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  • MLCA

Guest Column: Public needs way to better understand fishermen's lives

In early 2012, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Compass. This digital report includes maps, data, photos, videos, stories, and case studies, and details USDA support for local and regional food projects. Here farmers can also find grants, business loans, and resources to help them develop their businesses. Lucky for them, the USDA also makes grants available to new farmers and beginning ranchers. People who have never farmed are able to apply to the USDA and, if eligible, receive funding and resources that will help them buy a farm, or a truck, or farming equipment.

The creation of this campaign elevated the farmers’ role in the food system; it humanized farmers in a way that allowed consumers to connect their food — carrots or steak — to a person who works hard, has dirt under his or her nails, has a family, and provides food to the world. There are a few organizations which have attempted to copy this campaign, asking consumers to “Know Your Fisherman.” It hasn’t really worked out in the same way. A fisherman’s role in the food system is still under-valued, and it makes it difficult for consumers to connect seafood to fishermen, and to understand that fishermen also work hard, have dirt under his or her nails, have a family, and provide food to the world. If consumers are unable to connect seafood to fishermen, it also becomes difficult to express the value of a working waterfront as more than just space on the water. The fishing industry is disjointed, and that fragmentation is hard to comprehend let alone clearly articulate. Take, for example,, the “Nation’s Database on Sustainable Seafood.” The “Know Your Farmer” report has pictures of people smiling and sharing vegetables, recipes with photos, stories about farmers’ successes, and quotes from consumers about how important local food is to them. FishWatch, by contrast, has fraud reports, fisheries management facts, and not one image or story of a fisherman to be found. It’s also sterile, overprioritizes health, and fails to mention anything about taste. Overall it’s unappetizing and unenticing. While overexplaining fisheries management, the web site omits the role that fishermen and fisheries play in putting good food on America’s tables and in fact, vilifies fishermen by expounding on enforcement techniques, science, and management. “Know Your Fisherman” is a difficult campaign to promote. Because all that’s talked about is gear, science, and management, that’s all consumers know about. Do consumers know enough about stock assessments to use that as a deciding factor in making a seafood purchase? What difference does it make to a consumer to ask how something was caught? Farmers’ market customers likely do not ask the farmer what kind of tractor they used or whether they practice no-till farming, so why are seafood customers bombarded with science and management and told to ask questions when it’s likely they won’t understand the answer (that is if whoever is answering even knows the answer.) Fishermen, fishing communities and the complexities of working waterfronts need more attention, promotion, and consumer advocates. More stories need to be shared about fishermen who volunteer on the local fire department, coach kids’ little league games, or plow their neighbors’ driveways. Fishing is a fundamental part of most fishermen’s identities, but it is not their whole identity. Boats, gear, and buoys decorate the streets of a fishing town, but those items are not what makes that town a fishing community. A working waterfront may be salty, grimy, and messy, but it is also the entry point to a way of life and livelihood. Finding a way to connect fishermen to a consumer’s seafood and to lessen the incoherency that is the fishing industry is a great start to preserving the working waterfront and sustaining Maine’s fishing communities.


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