The Right to Fish: Maintaining Fish as a Public Resource

By Andrianna Natsoulas

Reposted by permission of author from WHYhunger Kids Newsletter

Elements of food sovereignty is seeping into the consciousness of people who are looking to create – or re-create, a food system based on respect, sustainability and local communities. Through that awareness the food sovereignty movement is finding its legs in the United States and is uniting with the global movement. Food sovereignty recognizes that food is a basic human right of all people and the right for all communities to define their own agricultural, fisheries and food policies. It is a food system where food production and distribution are under local control in order to meet the needs of the local community and ensure the environment is treated with care.

This growing movement and small-scale fishing communities are just beginning to connect. More and more fishermen are selling fish at farmers’ markets, direct off the boats and through community supported fishery programs. In turn, seafood lovers are learning how to fillet a fish, recognize a fresh one and understand the challenges fishermen face to keep their boats afloat. As Padi Anderson, a fisherman’s wife from Rye, New Hampshire says, “Fish is food.” And that is how people can become political advocates for small-scale community-based fishermen.

Many small-scale fishermen come from generations of fishermen, love what they do and cannot imagine a different life. They want to ensure the oceans have fish for future generations. Food sovereignty for fishing communities entails participatory governance, environmental resilience, economic vitality and diversity. But, at the moment, a new regulation is hammering the coasts and it undermines fishing communities’ ability to survive.

Catch Shares – also known as individual fishing quotas – privatizes the right to fish by allowing fish quotas to be bought and sold as a commodity. The initial allocation of a catch share is based on the amount that entity (human or corporate) fished in certain previous years. That is called catch history, and it is not a fair way to allocate catch. Jay Driscoll, a fisherman from Rye, New Hampshire says, “Unfortunately, the greediest of fishermen are the ones with the highest allocations. Here’s a fisherman who worked harder and greedier and there’s another fisherman who works sustainably and works within the limits. Why does this guy over here deserve more fish than the guy over there? That’s how the system is set up. It is set up for the strongest, greediest boats to survive.”


In the New Hampshire groundfish fishery, within one year of passing the catch share regulation, nearly 20% of the fishing boats went out of business. The impact of those boats out of the water can reverberate throughout a community, causing processors to shut down and allowing the one or two that remain control the price fishermen receive for their catch. This phenomenon is touching every coast of the United States.

Jeremiah O’Brien sees his community of Morro Bay, California falling apart, “In this catch share scenario, it’s not just the fishermen. I believe, as importantly, maybe more importantly, it’s the communities. The incredible economic disasters that are going to occur. Every community will suffer.” Young fishermen don’t have the history or the money, so they end up fleeing to urban areas, thus eroding the fabric of rural communities. Fishermen say the average age of fishermen goes up one year every year.


As the price to buy catch shares increase, only corporations will be able to afford them and fishermen may become sharecroppers. Richard McKnight of Grand Isle, Louisiana fears, “Starting in 2013, Kraft, ConAgra, Phillip Morris, anybody can buy them. You don’t need a boat. You don’t need a reef fish permit. You don’t need a boat to buy allocations. It’s a joke. If you’ve got $30.00 a pound to buy it, you can buy it.” While Richard’s girlfriend, Karen Hopkins maintains that, “I believe a public resource such as fisheries in American waters should not have ever become a tradable and marketable commodity, period. Providing food and sustenance for your family is a right.”

Larry Collins, a fisherman from San Francisco, California, is involved with Fishermen in the Classroom and talks with 11th and 12th graders about privatizing a public resource. “The water and the fish are owned by all Americas.” Larry tells the students. “They are very valuable and someone is always trying to take them from you and it is always a battle to make sure they stay public. When people control the water and they control the food supply like that, what does that do to your freedoms?” He says they get it. They understand that it is not a good idea for a handful of corporations to be in control of our food supply.

In an effort to protect our food supply, Larry has created a non-profit Community Fishing Association to bank catch shares for the small boat fishery and to help new fishermen enter the fishery. Ben Platt, a fisherman from Fort Bragg, California believes an alternative management tool is the three S’s: Sex, Size and Season. “It’s not that hard to figure out,” Says Ben. “If you have to throw everything back under a certain size, you are protecting your brood stock. You can’t keep female crabs, you’re protecting the reproductive crabs. And if you are only fishing during a certain time of year, you’re not harvesting during spawning season. Most fisheries are managed quite well just by that. And if there’s other problems, you don’t have to cut out half the fleet.”

Fishermen are innovative people and they can develop a solution for nearly every problem. Roger Cullen of Morro Bay, California believes adaptive management is the solution in order to respond to changing environments and diverse needs of each unique community. Jeremiah believes it is crucial to listen to the community. “Who would know that policy better than the people that are in the industry itself? If the people in that industry say it is bad policy, and they push it anyway, then you are intentionally creating a problem,” says Jeremiah about catch shares.

One catch share program has not decimated fishing communities, because the communities helped develop the North Pacific halibut and sable fish individual transferable quota program. It took years and a lot of sweat and tears from the communities that refused to allow their treasured fishery to be bought and sold on the stock market. Linda Behken is a fisherman out of Sitka, Alaska. When asked about the program, Linda said, “We did put together a quota share program that goes a long way through the construction of it to control consolidation and protect and hold a place for small boats and community participation. It’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than any other one I’ve seen.”

This is just one example that the only way to protect resources and maintain public access to territories is through community involvement and participatory governance, not by forcing regulations. Fishermen and farmers have solutions and they need to be part of the process. That is food sovereignty in action and everyone can be part of it. Next time you buy your fish, think about where it came from. If you live close to the coast, talk to your local fishermen. Ask what you can do to help him or her stay afloat.

1. Fishermen is a term that represents both men and women who fish in the United States. Most women who fish in the U.S. refer to them self as a fisherman.