Corporate interests are taking over our oceans, but it may not be too late to stop them

Since 1995, the North Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), a fishermen led-organization has been organizing fishermen, crew, fishworkers and allies towards creating policy and market strategies that build healthy fisheries and fishing communities. They advocate for equitable seafood access, fair and dignified working conditions, and fleet diversity, and against the corporate takeover of our oceans — they are also part of the Community Coalition for Real Meals

NAMA is a critical part of the movement that protects our ocean commons from powerful corporate interests. But how does corporate consolidation impact the seafood industry? How is it different from what’s happening on land? We spoke with NAMA National Program Coordinator and HEAL SoPL alumnus Brett Tolley, Board Chair and oyster farmer Jason Jarvis, and fisherman Rob Seitz about that and more. Here’s what we learned. 

Corporate consolidation in the seafood industry differs from consolidation in farming and agriculture in one key aspect; our oceans are still a public commons

At first glance, corporate consolidation of the oceans mimics what is happening on land. There is a concentration of fewer larger corporations monopolizing and controlling entire aspects of the seafood supply chain in ways that undermine labor rights, environmental stewardship, and erode the social fabric of communities that have relied on food production and food sourcing for hundreds of years. 

The difference has to do with private property rights. Brett explains: “Since colonization, land based food production has taken place on private property, which is the root of a lot of the problems in farming and agriculture. That is not the case with oceans, which are still legally a public commons. But this is changing: what’s happening with the oceans in the past decades is similar to how colonization began to transform land that was held by Indigenous people.” 

This privatization mainly occurs through Catch Share Policies –  a fishery management strategy that “allocates a specific portion of the total allowable fishery catch to individuals, cooperatives, communities, or other entities.” Catch Share policies sell the right to fish to the highest bidder, which is usually the person with the largest fleet. In doing so, they push out small-scale fishers while inviting bigger players that undermine the sustainability and conservation goals that the catch share policies are supposedly designed to achieve. 

The privatization creates an unstable working environment. Before Rob Seitz was able to buy his own boat, he fished using another person’s boat in return for a percentage of the catch. When the NOAA introduced a buyback program In response to overfishing, the proprietor of Rob’s boat sold half his fleet. “At the time I had four kids and had just bought a house,” recalls Rob, “he applied for the buyback but he didn’t give me any notice, in case his bid was not accepted. The boat sold, along with half the fleet and all of a sudden I found myself looking for work at the same time as all these other folks. It made me realize that I was never going to have security unless I owned a boat.”

The silver lining however is that there may still be time to stop the privatization of our ocean commons. “These policies are gaining traction but they are not set in stone,” Brett points out. We can learn from the failings of private property ownership in the farming sector and work towards reversing these policies before they have the same damaging effects on communities and the environment. But this means taking on very powerful interests. 

Values-based aquaculture is possible, but the market is dominated by industrial fish farms

While the rapid industrialization of the fisheries is leading to a reduction in fish populations, and threatening ocean ecosystems, seafood industry giants like Aquabounty are looking towards another way to boost the production of seafood: industrial aquaculture. Think factory farms, but for fish. This is a potentially harmful development. Brett breaks it down: “Aquaculture is a false solution. On one hand, aquaculture has been practiced for millenia by Indigenous communities, but industrial scale agriculture is damaging and unsustainable, and it has been growing. Now, corporations are seeking ocean access to set up off-shore fisheries. Currently, off-shore fisheries (which are proven to be harmful to ocean ecosystems, and breeding grounds for disease) are not allowed in US waters. However, powerful lobbyists are pushing against that.”  

Source: Food Print

Follow the money and it will lead you to familiar names like Cargill. What does Cargill have to do with seafood? Soybeans, of which Cargill is one of four largest producers, is the primary feed in fish farms. NAMA is currently organizing against this through the Don’t Cage our Oceans Coalition. Read about their campaign on Civil Eats

If industrial aquaculture in itself wasn’t a risk to ocean ecology and fishing communities, this year, the first ever Genetically Modified Animal, Aquabounty Salmon, hit supermarket shelves. The risks of GMO Salmon are extensive and irreparable, and it’s efficacy as a nutrition source is questionable, and as Brett points out, the introduction of GMO salmon into our marketplace and ecosystem is another form of colonization. “There are several Indigenous tribes, including the Coastal Salish people that call themselves the Salmon people and have identified spiritually as protectors of Salmon for thousands of years. Aquabounty’s move to create and retail GMO Salmon is directly impacting their culture, identity and their livelihoods.” he says.

Learn: Block Corporate Salmon Campaign

Brett informs us that there is also a wave of small scale, mostly white folks who are growing kelp and seaweed for consumption. “They are being uplifted and incentivized by policy and they have an increased ocean presence,” says Brett. “While what they are doing in isolation is benign, there is a risk that they will collectively sell out and transfer ownership rights because they still don’t operate in a system that favors small players. Nothing is set up to help small-scale growers of kelp, but everything is set up for large-scale production of kelp as a biofuel which means there’s a possibility that they will be owned by Exxon or Shell soon. We see this as a stepping stone to corporate consolidation of kelp.”

Other aspects of the fishing industry that are similar to farming and agriculture: racial inequity and a legacy of colonization

While racial discrimination plays out differently in the seafood sector, Black and Indigenous fishers of color, and immigrant fishers face some of the same problems as their counterparts on land: institutional discrimination and a lack of access to resources and opportunities. And as in agriculture, as the negative impacts of consolidation and corporate abuse, Black, Indigenous and fishers of color are hit first and worst. 

“But this was not always the case,” Brett points out.  Indigenous communities have a connection to fishing that goes back for thousands of years. The displacement and genocide they endured in the hands of colonizers resulted in a loss of fishing access that continues to burden their communities to this day. There are some exceptions though: the Nisqually Tribe fought back to protect their fishing access rights in the Pacific Northwest and build a thriving fishing community with strong infrastructure that feeds the community. Currently, Indigenous communities are at the forefront of a resistance against harmful fishing practices and ocean privatization.

Read: Mi’kmaw Fishery Dispute Is Not About Conservation, Scientists Say, Hakai Magazine

Similarly, “Black watermen in the South had a robust fishing infrastructure from the 1800s through the 1900s, with a focus on shrimp and oysters,” says Brett. However, unlike the long history of racial justice organizing in the food and farming sector, and the growing movement to hold the USDA accountable to racial equity, the seafood sector is only beginning to take stock of its colonial legacy and contemporary prejudice. NOAA data on racial demographics on ownership and employment in the seafood industry is insufficient. There is also a strong Vietnamese and East-Asian fishing community and a robust fishing infrastructure off the Gulf of Mexico, but they too face some of the same barriers as immigrant farmers on land.”

Often, organizations such as NAMA are the only thing standing between small scale fishers in the United States, and powerful corporate conglomerates, and resisting harmful practices such as catch share policies and large-scale aquaculture. To learn more about their work and support their ongoing efforts, check out their website and sign up for their monthly newsletter.