“The work is deeply connected to my own purpose. I have deep appreciation and gratitude for what the ocean has meant to my family. It is enormous. It has put food on our table and provided a meaningful life for my father. There is a spiritual element to our connection to the ocean and what it’s provided for us, for my grandfather, my great-grandfather. It’s a way of life that has given us our life…I am enormously grateful for the ocean, fish and the family fishing industry.”

–  Brett Tolley, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance




Brett Tolley works as a community organizer for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA). Tolley comes from a four-generation commercial fishing family out of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He has worked in the fishing industry hanging nets, crewing boats of various gear-types and commercially shellfishing. He received a degree in International Relations from Elon University with a focus on Social Justice and International Trade. Tolley currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he previously worked as an advocate for low-income housing, immigrants and human rights. Tolley wrote and produced an award-winning documentary about the migrant experience along the U.S.-Mexican border called “Dying to Get In.”

The UC Food Observer met Tolley at the 30th Anniversary of Farm Aid. And as he explained to us then – and in this Q&A – the experiences and interests of family fishermen and family farmers are truly aligned in many ways.

Brett image
Brett Tolley. Credit: NAMA.


Q: Can you tell our readers a little about what brought you to this kind of organizing?

Brett: I’m from a fishing family and work as an organizer for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA). I’m from Cape Cod…on my mom’s side, our family goes back to the Mayflower. On my father’s side, our connection to commercial fishing goes back four generations.

Fishing connects me to my family and community. I grew up fishing on the boat with my dad and brother. Fishing families like ours are very much like farming families. We’re being told to either get big or get out. If you’re at a certain scale, there’s very little hope in this industry for you.

One of the most powerful experiences that shaped my current work was gained when I was a student at Elon University and had an opportunity to study abroad in 2005. I lived at the U.S.- Mexican border, on the Mexico side. My study abroad experience focused on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with an emphasis on how free trade agreements impact communities, the environment, local economies and people. I got to learn first hand what NAFTA’s impacts were on Mexico. One impact was increased migration to the U.S. (mostly from Southern Mexico and Central America) and a high number of deaths as people tried to cross the border. I was really moved by the stories I heard.

And they were almost the exact same story you’d hear from many American farming families who were also being pushed off the land. Farming families in Mexico or Central America who had been on their land for five, ten generations or more, were being displaced. There were stories of how through the free trade agreement and policy change, these families could no longer stay on the land. Their business was no longer viable. They had no hope but to literally risk their lives to find work to feed their families.

What really struck me was that the patterns of the international policies promoting the industrialization of big business were exactly the same sort of policies facing my father, my family and my community. We were not farmers, but fishermen. But the kinds of impulses that have pushed for agricultural consolidation are being mimicked on the ocean. There is a focus on putting industrialized models on fishing.

There is one fundamental difference: the concept of land and agriculture operates within the private property model. The ocean is a public resource, similar to a national park. To me, this feels even worse: we’re repeating mistakes we’ve seen take place with the displacement of small and medium scale farmers. Now we’re going to do it on the ocean and to a public resource. That’s what led me to this work initially. And it’s why NAMA has participated at Farm Aid for seven years.


Q: Can we talk a little about your work at NAMA?

Brett: The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance – NAMA – is a community organization of fishermen and supporters who are mostly based in New England…but our network is growing. We’re in Gloucester, Massachusetts. An explanation about terms: when I use the term “fishermen”, it’s used as a gender-neutral term. The women I know in New England self-refer to that term. That’s not the case everywhere. When I head into the mid-Atlantic, people might use the term “waterman.” And there are different terms used around the country and internationally.

NAMA has a staff of four. We’re not a big organization. Our big picture focus is on changing seafood markets and policies, to positively impact lives and drive change we want to see on the ocean.

NAMA supports a large network of individuals and organizations. One of our roles is to support a network called the Fish Locally Collaborative. The collaborative is comprised of about four hundred individuals and sixty organizations spread throughout the U.S. and with international partners, as well.

At its heart, the Fish Locally Collaborative is driven by small and medium-scale fishing families, but the network is diverse. We have food activists, farming organizations (that’s how we connected with Farm Aid), marine and social scientists, people involved in fishery management, etc. Basically, the collaborative represents the spectrum of people involved throughout the seafood value chain. Our job is to help build connections and to align ourselves around a shared set of values so that we can take action. How can we channel our energies together to change policy and markets?

Credit: NAMA.

Q: How are you accomplishing that?

Brett: One example we’re proud of that is spreading is the Community Supported Fishery (CSF) model.

In 2008, a group of fishermen in Maine were not getting paid much for their catch. They knew they’d have to catch more fish to make more money, but that it would be a one-way road to overfishing and unsustainable for all of them in the long run. So they paused and asked if they could do it better.

They looked at the CSA (community supported agriculture) model being used by farms and wondered if they could build direct marketing models. They started the model in 2008 and it’s been a huge success. The fishermen involved in the model were getting paid almost three times more within a year.

