A Model Network

Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance

The northeast region served by NESAWG includes over 13,000 miles of tidal shoreline,[1] which thousands of fishermen navigate each year channeling millions of pounds of fish and billions of dollars into our food system.  In 2012, commercial fishermen in our region earned more than $1.5 billion in revenue.[2] When you take into account the economic impact of the broader seafood industry, including processors, wholesalers, distributors, grocers, and restaurants, the sector generated more than $12.8 billion in New England alone.[3] In a region with as much coastline as ours, it is vital to consider the impact of fisheries in building a fair and sustainable food system.

​NAMA and Its Network

For nearly two decades, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) has been been doing just that by enhancing and maintaining healthy marine ecosystems.  Working with community-based fishermen, fishworkers and allies, the nonprofit promotes market and policy alternatives that protect and maintain marine biodiversity while ensuring healthy local fishing economies that feed healthy food systems.  

At the core of their work is their network. NAMA began in 1995 as a small group of fishermen and fishing community advocates. It has grown to include a network, the Fish Locally Collaborative, of nearly 300 partners that represent more than 400,000 people from various industries nationally and internationally.  Over the last 20 years, NAMA has learned a lot about building and maintaining a model network according to Brett Tolley, NAMA’s community organizer.


Organizing Ocean Advocates

“I grew up on the docks and working on the boats with my father, my brother, my uncles,” Tolley said of his childhood in Cape Cod, MA. His experience with the struggles and challenges of fishing families helps inform his work coordinating the Fish Locally Collaborative, which was formed in 2008. NAMA acts as a backbone organization for this diverse collective.

“My work is not exclusive to working with the fishing families,” said Tolley. “It’s a range of people who care about the health of the ocean, where seafood comes from, and the local economies of fishing communities.”  That includes shop owners, social justice networks, processors, food activists, marine scientists, conservationists, sociologists and local economy advocates from across the eastern seaboard.

The individuals and organizations comprising the Fish Locally Collaborative include NESAWG participants such as the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute as well as national and international organizations such as the National Family Farmers Coalition and Slow Food International.


A Diverse and Decentralized Model

NAMA operates using a decentralized governance model that aims to support diversity in its participants, increase accountability, and allow one voice to emerge from many.  In NAMA’s work with the Fish Locally Collaborative, members are encouraged to make decisions on a local level to best serve individual communities, but each decision is grounded in core values and principles shared across the network.

“Our values include transparency, collaboration, justice, capacity-building, respect, inclusivity, openness and accountability,” said Tolley. Ensuring that potential members understand and pledge to uphold these principles is critical to forging and maintaining cohesiveness amongst the varied participants. 

Potential members are presented to the entire network through a vetting process. Any current member can raise red flags to the nominating committee before they make a final decision—one way that NAMA allows one voice to be heard amongst the many. Once approved, new members can join one of four working groups that address policy, seafood markets and food justice, research, and messaging. These groups of volunteers make the decisions, determine the projects, and do the work of the Collaborative.


Network Effects – Collaborative Success

"We’re able to find synergy opportunities through the network. We’re able to align on a common mission, then engage a political force to make change.”

The Fish Locally Collaborative enables members to share challenges, find similarities and craft collective solutions.  At the Collaborative’s meetings in 2011, three different members raised the issue of the City of Boston’s longstanding ban against selling locally caught seafood on public property and in the farmers’ market:

  • Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a community supported fishery based in northeastern Massachusetts, wanted to extend its reach to local farmers markets. 
  • Healthcare Without Harm wanted to combine its seafood initiatives in hospitals with sales at nearby farmers’ markets.
  • NAMA itself was preparing to feature locally caught seafood at a Boston food festival where it was hosting one of its Seafood Throwdowns, a series of fun community-based chef competitions throughout the region.

In all three cases, plans were blocked by this 70-year-old ban on locally sourced seafood at Boston farmers’ markets. Through the Fish Locally Collaborative, said Tolley, “We were able to connect, collaborate, share resources, and share strategy on how to overcome this problem.” Their strategy targeted Boston’s Mayor at the time and laid out alternative solutions.  After a year of lobbying, the Collective’s efforts lifted the ban, an achievement celebrated at NAMA’s Seafood Throwdown in Boston later that year.

“We’re able to find synergy opportunities through the network,” said Tolley. “We’re able to align on a common mission, then engage a political force to make change.”



No network is without challenges, and the first that Tolley identifies will be no surprise to other volunteer-led organizations—building leadership capacity among the working groups’ co-organizers. “How can we support the needs of our co-organizers in what currently is a volunteer position?” NAMA is working on a new solution—offering co-organizers a stipend. “We created a fifth working group that focuses on collective fundraising,” said Tolley. The group received its first small grant in January 2015, a step in the right direction.

Another challenge is the difficulty co-organizers have staying abreast of all of the work happening in the Collaborative, given its size and reach. To assist them, Tolley and his colleagues are upgrading their network directory.  Their vision is to create a resource that is “a real time reflection of what’s going on in the network…so that the co-organizers can look to the directory as a stronger tool.”


On the Horizon

The Fish Locally Collaborative will soon employ every tool in its arsenal to support its new Know Your Fisherman Campaign.  Inspired by the Know Your Farmer movement, the campaign will combine communications, marketing and policy initiatives to encourage local purchasing and support for the northeast region and beyond. The Collaborative will focus on campaign goals, timelines and targets at its retreat in mid-February 2015 and will roll out the campaign soon after.

The next big challenge before NAMA and the Collaborative is the 2016 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Management Act, better known as the Fish Bill. Similar to the Farm Bill, this act must be reauthorized by congress every 10 years. “Right now is the moment that we can really make a difference,” said Tolley.  “We can weigh in and affect how this policy turns out.  That’s very much at the top of the Fish Locally Collaborative radar for policy.” 

Reauthorization is a two- to three-year process that brings a cacophony of concerns and issues to the fore. By using the Collaborative’s shared principles to determine policy priorities and strategies, NAMA and its partners are well-positioned to be heard above the fray.

For updates on these and other NAMA initiatives, please visit www.namanet.org today!


[1] http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0001801.html

[2]http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/economics/publications/feus/fisheries_econom.... Includes coastline New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island) and Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York

[3] http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/Assets/economics/documents/feus/2012/FEUS201... p. 49; http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/documents/commercial_seafood_impacts_2007-20..., p. 9 - 10