Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront

I always loved when fish was on the table | Feini Yin

October 28, 2022 Ocean Conservancy Season 2 Episode 7
I always loved when fish was on the table | Feini Yin
Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
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Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
I always loved when fish was on the table | Feini Yin
Oct 28, 2022 Season 2 Episode 7
Ocean Conservancy

How do you like your fish cooked? Listen along to hear more in my conversation with Feini Yin, a storyteller, fishmonger and community organizer from Philadelphia. Together we explore how fish can foster connections to community, culture and our local waters. Feini tells us about the community-supported fishery Fishadelphia and its mission to connect Philly’s diverse residents to local seafood. With climate change in the mix, we discuss changes on the water and the huge potential for people to adapt their long-standing fishing and cooking practices.

Show Notes Transcript

How do you like your fish cooked? Listen along to hear more in my conversation with Feini Yin, a storyteller, fishmonger and community organizer from Philadelphia. Together we explore how fish can foster connections to community, culture and our local waters. Feini tells us about the community-supported fishery Fishadelphia and its mission to connect Philly’s diverse residents to local seafood. With climate change in the mix, we discuss changes on the water and the huge potential for people to adapt their long-standing fishing and cooking practices.

Alliyah Lusuegro

Welcome to Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront. This is a podcast series of recorded interviews and stories about the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries, as told by the people who spend their days catching, managing and researching fish from the ocean. In today’s episode, we talk to Feini Yin, a journalist, community organizer, and fishmonger at a community-supported fishery in Philadelphia. I'm Alliyah Lusuegro and this is a production of Ocean Conservancy.

Hello hello. So I know I say this about every interview, but I’m pumped to share my conversation with Feini Yin in this episode. 

Local food economies are something I’ve always been interested in and we talk about that right here with community-supported fisheries. From Feini I learn how a community-supported fisheries can be a regenerative and reciprocal model that is directly reliant on its environment. It was really cool hearing how Fishadelphia does that for, you guessed it, the people of Philadelphia and just how climate-related events like nor’easters along the Mid-Atlantic are affecting these local food economies and socio-cultural practices.

Even more, Feini and I reminisce on eating fish prepared based on our respective cultural cuisines. And as two storytellers, we also ponder over what exactly makes a good climate story.

Well enough from me, let’s roll the tape!

Feini Yin

So my name is Feini Yin and I use they/them pronouns. I currently live in Philadelphia which is ancestral Lenni Lenape land. I was born in Philly and then moved to the Jersey suburbs where I basically grew up and then sort of made my way around the northeast, spent some time in New England and New York, and then came back to Philly six, almost seven years ago.

And I wear a few different hats. I've had a kind of winding journey, but I call myself a storyteller and journalist and fishmonger, and also community organizer. And I work for Fishadelphia, which is a community supported fishery, which I'm sure we will be talking about what that means. 

Alliyah

Awesome. Thank you. And I appreciate the land recognition. And I've actually spent some time with my life in Lenni Lenape land. I went to Swarthmore College and spent my weekends in Philadelphia. 

Wow I'm so excited to talk to you because you're a storyteller and I'm a storyteller.

Feini

Yes.

Alliyah

So, yeah, I was wondering what your relationship with water and the ocean is? 

Feini

For sure. I grew up on, you know, on the coast. I wasn't directly on the coast, but it was like a 30 to 45 minute drive away from where I grew up in New Jersey. And so definitely spent summers going to the shore. 

My family, so both of my parents come from rural China and they come from families that practice subsistence and small-scale farming, both vegetable and fish farming. And in particular, my one aunt runs a lotus and fish farm. So the lotus plants grow on top and then the fish also grow in the lake and it's really beautiful.

So because they have that background, my family also grew up eating fish really often. Pretty much every week we had fish, cooked Chinese style, like whole whole fish, usually steamed with soy sauce and ginger and lots of aromatics and I just always loved when fish was on the table.

It wasn't until I went to college that I started studying ecology and really found myself drawn to marine ecology particularly, and ended up doing a lot of marine ecology thinking that maybe I wanted to become a scientist and, you know, really as I was doing these like sort of field research experiences, I realized that, you know, I loved geeking out about the science, but I really, really love connecting to people wherever I was.

So, for instance, you know, I did a summer research project in Indonesia and we were looking at the mangrove ecology around there. But I really ended up forming a lot of relationships and connections with these villagers. They are Sama sea nomads and they build their lives around fishing and living on the water.

