Youth Activists Hooking Up with Fishermen on Policy

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

It’s rare that I get to use the words ‘inspirational’ and ‘New England fisheries policy’ in the same sentence, but at last month’s New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) meeting I was inspired when student food activists from Slow Food UNH and the Slow Food Youth Network testified in support of community based fishermen. 

In a foul policy arena dominated by full-time lobbyists, where actual fishermen 
participation is made nearly impossible by the exclusive decision-process, the new and young voices at the mike were beyond refreshing. 

Clockwise from top left: Student activists Amanda Parks, Molly McGovern, and Spencer Montgomery at the June NEFMC meeting.

As one fisherman who was there put it, “These young folks, and really this goes for all people who care about where their food is coming from, deserve to have their voices heard and weigh-in on fisheries policy. After all, we are talking about a public resource. We need the public to pay attention and we need support now more than ever.” 

Youth activists are paying more attention. As part of a broader youth-led campaign to raise more awareness between fisheries and the food system, prior to June’s Council meeting student leaders, Spencer Montgomery, Amanda Parks, and Molly McGovern listened to the recordings of fishermen’s testimony from a policy meeting in April. (Audio starts at 31 mins.)

What they heard was a diverse group of fishermen from different communities and gear types speaking out about the need to protect the inshore ecosystem and the need to fix a policy system that shifts fisheries access to the businesses who are most heavily capitalized. 

As Slow Youth USA network leader Spencer Montgomery put it, “After hearing the fisherman’s testimony is wasn’t hard to make the connection between our values around a good, clean, and fair food system and the values expressed by the fishermen — ensuring healthy fish stocks for future generations, ensuring affordable access to independent family fishermen, and ensuring that access is not concentrated into the hands of a select few.” 

At June’s policy meeting the students testified (Audio from the testimony starts at about 1:55:00) to policy makers that status quo policy is hurting the ecosystem and eliminating future opportunity for community based fishermen. Predictably, these new voices in the policy realm didn’t come without a reaction from those opposed to our message of a more diverse fleet (Amendment 18). 
The lobbyists in the room who were on the other side of the issue were anxious and uneasy. The students were unfazed and focused, and despite a lobbyist jeering during their testimonies, the youth activists stayed on point. Later I heard another lobbyists again say that these students didn’t belong, that they are not stakeholders and therefore should not be able to weigh in on policy. 

The truth is, of course, that fisheries are a public resource and managed for the greatest benefit of the public. It is the public’s right and duty to pay attention and weigh in when compelled. The reaction of folks who oppose our policy stance is a sign that we’re making headway. And headway on fisheries policy coming from young people is especially noteworthy. 

The vital importance of young people participating in policy spans 
beyond the fisheries world. Last month I had the unique privilege to sit down with community organizers from the Brazil-based Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) who advocate for the human right to water and land. 

Among the many inspirational exchanges, this one really stuck in my head. In 
describing what helps MAB be effective, one of the organizers said:

“Youth. A movement without the leadership and participation of young people is not really a movement.”

This made me pause and think about the fisheries and the broader movement to sustain the health of the marine ecosystem, fishing communities, and our seafood system. How well are we engaging young people? 

When you ask about young people in fishing communities the joke is that if you’re under 50 than you are likely on the younger end of the age range. Reality is that in New England the average age of working fishermen is nearly retirement age. 

Now more than ever it is critical that we be thinking about the next generation and not only what opportunities are we creating to ensure that fisheries are managed with the next generation in mind, but what participation outlets are there in place for young people to engage in policy. At NAMA we’re doing our part by cultivating relationships will outstanding youth-led groups like Slow Youth, the Real Food Challenge, and others. 

At June’s meeting we certainly did not move mountains, but we did made significant progress. And in many ways we are just starting to tap into a new wave of support that once harnessed and channeled, will not only move mountains but be the movement that will change the future of fisheries. And that inspires me!