NAMA & Slow Food at the United Nations Ocean Conference: Fish, Food, and a Healthy Ocean

This post comes from Brett Tolley, NAMA’s community organizer.

Last week I had the honor of representing Slow Food International, NAMA, and our various networks at the United Nations’ Ocean Conference. The topic of conversation was the connection between overfishing and our food system. You can read the transcript of my speech below plus watch the video here. (scroll to 58:50)

Brett Tolley delivers speech to at the United Nations Ocean Conference

Generally speaking, discussions around healthy food systems and healthy oceans are kept separate. In the world of marine conservation, the seafood system is completely left out. So the fact that the UN was connecting these dots was in some ways a victory in itself.

The significance struck me as I was walking east along Manhattan’s 42nd Street toward the world renowned UN Building. Dressed in a suit jacket and walking alongside the hectic traffic spilling out of Times Square I thought about my journey to arrive at this point. Coming from a rural fishing town where my comfort zone is basically the exact opposite of the NYC hustle and bustle, I thought of all the people who’ve been working tirelessly for many years to connect these dots between ocean and food systems. 

I thought about NAMA, Slow Fish International,, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, the National Family Farm Coalition, Farm Aid, Health Care Without Harm, and so many others who have been at the forefront of this work to ensure that we learn from our land-based food system and avoid repeating the same mistakes on the water. It became clear to me that the topic for this UN discussion — Overfishing and Sustainable Gastronomy — was not on the agenda by accident. Our collective message is having an impact.

United Nations Side Event: Ocean, Overfishing, and Sustainable Gastronomy

The main message we brought to the UN was this: the health of our ocean is intrinsically connected to our food system. And the food system is intrinsically connected to human rights, community empowerment, and the broader policies that affect our food producers. 

Rethinking our food system is critical for the health of the ocean. We desperately need a new values-based seafood system. One that ensures decent livelihoods for all those along the supply chain, honors the ocean, creates fair access for communities who depend on seafood, and many other values. See the recently released LocalCatch Core Values

At the UN session, we heard from many (including ourselves) who are leading these efforts by building alternative direct marketing models such as dock to dish, farmers markets, Community Supported Fisheries, boat to institution, and many others.  

But we can’t stop there. We can’t eat our way out of this problem. Nor can consumers simply buy our way toward a healthy ocean. Although for some this is a great start, we need to dive deeper.

NAMA’s Community Organizers at the UN Ocean
Conference: Julianna Fischer and Brett Tolley
We must simultaneously address the tsunami of fisheries policy that is displacing our small and medium scale fishermen. To give a sense of what we’re up against, see the World Ocean Grabs report, this recent Mother Jones article that highlights our work, and the newly released Fish Market: the Big-Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate, by author Lee van der Voo.  

We can spend the time and energy to create alternative market structures and ‘vote with our fork’ but if the larger policies are not being addressed we’ll have no small and medium scale fishermen to vote for.

Also, see the statement put out by the World Forum of Fisher Peoples to the United Nations in advance of last week’s conference. We stand in solidarity with the WFFP and recognize their great work in developing the United Nations Guidelines for Sustaining Small Scale Fisheries, which is a starting point toward solutions.

Overall our message was well received. We were able to carry the torch and continue connecting the dots between our ocean and food systems. We’ll continue shining a light on ocean grabbing and continue building models toward food justice. If you haven’t already, please hop on our newsletter and join our Facebook page to stay in the loop of these opportunities.


Delivered By Brett Tolley
June 6, 2017
New York, NY

To talk about the theme of this Side Event, overfishing and sustainable gastronomy, I want to start by sharing a personal story. My earliest memories are being on the deck of my father’s small-scale fishing boat and feeling the salt water hit my face. Like my father and his father before him, I learned to love the ocean and the infinitely complex ecosystems in which we lived and in which my family earned its living. My father was a small-scale fishermen and loved his work. He loved feeding people and working hard. He loved being on the water and caring for the marine ecosystems that provided his community with so much.  

