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Written by Giselle Kennedy Lord, Malia Guyer-Stevens, and Victoria Ojeda, Slow Food USA.

Deep Dive: Aquaculture

The Deep Dive on Aquaculture kicked off  the second weekend of the Slow Fish gathering, and there was perhaps no better way to dig into the nuanced, complex, and globalized issues that the Slow Fish community is facing worldwide. The group of fishers and farmers, each with their own relation to farming in our oceans, rivers, and bays, gathered and spoke for over four hours. The discussed, debated, disagreed and commiserated, and as Kelly Collins Geiser said in her closing remarks, it was a conversation that could have continued for many more hours.  

The question that seemed most prevalent was two-part: how do we dispel the myth that all aquaculture is either “good” or “bad”, and how do we distinguish between which is which, anyway? To begin the day’s talk, Hallie Templeton read the opening sentences of this article from FoodPrint which describes how the vast majority of the fish that we consume here in the US is not only imported, but farmed. It also brought up a myth that was frequently referenced throughout the day, that aquaculture is often discussed in terms of supply-and-demand, and farmed fish being put forward as a solution to a global food shortage. From the perspective of the small-scale fishers and farmers in the Deep Dive, and the community as a whole, this was a false pretense that has propped up large corporate aquaculture companies, which are at the root of the “bad” side of the aquaculture debate. It is because of these large, centralized, and corporate fish farms that there is widespread pollution and environmental degradation that gives aquaculture a bad name, according to many of the speakers including Rosanna Marie Neil, who serves as Policy Counsel at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. Their practices are destructive across the board, damaging wild fish populations, habitat, and local economies. Paul Molyneaux, journalist and former fisherman, spoke of the way that many corporate fish companies do not connect directly with the communities that live near their fish farms, and therefore they never see the economic benefits of the industry.

There are more also systemic issues that can be found across the industry. Captain Charlie Abner, who has been fishing along the East Coast since he was a child, told of his own encounter with rampant anti-Black racism in the commercial fishing industry. Captain Charlie spoke of the challenges facing Black fishers today, including the more visible exclusion from some major docks, as well as the more embodied racism that necessitated Black captain and fishers to prove themselves worthy of acceptance in the industry through working even harder than their white counterpart to provide a high quality product. This systemic racism is not often discussed in fishing as a whole, but must be addressed within the larger conversations of how to create the future of aquaculture.

Following the storytelling from farmers and fishermen, there was a shift to presentations from other experts in the field, and breakout rooms that allowed for brainstorming of solutions for the many questions and problems raised throughout the days. The solutions that were discussed ranged from big-picture to the nitty-gritty of specific approaches. The question of language and definitions of what aquaculture even means came up on several occasions, and that perhaps farming and harvesting of low-impact/input bivalves or seaweed shouldn’t be grouped with high-impact/input fish such as salmon. There was also the question of how to create regulation that could apply across the industry. Amanda Swinimer, owner of the Vancouver-based seaweed company Dakini Tidal Wilds, proposed regulation that addresses issues such as the size and impact of farms, as well as the need for a risk assessment for companies that also considers ways to reduce the financial risk of vulnerable communities in the area. Slow Fish International coordinator Paula Barbeito, spoke in the breakout sessions – and was echoed by others – that regulations must be adapted regionally based on the local ecosystems and cultural context. Solutions that may seem like small details, but in fact are far from inconsequential, such as how to label farmed seafood to indicate the quality of its production. However, with reference to Terra Madre’s dismissal of labeling in favor of putting more onus on the consumer to educate themselves, this was put on the backburner. There was hesitancy in creating a labeling system, as it can not only overly simplify complex food networks, but can also create a hurdle for more small-scale companies. However, Rosanna Marie Neil was adamant that they cannot be rule out altogether.  

Such as these discussions on whether and how to label, or what aquaculture means, many of these issues raised are not closed and finished. The sentiment was also shared that the conversation around aquaculture has been focused on the negative aspects on the industry, but there needs to be more of a focus on the ways that sustainable changes are happening today and what those look like in order for the conversation to move forward. Attention should be paid to the ways that aquaculture is working, albeit often at a smaller scale than many are familiar with. Smaller scale farms, that consider their cultural and environmental context, and that celebrate distribution instead of accumulation of resources, were put forward as frameworks for building an aquaculture industry that is good, clean and fair.

Changing our relationship to food can happen in myriad ways: preserving a subsistence way of life, growing traditional food sources, giving nature a voice, and honoring and respecting the land.

Rivers Connect the World: Strategies to Protect Biodiversity and Cultures

The panel on Rivers Connect the World, brought together voices from the Danube to the Mekong, and focused on the ways that we can care for our environments and the habitats of fish while they discussed strategies to protect biodiversity and culture. 

Gary Granata hosted the panel, and brought us along for a conversation with various experts working to strategically preserve the biodiversity of river basins across the globe. First we heard from Tammy Greer, a member of the United Houma Nation and one of the creators of the Native Medicine Wheel Garden at University of Southern Mississippi.  She described the importance of growing and sharing native plants to not only preserve the land, but to preserve the culture of the Indigenous communities of the region. The medicine garden serves an important purpose for native communities, especially for the many elders who fear that their culture, language, and knowledge of native plants, including their many medical benefits, will be lost. Plants, just like the river, cannot only serve many benefits such as natural flood and erosion protection, but serve an important cultural purpose for native communities to maintain culture and cultivate plant medicines.

