Voices from the Sea: Words From an Education Call on Fisheries and Food Sovereignty

Representatives from global movements supporting family and small-scale fisheries discuss their ideas for changing the way fisheries are regulated.

The following talks were transcribed from an educational call of the International Links Committee of the Community Food Security Coalition that took place on February 10, 2012. Focused on the rights of fishermen and fisherwomen, the speakers are critical of rights-based, privatized systems of fishery management and the land and ocean grabs that threaten the food sovereignty of these communities. They encourage unification of fishing communities in order to have a stronger voice in the regulation of their fisheries and access to the sea.

Arthur Bogason, World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, Iceland, talks about the system of ITQs (individual transferable quotas) in Iceland as well as the global framework for privatizing the oceans.

Andrew Johnston, Artisanal Fishers Association, South Africa, speaks about the system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) and why they are harmful for fishers.

Herman Kumara, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), Sri Lanka, speaks about the land and fish grabs in Sri Lanka following a major civil war

Brett Tolley, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), USA, discusses actions that the food movement can take to support fishing communities in the U.S. and abroad, as well as ideas on how to strategize on bringing the movements together.


Arthur Bogason, World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers , Iceland, talks about the system of ITQs (individual transferable quotas) in Iceland as well as the global framework for privatizing the oceans.

We tend to speak in technical terms when we discuss fisheries, so I hope the fundamentals aren’t lost. The ITQ (individual transferable quota) system is becoming more and more popular in discussions about how to manage fisheries, particularly within the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the World Bank and so on. This popularity is not surprising for politicians, scientists, economists, or even for those supporting “eco-labels” on fish, and it is especially not surprising for those supporting privatization.

Economists like an ITQ system because it gives them many figures to calculate (e.g. the value of quotas and thus of kilos). However, economists make mistakes when it comes to fisheries. My organization, NASBO (National Association of Small Boat Owners), has proven again and again in Iceland that not only can profits be made in the small fishing sector, but since the smaller boats have smaller gear, they cause much less ecological harm. Economists do not calculate these factors or the social factors, such as the impact on fishing communities as fishing rights are sold to large firms. As a result, the economists charge that ITQs are in fact more productive than other models.

This is the perfect tool for the politicians because they can point to the scientists and their advice, claiming they will follow the expert advice of “our best scientists.” If the fishermen argue that they can fish more of one species, the politicians will charge that fishermen are unconcerned with overfishing. However, fishermen also argue that certain stocks of fish should be left alone. In the end, politicians do not portray the concern for conservation that fishermen have.

ITQs are also a perfect tool for eco-label companies like MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) because the system can be to “put it in a box,” unlike with other management strategies like “days at sea.” Fishermen who get good quotas or high quotas will like the ITQ system because they are making good income and benefitting from those who distribute quotas.

Despite the fact that the ITQ system is harmful in many ways, it is absolutely necessary that the rights of people to fish be defined by legislation and international law. It is wrong to define the ITQ system in terms of “rights.” This is a twisting of words and an avoidance of real discussion. Though fishermen have avoided the question of “rights,” those rights do need to be defined. I have some ideas about how define those rights –these rights could be defined differently for each country, for example in their constitutions as would be appropriate in Iceland. Another idea is to define them in terms of days at sea, in terms of a license, or in terms of a restricted area. This issue is not as complicated as the politicians would say. The aspect of defining the rights of fishermen with regard to the enforcement of ITQ systems is that fishermen now realize that the rights to fish are valuable. This is clearest in ITQ systems, but days at sea or licenses also become more valuable as they become scarce. This means that it will become more and more expensive for newcomers to enter into fishing. We cannot with good conscience keep the oceans open. We cannot have 6 billion fishing the seas in small boats. We can’t even have a tenth of that amount. Maybe one hundredth of that number, but what is important is that there is a limit, and that limit must be respected.

ITQ systems are also harmful because they are a certain form of sea or “fish grabbing.” With privatization you have a legal mechanism that distributes fishing rights to a limited number of people, which usually gets smaller and smaller over time as companies get larger and larger.

The greatest challenge, however, is the lack of unity among fishermen. Fishermen agree that something should be done about fisheries and about their rights, but as soon as this is agreed upon, new disagreements and arguments emerge. Opponents exploit this tendency. Ultimately, we need to bring fishermen together define their rights and work toward a common goal.


Andrew Johnston, Artisanal Fishers Association, South Africa , speaks about the system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) and why they are harmful for fishers.

