Morality & the Marginalized

By Niaz Dorry, NAMA’s Coordinating Director

Welcome to the first entry in NAMA’s blog. Most people don’t expect fisheries issues to be couched in the context of morality or marginalization. That needs to change. So we thought we would start our blog by sharing with you a couple of unintended compliments we received recently. 
Earlier this year in a meeting with someone who works closely with fishing communities, I was told that we were working with the marginalized. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment. In fact, it was said with a tone that suggested we weren’t working with those who really mattered.
Later, at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council, our call for fleet diversity was couched as a moral issue not a fishery management one by someone testifying before the council. I’m certain the testimony was intended to suggest it doesn’t really matter who fishes and the council should disregard calls for fleet diversity. Although I agree with the speaker that the issue is a moral one, I disagree that it’s not a fishery management one.
I must admit at first both comments made me pause. I wasn’t sure whether I should be insulted or not. Within a few seconds I found myself feeling proud to be regarded as working to represent those who are marginalized while pursuing a moral agenda. After all, some of my heroes spent their life’s work pursuing moral issues on behalf of the marginalized. Not that I consider us in the same league as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or others whose life was spent exposing wrongdoings of systems that undermine the lives of millions at a great cost to all just so that a few can benefit and hold power, but we have reached the point in the fishing world where we are making decisions about who gets to fish.

More and more fisheries are beginning to resemble the rest of the world: fisheries wealth and power are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Anyone who doesn’t think this concentration of power has adverse consequences for the marine ecosystem hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been going on around the world and/or other industries.
Let’s see… the financial industry, housing industry, agriculture, media and health care.
Fisheries are no different, and more and more fisheries policies are resembling those that brought us the banking disasters, the financial meltdown, the destruction of agriculture and we won’t even talk about health care.
And who are the marginalized? They are fishermen like Naz Sanfilippo of Gloucester. When I first met Naz by his boat, he told me this story: there is a tree across the street where Naz ties his boat. His father taught him to watch for when that tree blooms before he goes fishing for cod. One year Naz decided to ignore his father’s advice and sure enough… he came home empty handed. Regardless of the ethics, values, skills and knowledge Naz brings to his fishing operation, current fisheries management strategies aren’t made to value his operations. He’s considered too small to matter.
You can watch other testimonies from some other so-called marginalized fishermen of New England.
If political power is determined by ones investment portfolio or bank accounts or ability to hire lobbyists, then our priorities are way out of whack. We know the so called marginalized – the community based fishing businesses like Naz’ and others like him – are those with the least ecological impact and bring the most value to our food system, local economies and local communities. These are best portrayed in this chart by Daniel Pauly in 2006:

Pauly wasn’t the first one to lay out these differences in such an easy to understand fashion. When I first began working on fisheries issues in 1994, it was the work of Peter Weber in the Worldwatch Institute paper #12 Net Loss: Fish, Jobs & The Marine Environment, that caught my eye:
There are major moral incongruities in the current fisheries management systems that not only jeopardize the lives of marginalized fishermen around the globe, but the very marine ecosystem fisheries management is meant to protect.
Who Fishes Matters… and if we are to stop fisheries from following the path of other industries that have valued consolidation and concentration of power instead of all other values, then we are in for a bumpy ride that will leave a lot of damage in its wake.
We can change the course. Let’s bring the perceived marginalized fishermen back into the page and address the moral issues we have to tackle because they have huge ecological implications.