Small-scale fishers and family-run businesses are often at a disadvantage in North American fisheries. Many explanations are offered: some say that small-scale fishers are inefficient, some say it’s the fierce competition, some say it is because of the economies of scale of the large commercial operators, and still others say it is the government’s policies. Regardless of the reasons, an important question is whether these small-scale / family fishers can continue to exist in today’s global economy.

I argue that if small-scale businesses can exist and dominate the world’s largest seafood marketplace, then the answer could be yes. Last year, I visited Tokyo’s Tsukiji seafood marketplace – an amazing experience that I had waited for a long time. One of the first exciting things I noticed was the vast number of operators in the market who all appeared to operate independently. At Tsukiji, the marketplace is dominated by small, family-run businesses. “Despite its enormous scale, the bulk of Tsukiji’s daily trade flows through tiny family businesses: some 900 trading firms are licensed to buy at Tsukiji’s morning auctions and to resell their purchases in the market’s stalls” (Theodore C. Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market At the Center of the World, p.10).

Thousands of others regularly supply the auctioneers with fish, and roughly fifty thousand people do business there each day (Bestor, p. 50). These small business do not exist in isolation; they carry on business with large transnational corporations. Further, the marketplace itself is a web of interactions between large- and small-scale businesses. Domestic and foreign producers, shippers, brokers, trading companies, as well as fisheries cooperatives, sell their products to a few large auction houses. These auction houses in turn auction the fish to smaller businesses, including intermediate wholesalers which are mainly family-run businesses.

Tsukiji is not the only example of where small-scale operation survive; the Japanese fishing industry itself is another example in which hundreds of thousands of people are employed.  “Thousands of small fishing ports cluster around the costal fisheries, which are largely in the hands of small-scale, family-based independent fishing enterprises” (Bestor, p. 30). Once again, the fishing industry isn’t working in isolation for large corporations. To the contrary, large ports and highly integrated conglomerates co-exist with their small counterparts.

Although there are many reasons why these network of small family-run businesses succeed what is important here is that they actually can succeed. One must also realize that it is not simply the economics of a market underlying the success of Tsukiji, there are social interactions and a culture which should also be analyzed. Further, Japan is not a developing country and labour cost is not cheap either, so there seems no reason to dismiss the comparison between Japan and North America on low-cost grounds.  Now that small-scale and family-run businesses can exist in major economies, two interesting questions remain:  why should we support small-scale fishers, and how can we do so in North America? These two questions will be addressed in subsequent posts.

Community Supported Fisheries

Posted by: | January 21, 2013 | 4 Comments

Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) are organizational concepts emerging in coastal communities that can be effective in the development of sustainable fisheries. CSFs are modelled after Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprises. Such collectives work to connect consumers to local and sustainably-produced foods which are often also fair-trade. CSFs are social enterprises which work to ensure that small-scale, independent fishing families can continuously sustain their livelihoods in an industry dominated by corporate fishing companies. A key focus of CSFs is to offer small-scale fishers’ opportunities to market their products directly to local consumers; bypassing the distributor or middleman allows fishermen to obtain higher profit margins. CSFs also help independent fishing operations capitalize on conscious consumers willing to pay above-average prices for local and sustainable seafood. There are currently several CSFs operating in the US and on the East Coast of Canada.

Off the Hook is Atlantic Canada’s first CSF that helps to sustain jobs in  in the fishing industry of Nova Scotia. It offers consumers direct access to fresh, local seafood harvested by community-oriented fishing operations. This organization believes that healthy and prosperous fishing operations are vital to cultural, environmental and economic resilience in coastal communities. This CSF offers members of the public the opportunity to purchase shares of the collective. Shareholders get to build relationships with local fishermen, and they also get fresh seafood – caught in local waters – delivered to various pick-up locations. CSFs work to support local families and coastal communities that practice low-impact fishing, such as line and hook. Sustainable fishing practices give fish stocks more time to replenish their populations from deep-sea trawling, methods that drag up far too much bycatch which ends up being dumped back into the ocean, dead.

I would like to thank Sadie Beaton of the Ecology Action Centre for her information regarding sustainable initiatives in Atlantic Canada.



