Sunday, September 7, 2014


Lately, there’s been a small but somewhat interesting argument going on in the fisheries management community over the nature of “grassroots” organizations.

“Such seeming grassroots organizations [as the Herring Alliance] might well be termed ‘Astroturf roots’…”
as a result of environmental groups’ financial and logistical support.

Stolpe’s argument rested, in part, on a report issued by the minority members of the United State’s Senate’s Committee on the Environment and Public Works entitled The Chain of Environmental Command:  How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.  

The report itself is the usual sort of black helicopters stuff that posits a

“’Billionaire’s Club, who directs and controls the far-left environmental movement”
comprised of various large trusts that fund environmental and conservation organizations that, according to the report, prefer to operate out of the public eye.  

The minority members of the Committee state that

“The scheme to keep their efforts hidden and far removed from the political state is deliberate, meticulous, and intended to mislead the public…these individuals and foundations go to tremendous lengths to avoid public associations with the far-left environmental movement they so generously fund.”
 It’s just the sort of over-the-top report that one could expect from a bunch of folks who never saw an oil well, strip mine or dam they didn’t like (click on each of their names and check out their stance on such issues), and who apparently believe that anyone who wants to swim in—or drink—clean water or breathe clean air is card-carrying member of the Comintern.

It makes a big fuss about a number of foundations funding environmental efforts, but apparently other sorts of funding didn’t bother them anywhere near as much.  For example, there was no companion report entitled “The Chain of Political Command:  How a Club of Oil, Coal, Lumber, Mining and Agriculture Interests Financed Our Campaigns and Made Us Write and Say Foolish Things…”

But Stolpe does raise an interesting issue:  Just what is a “grassroots organization” in the fisheries context?

And to follow up just a bit, in the end, does it matter?

The Herring Alliance, the particular target of Stolpe’s “Astroturf” claims, certainly believes that it does.  In a sharp response to Stolpe’s comments which called such comments “unfair and misinformed,” it said
The piece, written by seafood industry consultant Nils Stolpe, argues that Herring Alliance member groups don't meet his definition of "grass roots." In doing so, Stolpe relies on outdated information about the Herring Alliance from seven years ago, and acts as if the Alliance has only ten members.
“Had Stolpe simply clicked on the Herring Alliance "members" page he would have seen that the Alliance has grown to more than 90 member organizations stretching from North Carolina to the Canadian line. They represent a mix of community-level volunteer groups, regional watershed associations, and national conservation organizations.”
Before we can address the question of whether the Herring Alliance really is a “grassroots organization”, it’s  probably necessary to figure out what a “grassroots organization” is.  

Stolpe begins with a definition from Wikipedia, which reads

"a grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is driven by a community's politics. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures."
But he doesn’t stop with that relatively clear and concise definition.  Instead, he goes on to provide two examples of “grassroots” from the real world of fisheries politics, and ends up confusing the issue.

The first illustration involved a handful of drift gillnetters in California who joined together to successfully fight anti-gillnet legislation.  Stolpe argues for their grassroots status, saying that

There was no formal organization, no outside (and undisclosed) financial support, and no "piling on" by other organizations with undisclosed relationships of an Astroturf nature; just threatened businessmen and an interested observer with the facts on their side and a roomful of California Legislators who were willing to listen to them.
In some ways, that would seem to mesh with the Wikipedia definition, although calling a handful of businessmen who share common interests a “community” might be stretching the point a bit.  “Grassroots” implies a somewhat larger number of interested parties, the term itself conjuring up images of a broad swath of lawn, in which each blade of grass shares common needs with all others.

If we used that analogy, Stolpe’s group of gillnetters might better be compared to a small patch of dandelions.

Stolpe’s other example was “Fishermen’s Energy,” a corporation designed to give fishermen a chance to influence coastal energy development.  Fishermen’s Energy was organized by Atlantic Capes Fisheries, a very large and well-financed commercial fishing operation, and as Stolpe notes, it operates “at the highly structured and well-financed corporate level.” 

Although commercial fishermen throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic participate in Fishermen’s Energy, if we apply the Wikipedia definition, it is hardly a “grassroots organization.”  Its creation was hardly “natural and spontaneous;”  it was the creation of a big fishing business that is very much a part of the “traditional power structure,” and it attracted other commercial fishermen who are active players in the politics of fisheries management. 