Tammy’s sentiment was echoed by Blaise Pezold, on the importance of preserving native species. Working for the Meraux Foundation, a non profit in Violet, Louisiana, Blaise told us about coastal restoration in response to land erosion and the importance of centering the knowledge from local indigenous leaders in preserving and replanting coastal wetlands. We also learned about the importance of sustainable tourism from Eugenio Berra, who highlighted this approach to travel and tourism as a tactic to protect and preserve nature and communities along The Danube. Hailing from the Copper River Delta in Alaska, Dune Lankard, an Eyak Athabaskan fisherman turned kelp farmer, informed us of major environmental catastrophes that have had a significant effect on river basins in the Pacific Northwest, specifically the salmon population, and how he turned to kelp farming to give back to the ocean. 

The overall message from the panelists was clear: to protect our rivers is to protect our land at large. Rivers run through state and country lines, and when our rivers are not protected, the effects are felt across the globe. An important throughline as well is the necessity to work with Indigenous peoples to restore biodiversity across the rivers. Community is central to the protection of river basins, which was clear in the stories that Tammy told us of the many native tribes who work together to save their plant relatives, and in Blaise’s description of the Meraux Foundation’s initiative to share seeds. 

There is also the necessity to think differently about our food sources as a whole. Changing our relationship to food can happen in a myriad of ways: preserving a subsistence way of life, growing traditional food sources, giving nature a voice, and honoring and respecting the land. We must relate to nature as not something to exploit, but as a part of a larger ecosystem that humans are a part of, not above or outside of, and we can have massive impacts on the preservation of our rivers. 

Blue Commons 101

Jess Hathaway opened the session on the Blue Commons with two simple and helpful definitions: Hathaway is the editor-in-chief of National Fisherman magazine and describes the blue commons as a response to a “coordinated, global effort to commodify the oceans under the guise of the blue economy” and led us into the day’s panel with the framework that the “blue commons seeks a collaborative approach to managing the ocean as a shared resource, providing equal and fair access to opportunities to fish for and grow seafood responsibly.” Listeners were encouraged to approach the ensuing conversation with the question, “What does it mean to value and contribute to a successfully and thoughtfully managed blue commons?”

To discover the answer to that question, Seth Macinko, professor at the University of Rhode Island, gave us some context for the origin and current status of the blue economy concept. Macinko urges us to pay close attention to the language used around the concept, particularly by stakeholders, corporate interests and government entities. We were called to question what Macinko refers to as strategically benign language like ‘targeted investments,’ ‘cross-scale cooperation,’ ‘fisheries as investable propositions,’ and so on. Macinko argues that the blue economy is just that — an economic concept that will benefit those well-suited to invest and that seems to have lost the emphasis on equity, especially in consistently underdeveloped areas, with which it began. As we look at the language used by those stakeholders, the trajectory of this ‘blue revolution’ is quite clear. So what could be “the alternative that we call blue commons instead of blue private economy?” What is the alternative we envision? The panelists in the conversation explored the challenges therein and the absolute importance of both defining and realizing that vision.

Linda Behnken of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association is a commercial fisherman in Alaska and an active participant in many programs that “live in the nexus of: if you take care of the resource, it will take care of you.” Behnken spoke about what it means to take care of the resources to ensure its health and sustainability, and the association’s work to enable and integrate young fishermen with the same values. She highlighted the importance of support from others who share their predominant commitment to a healthy resource. Stephen Rhoads of the Seafood Producers Cooperative is a retired fisherman in Sitka, Alaska, that works closely with the ALFA. He described the reality and significance of the fishing industry in Alaska, with the seafood industry making up for about 18% of income in southeast Alaska. Rhoads is involved in community efforts to creatively solve problems with local innovators and long-term solutions that can work in every community, and that present an alternative to top-down solutions and outside interests.

Jason Jarvis, a Rhode Island quaohog fisherman, fishes in state waters and encouraged listeners to look closely at what is needed for (and what is detrimental) to sustain healthy shellfish and fish that are greatly affected by human impacts like sewage. Jarvis finds the thought of a corporation taking over and privatizing the quahog industry ‘frightening’ and emphasized that “we can’t allow greed over need as it relates to the largest source of protein worldwide.” The Rhode Island quahog is a resource shared by many across the state and country and a great example of ‘commoning.’ Andrea Nightingale, professor of sociology and human geography at the University of Oslo, outlined both the challenges and potential of commoning. Nightingale points out and expands on the issue of governance in creating a blue commons, but also remarked that we need to be careful about being overly focused on the the governance regime of the resource and the resource itself, and to instead expand our perspective “to make ‘commoning’ a different way of being in the world.”

Ultimately, Nightingale says the blue commons is about livelihood security, sustainability of community, a sense of long-term ability to harvest from fisheries—and all these things over profit. It’s about “catch over time, not catch in the moment or profit.”Fishers must be involved in science and data collection, to become more engaged in the governance of their own resource and to create a stronger community amongst themselves. She left us with a question we will leave you with now: How can we move past the idealistic notions of commoning relationships and challenges to find and achieve common goals and effectively combat outside threats?