Hope in Muddied Waters? Peeling back the curtain on PBS’s new “Hope in the Water” series

Stories of hope are important. It’s just as important to follow the money behind the stories, so we don’t put our hope in the wrong hands.

By Feini Yin

PBS has a new docu-series called “Hope in the Water,” full of feel-good stories about aquatic foods that come from the ocean and other waterways. As someone who does communications for a grassroots nonprofit rallying around a healthy ocean commons and local, values-based seafood, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I fundamentally believe there’s hope in the water. That’s what drives me, my colleagues, and the more than 500,000 fishing families across Turtle Island and beyond who lead our work at the North American Marine Alliance (NAMA) through decentralized organizing. 

On the other hand, through my experiences with NAMA and with other groups working toward collective liberation, I’ve learned to look beyond pretty stories, and to identify the interests behind them. In the case of “Hope in the Water,” there are several ties between the nonprofit behind the project, Fed by Blue, and powerful organizations and corporations that have a track record of undermining the health of our planet and the rights of family-scale fisherfolk.

Unfortunately, this dynamic is all too familiar. At a recent dinner, I found myself sitting next to two environmental justice activists, one who’d been in the movement for decades, and another who was earlier in her career. In a conversation that lasted for hours, we reflected on how the environmental justice movement has become muddier since its early days, when organizers were calling attention to the deaths of people in poor communities and communities of color, and unapologetically pointing a finger at extractive capitalism and the military-industrial complex. 

Today their fight exists alongside corporations, government agencies, and big nonprofits that have adopted the language of environmental justice, along with diversity, equity, and inclusion, while perpetuating the very systems responsible for environmental injustice and overlapping forms of oppression. In these co-opted stories of progress, symbolic words and representation become smoke and mirrors that distract from status quo power structures at play.

At NAMA, we have a word for when the “big” guys use the stories and struggles of the “little” guys to make themselves seem more authentically rooted in social movements. We call it bluewashing (after greenwashing). Bluewashing entails pushing for ocean solutions that further entrench corporate-controlled systems, including the industrial food system, which has treated food as nothing more than a tradable commodity, decimated rural communities and ecosystems, and failed to actually nourish the masses, as its proponents claim to be doing.

As a fishermen-led network that’s had our ear to the ground on issues affecting fishing communities for several decades, we’re alarmed to see bluewashing reach new and rampant levels. With terrestrial ecosystems experiencing depletion, the world’s wealthy and powerful are turning to the oceans to extract resources and profit, branding with names like “New Blue Economy” and “Blue Revolution.” The stakes are immense. There are fortunes to be made from opening more offshore waters to industrial-scale aquaculture, drilling, and mining. Battles of whether to privatize our ocean resources or keep our oceans in common heritage are actively being waged in our seas. 

Bluewashing is at the core of why “Hope in the Water” is so tricky for me. The first episode featured small-scale, artisanal fishermen in Puerto Rico who are developing a sustainable fishery around diamondback squid, an underutilized local species, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. It also told the story of loko i’a, fishponds that Indigenous Hawaiians have sustained for centuries to nourish and connect communities. The second episode included a friend of NAMA, Dune Lankard, who is leading the way on regenerative kelp farming in Alaska, based in Indigenous knowledge and self-determination. And the last episode, which airs Wednesday, spotlights Fishadelphia, a community-supported fishery near and dear to my heart, based in Philadelphia, where I live.

I love all of these stories, and it brings me genuine joy to see them gain visibility through a platform as large and inclusive as PBS’s. But my celebrations are also dampened by a closer look at the players behind the docu-series and the wider impact campaign surrounding it. Fed by Blue’s leadership is a who’s who of figures from legacy marine conservation groups, many with problematic corporate ties. 

Among “big green” environmental organizations, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund — all represented on Fed by Blue’s advisory board — are known for their big business ties to polluting oil companies, banks, and food giants, as well as their embrace of free market environmentalism and neoliberal environmental policies. Despite the failures of market-based environmental solutions (perhaps most spectacularly carbon offsets), these groups continue to push the idea of “selling nature to save it.” 

All three groups also have connections to the Waltons — the billionaire family behind Walmart — as does Fed by Blue through its partnership with the Builders Initiative. In its Walanthropy investigative series, Civil Eats has reported extensively on the Walton family’s unchecked influence over U.S. and global food systems, including in pay-to-play seafood standards and fisheries that may not be as sustainable as claimed. 

In partnership with EDF, the Waltons have been chief advocates of catch share policies, which turn fishing rights into a private commodity. In catch share systems across the United States, thousands of independent fishermen have lost fishing access and been pushed out of heritage fisheries. The Nature Conservancy has, too, played a role in hoarding privatized fishing rights at the expense of community-based fishermen.

