Fleet Diversity Matters to Local Food Systems

By Environmental Justice Consultant Anne D. Burt, guest blogger
Maine Council of Churches

Note: This letter was addressed to New England fisheries 
decision-makers regarding Amendment 18 to the groundfish plan. 
We encourage everyone to join Andy by submitting your own 
comments in support of fleet diversity. Click here to learn how.

To the New England Fisheries Management Council,

I am writing to oppose the no-action alternative for Amendment 18 and urge the Council to consider every reasonable alternative in order to protect fleet diversity.

For more than a decade the Maine Council of Churches has engaged congregations in environmental and economic justice projects that are designed to foster sustainable and resilient local communities. For the past six years that work has involved linking congregations to their local foods system, initially connecting the local congregations with nearby farms and farmers, and more recently with their neighbor fishermen. I would like to share a few stories about why fleet diversity is important to our local communities that are working to reclaim and revitalize their working waterfront and fishing traditions as they rebuild local markets for fresh-caught seafood and commit to more sustainable ways of fishing and eating.

In the winter of 2007, when fuel prices were out of sight and the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association’s (MFA) small groundfish fleet had tied up, despite there being plenty of local shrimp to harvest, some of the fishermen approached a Rockland congregation about becoming a Community Supported Fishery site. The congregation had a history of working with local farmers, having bought into Hatchet Cove Farm’s Community-Supported Agriculture farm in its infancy and watched the number of shares bought by church members grow from 15 the first year to now over 200.

The church felt deep concerns about their community’s working waterfront heritage and the alarming reports of declining fish stocks, a degrading ocean environment, and, as a result, disappearing small fishing fleets up and down the coast. So when MFA approached the church and said fishermen would need to sell church members 100 pounds of shrimp/week (10 shares at 10 pounds/share) to make the project viable, some members of the church stepped forward, timidly at first, and promised to meet the MFA requirement. Together they launched Maine’s first CSF, which has grown to include whole groundfish, cut and filleted fish, and more. MFA members showed the church members, mostly neophytes when it came to cleaning fish and shrimp, how to process the seafood, store it, and even cook it! MFA, meanwhile, has opened a new fish processing plant in Port Clyde, and helped to meet Maine communities’ appetite for locally caught fresh seafood by establishing several other similar sites in nearby communities. First Universalist members are deeply grateful for the fresh fish and seafood that comes to their doorstep every Sunday during the fishing seasons.

Video: A Leap of Faith: How one Maine Church turned shrimp into a big idea

Rockland is not an isolated community and that is not the only story. Over the past year Maine Council of Churches partnered with congregations in Kennebunk, Topsham, and Bar Harbor to study the changing ocean environment, fishing management, and what those on the land could do to preserve their local fishing communities and the ocean’s flora and fauna. A four-week study called “Fishes and Loaves” concluded with a community dinner featuring local seafood. In all three communities, the participating faith communities and local fishermen are now pursuing next steps to establish CSF’s that will benefit both local fishermen and local consumers. We will continue these local studies/suppers in other communities like York, Cumberland, Lincoln, and most recently Washington county where we can anticipate similar results.

We are confident because in February 2009, with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, we conducted a survey of the public at our annual CSA/CSF fairs in 12 communities and had enthusiastic responses from the local attendees to increase the amount and diversity of seafood that they could purchase locally, including interest in getting CSFs off the ground. We believe, with our partners, that we can help to galvanize that interest into sustainable markets that would support small and diverse local fishing fleets in communities where they have traditionally thrived.

However, the growing support for locally caught seafood must be matched by policies that support a diverse and local fleet. Fleet consolidation and concentration of the rights to fish into fewer hands threatens our source of local seafood. These challenges require us to seek a bold new vision for caring for our food resources, their environment, and each other. We think that there is growing evidence that small, diverse and local food product (yes, how it was traditionally done) is the sensible approach. Small local farms and fleets, using methods that are least harmful to the ecosystems in which they produce food, can adapt more easily to fluctuations in climate and fish availability, and the relationships that have traditionally bonded us together as communities of farmers, fishermen, small businesses and churches can sustain us through the hard times.

Again, I urge you to please consider all available tools to protect fleet diversity.

Thank you,

Anne D. Burt

Thank you Andy for sharing your comments. We encourage everyone who, like Andy, believes fleet diversity really matters to healthy and safe local food systems, to submit your own comments as part of a public comment period that ends March 1. Click HERE for help on e-mailing comments. Every comment counts!