coming from those massive industrial aquaculture operations.

Even in Australia, where the fisheries appear to be prosperous and well-managed, there is a push by sport fishermen to restrict or close commercial fishing along many areas of that nation's coast. This is not helped by the fact that one of the political parties there is tight with the recreational industry. In New Zealand much of that fishery is controlled by seven large processing companies, and their ITQ system has not only not turned out to be the panacea its proponents proclaimed but has not even stopped the overfishing of orange roughy.

Working Together for a Better Future

The point is, fishermen throughout the world are faced with significant challenges, many threatening the very existence of commercial fishing. But what if fishermen from different nations began talking amongst themselves on how together they might tackle their problems? What if Chilean fishermen, whose livelihoods are being threatened by the salmon farms began working with Pacific Coast trollers and gillnetters and seiners on ways to combat the dumping of salmon on the world market by Chilean and other nations' corporate aquaculture operations? What if together Chilean, and Shetland Island, and North American fishermen began exposing the pollution and other environmental threats the current salmon net pen operations pose?

What if U.S. shrimp fishermen and other trawlers, who must comply with restrictions on their gear from turtle excluders to fin fish excluders, began working with fishermen from nation's whose fish quotas were sold to foreign factory ship operators (selling into first world markets) and began working with those artisinal and traditional fishermen? By working together -- North American fishermen with artisinal and traditional fishermen from Third World and transitional nations -- we could pressure those governments to prevent the loss of food and jobs from the developing world to markets in "the north" while helping to give fishermen in North America a level playing field in their home markets.

What if fishermen from different nations began jointly addressing environmental threats to fish stocks? Imagine fishermen from Santa Barbara and Sakhalin confronting together the oil companies whose platforms are in their fishing grounds on either side of the Pacific. Imagine fishermen from the U.S. Pacific Coast, Canada, France, India and Japan working together to confront fish-killing dams.

What if fishermen from throughout the world began discussing and formulating a unified position on trade in fish products? Trade does and should not exist solely for trade's sake, nor solely to benefit large multi-national corporations, despite whatever the U.S. Trade Representative or the World Bank may think. Trade should exist to benefit people, to improve the lot of everyone. To that end, shouldn't fishermen -not fish importers or exporters or their lobbying associations -- be advising governments directly on what the rules should be for fair trade in fish? Trade needs to be fair. It must not compromise or undermine conservation. Furthermore, it cannot leave more communities or industries impoverished. Fishermen have to be involved at every level in these negotiations and rule making bodies. Together we would be much more powerful, and could help protect each other's livelihoods in the process.

World Fisheries Day - A Unifying Force

Unifying working fishing men and women from all over the globe was the purpose for the World Forum of Fish Harvesters & Fish Workers that came together in New Delhi in 1997. That organization continues to expand, although it has had some growing pains and a split between some of the groups from different nations reminiscent of some of the cultural clashes we are witnessing internationally today. But as this international organization of fishing groups works for unity and to be more inclusive, one way now for fishermen to demonstrate solidarity and pride is through the celebration of World Fisheries Day on 21 November.

In July, Natasha Benjamin, Allison Vogt and Nicole Brown wrote about gearing up this year for World Fisheries Day (Fishermen's News, July 2001, p.18, available on the web at: http://www.pcffa.org/fn-jul01.htm) and discussed briefly the history of that celebration. That was long before anyone could have imagined the horror of September 11th and its aftermath. Now it seems more important than ever that as fishermen we send a message out to our communities, to our nations and to the world that we're here, we're proud and we're here to stay. In a sense, World Fisheries Day is our way of thinking globally, as fishermen around the globe celebrate the same day, and also of acting locally as we reach out to our communities through local events from donations to food banks (November 21 is the day before the U.S. Thanksgiving this year), concerts, seminars, parades, or open houses aboard fishing boats.

If America and her allies can rally together in an effort to combat terrorism, if facing these threats can rekindle national pride, why can't fishermen from throughout the world begin uniting, for at least a day, to show the world what we're all about. Why not teach about our 10,000-year history? Why not talk about the beauty and dangers of this livelihood and the quest to help put high quality seafood on the world's tables? Why not be frank about the problems confronting fish and fishermen and their communities? Why not discuss the work of fishermen trying to protect and rebuild fish populations and their habitats, and to fish responsibly and sustainably? Why not invite the public into our world for at least this one day?

Sure there may not be a lot of time for planning. But there was also little time for planning a response to the events of September 11th. Like our nations and our cultures, our fisheries are also under siege. As fishermen, let's use World Fisheries Day, here in the U.S. and Canada and around the world, to tell the nations what we are, what we're doing and why we matter. The message for World Fisheries Day this year is that fishermen, like America and its allies, are fighting back and will endure.

For more information on World Fisheries Day, contact Natasha Benjamin, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), at (415)561-5080 or by email to: ifrfish@pacbell.net .

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA) is the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishing families. Pietro Parravano is PCFFA's President, Zeke Grader is its Executive Director and Glen Spain is its Northwest Regional Director. PCFFA can be reached at its San Francisco office at: PO Box 29370, SF, CA USA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080; its Northwest Office, PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR USA 97440-3370, (541)689-2000; or by email at: fish1ifr@aol.com. PCFFA's web site is at: www.pcffa.org.

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