Food Voices: Fishermen Are the Best Conservationists

This article is part of the “Food Voices” series emphasizing the role of artisanal fishermen in maintaining healthy bodies of water.

WhyHunger is pleased to be partnering with Andrianna Natsoulas, longtime food sovereignty activist and author of the forthcoming book Food Voices: Stories of the Food Sovereignty Movement. In 2010, Andrianna began a journey across the Americas to capture the stories of people working towards and living a just and sustainable food system. As she continues her journey, spanning from Nova Scotia to Ecuador to Brazil and beyond, we will feature highlights of the stories she gathers.  


Bruce Irwin was born and raised in Marathon, Florida. He fishes on his fishing vessel, Marla K, for lobster, stone crab, and finfish, such as yellow tail and mangrove snapper. His family has been fishing in the Florida Keys since the 1890s. In 1976, the federal government established eight regional fishery management councils, which are responsible for developing fishery plans for the adjacent marine areas. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce, has oversight over the eight councils. Any fisherman who fishes in federal waters must comply with the councils’ fishery management plans.

“I think the Council system—if you look at the theory of it and how it is designed—is probably good enough. It’s probably a good system, but it is corrupt now. It’s out of balance. You can’t put all the power on one side and expect to have fair regulations. If they balanced it better and didn’t pass these laws in Washington that say, ‘oh, all the fisheries have to fit this right here and they all have to fit right there…’ That’s a big mistake. It takes all the power out of the Council. We sit and listen to all the sides and all the science and then make the decision. If that was followed by the letter, the way it was designed, it would be good, but it’s not that way anymore. I think it did work at one time.


“I just want to emphasize more that if I could speak directly to the head person that’s running all the fisheries, I would want to emphasize that you can’t pigeonhole all fisheries into the same management plan. And that’s what they are trying to do because it is easy and convenient and it consolidates fishermen. It cuts fishermen out. They call it rationalization. That’s what is going on all over the United States. Fisheries are shrinking and shrinking. The people left are probably making a good living, but you have to buy everyone out to do it. It’s going to take a lot of investment.

“One thing that I want people to know is that fishermen are the best conservationists there are. Commercial fishermen. They want to see it for the next generation. That is why we have been really proactive in management and helping develop management that we can live with and that’s environmentally friendly. Sustainable for the fisheries. That’s a big reason. We don’t want to be the ones who kill it. I want my son to go out and make a living too. Right now, he plans on doing that because jobs are so hard to find out there. He’s going to have a degree, but that don’t mean much right now. Fishing has been good to me. I put all three of my kids through school. Two of them graduated college, the first ones in the family. We have a modest living. We live in a decent house. Fishing’s been good. It is nice, it is independent. You are not going to meet other people like fishermen. They are all different, but they all have that same independence.  I want to do things my way, and that’s why I am a fisherman. I’m king out on the boat.”