Slow Fish: Not Your Usual Conference

by Kendall Dix, graduate student in Food and Agriculture Policy, Vermont Law School 

 

Slow Fish is the most dynamic professional gathering I’ve been to as a guy with an office job. At the risk of sounding like a zealot, I think the 2018 conference changed my life (or at least the trajectory of my career).  

Let’s get something out of the way for anyone who just rolled their eyes. Yes, Slow Fish is a conference. Yes, conferences are almost universally boring and useless. 

Everybody who regularly attends them understands this. At your typical conference, attendees sit through hour after hour of one-sided lectures accompanied by powerpoint presentations. Sometimes they walk through large convention halls while businesses try to sell them things. Some people are there just to network with others in their industry which results in stilted conversations that are often only tolerable after copious amounts of booze. 

Just look at the most common search terms after the words “conferences are”:

Slow Fish is different. 

In 2018, I was embarking on a new career as a fisheries advocate after having spent the previous six years as a career line cook and sous chef at restaurants that had been nominated for or won James Beard awards. My first office job in years was at Healthy Gulf (formerly Gulf Restoration Network), an environmental NGO in New Orleans organizing chefs to rally around the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). MSA is the federal legislation that governs fisheries policy in the U.S. It’s pretty important if you’re a fisherman, and it was set to be reauthorized for the first time in more than 10 years. 

My limited experience with fishermen at that point had been with well-funded groups that represented the economic elite of the commercial seafood harvesters in the Gulf. I learned quickly enough that we were on the right side (environmentally) of the fight in Congress, but I didn’t really understand who it was really supposed to benefit. 

I do care about the overall health of the red snapper population in the Gulf of Mexico, but in the context of big issues in our society — the climate crisis comes to mind — fisheries management doesn’t always feel like one of the most pressing. Unless you come from a fishing community, it can feel like an abstraction. 

At Slow Fish 2018 in San Francisco, I not only got to know a whole bunch of fishermen, I got to meet some of the best and brightest that the industry has to offer. The fishermen, fishmongers, chefs, scientists and advocates who make up the Slow Fish community are led by their commitment to good, clean, and fair. It’s a movement that understands small-boat fishermen are the stewards of our ocean resources. A healthy food system needs healthy oceans, but it also needs a healthy fishing economy. 

Fishermen and environmentalists haven’t historically had the best relationship, but Slow Fish breaks down those barriers. Slow Fish is a place where thoughtful conversations about the intersection of economics and environmentalism show that conservation and people’s livelihoods don’t have to be pitted against each other. 

In addition to meeting new allies that I continue to work with to this day, Slow Fish made me a better advocate because I began to understand what I was fighting to protect. After the conference, I changed my approach to advocacy to make sure that I was centering the fishing communities as well as the fish. 

If it weren’t for Slow Fish, I don’t think my organization would have helped push Louisiana’s shrimp and crawfish labeling law over the finish line in 2019. The law didn’t immediately seem like an environmental issue on its face to some at our office, but Slow Fish helped me realize solidarity with allies is the most important principle when engaging in political work. Because it helped protect our local fishermen, it was an issue worth fighting for. 

This year I’m looking forward to Slow Fish 2020 in New Hampshire. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and learning about emerging issues. With the climate crisis getting worse every year, there has never been a more crucial time for everyone involved in values-based fisheries to collectively plot a course for the future.  

Whether you’ve been to Slow Fish before or are just curious, I hope you’ll join us. It will be well worth your time.