This is a warning. The ITQ system — privatization and “fish grabbing,” as it is called — is manacled to displacement and the marginalization of small-scale fishers. From the point of view of human value, we are slowly reaping the negative results in the community. Privatization is a curse for the poor and designed only to reward the wealthy. For us, it is a depressing tale of once vibrant and thriving fishing communities and villages brought to their knees — their dignity removed, culture destroyed and community wealth turned into abject poverty. To get out will take a lot of work. This is a direct result of greed, government mismanagement and corruption and the unscrupulous property holders and con-artists who are always involved in this privatization system.

All rights eventually migrate to the wealthy property holders, and the respect for the seas disintegrates. The belief in the common good — which we Africans hold dear — now falls on deaf ears. Everybody now says, “I’m alright, Jack, and hang anyone else,” and this has become a way of life. We chase materialism as if it is the new religion.

We have to be careful when we speak of privatization and the pursuit of it. Privatization of the ocean doesn’t protect the resources. It leads to over-catching, poaching, price dumping and food insecurity. It helps the export market and doesn’t give food to the local communities. It increases the price of food tremendously and creates a rent-seeking ideology that now exists in our whole society. Privatization, or fish grabs, are a winning lottery ticket for all sorts of people but not for the actual fishers themselves, who are in poverty and cannot afford to apply for or get involved in this type of industrialization of the small-scale fishers.

Opportunists believe there is great financial gain that can be derived from receiving paper quotas or buyouts. It becomes a race for fishing rights and creates “armchair fishers” who smoke cigars, drink whiskey and sit outside while others work. Fishermen become slaves to these quota holders. And competition from non-fishers for access and resource rights will increase the problem. Those who will receive rights and become wealthy don’t want to see transformation; they turn a blind eye to equity, poverty, humanity and human rights. It is a sad tale; it is an unjust system, and unjust systems always collapse. But by the time it changes, we will have lost communities; we will have become dysfunctional. The ITQ system creates a concentration of ownership that does generate a lot of wealth — but not for the poorer communities.

The system is a product of uncaring and inequitable economic policy. As a result, our communities are suffering from abuse, neglect and abandonment. Through privatization, fishing communities are in shambles, poverty is rampant, there is a shortage of necessary healthy foods, crime and conflict are flourishing, drugs and violence are the norm and poaching is the rule. There is no more reward for good behavior, and the people have no choice but to beg, borrow, steal and even rob.

What do we want out of this? We want a policy, and we want a world where people come first, where food security is more important than greed, where loving each other, and not our interests, is the higher social virtue. We have to realize that hunger and thirst are acts of terrible violence, and we all have to get together and stand up against this injustice. We have to protect our rights as fisherfolk and realize that food security can only be achieved with a strong commitment and coordinated struggle among all of us.

Herman Kumara, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), Sri Lanka , speaks about the land and fish grabs in Sri Lanka following a major civil war.

The post-war situation in Sri Lanka is supposed to be a time of new development, but the government is not planning this new development based on people’s necessities or needs ? including the needs of the fisher people.

The main new development program, and the main plan of the country, is to bring more and more tourists into Sri Lanka; to use the coastal areas ? lagoons andwater tanks both in the north, where the war was conducted as well as in the south ? for tourism development. So there are a lot of development projects being implemented which disturb and displace fishing communities from their own land, violating their rights and livelihoods and removing their source of income.

. The development program is a land grab of coastal areas, which blocks access to the sea. . There are 14 proposed tourism zones. Fisher families have been disturbed by this situation because they are unable to fish and have been thrown from their land. They cannot go to the sea, they cannot go to the water tanks and they cannot go to the lagoons. Some of the lagoons have been used for landing sea planes, and the government gives these companies land to run their operations. There are a lot of investments coming in to help the tourism industry.

Many small-scale fishermen are affected by this situation. The big boats owned by the industrial fishing industry have their own permanent commercial harbors that are not disturbed by this development. However, the small-scale fishermen, who are the majority of fishermen in the country, don’t use these commercial ports; they have small anchoring points along the coast where they park their boats after returning from the sea.. Now they cannot park their boats. Industrial fishing only accounts for 20% of fishermen; 150,000 fisher families are using these coasts compared to only 25,000 people in industrial fishing.

Most of the 14 islands in the Kalpitiya area, north of Colombo, have been grabbed by investors, and the people who have been living there for generations are being thrown out. The fisherwomen, the women who work in fish production and processing, have been totally disturbed without their land. Food security, livelihood rights and customer rights are being totally violated.

