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Fair Fish: San Francisco Fishermen Shake Up the Docks With Community Model

By Ed Backus

Northern California’s salmon season is in full swing and on San Francisco’s Pier 45, a two-year-old fishermen’s cooperative, the San Francisco Community Fishing Association, is upending a fishing industry dominated by 800-pound gorillas and consolidation.

The co-op is moving tens of thousands of pounds of members’ salmon directly out onto the market, to ensure a fair price. After paying out healthy profit sharing to members at the end of 2011 and 2012, the group paid some of the highest prices on the West Coast to members for crab in early 2013. It’s also been active in fisheries conservation efforts.

This is the new business-savvy, stewardship-minded look of community-based fishing organizations, which are enjoying a resurgence across the country.

Picture of a chinook (king) salmon

Chinook, or king, salmon are the largest in the Pacific. Photo: USGS

An irascibly gregarious crab fisherman, Larry Collins, and his wife, Barbra Emley, formed the San Francisco group in 2010; they wanted to put more money in fishermen’s pockets, while protecting fish stocks and developing new dock infrastructure to support independent operators. Collins and Co. are now part of the two-year-old Community Fisheries Network, a nationwide membership organization convened by Ecotrust and the Island Institute that is helping community fishing organizations become stable businesses and effective marketers, while leading fisheries and marine ecosystem protection, and building community assets.

Already, members from Alaska to Maine are pioneering new techniques of direct sales, fish conservation, and maintaining access to traditional, cultural uses of coastal resources.

Global research published in 2011 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 (4,000 kilometers) of coastline.

The 19-member San Francisco group runs small crab and salmon boats out of the Golden Gate, and they had scraped by for years selling to commodity fish buyers, while watching bigger boats voraciously fish crab stocks off Northern California. A handful of on-shore processors had come to dictate the flow of seafood and the price levels up and down the West Coast; in the crab business, processors have always exerted 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.

The SFCFA partnered with Ecotrust and won a grant from the California Ocean Protection Council to lease a warehouse, a hoist, and freezers at Pier 45, as well as purchase fork trucks. Those simple tools have let SFCFA members get fish into the market on their own terms. The co-op has also taken over maintenance and vending of the port’s ice machine, ensuring a public service that has been intermittent in the past.

For members, the group has been matching dock prices and often paying higher.

“We’re really establishing fair trade on the docks of San Francisco,” says Larry Collins, the president of the SFCFA. “Fishermen benefit when they own their product further up the distribution chain. We want to make sure independent fishermen can make a living; we want to grow infrastructure to make sure they can freely get product to market; and we want to ensure that the state and industry are taking care of fish stocks for the long term.”

“This is ’fair fish‘ in every sense,” Collins adds.

On the conservation front, Collins and fishermen in the group successfully lobbied in the past for state limits on the number of crab pots fishermen could drop, to protect the fishery.  Today, the group advocates for stream flow protections for young salmon in the Sacramento River watershed, to ensure that salmon runs continue to improve, as they did this season. They have also secured permits for three SFCFA boats to perform low-impact, vertical hook-and-line rock cod fishing this summer, as part of a demonstration approach for avoiding by-catch.

Their approach is aimed at boosting social, economic, and environmental conditions: more than a fish marketing organization, the SFCFA sees themselves as part of the social enterprise movement, joining the likes of Patagonia and One PacificCoast Bank in taking a triple-bottom-line approach.

They are also beginning to address the wave of scandals about fish label fraud that have consumers looking for greater transparency on fish source and harvest methods. Around 70% of the co-op’s product goes into local markets, and the co-op is working on developing its own label that will be easily identifiable in the marketplace.

We’ve come a long way in developing sustainability standards and labels for our fisheries, but none of those standards tell us who caught our fish.  Now we need a better understanding of where our fish comes from; organizations like the San Francisco co-op are filling that gap.

They are the backbone of our coastal communities, and the key to creating viable fisheries for our future.

Ed Backus is the vice president for fisheries at Ecotrust.