Challenging the Dominant Narrative

26 Oct 2014

Nobody can deny that the oceans and the marine resources they contain are in trouble, but the steady stream of news stories about collapsing oceans misses important details about a more complex story of ecology and political power.


A combination of responses is being presented by governments, major international organizations and the big industry players as THE solution to the problems: no-take marine protected areas, privatization of fishing rights, aquaculture. But this dominant narrative is being challenged by Slow Food’s Slow Fish network, which is currently meeting at Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre


Fishers, academics, activists, Slow Food convivium leaders, chefs and youth gathered in the Slow Fish space on Thursday October 23 to share their experiences of making their voices heard and fighting for the rights of small-scale fishermen around the world. They came from Honduras, Mexico and Ecuador, from the United States and Canada, from Norway, France, Ireland, Spain, Senegal, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines. Despite the diversity of their backgrounds, their stories were familiar, and they nodded in recognition as they listened: fishers dispossessed from their land, policies favoring industrial factory boats, governments pandering to corporations and fish farms that both grab ocean space, destroy natural habitats and pollute the waters.


The first session on Friday October 24 sought to identify these common challenges and shed light on the reality of the complex situation, showing how the “narrative hegemony,” in the words of Seth Macinko, a professor at the University of Rhode Island in the United States, is being imposed by governments and other organizations like the World Bank, and even environmental NGOs. “People are being told their options are ‘privatize or perish’,” he said. “We hear a number of names: rights-based fishing, Individual Transferable Quotas, Transferable Fishing Concessions, catch shares,” but they are all euphemisms for privatization, he said, “code words in this narrative.” The end result is to  deprive small-scale fishers of their fishing rights, while introducing fisheries as “investable propositions.” This, said Macinko, is Orwellian language.


As fishing rights are being taken away from small-scale fishers, so too is their access to the coasts, oceans, seas, rivers and lakes that provide their livelihoods. Carsten Pedersen of the Masifundise Development Trust in South Africa, co-author of the recent report “The Global Ocean Grab,” talked about fishing communities being denied their right to access fish resources because, similar to land grabbing, governments are selling off stretches of coast or ocean to big corporations, for example in the tourism or oil industry. He gave examples, like the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest hydropower project, whose construction took away the livelihoods of millions of people, or the destruction of mangroves in Honduras and Ecuador to farm shrimp for export.  New guidelines for sustainable small-scale fisheries, recently endorsed by the United Nations, offer a way forward, he said: “They contain a framework based on principles like food sovereignty, human rights, user rights for small-scale fishers. We just need to get decision-makers to listen.”


Magnus Johnson, a lecturer in environmental marine biology at the University of Hull in the UK, described what is effectively another form of ocean grabbing, the wanton creation of marine protected areas by conservation organizations. He explained how the traditional view of a marine protected area is based on very specific environments, like coral reefs, or on conservation areas on land. They rarely have the same wholly positive benefits in contexts like the North Sea. For example, he said, “they don’t protect against pollution, plastics, invasive species, climate change, acidification—and these things frighten me much more than fishing.” But, he said, “a lot of NGOs see them as THE cure, the way to solve the problems of the marine world. But they only succeed when they have support from communities and lots of funding, are built from the bottom up and are part of a matrix of other measures.”


Perhaps fish farming is the solution to the overfishing of wild fish stocks? Unfortunately, the species being farmed are often carnivorous, like salmon, and they are being fed wild-caught fish. John Volpe, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria, Canada, has been working on a Global Aquaculture Performance Index that evaluates the environmental performance of marine aquaculture globally. Out of the top ten marine capture fisheries, only two species are used for direct human consumption, he said. The rest, including mackerel and sardines, are turned into fishmeal, often to feed to farmed fish, like Atlantic salmon, with five units of wild-caught fish going to produce one unit of farmed fish. Indeed, said Volpe, salmon has one of the worst environmental performances of all farmed fish.


Fishers from Congo, Chile and Honduras then spoke about the need to shape a new model for fisheries. “Small-scale fishers need to have clear objectives,” said Pedersen. “They are the only group that can push for change. Neither the governments nor the big players will do it.” His exhortation was echoed by Ian Kinsey, a British fisherman working in Norway. “We really need to stand up and be counted. We are small players in a big industry and we have a real viable future. All we are asking for is the right to exist and grow. And to do so, we need to deconstruct the myths around fisheries.”


These myths present an image of fisheries and the state of the oceans based on generalizations and simple linear effects, misrepresenting the complexity of very diverse situations. They point to fishermen being almost solely responsible for what is described as a general collapse of the oceans, conveniently overlooking the fact that there is a great disparity of situations, from healthy ecosystems to utterly destroyed areas, with a variety of causes, including pollution, ocean acidification, market trends and mismanagement at different levels. They also overlook the positive results of decades of stock recovery efforts, and make no differentiation between large- and small-scale fishers. They distract us from the fact that we could be pursuing a more democratic, place-based approach to counter the so-called “tragedy of the commons.”

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