Fish Myths: It’s the fishers’ fault?

Myth: There are too many boats chasing too few fish. Fewer boats are better for the marine ecosystem. Small and medium-scale fishers’ greed is to blame for the depletion of fish species and the ocean. To solve the problem of too many boats we need to use a “markets-based” approach that treats fisheries access like private property, consolidates the fleet into a few big boats, and secures fish access into the hands of outside investors who will take better care. Also, we still need to feed the world more seafood and because the ocean is so depleted, our best bet is to replace wild-caught fisheries with industrially farmed fish.

That’s a lie.

Reality: Corporate consolidation is to blame for the pollution in our oceans and displacement of fishing communities. Industrial aquaculture and large-scale corporate Wild caught fisheries have not been scaled appropriately over the years resulting in massive corporate consolidation, damaged marine ecosystems, the decline of Wild fish stocks, poor water quality, and displaced fishing families. This, on top of other non-fishing polluting activities the ocean endures from corporate destruction, like oil spills and nuclear waste.

The industry wants us to think that our communities can’t manage our environments and natural resources ourselves. This ignores the fact that Indigenous people have co-existed and managed fish, water, and ecosystems for millennia. The top-down and industrial-focused approach failed. Ultimately, local and regional food systems can be managed and scaled appropriately to meet the needs of its surrounding community. The way forward is supporting Tribal fishing rights, community-based fishing, and values-based aquaculture, not corporatized fisheries, displaced fishing communities, and global seafood supply chains.

So how did we move away from community-based food systems? During the settlers’ expansion to the west, the buffalo population was decimated by the construction of the transcontinental railroad meant to connect with the west coast. In 1869, 700 men commanded by US army officer George Armstrong Custer set out to destroy the Cheyenne Tribe’s food supply, shelter, and livestock, to clear the path for construction as well as create a new “markets based” food system. They killed and hung Indigenous warriors and abducted Indigenous women and children. This type of violence paved the way to replace indigenous managed resources and food systems with industrial food systems. Today the ocean is being parcelled between corporations the way land was stolen and divided between settlers.1

Native American tribes have hunted and coexisted with the buffalo since time immemorial, but from mid to end of the 19th century the buffalo were brutally murdered by settlers, reducing their populations from 30 or 60 million to only 300 buffalo roaming the plains. Before the arrival of Europeans the buffalo stayed in majestic herds and moved together by the hundreds of thousands. Now, there are only about 200,000 buffalo in North America. The same strategy used to destroy the relationship between Native people and the buffalo continues today. The devastation of the buffalo population resulted in Native Americans being displaced into reservations, much like the constant breaking of fishing treaties that push tribal fishers and other fishing communities away from the water.

The first governor of Washington, Isaac Ingalls Stevens, coerced Native people of the Pacific Northwest to sign away their rights to 64 million acres of land. The Nisqually, the Puyallup, and other people in the territory insisted on clauses guaranteeing their fishing rights in order to protect their food supply and spiritual practices.

On March 1, 1964, local Native people of the Nisqually and Puyallup nations gathered along the banks of the Puyallup River in Washington State to exercise their tribal rights to fish despite the law. They were met with a police force hell bent on preventing them from casting their nets. Tribal leaders and organizers like the late Billy Frank Jr. from the Nisqually tribe worked to retain tribal fishing rights and ensure that the relationships with sacred species like Salmon are protected from enduring the fate of the buffalo. 2

By the 1940s and 1950s commercial overfishing threatened fishing stock. White Washington fisheries responded by scapegoating Native peoples, arguing that their fishing rights were leading to stock depletion, and ordering them to abide by state conservation laws. This was also an excuse to advance ideological goals including pressuring Native people to assimilate into American society. Through grassroots pressure Bill Frank Jr. and others were able to push for Washington State to sign the Boldt Decision in 1974 which affirmed tribal co-management of Salmon resources in the state of Washington.

The claim that Native people were responsible for overfishing was false. Between 1958 and 1967, Native people were responsible for 6.5% of the toal catch, sport fisheres for 12.2%, and commercial operations for 81.3%. Nonetheless, Washington state continued to be hostile to Native treaty rights. In 1953, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which gave state governments authority over Indian affairs. Washington game wardens soon began arresting Native fishers. Worse, several court rulings went against Native peoples, as judges found that the state had no obligation to abide by Native treaties.”

Mariame Kaba, Fish-Ins & Black/Native Solidarity in the 1960s

This dynamic continues today as the government and corporations blame fishing communities at large for their own mismanagement of the ocean.

One core lesson we must draw from is the story of the buffalo and the legacy of activists like Billy Frank Jr. is that uplifting Indigenous People’s rights benefits everyone that cares and relies on public resources like fish. It strengthens our relationship to one another and our bonds with nature. Undermining Indigenous Sovereignty severs these bonds and isolates us from each other instead of unifying us around a common vision for our food system, resulting in the privatization of resources and concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. When the government takes on legal obligations like tribal treaties we need to fight every single time they are broken.

1: Smithsonian Magazine, Where the Buffalo No Longer Roamed
2: Mariame Kaba, Fish-ins and Black/Native Solidarity in the 1960s