Author: Tanya Gervasi, journalist, graduate from the University of Gastronomic Sciences (www.unisg.it)
When we talk about fishing rights, fishing communities or even sustainability, what are we talking about exactly? These are the questions that guided one of the workshops held at the space dedicated to the Slow Fish campaign during the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre (Turin, October 25-29, 2012).
Seth Macinko, professor at the Rhode Island University, demonstrated how seemingly simple terms can actually hide complex meanings. In fact, it is precisely because of their simplicity that sometimes they may be misunderstood. Talking to fishers, he said, "Many of you use these terms in a way that can be manipulated. In other words, your ideas can be taken and reused by others to their own advantage".
Let's take the term fishing community as an example. Very often, when large industries and lobbies talk about helping small fishing communities, they refer to "boat owners who are granted certain rights". In doing so, they talk about community but overlook many aspects and many people: the women and workers who deal with fish processing and marketing, for instance, or others who do not work in fishing but whose life is linked to the fishing activities of their community. The complexity lies in talking about a community in its wider sense, namely as a group of people with a common fate who live in a specific place.
When we talk about fishing rights, what type of rights are these? Human rights? Food rights? Property rights? "At the level of politics and rights, we are witnessing the spread of a model of privatization of fisheries, which benefits a minority by giving - often for free - the right to exploit a public resource and, in addition, leads to the introduction of these rights into financial speculation systems," said Macinko.
Tasha Sutcliffe, vice-president of Ecotrust Canada, explained that "the privatization of rights is a problem caused by the transferability of fishing quotas. It is not necessary to be a fisherman to buy them, but it takes large amounts of money". This is how large bodies with easy access to capital buy fishing licenses, and small fishers are then forced to work for them losing all authority and sovereignty over their territory. As many communities only survive thanks to fishing, it is difficult for fishers to say no to this compromise, because it offers them an indispensable - albeit minimum - source of income. Undoubtedly, this is an at least alternative interpretation of the right to fish, if not a catastrophic approach which takes power away from small communities and only leaves them the leftovers.
On this point, Jeremy Brown, a fisherman from Alaska, maintains that a way to coexist with this model - which is now taking hold all over the world - lies in making sure that the person who buys the license is the same person who then goes out on the boat. This is how it works in Alaska and it is a way to at least partially limit speculations.
Even Wall Street has developed its own "humanitarian mission" with the Mission Markets project, whose goal is to help small fishing communities buying their rights and then "renting them at lower prices than market prices". This is actually a contradiction, as it leaves no freedom or negotiation power to fishers.
The terms "fishing rights" and "fishing communities" are always connected to the concept of sustainability, as if sustainability were an automatic result of the distribution of rights to private persons, whether they are fishers or not.
In order to advance in the debate, it is clearly necessary to redefine the terms we use. It is now time to let our voices be heard and say what we want to obtain from fishing rights, what it means to be a fishing community and, more importantly, what we are trying to sustain. Policies - not just in the field of fisheries, but in agriculture too - focus on feeding the world without taking the local dimension into any account. It is absolutely necessary that communities take back control over their destiny and ownership over their territories.