Ecology Action Center:

Small Scales:

Off the Hook:

Hurricane Sandy devastated many parts of the U.S., specifically the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. On December 28, 2012 the Senate approved the Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Assistance. This supplemental bill responds to Hurricane Sandy, as well as to other natural disasters that have occurred over the past year.[1] On January 2nd, 2013 the House Republican leadership refused to take up the Disaster Assistance Supplemental Appropriations bill. The bill will be discusses again mid-January.

The bill allocates $373,000,000 to remain available until September 30, 2014, of which $150,000,000 is allocated for necessary expenses related to fishery disasters as declared by the Secretary of Commerce in calendar year 2012. This allocation is conditional on two matters: first, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shall submit a spending plan to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate within 45 days after the date of enactment of the proposed Act; and second, that such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency.

On September 13, 2012, the acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank issued fishery disaster determinations in the Northeast, Alaska, and Mississippi. Further, NOAA stated that it “will work closely with Congress and the states to develop plans to preserve coastal communities”.[2]

The declaration by Secretary Blank[3]describes two broad disasters; namely, the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the fishery, as well as declining fish stocks of some species. The declining fish stocks will mean an anticipated decline in the Total Allowable Catch. Although the declining fish stock is a natural resource disaster, it is nevertheless separate from Hurricane Sandy’s effect and has nothing to do with it.  If this fund is to be allocated for both purposes, then one would expect that a portion would be utilized for asset loss as well as income loss; this would in turn deal with Hurricane Sandy’s effect.

Allocating funds for income loss has the potential for adverse effects on small family fishers. Many fisheries use transferable quotas allocated to individual fishers. These quotas allow large operations to consolidate allowable catches on larger boats. This consolidation resulted in loss of employment (especially in vulnerable coastal communities) and shifted economic powers to a few large operations. Larger operations are likely to claim larger losses and anticipate the lion’s share of emergency relief.  On the other hand, small fishers are likely to get less pay, which might or might not help them recover their losses. Further, crew members usually have less claims than asset owners, and hence have the potential of experiencing even more adverse effects.  Although this disparity is not new or unique to Hurricane Sandy, any emergency relief must be carefully studied. The Secretary’s statement did affirm a clear objective, which is to preserve coastal communities. Hence, one would expect NOAA to take these linked consequences in consideration when submitting its proposal.

Assuming that there remain funds after dealing with Sandy’s effect, the remainder would deal with the second disaster (the declining fish stock and the anticipated income decrease for fishers dependent on such species, e.g., the Northeast ground fish fishery). What makes this puzzling is that a resilient plan which aims to preserve coastal communities will necessitate a long-term approach. However, the bill only allocates the funds until September 2014. This in turn means that NOAA is restricted in its proposal approach and will most likely have to consider a short-term plan.

[1] Available at

[2] Available at

[3] Available at

Although the Senate passed an emergency bill that included $150 million for four fisheries including the North-East groundfish fishery, the House did not act on the bill. They are expected to continue mid-January.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski stated that ”The bipartisan disaster assistance bill passed by the Senate provides resources to help recover and rebuild American lives and communities”. Although the bill is meant to deal with the effects of Hurricane Sandy, the $150 million would include both immediate economic relief as well as a targeted investment for the fleet.

This targeted investment plan is meant to help the fleet become sustainable. It would be interesting to know what will be included in this targeted investment plan and how it will help the coastal communities achieve sustainability goals. Policy makers must know that a “targeted investment plan” that aims to support large-scale producers (including processors) and neglects small family fishers might have adverse effects on coastal communities.

Bycatch occurs with most fishing practices. Simply put, it is the amount of different types of fish that one catches while attempting to catch a particular type; if you are catching Black Cod and you happen to catch other types of fish, this will be called a bycatch. One of the aims of fisheries management is to reduce bycatch. This can be achieved by adjusting fishing practices (i.e., changing methods to ones that reduce bycatch). One of the  main issues with bycatch is that usually a fisher is out fishing one type of fish and possibly holds a quota for that fish only. One way fisheries managers have tried to resolve this issue is to get fishers to report the bycatch, and to lease a quota equivalent of the bycatch. This process usually makes dumping of bycatch an illegal practice.

There is recent news that a non-profit educational organization (which offers luxury eco-cruises in Southeast Alaska) has filed a complaint in U.S. District Court over the new observer program. The claim alleges injury due to the lack of bycatch monitoring of some species, including Halibut and King Salmon. This is an interesting development because it highlights the duties and responsibilities of the government towards stakeholders. The rights and duties of the government and the commercial and recreational users of the resource has always been an unclear area of the law.

