CHATHAM — Fisheries activist Brett Tolley of Chatham has told many people about the plight of small-scale fishermen like his father, who left the industry because he couldn't compete with big corporate interests. Last week, he told that story to world leaders in a special forum at the United Nations in New York.
A proud member of a fourth-generation fishing family, Tolley works as a community organizer and policy advocate for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, which lobbies for healthy fisheries and fishing communities. Last week, at the invitation of the Slow Food International Network, Tolley testified as part of a panel at the U.N. Ocean Conference.
In contrast with fast food, Slow Food represents traditional and regional cuisine from local plants, livestock and seafood.
“It's good, clean and fair food for all,” Tolley said. The movement was born around the same time as the agricultural crisis in the 1980s, acknowledging that high-volume, low-cost industrial farms were destroying small family farms and the communities they supported.
“The industrial food system is not working,” Tolley said. Mega-farms not only cause social problems, but they don't actually achieve the goal of providing healthier food for the masses, he added. Intense industrial farming can also leave tracts of land unusable because of pesticides and other environmental threats. With small-scale farmers, “they inherently care about the health of the land,” Tolley said. The parallels between agriculture and commercial fishing are clear, with small-scale day boat fishermen battling against large corporations to stay profitable.
Having never before been to the United Nations, Tolley found himself addressing United Nations representatives of Peru, Italy and Thailand, along with the directors of key United Nations agencies like UNESCO, and food industry experts, lobbyists and reporters.
Tolley told the assembly that it is important for consumers to change their habits to focus more on locally-caught, in-season seafood, even if it's a species that they've never tried before. But that change in consumer behavior is not enough.
“We can't buy our way out of this problem,” he said. The government rules that regulate commercial fishing tend to empower large corporations, and Tolley said that needs to change. Fisheries management that's based on the allocation of shares or quotas of a particular catch tend to privatize the oceans, rather than treating them as shared public resources, he argued. Those policies tend to concentrate access to fisheries to a few big players.
Tolley used the example of the sea clam fishery off Long Island, one of the first to be managed by transferable quotas. Four large companies now control 25 percent of that fishery, muscling out small-scale fishermen.
Then there's the case of Carlos Rafael, the New Bedford fishing mogul known as the Codfather, who was recently targeted by a federal sting operation. He'll be sentenced soon after having pleaded guilty to falsifying fish quota records, tax evasion and conspiracy. Tolley said it's wrong to paint Rafael as a single “bad apple” who got caught.
“The policies that empowered the Codfather are still in place,” he said. Rafael controlled a large fleet of boats and held a vast number of fishing permits, and without regulatory changes that keep that from happening, “we will see a Codfather II, a Codfather III, a Codfather IV.”
The current system of fisheries management, however, still enjoys bipartisan support from those who favor the status quo, or who believe that privatizing the resource is the best way to ensure its sustainability. Changing that system is no easy matter, Tolley acknowledged.
The Slow Fish movement – an offshoot of Slow Food – has built partnerships with New England hospital groups and universities, and has successfully lobbied them to include local seafood on their menus. Those large-scale consumers have some political clout when it comes time to revisit fishing regulations, Tolley said.
“That's, for us, where the hope is,” he said.
As NAMA and Slow Fish prepare to have their voices heard during the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act – the legislation that enables fisheries regulations – Tolley said even individual consumers can have an impact on the industry. Summer visitors to Cape Cod should enjoy local seafood, and should ask questions about where and when it was caught.
“Know where your fish came from,” he said.