And so I sort of realized that maybe science wasn't for me. It felt like it was kind of happening in a vacuum. And I found myself drawn instead to like ways to connect science to people, which storytelling seems like a good way to do it.

And so then ended up doing journalism often about marine ecology. 

Alliyah

Yeah, that's so great. And yeah, just thank you for sharing that. I definitely resonate with having fish on the table. I like it fried. 

Feini 

Nice.

Alliyah

It’s just so yummy. Growing up in the Philippines and also moving to the United States. I feel like the dinner table is always like just a semblance of home. And fish is just like a very stark, like, dish for us. So I love hearing about that. 

Do you like yours steamed or fried or. How do you like your fish?

Feini

Yeah. Honestly, I like all of it. And since I joined Fishadelphia first as a customer, I've learned so many new ways to cook fish. So I love it. You know, steamed, fried, baked, grilled. But yeah, often in Chinese cuisine, it is steamed. And then you can pour like hot oil on top to crisp up the skin. So I really like that.

What kinds of flavors did you and your family eat with fish growing up?

Alliyah

Salty. Like dense flavors because a lot of Filipino cuisine is just dense and like broth based. But fish was often like we called it, oh, it's not as super heavy because it's fresh, and not like drenched in soup. But we'd have, like, different sauces, like soy sauce or like fish with fish sauce, which is always interesting to me because you get like double the impact.

Feini

Can’t get enough.

Alliyah

Oh my gosh, yes.

You talked about kind of like in your education maybe thinking, oh, like “science, is this for me?” but that you liked the topics or content and saw storytelling as the avenue in which you could keep that passion of yours. And yeah, I just I'm curious, like, what your emotions were on that, when did you notice like, oh, maybe I would really love to, like, just talk about science.

Feini

Yeah, so I think that like early on, especially in high school science provided like a refuge for me in a way, because it was a way that I just could relate to the world I didn't have to know, like a lot of pop culture references or even feel super like embedded in society to have a deep sense of curiosity about like how the natural world worked or how our bodies worked or how animals worked or whatever. 

And so I think that I was initially drawn to science just because I'm like a very curious person, and it was a way to relate to the natural world around me. But then I think, you know, once I started doing these research projects and going to places where I was meeting people too, and connecting over the environment, you know, the environment is this natural collection of ecosystems. But then people are a huge component of it as well. 

And the interface between people and the environment is so multilayered and endlessly interesting to me. And so I think it was just a natural extension of my curiosity and being able to share that curiosity with other people was also just so gratifying to me, which is why I thought, yeah, maybe, you know, like the role as a storyteller makes more sense here. And I was interested in sort of like building the bridge to the broader public or to non-scientists.

Alliyah

That's really awesome. I think I also, I'm always so drawn to that interface of science and people. And I can never forget about the people and communities because like everything that comes up in work or in life, I'm always just like, what about the people? What about the people? So I really love that.

And so I guess like storytelling and then into journalism, can you talk about that?

Feini

Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, you know, I was like science communication. That's apparently a job that I hadn't heard about but exists. So I started to kind of explore that and eventually, you know, talking to people, I was like, maybe journalism school seems like a good choice. 

So I went to a science, environmental and Health Reporting program that was very specific and ended up spending… I was also sort of like working as a journalist by day and then doing community organizing at night. And it started to feel more and more like I was living a double life. And I wanted to integrate those things a little bit more. So then in 2020, like during the height of the pandemic, I was pretty burnt out. I was working as a science and health journalist.

It was a very stressful time. Sort of like watching the pandemic unfold and feeling the responsibility to cover it. So I decided I needed a break and left that job. I was at the public radio station in Philly and then Fishadelphia happened to be hiring. So it worked out. And I had been a customer with Fishadelphia for like a few years at that point. And I had always been following Fishadelphia and admiring it from afar.

Alliyah

So what is this Fishadelphia? Can you talk about it more?

Feini

For sure. So Fishadelphia is a community supported fishery, which I said earlier, but probably a lot of people don't know what that is. So it's modeled after community supported agriculture or CSAs, which are basically farm shares where you pay upfront and you receive like a season or a year of local produce or local honey, animal products, from a nearby farm or farms.

And so it's a really great way to support your local economy and your local food producers. And so essentially CSFs will connect consumers directly to people who are harvesting seafood locally.

And so we buy fish directly from family-owned fishing docks, fishermen and shellfish farmers in New Jersey, mostly south Jersey. And we bring it into the city and we distribute it and sell it to people in the city at a sliding scale. And so, accessibility and inclusivity is a really big part of our mission. 

