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Future We Want: Community-driven fisheries

By distributing it themselves, they saw a 10% higher return for their crab and their late fall salmon.

In 2005, an outspoken, gregarious San Francisco crab fisherman named Larry Collins wrote down his vision for a more prosperous future. It ran to 20 pages of handwritten scrawl but it boiled down to one idea: small-scale Bay Area fishermen boosting their income by selling directly into markets in the region. Eventually he connected with Ecotrust, which, among its many creative uses of capital over the years, has helped other community-based fishermen and local associations secure loans and grants that help with equipment costs, fish catch quota purchase and marketing ventures.

Global research published last year has shown that, in both the developed and developing world, viable community-based fishermen who have a meaningful stake in management of their local marine resources create more resilient fish stocks and fishing communities. The strongest example is in Chile, where the fishery surrounding a type of snail called  the “loco,” or Chilean abalone involves 700 areas co-managed with 20,000 artisanal fishermen along 2,500 miles of coastline.

Building on work with community fishing organizations in Alaska and Oregon, Vice President Astrid Scholz initiated Ecotrust’s work with Collins and the fishermen on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

The group of eleven fishermen, running small crab and salmon boats out the Golden Gate, have scraped by for years selling to commodity fish buyers, while watching bigger boats voraciously fish out crab stocks off Northern California. They successfully fought for state limits on the number of crab pots in their region, establishing an ethic to protect long-term viability of the stocks. And then they built a business plan with Ecotrust to ensure increased economic returns on their catch.

This year, the group used a $250,000 grant Ecotrust received from the California Ocean Protection Council to secure a warehouse lease on Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf and  access to a hoist and an ice machine, two simple tools that allow the fishermen new control on where and how they sell fish. It’s no secret that a handful of processors dictate the flow of seafood and the price levels up and down the West Coast; in the crab business, processors exert considerable pressure by commanding  the hoists that offload boats and the manufacture and sale of ice, both of which fishermen depend on to get crab to market.

At Pier 45 in San Francisco, the fishermen’s association unloaded 350,000 pounds of crab themselves in December 2011, and put the crab out on the live market.  By distributing it themselves, they saw a 10% higher return for their crab and their late fall salmon. The organization also sold bait at reduced cost to its members and peddled ice to other processors on Pier 45, bringing additional revenue. And it earned hoist fees for offloading other fish from members and non-members alike.  After paying out expenses at the end of the 2011-12 season, the group cleared a profit.

Last week, the association joined with a dozen other like-minded organizations to start the national Community Fisheries Network. Membership groups agree to responsibly manage fish catches around their home ports and work to ensure fishing communities and members earn a fair benefit from fishing harvests. Like the San Francisco cooperative, these organizations will also be offering fee-based services to members and other colleagues, buying product and re-selling it on the wholesale market, and building brand awareness in local and regional markets for community-caught fish.

Ecotrust will bring its experience building new social ventures over the last 20 years to support the branding and marketing of community-caught fish —  the brand that San Francisco fishermen have begun building with their recent declaration of independence. The eventual vision for Larry Collins and his colleagues is a full-service retail market on the Wharf. It will be a 21st century take on the thriving waterfront markets of old. The group is also exploring purchase and leasing of permits and fish catch quotas for groundfish on the West Coast.  And we believe that driving this sort of place-based innovation, at the nexus of social, environmental and economic wellbeing, is the best way to transform society.

How will we build the future we want? What are your ideas for radical institutional change? These are the questions the UN is asking in preparation for the Rio+20 Earth Summit in late June. In response to their Future We Want campaign, we’re curating transformative ideas for building a more resilient world. We’ll share some of the ideas we’re cooking up here at Ecotrust, but most of all, we want to hear from you. Email obrooks (at) ecotrust (dot) org.