But due to the increasing pressure from the global commodities market for seafood, my father wasn’t getting paid a fair price for his catch that reflected his true cost of overhead. Not only was he not getting paid a fair price but no matter how well he took care of his fish, he was not rewarded or recognized. At the same time policy designed to consolidate the fleet was pressuring fishermen like my father to increase volume in order to survive. And like thousands and thousands of fishermen, he had to make the choice: do I scale up or leave the fishery? Do I get big or get out? This is a similar question that many family farmers have faced over the years. In the end he tried to scale up in order to survive but fishing quickly transformed into something that he no longer loved and in fact, he began to hate. He got out of fishing and sold his boat last year.

For Slow Food International and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, we believe that if we’re serious about ending overfishing and sustainable gastronomy, then we must give our community-based and small-scale fishermen a better option. Instead of forcing them into high-volume / low-value fisheries we need to think about high-value / low-volume and generating new opportunities to access seafood at the community level.

This is the approach we’ve been taking for the past decade, together with Slow Food International we’ve organized a new and exciting network called Slow Fish, aimed at promoting the values of good, clean, and fair seafood.

We’re building new relationships with restaurants and fish buyers around the world to move toward these values and others that include: principles of food sovereignty, fair price, fair access, eating with the seasons and rhythms of nearby ocean ecosystems, and supporting bottom-up, genuine democratic participation in fisheries management, and more. We’re building direct marketing models and alternative options for fishermen to connect with their community and receive a fair price while providing new avenues for access to locally caught seafood. We are working with institutions like hospitals and universities to shift their buying power toward fair price, buying from small and medium scale fishermen, and embracing the seasonality of what’s being caught in nearby waters.

But like a nearby fishing family once told me, we can do all this work to build alternative markets and sustainable seafood systems, but if we’re not paying attention to the larger fisheries policies than we will lose all the fishermen and communities that we care most about.

Policies and principles such as food sovereignty that allow for communities to have democratic control over their own food resources are intrinsically linked to sustainable gastronomy. You can’t have one without the other.

One of the biggest threats we see to our vision of a values-based seafood system and sustainable gastronomy is the false solution of privatization to our fisheries access and the broader theme of “Ocean Grabbing”.  We are being told that in order to save the ocean we must own it like private property. This is not true. One short story to share.

In New England we recently began a policy that privatized our fisheries access rights for fish like cod. The promise was that by allowing fisheries access to be bought, sold, and traded like stocks on Wall Street, we would better conserve the fish populations. Not only did the policy fail to save the fish, but it empowered one of the largest fleet owners in the country, who self refers to as the Codfather. This fleet owner was recently caught in a sting operation by the US Internal Revenue Service and charged on dozens of accounts of fraud, money laundering, and cheating. He pled guilty to all accounts and his sentencing trial will be in two weeks. Fishermen warned of these policies and their negative impact to small scale fishing communities, but their voices were silenced during the defunct democratic process of our fisheries management.

We see that as long as policies are allowing for the big to get bigger, we will see our values around sustainable gastronomy no longer have any practical application because the fishermen who are best poised to sustain our ocean and communities will no longer be there. These threats affect all of us in this room and the communities we represent.

The World Forum of Fisher Peoples recently produced a report titled “World Ocean Grab” that documents how and where these policies are taking place. The strategies are global in nature and therefore we must also resist them as a global community. In line with the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, we stand in solidarity with the United Nations’ efforts to create the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustaining Small Scale Fisheries. We recognize the efforts and leadership from the World Forum of Fisher Peoples and others to participate in the process. The Small-Scale Fisheries Guidelines are the starting point for our solutions. We encourage member States to channel efforts toward strengthening and implementing these guidelines as soon as possible.

So that for future generations of small and medium scale fishermen, they won’t be forced to get big or get out. They won’t be forced to make a killing. But rather, be able to fish in line with the ecosystem rhythms and make a living.