I know you found out about Fishadelphia through our founder, Talia Young, and so she is queer and Chinese-American and was really interested in building a seafood program that connected Philly's diverse communities to New Jersey harvesters.

And so we have a lot of inclusion strategies. Another big one is that we work at two local Philly high schools, and our students participate in the program. They get to learn about seafood, and they also learn about running a business and entrepreneurship. And they're a big part of also bringing their communities into the Fishadelphia community and helping get seafood to people in their network.

Alliyah

So CSAs, are they basically farmers markets or like related to farmers markets? 

Feini

Yeah, that's a great question. So similar to farmers markets, I would say the main difference is that you are subscribing and making an upfront financial commitment to, it would be like if you made a commitment to go to the farmer's market every week or every other weekend and pick up a set amount of produce. And so it's really like a subscription program and paying upfront helps provide economic stability to the harvesters or the food producers because they know that they have that income that they can rely on, especially seafood is so seasonal and demand sort of fluctuates a lot throughout the year.

This is actually a beautiful part of Fishadelphia, which is that you are eating seasonally and you're eating only what's available locally. So pretty much if you join our seafood club, you learn about what kind of fish you're getting like three days before you pick it up, because it really just depends on what's in the ocean at that time.

We can't even really tell you a week ahead of time what you're getting. And so, yeah, I really appreciate it because it's a way of being really intimately connected to your local waters, you know, like sometimes it'll be like, Oh, there's a nor'easter coming in. So that means the boats can't go out. And that means that we have to get clams this week, clams or oysters, because they're farmed.

So it's just a way of really responding to the rhythms of nature. And also, like a lot of the fish we sell are like less familiar species. There's dogfish and tilefish and monkfish, skate, things like that, that a lot of times people will consider these like under-utilized or even trash species of seafood. There's so much delicious seafood in New Jersey that people just maybe aren't as familiar with. But once you start to, like, cook them and get to know them, they're so yummy.

Alliyah

Cool. And like kind of getting back to this, like, really cool model that you just described to me, and, you know, you learn something new every day, about providing upfront capital to like where you source the fish and seafood from and then also having those community ties because it's like a regular consistent, you know, model with people who are buying the food that they eat. So that's a local food economy right there. 

And I really like the focus on youth. Like, is that so you said it's like youth driven. Is it more educational? Are they like actively working, participating in Fishadelphia? What's that like?

Feini

Yeah. So right now what it looks like is that we run after school programming at two public charter schools. And the students, they come, it's twice a week after school program for them. Some days they are just helping with like behind the scenes stuff like running our social media, developing our website, answering customer emails, things like that.

On other days they’re actively getting their hands on the fish. So they will sometimes help us pack hundreds of pounds of fish in their school, or they will run our fish stands where customers can come and pick up their subscribed fish or buy fish just on the fly. And then other times, you know, they also get to meet guest speakers.

We do try to do some educational programming that is maybe about local ecosystems in Philly or like conservation in Philly more broadly or about fisheries policy, things like that. But a lot of our students come in because they're really interested in entrepreneurship. They want to learn how to run a business, and they want to learn how to run a business that serves their communities.

And then it kind of ends up becoming something more also. Like I think because our staff is largely like queer people of color, the students that we end up just that end up gravitating to Fishadelphia are also queer. And we work in predominantly Black and Asian and Latinx schools. So because there's that intersection going on, too, and also just becomes a safe space for people to come and just share about what's going on in their lives. So it's also kind of like agile and shape shifting in that way as well.

Alliyah

That's really great. I think if I were in high school I would have definitely looked into Fishadelphia. Yeah. And like it would’ve just made my heart happy to have that safe space since I identify also with those identities so dang that's amazing. And I'm really happy that you guys are providing that for them. And I don’t know, it's like a really crucial time in your life to, like, explore what you want to do or who you can be. So I think that's really great.

Feini

Yeah, I agree. I wish that Fishadelphia existed when I was in high school, too. It's yeah, it's very cute, very special. Sometimes we get to go on field trips to the shore. Like that was sort of the first time as a customer that I was like, Oh, Fishadelphia is so cool.

We went on a field trip to an oyster farm and there were like middle school students and high school students and a group of Black elders and a group of Chinese moms. And there was like an interpreter and there was just so much going on and all these people coming together. So yeah. And, and for some students, that was their first time ever at the shore.

I mean, yeah, it's kind of a sad fact of modern coastal cities that even if you're like on the coast, it's really easy to feel totally disconnected from the water.

