You Can’t Be Neutral in a Moving Sea

Why the Struggle of Family Fishermen, Fishworkers, and Allies Matters to Me

This post comes to us from Shira Tiffany, JOIN Fellow and NAMA Community Organizer. This post is longer and offers stories.

Seeking a quiet spot to talk while away on family vacation, my sister and I sit cross-legged on a gravel driveway. We’re sweaty and attracting a swarm of mosquitoes. She listens as I describe unknown variables in my decision making algorithm, I know and am concerned about factory farming and agribusiness but I don’t know much about fisheries policy. What if I don’t personally connect to it?” I ask her and the empty dirt road as I consider a position organizing family fishermen, fishworkers, and allies as part of a fellowship with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) and the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network (JOIN) for Justice.

I applied to be a JOIN fellow to gain skills to facilitate communities accessing their power. Two years earlier at Garfield School in Northern California I tutored Leonardo, a 4th grade student who immigrated with his mother from Michoacán, Mexico, and who never ate school lunch. He showed me the hamburger on a soggy white bun, moist from the condensation inside the microwaved plastic wrapper with a list of ingredients neither he nor I could pronounce and explained that it wasn’t “real food”. The industrial food system feeding Leonardo and millions of children like him is based on practices of economic and environmental injustice, profiting from unfair and dangerous working conditions in slaughterhouses, chemical intensive farming, and unhealthy animals treated with antibiotics on factory farms.

School lunch tray with a frozen hamburger microwaved in a plastic wrapper

Garfield is one of three schools in the district where all students receive free lunch because a majority of students live below the federal poverty level. As a member of the American public, I am fueling this food system with my taxpayer dollars. Howard Zinn wrote, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train,” which inspires me to honor my responsibility to work to change even huge seemingly immovable systems. 
We have the same amount of power and responsibility for serving this burger to Leonardo as his mother.

I knew about and cared about corporate interests exploiting the food system. But how is the fight of family fishermen and fishworkers part of that broader story? I didn’t know many stories of family fishermen and fishworkers or of corporate interests in the seafood supply chain. My intuition was that hearing these stories would spark that same sense of complicity in an unjust system.

In the past four months as a community organizer with the NAMA, my experiences have answered my question I asked my sister in the summer heat about why the struggle of family fishermen, fishworkers, and allies matters to me. And why it might matter to you.

The same issues of economic and environmental justice that plague agriculture are at the core of the seafood industry. Corporate interest is pushing for catch share policies which privatize the ocean and favor high volume, low value fishing at the expense of marine ecology and access for community based fishermen. Walmart, through the Walton Family Foundation, has spent over $20 million promoting catch shares. Walmart supports political policies supporting these practices because they profit from selling the final product. Seafood is part of the same industrial food system we pay into to feed Leonardo.

How are fishermen, fishworkers, and allies fighting for food access, and economic and environmental justice?

A couple of months ago I sat in a circle of 25 folks whose previously bundled faces lit from below by tea lights in Dixie cups were now uncovered and lit brightly in Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores’ (CCT) office in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I scanned the circle and recognized a few faces from a gathering a few weeks before of fishermen, fishworkers, and student allies.

Real Food Challenge student Drew Fournier picketing at fish processing plant NORPEL

I didn’t see Antonia, a worker in a fish processing plant, who had quietly shared her story of immigrating and supporting her children back home by working 100 hours a week at $8/hour with no overtime. Antonia and her co-workers are fighting for fair and safe working conditions. Their campaign, Pescando Justicia/Fishing for Justice, coordinated by CCT, had just taken an action against NORPEL (Northern Pelagic Group LLC) and we were at CCT’s office to debrief the night. Some workers had attempted to negotiate with NORPEL management while other workers and allies paced the sidewalk of Fish Island
chanting, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. The people united will never be defeated.” We learned that four workers had been fired that night for demonstrating (read this article and sign a petition to rehire workers) and that Antonia was taken to the emergency room after she was shoved by the secretary as she walked off the job.

Workers at fish processing plant NORPEL and members of Pescando Justicia/Fishing for Justice Campaign

In the opposite corner of our circle in CCT’s office, listening to this news, sat Drew Fournier. Drew is a student at UMass Amherst collaborating with fishermen and fishworkers to determine a sustainable seafood purchasing policy to bring to UMass Amherst’s administration.
Real Food Challenge targets institutional purchasing power to shift production from exploitative supply chains to fair and sustainable ones. Drew was standing in solidarity with the fishworkers as a result of Real Food Challenge Northeast’s collaboration with NAMA to get real seafood dished up in university dining halls.

This circle was an answer to my question. A meaningful chapter on seafood in the story of food justice illuminated for me in Garfield’s cafeteria was the unfolding before me. This circle was part of the larger story of fishermen, fishworkers, and allies fighting for food access, and economic and environmental justice!