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Replicability takes the stage at Slow Fish San Francisco

Our head of Fisheries reports back on what she learned this year at Slow Fish San Francisco, a briny conference that brings together fish advocates from across the country to shuck, slurp, converse, and celebrate.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-April, a large contingent of chefs, fishermen, market goers, and tourists gathered outside of San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza building for an energetic and educational Seafood Throwdown that marked the initial kickoff of Slow Fish San Francisco. Post-throwdown, Slow Fish attendees flocked towards a bounty of oysters that juicily awaited myself and more than 100 others at the Two-X-Sea headquarters in San Francisco’s historic Fisherman’s Wharf. We arrived from all parts of the country to shuck, slurp, celebrate, and advance the movement for “good, clean, and fair fish.” 

True to the tradition of Slow Food and its close relative, Slow Fish, imbibing is done with intention, curiosity, and purpose. We not only eat; we take the time to learn and connect.

Owner of Portland-based Flying Fish Co., Lyf Gildersleeve, helped curate the launch event and facilitated introductions to the various oyster mongers from Baja to Alaska who donated their harvest for the cause. We heard a crowdfunding pitch from a young entrepreneur in British Columbia for a mobile-oyster bar and learned about efforts to restore the native Pacific oyster locally in San Francisco and beyond. The bivalve bonanza was a fitting start to Slow Fish 2018, and the two full days that followed were rich with conversation and explorations of how to improve our country’s seafood systems. 

The next morning we gathered at the SOMArts building on the other side of town ready to get to work. Jacquelyn Ross of the Pomo/Coast Miwok tribe kicked off the “conference” portion of Slow Fish with vivid descriptions of how her people have thrived off foods from the rich intertidal zone since time immemorial. Other keynotes followed including Linda Behnken, a longtime advocate for conservation-minded, small-scale fisheries from Sitka, Alaska. Linda described what can be accomplished by coordinating community and local fishing fleets. In Sitka, their progress has included creating a community-supported fishery, starting a fishermen’s apprenticeship program, a local fish fund, and conducting seafloor mapping to help reduce bycatch.

two men stand near bay
Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Community Fishing Association (left), and fisherman Lucas Raymond (right)

Jordyn Kastlunger, a third generation fisherman from San Diego inspired us with the story of local fishermen who are working to carve out turf in the urban waterfront of San Diego for the successful Tuna Harbor Dockside Market. Melanie Brown, a fourth generation Bristol Bay commercial fisherman, made personal for all of us the threat of the proposed massive Pebble Mine to half of the world’s sockeye salmon production and the traditional ways of life the salmon have supported for thousands of years for her people and the region’s indigenous cultures.  

Paula Barbito from Slow Fish International brought us a success story from Denmark of the Thoruspstrand fisherman’s guild who came together in the face of privatization to form an association to manage, access, process, and sell the community’s fish.

Colles Stowell from Slow Fish USA and One Fish Foundation wrapped up the keynotes with a Slow Fish 101 session that reminded us of some of the ugly aspects of the global seafood supply chain and challenged us to continue to find ways to better amplify our collective voice.

The all-star lineup of presenters and facilitators that showcased ideas and coordinated lively conservations in small breakout groups and through TED-style talks also included Anna Marie Shrimp, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Real Good Fish, Dock to Dish, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network, Golden Gate Salmon Association, Localcatch.org and more. Along with attendees like Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust, Slow Fish once again lived up to its reputation for bringing together a “who’s who” of the small-scale, values-based fisheries movement.

three people stand in front of stage

I was charged with wrapping up the conference alongside Kirk Hardcastle, a longtime fisherman from Alaska. I recalled a statement by Jacquelyn Ross at the beginning of Slow Fish when she poignantly described what we have to lose if we don’t make changes for the better for our fisheries, communities, and food systems. She said, “When abalone goes away, the sun goes away; when our cultures go away, our sun goes away.” This powerful statement stuck with me.

Indeed, when our local fishermen vanish, so do our local seafood systems. When our small-scale and traditional harvesters dwindle, our stewards that have the strongest connections to the ocean are also lost. When our fisheries resources go away, the cultures, ways of life, businesses, and traditions that depend on them go away. We truly have everything to lose. 

Another gem that stuck with me was from a discussion with Arno Hesse from Slow Money Northern California about scale. The question of “how will you scale?” is pervasive in the for-profit arena, nonprofit world, and the social change space in between these. We live in a globalized world where going bigger is nearly always assumed to be better. Arno pointed out that in Slow Money’s view, the question isn’t about scale. It is about viability and about replication. This was refreshing. Many of the fishermen, oyster growers, and seafood businesses at Slow Fish told stories of consciously choosing to go slower, stay smaller, and closer to their values. Many of us can think of examples where going bigger or faster meant cutting corners in some ways that caused discomfort. The wisdom behind replication versus scaling was evident by witnessing the magnitude of impact generated by the types of people in the room. We indeed are changing the system through each new small business and every new values-driven fisheries leader that emerges.

As our time together came to a close, we made commitments to actions that would continue to help build our collective movement. One of my commitments was to more deeply embrace the concepts of viability and replicability versus scalability as critical components of systems change. When faced with such pressure, I will remember that an army of local, community-based, values-driven efforts to do things slowly and intentionally in our fisheries and seafood systems that honors our cultures, traditions, ecosystems is behind me and that together we are indeed building a better seafood system.

Slow Fish San Francisco was the second-ever Slow Fish USA event held (the first was in New Orleans in 2016). The gathering was the culmination of months of hard work by the dedicated Slow Food San Francisco chapter, Slow Fish USA leadership, and a small army of fish advocates who we owe much gratitude to for pouring their time and hearts into this. Thanks to all of you! 

For more information about Slow Fish visit sfslowfish.com, slowfood.com/slowfish, and facebook.com/groups/slowfishusa