The folks who belong to Fishermen’s Energy include some of the same people who regularly seek higher quotas from fishery management councils, lobby Congress to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, oppose the Herring Alliance’s efforts to protect forage fish from excessive harvest.

Stolpe tries to keep Fishermen’s Energy within the “grassroots” community by arguing that it was

“started and carried out primarily by people who are dependent on sustainably harvesting our rich coastal and offshore waters. That's important, and they can rightfully claim that they represent working fishermen.

“There's a world of difference between them and fishermen in organizations which are dependent on ENGOs and/or huge foundations who claim to be representing fishermen but are in actuality pushing the agenda of the people who are supplying the dollars.”
That’s a pretty dubious argument. 

It assumes that “working fishermen” supporting groups such as the Herring Alliance don’t share the same conservation agenda as the environmental groups and foundations. 

Stolpe appears to argue that preserving the drift gillnet fishery, with all of its alleged bycatch problems, is an endeavor worthy of “working fishermen,” while trying to preserve the forage base that supports populations  of cod, haddock and tuna is somewhat questionable conduct.

And while the Herring Alliance does contain some big players that are as much a part of the “traditional power structure” as Fishermen’s Energy’s Atlantic Capes Fisheries, it also includes such organizations as the “Buckeye Brook Coalition” in Rhode Island, the “Spruill Farm Conservation Project” in North Carolina and “Operation SPLASH” in New York, which are about as small and grassroots as one is likely to get.

In fact, except for their goals and the names of the players, Fishermen’s Energy and the Herring Alliance look much the same, except that some members of the former group pay Nils Stolpe, directly or indirectly, to throw stones at the latter…

So is the Herring Alliance a “grassroots” organization?

In answering that question, I am going to focus on the words “natural and spontaneous” in the Wikipedia definition.   

Those words suggest that, for an organization to truly deserve the grassroots banner, the membership must drive the actions of the organization.  It assumes some sort of management by consensus, a minimum of bureaucracy and, probably, a focus on a single issue or issues. 

True “grassroots” organizations are, by their very nature, ephemeral.  People come together spontaneously for a particular purpose, and when that purpose is achieved, the organization withers away as certainly as a lawn in November.

For if the organization lasts any longer, the basic relationship between the members and the organization begins to change.  Anything resembling permanence requires some form of bureaucracy and governing structure.  

And once you have those, instead of the members shaping the organization and its policies, the organization begins to shape the members’ opinions, with slanted messages sent out in publications, press releases and the electronic media.

By that standard, the Herring Alliance is not a true grassroots organization, although many of its members are.  

However, it can still be, and I believe is, an effective and valuable member of the traditional power structure.

What does a true real “grassroots” organization in the fisheries arena look like? 

One of the best examples is the group that calls itself the 1@32” Pledge

1@32” was brought to life by a single person, a New York striped bass angler who was concerned that the striped bass stock was declining, and wanted to do something about it.

So he reached out to folks who were also concerned with where the striped bass stock was heading, and created an informal network that eventually spanned much of the striper coast.  Members of the network reached out to other people, and each time they did so, the network grew.  Some individuals contributed their knowledge of the fisheries management system.  Others took time to man booths at fishing shows, where the message could reach even more people.

Right now, as we near the October meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board, 1@32” can rightly take credit for turning anglers out at many state hearings and providing them with a coherent set of proposals to present to ASMFC.  Up and down the coast, those proposals to reduce fishing mortality and rebuild the stock are being repeated to each state’s ASMFC commissioners. 

All of that was created without an organizational structure, without dues, without any committee empowered to decide management policy.  It was all the outgrowth of a “natural and spontaneous” community effort to protect a valued resource.

Hopefully, 1@32” will succeed in achieving its goal.  But whether it succeeds or not, the organization will probably not survive much past the October meeting.

For that is the nature of true grassroots groups.  They are the “minutemen” of the political process, capable of firing “the shot heard ‘round the world” and winning individual battles.

But they lack what is needed to win a protracted war.

For that, as the American revolutionaries learned as they were being forced back toward their desperate winter quarters at Valley Forge, you need an army that’s led by professionals.

And a powerful ally or two doesn’t hurt.

