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To say Slow Fish 2016 (March 10-13) in New Orleans was a success is an understatement. Overcoming last-minute weather challenges that shut down the planned venue, moving several thousand pounds of food around and getting people to deliver and attend informative, compelling presentations at three different, distinct venues was a stroke of genius from the event organizers and their motivated team. Here is the blog I wrote about the experience. 

It’s a surreal, if a bit funny experience to eat oysters surrounded by larger-than-life representations of male and female anatomy. Kind of a Harold-Robbins-meets-Jules-Verne aura.

How a bunch of fishermen, chefs, scientists and seafood activists from around the world ended up in a dilapidated warehouse surrounded by lewdly, yet very craftily decorated Mardi Gras floats for the Krewe du Vieux (pronounced “croo du voo” and which pulls no punches lambasting anything/anyone political or sexual) is a study in adaptation.

We had gathered for the Slow Fish 2016 event in New Orleans to discuss important fisheries issues, make connections and celebrate locally caught, fresh and delicious seafood. Naturally, intense Louisiana spring weather turned carefully planned scheduling on its head with impending violent thunderstorms and potential flooding. Not one hour into the 150-person event at the Old US Mint, the state called for emergency evacuations and closed our base of operations for the next three days.

Krewe du Vieux warehouse, where Slow Fish 2016 attendees got an eyeful in New Orleans.
Krewe du Vieux warehouse, where Slow Fish 2016 attendees got an eyeful.

So instead of celebrating the gathering on the grounds of a historic building, we found ourselves feasting on pompano and sea bass in the shadows of papier-mâché sex. Ironically, that kind of mandatory last-minute logistical two-step closely parallels the rapid fire challenges many family fishermen face, constantly having to adapt to ever-shifting polices, seafood markets, climate, etc. beyond their control. We banned together at Slow Fish to pull it off, perhaps serving as proof that collaboration and flexibility are critical to addressing broader policy and market challenges ahead. That was the first of several truly unique experiences at Slow Fish 2016.

The next was the following day at the quirky Broad Theater in Mid City, a neighborhood at the heart of New Orleans. There, fishermen ranging from Alaska to California, and from Louisiana to Maine shared stories about their watersheds, community-based fisheries traditions and the management policies changing the landscape of how, when and where they can fish.Kevin Scribner discusses Salmon Safe's success.

Kevin Scribner highlights Salmon Safe's success.
Kevin Scribner highlights Salmon Safe’s success.

They discussed challenges such as privatization and resource allocation, biodiversity, policy impacts and ways to protect watersheds and fishing community heritage. Former Alaskan salmon fishermen and current Slow Fish board member Kevin Scribner described how the Salmon Safe program has worked with farmers, businesses and urban planners to reduce downstream impacts on native salmon habitat. This means the owners or tenants of more than 95,000 acres of agricultural and urban land (including the Nike campus, and several major farms) in three states and British Columbia have committed to reducing harmful nutrient and pollutant discharge into precious streams.

Kindra Arnesen spoke passionately about the challenges facing fishing families on the Mississippi River delta. She described her Herculean efforts to unite struggling fishermen after the BP oil disaster, first to get jobs helping with cleanup, then to challenge BP, the EPA, NOAA and other local, state and federal agencies on their methods of cleanup, cover-up and compensation. It was yet another story of adaptation and survival.

Happy Recirculating Farms Coalition catfish swimming in water filtered through lava rocks holding the lettuce in the background.
Happy Recirculating Farms Coalition catfish swimming in water filtered through lava rocks holding the lettuce in the background.

Other presenters discussed creating direct channels between fishermen, retailers and chefs to bring fresh seafood inland from the coast. Marianne Cufone, executive director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, showed the audience how a motivated team was able to start a clean, productive aquaponics operation right in a Central City neighborhood. Restaurants have already expressed interest in the fresh lettuce and catfish growing in recirculated water.

Set to the backdrop of compelling images, each story brought to life some of the common struggles many fishermen and coastal communities face, and some of the successful solutions to those challenges.

Alligator, shrimp and grits, down and dirty in New Orleans.
Alligator, shrimp and grits, down and dirty in New Orleans.

The adaptation of the Slow Fish 2016 continued Saturday at the Dryades Market, whose previous life had been a public school in Central City, another neighborhood steeped in diversity. Groups of concerned fishermen spoke about adequately addressing quotas and fairness issues and ways to promote local fisheries management. One common theme that emerged, perhaps prophetically, was the issue of adaptation.

And of course crawfish. Deeper down, dirtier and delicious!
And of course, crawfish. Deeper down, dirtier and delicious!

Louisiana fishermen are constantly forced to adapt to changing ecosystem habitats, based on the chilling statistic that the coastline loses a football field of marsh every 45 minutes. Okanagan tribes have to adapt to the ebb and flow of wild sockeye migrating several hundred miles into incredibly diverse watersheds straddling the border between British Columbia and Washington state. Maine fishermen have to navigate the fluctuations in their fisheries due to the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine and the seemingly arbitrary nature of regional management.

Two of about three hundred dozen oysters brought to the event.
Two of about three hundred dozen oysters brought to the event.

Perhaps it was divinely appropriate that Mother Nature decided to throw a curveball and forced organizers to scramble. Because it is that instinct to go into auto pilot in the face of adversity and figure out a solution that determines success. For a Pacific salmon, that instinct to swim several hundred miles to its natal waters to spawn, die and give sustenance to its young is pure survival. For fishermen, it’s the ability to chase different available species when Nature or policy forces their hands. It’s in banding together to work toward a common cause to bring communities closer to their seafood.

Through all of the rain and high wind and last-minute venue changes, the shuttling of food from here to there…and back again, the audio-visual challenges, the taxis, carpools and long walks through a noisy French Quarter, Slow Fish 2016 attendees made connections. They found common ground. They discussed ways to organize, set goals and pursue them. They made friends.

I learned some skills from Chef Zack Engel (chef de cuisine at Shaya Restaurant) and pit master Howard Conyers.
I learned some skills from Chef Zack Engel (chef de cuisine at Shaya Restaurant) and pit master Howard Conyers.

Perhaps the skies dawned on a warm,bluebird day on the tail end of the gathering at Docville Farm in Violet, La., a boucherie and seafood feast, as a reckoning of sorts. Adapt. Persevere. Hope. Something good will come out of it.

The memory of the food, the conversation, the energy and camaraderie will stay with all of us for a long time.