I think the Potomac runs through D.C., right? Yeah. And Philly also, you have two huge rivers. The Delaware and the Schuylkill. But like you can't recreate easily in those, you know, like we live along the water, but it's like you know, you don't feel a connection very easily to the water. And that's really sad. 

I was playing this game, this board game called Chameleon with friends and basically, like you, like one person has to say a word, a single word that's a clue. And people have to like, guess what, what it is. And so I was trying to guess, get people to guess the city of New York.

And my clue was harbor. And nobody when I revealed that it was New York, everyone was like, New York isn’t a harbor. Like, what are you talking about? You know? And like they were guessing like all these other cities because the category was city. And I was like, That's so sad because New York was like the harbor, you know, like, it's, it's it has a huge history of water and seafood and oysters and but yeah.

Alliyah

Mhm. Wow. I'm so glad you mentioned the two rivers. Literally before this call, I was like, there are rivers in Philadelphia. I know there's the Delaware River. And then there's the river that I can't pronounce the name right always.

Feini

Yeah, yeah, yes.

Alliyah

Yeah. And I just very much relate to the fact that I do go out there for refuge and solace, I'm like, Oh, I just want to go near a body of water. But it doesn't quite feel the same even though I am grateful for it. 

Feini

Yeah. 

Alliyah

Okay. So I'm going to shift the conversation a little because we haven't talked that much about climate change and what would this podcast be without talking about climate change.

So I, I just want to get a general feeling from you, like how climate change shows up in your life, whether that's like your day to day, your work, like your storytelling, in Fishadelphia? 

Feini

Yeah, I guess so many ways. I mean, especially over the summer with all the heatwaves that have been happening. I think on a general level, just like as a human existing in the world, climate change is on my mind a lot. 

My family lives in southern China and this summer there's been an unprecedented heat wave and drought there. They had like 70 plus consecutive days of weather above 100 degrees and the Yangtze River reached a historic low. So, you know, just like heavy stuff like that all the time. 

But I would say from a fisheries angle, it's interesting because on the one hand, like we're not talking about climate change all the time like explicitly in Fishadelphia, but it obviously underlays so much of it.

So like I was saying before, like seafood is a very intimate way that you are relating to the environment. And seafood is kind of different from land-based agriculture in the sense that, like a lot of it is wild. It's caught, it's wild caught. It's not something that you're like cultivating. And so it really depends on what is going on in wild environments. 

And so like the waters are changing, you know, here and everywhere. We see more tropical species coming up, like fish that normally would only be like in Florida are coming up here. Certain types of grouper and drum and mahi mahi and yeah.

That's one example. There's also certain fish that are moving that are from New Jersey historically that are like moving farther north than they've ever been. So like Black Sea Bass is a good example of a fish that's like going up to New England. So that's, you know, that's one aspect of it. I think also we talked about weather impacting the seafood.

So like if nor'easters and storms are more prevalent, that's also a way that we're directly experiencing that. And yeah, I mean, I think sort of along the lines of what we were just talking about, like we it is easy for us to feel like we're not connected to the water in Philadelphia, but in reality, like we live very close to the coast and all of the water that flows from the city flows into the Atlantic.

So we have these rivers that are like literally tying us to the Atlantic. And so I think just in that way, eating local seafood is a way of being connected and engaging with the local environment. And that environment is changing and fishermen are having to adapt and fisheries managers are having to adapt because they have these ideas that, you know, fish have historic populations in one area and not others. And now that's all shifting. 

One thing that I think is really cool about Fishadelphia is that our customers are because a lot of them are like immigrants or people of color who have just a lot of cultural knowledge about how to prepare seafood at home. So a lot of them are not intimidated by different varieties of seafood.

They're not intimidated by breaking down whole fish in their kitchen or eating these underutilized species, eating all parts of the fish, using all parts of the fish in like broths or like fermenting it or whatever. You know, there's just such a variety of knowledge of different ways to use the whole fish. And we find that like a lot of our immigrants and customers of color, they are like more adaptable basically.

And I think that'll be kind of interesting as species shift and a lot of seafood consumers have to shift the types of species that are local like available at a given time of year or whatever. I think that the knowledge that these communities have will also become like an asset and a solution to climate change, which is cool.

Alliyah

Yeah, I really love that.

Feini

Yeah.

Alliyah

And what's sticking out to me is you saying that seafood is like an intimate way for you to know that environment, when it experiences huge differences because of global warming and carbon emissions and just climate change in general. Like all of those weather big weather events like nor'easter. Yeah, like it has repercussions on the seafood that you catch and that you connect to. 