One reason for this lack of clarity is that the legal status of the quota allotted is unclear: is it private property rights, ownership, or merely a privilege Different jurisdictions have different answers. The U.S. and Canada consider fisheries quotas as mere privileges, and that the government has the right to revoke them without compensations. However, critics of quotas still doubt whether quota holders have rights against the government. This new legal challenge is interesting in that it has the potential to answer the question as to the duties and responsibilities of the government towards stakeholders.

Link to original article:

Yesterday, Canadian Atlantic Lobster announced on its Facebook page that MP Shea for Egmont is suggesting a boat quota to be implemented in the East Coast Lobster fishery. The good news is that Shea is suggesting that the “discussion should be industry driven” rather than a policy set in isolation of industry. In my recent discussions with lobster fishermen, I was informed by Mr. James Mood –founder of the 1688 Professional Lobster Fishermen Association representing lobster fishermen and crew members – that the transferability of a quota would harm their community. He described that the current practices today (licence stacking) are consolidating licences and letting go of crew members. As a result, Mr. Mood asserts that his small community decreased from about 1200 to 900 residents in just a few years. Mr. Mood describes that a transferable quota will definitely increase consolidation and hence have a severe negative impact on the communities involved. So the important questions here are: a) does the DFO want to protect and maintain the livelihood of small coastal communities? and b) can a quota system be designed to mitigate such concerns, and how?

First, the question of whether the government / DFO has an interest in protecting small coastal communities might seem awkward. However, it must be made clear whether the government’s objective is to do so or whether the government’s objective is to extract maximum benefits from the fishery while not exceeding a maximum sustainable yield. Once the objectives are clear, a quota system can be designed to meet these objectives.

Second, quotas have been applauded for conserving fisheries, reducing race-to-fish, enhancing safety, and combating wasteful practices. However, quotas don’t come without concerns. For example, a quota – if allocated without being paid for – raises equity concern: where the public (the owner of the resource) gives away the resource and does not receive anything in return. On the other hand, if the quota is paid for, a private property right will be created and the government will face litigation for compensation. Another potential issue is that fishermen who receive a quota would lease out their quotas (which usually becomes worth millions) and capture an unjust return; these are known as armchair fishermen.

To mitigate some of these concerns, many tools are available. For example, a quota could be allocated to the community rather than to specific fishermen. The transferability of the quota could be restricted to active fishermen who belong to specific communities. A maximum quota limit could be set to mitigate consolidation effects. And requirements for active participation could be put in place.

Lessons learned from past experience serve as a great tool for initiating new quota schemes

For some fisheries, such as the North Pacific halibut fishery, there is considerable contention about how the non-aboriginal share of the TAC should be allocated between the commercial and the recreational fishery. From the viewpoint of remote communities, the recreational fishery offers many economic benefits that the commercial fishery does not. Because the commercial fishery is focused on efficiency, and because the number of fishers is relatively small, commercial vessels generally take their catch directly to processors in major centres, and do not interact economically with remote communities. Recreational fishers, in contrast, are likely to use or build tourist facilities for their clients in remote communities, which generate trade and income for those communities.

This situation has led many critics to argue that the recreational share of the TAC (which is small relative to the commercial share) should be increased. Simply changing the percentage shares would cause a fairly important problem, however: It would amount to partial revocation of the ITQs held by commercial fishers. This is what happened recently when the DFO allotted the recreational sector a 3 % increase in their Halibut quotas.

The East Coast lobster fishers are dealing with an increased seasonal supply which has caused prices to drop; prices are as low as $3. Fishers “race to fish” because there is no cooperation among them to regulate how much should be caught and who should catch this amount. Unlike the Ground Fish fishery, the lobster fishery has no quota system in place. Small-scale fishers are concerned with the idea of having a quota system in place, such as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), and are concerned about the impact such a scheme will have. For example, since ITQs are transferable they encourage new large-scale operations to enter the business and consolidate quotas; this has been evident in many other Canadian ITQ-managed fisheries. Although economists would argue that this consolidation produces economically efficient outcomes, this view does not take into perspective the negative impact coastal societies face. However, the proprietary structure of ITQs is adaptable and can be designed in ways that minimize the impacts on coastal societies and small-scale fishers.

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