We realized as a network that this model could be extremely helpful for other fishermen in the nation. Why reinvent the wheel? So in 2012 we helped organize the first CSF National Summit with fifty participants. We developed guidelines and principles and formed another network called LocalCatch.org. There are now over 250 CSF drop off sites around the country and a fantastic website to connect more directly to the fishing community.

In 2016, we’ll see a second Local Seafood Summit with international participation of fishermen doing direct marketing. It will be held in Virginia. This is one example of what’s emerged from this network. People are very interested in knowing how the fish they eat is caught, when it’s caught and more. And fishermen are interested in getting a fair price and support for their livelihoods. The model has the potential of also reducing the carbon footprint. There are lots of benefits, including political.


Q: What about education?

Brett: One example of marketing collaboration we’ve helped surface through this network is a Boat to School program. This program connects fishermen to schools and to universities. A very exciting collaboration is connecting with hospitals…Boat to Hospital. Some hospitals are buying local under-loved, under-utilized species, or locally abundant as I like to say, which makes an enormous difference to fishermen and to the health of the ocean.


Q: What’s an under-loved or under-utilized species?

Brett: Some examples are the New England dogfish, which is the most abundant species here. It is healthy and tasty, but about 99.9% of the catch is exported. Local people have little access to it. Other species are monkfish, skate, redfish and bluefish. There are also smaller fish like scup, herring, mackerel…these are also plentiful and abundant in local waters. But most of the time they are not being used to feed people. They are getting caught at an industrial scale – in a huge volume – to feed aquaculture or be processed into fishmeal for pet food.


Q: You clearly have a very personal stake in this work. Can you tell our readers more?

The work is deeply connected to my own purpose. I have deep appreciation and gratitude for what the ocean has meant to my family. It is enormous. It has put food on our table and provided a meaningful life for my father. There is a spiritual element to our connection to the ocean and what it’s provided for us, for my grandfather, my great-grandfather. It’s a way of life that has given us our life. It paid my way to go to college and has given me my opportunities. I am enormously grateful for the ocean, fish and the family fishing industry.

I feel like we’re at this moment nationally and internationally…a tipping point where fisheries are getting pushed toward a model of industrialization which we know has displaced small and medium-scale food producers on the land and created enormous ecological damage. And I know it’s the wrong way to go. It strips away all the things I care about and am grateful for. I know I’m in the right place when I’m building power with the fishing communities. We’re trying to find solutions and make change.


Q: Let’s talk about the big changes you think would help family fishing remain viable.

Who Fishes Matters. Credit: NAMA

Brett: NAMA is not just about marketing seafood and moving fish from one place to another. It’s about creating policy change. We see the CSF model, the institutions, the schools and people who are involved in our work as a big political base for the fishing community to leverage as we go to policy makers. Marketing work is a vehicle for policy change. For example last month we had regional hospitals, schools, and businesses testifying together with family fishermen in front of policy makers.


Q: How does the structure of national policy around family fishing differ from food and ag?

Brett: On the fishing side we have an equivalent of the Farm Bill – we call it the “Fish Bill.” That’s the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

When it comes to organizations and individuals working on national fish policy, it is a bit of an insiders bubble. The current structure focuses heavily on either marine conservation or the big fishing industry. The livelihoods of small and medium scale fishermen and the food system element are largely left out. As a whole we’re not measuring how well we’re feeding people. There’s no accountability for the Fish Bill and its policies to be accountable to feeding people. That’s a huge problem…and there’s a long history there. Part of the issue right off the bat is that fisheries management and policies are housed under the Department of Commerce; this frames it within the context of commodities and trade and it is less connected to food and people.

So I guess I’d want to see this pulled from the Department of Commerce or coupled with the USDA or under a food umbrella of some sort.


Q: Are there other policies you’d like to see addressed? 

Brett: Another big policy issue we’re facing is a policy vehicle called “Catch Shares.”  It’s a policy being promoted at the national and international level by the likes of the World Bank, Koch Brothers, the Environmental Defense Fund and others. Essentially it’s a vehicle to turn access to fisheries away from being a publicly managed resource to being a privately managed resource.

Most programs being designed are conceptualized with little input from fishermen. The public process is breaking down; there are few safeguards to protect access. Large corporate interests are then able to buy up fishing rights. A few people/corporations are starting to control access. For example the largest seafood processor in the world, Thai Union Frozen based in Thailand, owns – literally owns23% of our nation’s access to the east coast Surf Clam, which is what most folks eat when they have clam chowder. I’d dramatically reform the Catch Shares policy. This is a big priority area for our network. The problems are so great and if we don’t get organized this could be the generation of small and medium scale owner-operator fishermen that gets squeezed out and forever replaced by the sharecropper model.



Editor’s Note: You can learn more about NAMA by visiting the organization’s Facebook page. NAMA also has a Flickr account that’s packed full of photos that are both lovely and educational.