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Slow Fish - Le poisson bon, propre et juste

Celebrating good, clean, fair fish


Every two years, farmers, chefs, fishers, food educators, and foodies from around the globe gather in Turin, Italy at an event called Terra Madre. Italy is the birthplace of the international Slow Food movement, and Terra Madre is its Mecca.The venue was enormous. There were 220,000 visitors. 1,000 exhibitors. Acres of charcuterie. This was a celebration of small-scale food on a scale that was anything but small- a small-scale event of Olympic proportions.


Over 2000 delegates from 130 countries gathered to learn about, talk about, cook, taste and celebrate food that is good, clean, and fair. Canada sent about 60 delegates and I was lucky enough to have been one of them. We were a motley crew of chefs, farmers, fisheries folks, managers, entrepreneurs, and food agitators.


So why was I there? Fish. Slow Fish is a Slow Food campaign as well as a network, launched to celebrate, promote, and protect food (fish) that is good, clean and fair. Representatives from 24 countries took on the weighty task of creating a Slow Fish Manifesto, and providing input for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)'s International Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries.

We met every day, which was a challenge considering we were steps away from sampling oysters from Holland, foie gras from France, and prosciutto from every corner of Italy. Not to mention the pub that the Brits set up, and the Italian Enotecca, which boasted over 1200 types of wine. It's a wonder anyone made it to any workshops at all.

Our conversations varied widely over the 5 days, but several key themes emerged:


What do we mean by "small-scale"?

Similar to discussions at Tony Charles' panel event held last month in Halifax, we had a hard time defining what "small-scale" means. We established that there is nothing "small" about small-scale fishing- it accounts for 90% of the global capture fisheries and other jobs associated with fish processing, distributing and marketing (half of which are held by women). We agreed on what it is not- it is not industrial. It is not destructive. It is not commodity based. We arrived at an understanding that "small-scale" is related to the degree to which the fishery was based in its community, and the nature of the post-harvest value chain. So it is possible to fish in a "small-scale" way with a large(er) boat, just as it is possible to carry out a large scale fishery in small boats. In the end, we agreed that the definition of ‘small-scale' lies somewhere buried in the definition of ‘sustainable', ‘community', and ‘fair'.


What do we mean by fishing rights?

Are we talking about access rights to the fish themselves? Are we talking about property rights? Human rights? Management rights? Are we confusing rights with privileges? What are the implications of privatization? Does privatization of fisheries lead to an obligatory forfeiture of wealth by those who can least afford it? Seth Macinko of the University of Rhode Island led some key discussions, and cautioned that when large, vertically integrated industrial fishing companies (or sovereign nations) use the term ‘fishing rights', they may mean a very different thing than do proponents (and practitioners of) small-scale fishing.


What do we mean by value chain?

We focused on the key distinctions between a commodity based supply chain and a relationship based value chain. The former pushes as much product as possible to the market and competes on price, and is characterized by a lack of information flow between sections of the chain. A value chain happens in reverse- it starts with what consumers want (ie. fresh, fair fish), and then establishes relationships along a supply chain that allow this to happen. A value chain does not compete on price, but rather on the integrity of the entire chain, the stories behind the members of the chain, and a free and honest flow of information between them. The value added by each member is also shared equitably.


The McConnell Foundation recently funded a series of regional value chain assessments across Canada. When Ecology Action Centre looked at the seafood value chain in Nova Scotia, the findings were clear: there is none. Nova Scotia's seafood harvesters, regardless of how small-scale they are, have to work very hard to find a market for their product outside of the industrial supply chain. You can spend all day in a dory with a hand line jigging for cod, but at the end of the day, it will most likely end up in Boston mixed up with the fish the draggers bring in.


At Terra Madre, we came to a common understanding that regional value chains built of harvesters, buyers, processors, distributors, retailers, chefs, and consumers, are critical to the continued existence of small-scale fisheries. With no value chain to feed into, a ‘small-scale' fisher is just feeding a large-scale commodity supply chain in a small boat. And then they tend to go out of business.


The power of Slow Food is in the understanding that the issues facing small-scale fisheries are the same challenges facing all small-scale food producers- whether they spend their days catching fish, jarring tomatoes, or extracting nectar from agave plants. Terra Madre is a living testimony that small-scale food is anything but small. It is huge, and it begins with commitment from all of us to support, celebrate, and seek out food that is good, clean, and fair.


Dave Adler is the Community Supported Fisheries Coordinator at Ecology Action Centre.

This article was first published on






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