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August 25, 2010

Field Notes: Community-Supported Fisheries - Why They Matter

by Rob Snyder

I just attended the Midcoast Fishermen's Association's (MFA) fish bake on August 22. If you missed it, don't let it happen again! Community members new, old and even a few young, piled into the town office down the St. George peninsula for a meal of steamed potatoes, breaded hake with Newberg sauce, salad, biscuits and enough desert to hold us diners over until spring. All of it, served up by fishing families that are working to change the trajectory of an industry.

Perhaps more than anything else, the fishing families in Port Clyde became well known because they launched the nation's first community-supported fishing (CSF) operation, selling shares of their fish to consumers ahead of the fishing season based on the community-supported agriculture model.  Most of the major newspapers in the United States caught wind of the CSF idea being jumped into action. In fact, there has been little need to spend any money on advertising for the past two years because this idea captured the national imagination.

Why is the community-supported fisheries idea so important?

For the past 34 years-the entirety of the history of fisheries management-there has been one dominant framework for thinking about the ocean. Let's call it the fish/fishermen relationship. Problems with how the ocean is managed? Manage fishermen's behavior better or count fish better. For three and a half decades, rules have been devised that restrict the time fishing (days at sea), the pounds of fish that can be caught (quota management), the social institutions that shape behavior (sectors), and the gear that can be used. All of this focused on fishermen's behavior. All the while, stock assessment science has been through its own evolution that improves our ability to estimate the number of fish in the sea.

Logical? Yes. But it has had another consequence that has been tragic.

If the only discussion that can exist about fishermen and fish involves a management relationship, then there is almost no opportunity to talk about fishermen as a source of local food, as contributors to healthy diets, finding solutions to hunger, and as part of a community economy. Instead, the only discussion to be had is around how exploiters must be managed and fish must be counted more accurately.

The brilliance of the community-supported fisheries concept is that it takes all that has been deemed external to the fish/fishermen relationship and brings these factors into discussions about the ocean. In other words, CSFs enable entirely new dialogues about fish and fishermen that have not existed for decades. Health, community, conservation, the benefits of local foods, etc. become a part of discussions about the importance of healthy ocean resources.

More than dialogue, CSFs have created the possibility for being a different kind of fisherman in Port Clyde-one that experiments with cleaner gear, donates fish to community dinners, makes food available to food banks, hires neighbors to work delivering fish directly to customers, and much more. Furthermore, the CSF model has become a source of optimism for fishermen and thoughtful consumers around the country. In turn, the publicity and impact of the CSF model came full circle and impacted fisheries management in late 2009 when one of the fishermen in the Port Clyde community was appointed to the New England Fisheries Management Council.

On my way to the hake bake, I visited friends down the St. George peninsula. Unsolicited, they began to talk about all the fish they had been eating over the summer as a result of their CSF share. Three years ago they did not know who caught their fish. Today, they know a tremendous amount about fishermen, fish, local food, commercial fishing infrastructure, how to clean a fish and use a fish rack for soup stock, and they even ask on occasion about fisheries management.

Ultimately, CSF customers want to know if the fishermen in their community are going to survive. They, and hundreds of other CSF shareholders care, and this is perhaps the greatest achievement of all.

I would like to acknowledge discussions with Kevin St. Martin at Rutgers University for his contribution to ideas presented in this column.

Rob Snyder is executive vice-president at the Island Institute.

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