Fed by Blue also has extensive ties to groups promoting the development of offshore finfish farming, which many in NAMA’s network recognize as a push to grab ocean resources and to transfer the factory farming model from land-based agriculture to our oceans, led in part by agribusiness giants like Cargill and JBS Foods. While regulatory hurdles have staved off the development of offshore aquaculture in the United States, lobbying groups backed by Cargill and EDF are pushing hard to open federal waters to carnivorous finfish farming

This is concerning, given Cargill’s role as one of the most harmful consolidators of our agricultural food systems, and EDF’s track record of privatizing ocean resources. Studying aquaculture globally, researchers have indeed argued that marine finfish farming could facilitate the allocation of our oceans to extractive industries and conservation interests at the expense of fishers, while potentially overpromising on food security and sustainability. 

Andrew Zimmern, executive producer of “Hope in the Water,” is a member of the Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture (CSA), a group convened by EDF to promote the offshore aquaculture industry in U.S. waters. Among CSA’s members is Tidal, a project from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, that’s developing artificial intelligence technology for salmon and other fish farms, despite the fact that researchers say reliance on such technologies could lead to greater risk of mass aquaculture disasters. Jennifer Bushman, co-founder of Fed by Blue, also has a vested interest in the industry, having done marketing and branding work for several aquaculture companies. 

In my job, I have conversations with small- and medium-scale fishermen every week. Whether it be due to pay-to-play sustainability schemes, catch shares, or industrial finfish aquaculture, many independent fishermen are feeling squeezed by corporate consolidation and left with the sense that their ways of life and livelihoods are being left to wither on the vine. Meanwhile, corporations and governments increasingly embrace top-down “blue economy” solutions based on extraction of marine resources and the decline of rural communities. 

The fishermen’s fears are not unfounded. Examples from around the world show that market-based programs to commodify nature have led to the dispossession or assimilation of Indigenous peoples, small-scale food producers, and rural communities into the global economy. At the end of the day, it makes sense that capitalism-driven environmental solutions may be inherently anti-ecological. After all, it’s a system designed to concentrate, rather than share, power and wealth, while actively degrading the lands and waters we all rely on. 

When it comes to “Hope in the Water,” I worry about the wolf in sheep’s clothing (or the shark in minnow’s clothing). I want to like it, and hold nothing against its participants, who are all effecting change in their own ways. But what’s missing, for me, is an analysis of the corporate power and logics in our food systems. It’s not a question of whether the people and groups featured in the docu-series stand to gain something, but of who stands to gain more. By aligning themselves with grassroots, people-powered stories, the powerful players behind the project gain social capital and legitimacy, invaluable for lobbying lawmakers and courting the public to advance their profit-fueled agendas. Yet it seems unlikely they’d want to meaningfully challenge the status quo, against their own interests. And they have shown, through other ventures, that they’re willing to sacrifice fishing communities in pursuit of their goals.

Thankfully, I find hope everyday in the fishing communities that NAMA fosters relationships with. In spite of everything they’re up against, they’re building power through coalitions that contest catch share policies and factory fish farming, all while uplifting seafood systems centered on food sovereignty, place-based knowledge, and community joy.

Hopeful seafood stories, to me, must start at the bottom-up, not the top-down. They must be rooted in values. Even forms of seafood production that tend to be portrayed as silver bullets, like kelp farming, have the potential to be harmful when developed at an industrial scale and a pace dictated by corporate investors. That’s why NAMA’s collective network put together an Aquaculture Values Report, to encourage aquaculture development that prioritizes stewardship, local control, and equitable distribution of risks and benefits. 

For further resources, I recommend checking out NAMA’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, the FoodPrint Reports on Wild and Farmed Seafood, and the World Forum of Fisher People’s report on Agroecology and Food Sovereignty in Small-Scale Fisheries. To find values-based seafood businesses near you, you can visit the Local Catch Network’s seafood finder.

To me, hope is not just feel-good stories. It is, as Mariame Kaba famously says, a discipline. It is the harder, messier work of resisting the powerful systems that actively bulldoze, poison, and sign away marginalized communities for the sake of profit and power. Hope is coming together, in the face of these systems, to build another world altogether — one where people everywhere restore a caretaking relationship with our shared lands and waters, and our communities have the means and power to feed ourselves.

Feini Yin is media coordinator at the North American Marine Alliance, a small nonprofit rallying a big movement to resist corporate control of the ocean commons, establish fair seafood systems, and support thriving fishing communities. They also provide support, as a fisheries consultant and storyteller, to Fishadelphia, a community-based fishery serving culturally and socioeconomically diverse consumers in Philadelphia.

Photo: Behind the scenes of the Hope in the Water film crew taping the Fishadelphia segment.
Photo credit: Feini Yin