If this situation continues, the poor people in the country will lose their main source of inexpensive protein, which is fish. It will be a serious concern among people in the country, because food security is a big issue. The fishing communities are coming together and slowly forming alliances, but still there are a lot of problems. After the war there is still oppression. Some of the leaders who are fighting against these land grabs have been arrested and threatened. So people have been reluctant to come forward and fight. It has been hard for organizations like ours, for alliances like us, to work if the people are not coming together. We are bringing people forward, and we will continue this struggle to ensure the rights of the fisher people, ensure the rights of the poor communities and those who are ready to end the land and sea grabs in Sri Lanka.


Brett Tolley, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), USA , discusses actions that the food movement can take to support fishing communities in the U.S. and abroad, as well as ideas on how to strategize on bringing the movements together.

Here in the U.S., we have the “catch-share” program, which is an ITQ (individual transferable quota) or IFQ (individual fishing quota) system repackaged with a new name. “Catch shares” sound very nice ? fisherman sharing their catch, a community-driven approach to managing fisheries ? but in reality these programs play out the same way that ITQs and privatization play out. We are seeing a major consolidation in the fleet, a reduction in the number of boats, a concentration in the number of large parts landing fish and a shift in one direction to the larger, more industrial-scale, well-financed businesses as the fisheries become concentrated.

That is the fight that we have before us, and it is becoming more and more of a challenge for us ? family fishermen, small-scale fishermen ? to be able to speak out without threats. The threats are most likely much more serious in places like Sri Lanka after the civil war, but here in the U.S., fishermen are being threatened out in the water, having their gear destroyed, being threatened with damage to their boat, being cut out of any market and being blacklisted and not having the access to the rights to fish. This is a real challenge to find a way to unite fishermen and encourage them to speak out about the consequences of this road toward privatization and catch shares.

An example of the problems of the catch share program is that cod, which has been one of the staple fish that has shaped our fisheries for hundreds of years, has been recently declared as being overfished. We just started our catch-share privatization program two years ago, and already we are seeing those ecological consequences. We are hearing it from our fishermen as well, that if we allow some of the largest industrial-scale boats to fish wherever they want, we will have ecological consequences that really matter.

Right now we are working on a policy called Amendment 18. It is an opportunity to put legal protections in place within the privatization program to maintain access for small-scale fishermen and put some of the resources in their hands. Amendment 18 would increase local control and make fisheries more community-driven. We are facing folks who are well-financed. We just heard of a fishing company bigwig who stands to lose a lot of money if protections for small-scale fishermen are passed. Hetestified that he had spent $10 million to acquire more rights to fish, and that if anyone is threatening to take those rights away from him, he will spend another $10 million just to fight them. Besides these opponents with deep pockets, the industrial fishing companies that are grabbing up our rights to fish also have lawyers at every meeting and are not ready to quit.

This battle is where we see the food movement and the food justice movement supporting fishermen in order to win some of these battles against privatization ? we are not going to do it alone. I come from a fourth generation fishing family, and I think of our struggle as fisherman to survive has always been isolated. I think that the nature of fishing is to be isolated. Fishing men and women in the industry have always struggled to survive, and therefore it is difficult to organize. At NAMA (Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance) we are trying to break out of this isolation, and one way of doing this is to work with the food movement.

In order to begin to connect to the local food movement, it must begin on the local level. We have been connecting with local groups, and we have been able to take what has been successful on the farming side ? like CSAs (community supported agriculture), farmers markets, farm to school programs, direct marketing to hospitals or institutional buyers ? we have been looking to do the same thing on the fish side. Four years ago we were able to help a community in Maine start the first CSA for fishing. The CSA allows a community to invest in a share of a farmer’s harvest or fisherman’s yield upfront, and in exchange the community gets a delivery to a central area. It allows for a fair price, for fishermen to connect to the local community and for the community to understand fishing issues and the importance of small-scale fishing ? small-scale gear, seasonality of fish and so on.

There are about 80 Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) in the U.S. and Canada, and there was an article that came out today about the spread of this model to England. We have been connecting fish to schools as well as hospitals who are working to buy locally and make health a priority. It is one half of the battle to ensure that a fish that is caught stays local and that fishermen are given a fair price. CSFs also build the community and political support that has been lacking for so long.

The food movement already has the language and the understanding of privatization in the food system, and we want them to tell policymakers not to make these same mistakes in our local fish system. We are trying to use the same language of farming, like sharecropping. At a policy meeting that NAMA’s director, Niaz Dorry, is at right now, we have a few people from the food justice side who came to us through the food movement, and who a few years ago were not a part of the conversation. This is key to creating community control ? the potential of the food movement is limitless.

Updated 12/2014