Published: Sept. 17, 2013

Communities losing control of fishery resources

Contact(s): Rick Seguin Social Science office: 517-884-0297 seguinr@msu.edu, Craig Harris Sociology office: 517-355-5048 harrisc@msu.edu

Many communities around the world are losing their ability to control the harvest of seafood in their own waters, a disturbing trend that threatens the livelihood of small fishermen and the health of citizens who rely on fish and shellfish as a staple, a Michigan State University sociologist argues.

While food sovereignty – the ability of a people to control their own decisions about food production and consumption – has been a research topic for at least 10 years, Craig Harris has identified the threats and cultural impact of “seafood sovereignty” for the first time.

“When people and a country lose control over their fishery resources, the coastal people and the country as a whole lose access to a significant amount of protein,” said Harris, an associate professor of sociology who presented his findings at a recent conference on food sovereignty at Yale University.

Fish and shellfish, Harris added, “have tremendous cultural significance, so the loss of access to those resources disrupts their cultures and their ways of life. Coastal fisheries are organized by communities and operated by families, so the loss of sovereignty tears apart the social fabric of their lives.”

An example of one threat in action is in Senegal. “The Senegalese have a long fishing tradition,” Harris said, “and they sell their fish at the local market and consume the rest. As of 25 years ago, governments have control over the ocean up to 200 miles and can now say to other countries, ‘Pay us a large fee, and we’ll let your boats come and fish this area.’”

The end result is an entire shoreline culture displaced by industrial enterprises backed by large investors.

For Harris, the basic belief fueling his research is that “if a people are historical fish eaters and have access to fish, they should be able to participate in the decisions about the food system that provides them their food.”

Harris sees his research as the first step toward finding fair solutions to these cultural threats, some of which are present in the United States as well.

“In some northwestern rivers, the dams and the runoff that comes from agriculture and deforestation have significantly depleted or eliminated the native salmon stocks that were the traditional food of the Native American tribes there,” he said.

In some cases, such as a situation in Australia that Harris studied, citizens spoke up and prevented large-scale industrial interests from harvesting fish off their shores.

"Coastal fisheries are organized by communities and operated by families, so the loss of sovereignty tears apart the social fabric of their lives," argues Michigan State University sociologist Craig Harris.

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