So just as the minutemen started a revolution, but needed the Continental Army and a good deal of help from the French to get the job done, so do the grassroots advocates for good fisheries management need professional guidance and some help from well-heeled foundations.

Without it, they can’t ultimately triumph against an opposition that has money and manpower, and political allies, to spare.

The alliance described in the Senate Committee’s minority report is, when you think about it, the most American thing in the world.

Which is something that folks who like to talk about “patriotism” and “American values” should know from the start, without being told.


  1. Charlie -
    Thanks for the exposure, but you seem to have missed the points I was trying to make.

    Firstly, the treatment of the Herring Alliance in its formative years - from something I wrote in 2007 - was that of it's initial members all but two were funded by the Pew Trusts, and in the aggregate funded to the tune of well over 100 million dollars. While what organizations joined subsequently might be interesting to some folks, I think the fact that the original member organizations were started by a "charitable" multi-billion dollar foundation that Douglas Jehl described (and I quoted and you ignored) in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001 with the words "though some of its money goes to long established groups, Pew has also created its own organizations." That shoe seems to fit pretty well.

    As far as the Senate Committee report, I thought I had made it clear in the piece that the reason a quote from it was included was because of its mention of "a close knit network of like minded funders, environmental activists, and government bureaucrats who specialize in manufacturing phony ‘grassroots’ movements and in promoting bogus propaganda disguised as science and news....” This obviously supports my work of the last two decades describing such a possible network, though international in scope and for the most part involved in fisheries/oceans issues rather than whatever it is the EPA does or that the Committee authors were accusing them of.

    If you believe that the partners in Fishermen's Energy resemble in any way, shape or form the traditional power structures involved in offshore energy development companies I suggest that you do a bit of background reading on the subject. The success of the involved organizations seem to have little - make that nothing - to do with whether they are grass roots or not. They were and they are a community that arose "naturally and spontaneously" (I was in an observer's seat in the formative years) and are far removed from any other offshore energy developers, regardless of their size.

    The partners in Fishermen's Energy, while obviously a part of the "traditional power structure" in fishing, they were in no way a part of the "traditional power structure" in offshore wind energy, which is the context in which I was discussing them as grassroots.

    Then finally to the California gillnetters and their supporters, I wasn't addressing their cause in this piece, I was addressing the fact that they were a grassroots organization, and as you recognize, an organization can be considered "grassroots" regardless of it's size - or, whether you agree with it or not, of its raison d'être.



  2. Nils--

    The interesting thing is that I originally didn't intend to address your piece in detail; when I started writing the blog, I wanted to praise the folks at 1@32", and was just using your piece as a lead-in to what was and what wasn't "grassroots," and was going to hold up 1@32" as an example of concerned citizens getting together to do the right thing. However, as I read through your piece a couple of times, I grew more and more fascinated with its premise, and made it the focus of the blog.

    The focus on 2007 made no sense to me. Sure, the Herring Alliance may originally have been created by big players to focus attention on the forage fish issue, but seven years later, it has attracted a lot of folks who are legitimately interested in restoring river herring runs, etc., who truly represent "grassroots" interests. And given that I know a lot of folks at Pew, just as I know folks in the recreational and commercial fishing industries, I have a problem with the suggestion that the Pew folks don;t have a personal interest in the health of river herring stocks--the Pew fisheries people and the volunteer "grassroots" groups do share a common interest in marine conservation issues.

    You and I both know that there are networks which support the commercial and recreational fishing industries. I'll speak for the recreational side, and admit that the folks who claim to be "grassroots" are, for the most part, anything but. Campaigns are carefully orchestrated. And from what I can tell, the major players on the commercial side also work together, with groups such as Garden State Seafood, the New York State Commercial Fishermen's Association (I think I got the latter name right), the North Carolina fishermen's group that publishes "Tradewinds," etc.

    So when I read your piece, what I read was a fine example of the pot calling the kettle black, raising seven-year-old issues in response to the recent successes of the Herring Alliance and other organizations successfully advocating for forage fish management. Hints at broad conspiracies, as described in the Senate Committee minority report, looked like nothing less than attempts to discredit such successful efforts.

    And so the thrust of my blog shifted, to examine what "grassroots" is, and whether it matters. And what I concluded was that the "grassroots" title really doesn't matter, because we all know that, whatever the interest group involved, it is organization and money that ultimately determines most outcomes, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.