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Written by Michelle DiMuzio and Malia Guyer-Stevens, Slow Food USA Editorial Interns.

“Eating is an agricultural act.” Simple wisdom from Wendell Berry of which aactivist and farmer Jim Embry reminded us to kick off the first week of Slow Fish 2021, and to remind us that we each play a role in creating change in and having an impact on our food systems. What this means when it comes to getting vegetables or even meat on the table may be clear for many, but the case of creating a sustainable system that gets seafood safely from our waterways to our dinner plates can seem a bit daunting. Jim also reminded us that there are often issues of systemic racism and discrimination at play that make this work particularly difficult—the work of producing food that is good, clean, and fair for all in North America. 

The first few days Slow Fish 2021 were filled with productive talks about how to make more sustainable seafood chains not only for the fish and their habitats, but for the people who fish and eat them as well. Buck Jones, salmon marketing specialist at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, welcomed participants during an opening keynote by speaking of the relationships being built to protect tribal fishing rights. For him, and for many others we heard from over the first few days of the gathering, these systems are less about feeding ourselves now and more about feeding our children and grandchildren later. 

Panelists in a ‘Deep Dive’ discussion on seafood supply chains discussed what that looks like in North America, specifically. What does it mean to eat sustainably if you live nowhere near the coast? Solutions for sustainable food systems are often rooted in the idea that local is better but, for seafood, that can make sourcing fish near impossible for most people. The answer is building sustainable networks, not only for fisherfolk and others in the seafood industry, but for customers too. Know where your fish came from and how it was harvested—that’s where we start, and building connections is vital every step of the way. 

Indigenous Access to Food Sources was the topic of the Day 3 Deep Dive and connected us all to the practice of becoming stewards of land and sea, with a call to protect these precious resources. We opened the gathering with a song by Wade Fernandez, Still Standing Proud, grounding us in the history and resilience of Indigenous communities. Noah Wahquahboshkuk of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and Hillary Renick of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians moderated the event, acknowledging that traditional foods have sustained Indigenous people for millennia. The importance of traditional foods are closely tied to their cultural and religious significance, community health and wellness, and respect for the natural world. As Noah and Hillary explained, this emphasizes an interconnectedness between traditional, ecological knowledge and landscapes. The current threats to traditional foods are grave in nature – climate change, globalization, monoculture, water scarcity, and urbanization, all contribute to the risk of losing traditional foods and methods. However, through the lens of various Indigenous storytellers, the session provided inspiration, hope, and calls to actions for future stewards of our land and sea.

Jonathan James Perry of the Wampanoag Aquinnah shared his personal story and described the importance of maintaining Wampanoag maritime traditions on the island of Noepe, or Martha’s Vineyard. Jonathan described what it means to have a long-lasting and respectful relationship with the sea and its creatures, in order to maintain and ensure its protection for future generations. While his sense of self is rooted in his coast, he knows well that it is not an easy landscape. In the course of our history, the Atlantic coast brought forth war, slavery, disease, colonization, and natural disasters. One theme that remained throughout the coastal stories we heard was a gratitude for the harvest. For Indigenous whaling communities, there is a celebration when the whales arrive with dancing to show appreciation for the remarkable animal, in stark contrast to the whaling industry that is built upon profit. A similar celebration occurs when the fish arrive, an overtone of gratitude for the harvest. This sentiment has recently been dampened, due to overfishing and declining populations, fish consequently not returning to their rivers and shores. This is magnified by myriad issues on Martha’s Vineyard, including increasing property prices that make it challenging to access to the ocean. Jonathan concluded with a promising message and a call to action for everyone, “If we protect earth and sea coming together, we will always have life.”

The current threats to traditional foods are grave in nature – climate change, globalization, monoculture, water scarcity, and urbanization, all contribute to the risk of losing traditional foods and methods.

Melanie Brown is an organizer at Salmon State, the owner and operator of Fish People Consulting and Services and a champion for sustainable fish management in Bristol Bay, Alaska. She told the story of her family’s fishing history and tradition, of their extensive roots in the fishing industry. Melanie recounted living in relation to the fish—moving around based on their migratory patterns. You can read more about her Melanie’s relationship with Bristol Bay on her website  fish*wine*ski, in which she shares her first encounters of fishing with her great-grandpa and memories of her great-grandmother cooking fish soup. Melanie shared similar sentiments as Jonathan, emphasizing the importance of maintaining Indigenous fishing methods and calling out the restrictions and barriers that Indigenous people face with fishing. 

Buck Jones’ message echoed that of Melanie, as he recognized the importance of salmon and ceremonies built around the salmon return in the Columbia River. Buck described how Indigenous people on the river have fought to maintain land access to fishing areas and villages, as they were forced to cede land. Buck recalled United States v. Winans, an important case wherein protections for Indigenous fishing and hunting rights were enforced. When reflecting on the future of salmon, Buck made it clear that the main priority is to preserve access to fishing for future generations by taking care of our rivers, forests and waters.

Elizabeth James-Perry provided another perspective on the importance of the sea, sharing her art and explaining the influence of the sea on her pieces, made of soft-shell clams, razor clams, mussels, and oysters. She incorporates local plant resources such as milkweed, butterfly weed, hemp, and black walnut, as well as natural dyes in her artwork.

Suntayea Steinruck of the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Nation and Tribal Heritage Preservation Officer discussed the power of traditional ecological knowledge. Suntayea works,especially within children, to harvest mindfulness through initiatives like a fish farm and emphasize the importance of our relationships within our biomes and our food.

The day concluded with a screening of  The Wild followed by a discussion with the film’s director and writer, Mark Titus. The film highlights the ongoing struggle in Bristol Bay to preserve the wild salmon populations and fishing industry. The themes from the film and discussion mirrored stories shared earlier in the day—the resilience of the Bristol Bay community and the importance of preserving Indigenous fishing methods for future generations.

Jonathan James Perry left us with reflection questions to help us all look forward:

How can you help Indigenous people access our home waters?

How can Indigenous people assist the fishing community when we cannot access the ocean ourselves?

What changes will you propose to help our nations?

Where can you turn to stand and be a good ally to Indigenous people?

How can you help access our homewaters, support subsistence practices, and ensure the health of the next generation of Indigenous people, fish communities, and marine life?