So I was just going to say, oh, like people's diets and like food practices, cooking like that has a huge potential to change. And again, like you highlighted the wealth that comes from immigrants and communities of color that are just like, hey, like we know what to do with this food.

Like we have generations and generations of knowledge on how to cook this and how to sustain us. And I think that's really cool. That's powerful.

Feini

Yeah, I agree.

Alliyah

I think you kind of touched on this, but of course, you, like, work with fishermen and like who you get the seafood from. Like, have you heard of any stories from them about what they're seeing like with the fish. You kind of just described that. But like just wondering if anything stuck out to you from your partnerships with them or conversations with them?

Feini

Yeah. I think mainly so I guess for full transparency, I also I'm not the one that's engaging with the fishermen directly all the time. That's mostly Talia who does that. So our founder, Talia, has cultivated relationships with docks and fishermen and shellfish farmers over a number of years.

But I've definitely heard fishermen just generally talking about like we see species abundances changing, we see their migration patterns changing, we see more storms. With the oyster farmers, sometimes, you know, the storms really will affect their operations, which are often like nearshore.

Alliyah

Yeah. I think one more question here on climate change and fisheries, and it focuses on your role as a storyteller, writer and communicator. I always just thought that, you know, the topic of climate change can be so nebulous and vague and then at the same time you can have like those stories that are so specific and like weedy and hard to, and for either of those that could be like, hard to understand.

So I'm wondering what your experience is in communicating climate change and how you can get a really effective story to reach people?

Feini

That is a hard question. I don't know that I am able to answer it, but like I covered science and the environment, but a lot of times I wasn't covering climate change. And I don't envy people that cover climate change because I think you're right. It is so, you know, like even just as I was saying, it's so constantly in the background, it's hard to not feel really doomsday about it.

I think the stories that have most uplifted me are yes, stories of like specific community solutions. You know, obviously indigenous communities have stewarded the world's ecosystems way better than, you know, settlers for thousands of years. And so I think those stories I tend to find more hope in the stories of like indigenous communities that are able to strengthen those traditions and fighting to strengthen those traditions and their rights to managing their, like, natural environment.

But I would love to hear from you about this because you do this more than I do. And yeah, like, what have you learned as lessons or takeaways in trying to communicate about climate change?

Alliyah

Yeah, I agree with you. It's so, so hard. It really, I think, is effective when you have a focal point like a person or a community and just like a narrative to share. And I really like that. You said that to like uplift the communities that, you know, have been experiencing this for like generations beyond generations. But yeah, I mean, as I'm talking, I'm just like, I can't really answer this, it's hard.

Feini

It’s so hard.

Alliyah

Yeah. Thank you for bouncing it back on me.

Feini

Ball's in your court.

Alliyah

Yeah. Overall though I think like with global movements and like U.S. domestic movements, I think that the overall like space that climate change is taking up has grown. So that like makes me super optimistic just seeing it like, you know, communicated to public via news and like media sources and just, I know I follow a lot of like Instagram accounts on like climate justice and environmental justice and that has like really just modeled well how to like have awesome like climate stories that people like can relate to or people should like know and things like that.

So yeah, hard question.

Feini

I'm glad to hear that. Well, I'm glad that you feel hopeful because I feel like you are younger than me. So I feel like you grew up with climate change sort of always being a thing. It makes me glad to hear that you don't feel doomsday about it.

Alliyah

Oh I. I definitely do. Climate grief is real.

Feini

Oh yeah. You can access hope.

Alliyah

Yeah, I agree with you that I feel like I've been in the core momentum of it having been a part of like groups, organizing groups and outreach groups on climate and like programs like the RAY Fellowship which talks about it of course. So it's been yeah, it's been cool.

Do you have a final message that you want to drive home? I know you are representing well, like community supported fisheries. So maybe on that or like even storytelling or anything you just want to say.

Feini

Yeah. I mean, I think at the heart of what Fishadelphia is doing is really connecting communities and maybe showing that we have a lot that we are connected over. 

So like in New Jersey, I mean historically a lot of seafood workers and harvesters in the U.S. are people of color. But in New Jersey today, because those connections have been severed, you know, redlining, coastal gentrification, environmental racism, things like that, a lot of the fishing communities are white in New Jersey, like the fishermen and shellfish farmers that we like, buy fish from are white.

And you might think that like these white fishermen, like living in New Jersey and, you know, our diverse communities in Philly, these immigrant communities or communities of color in particular that we want to serve. You might think that they don't have very much to connect them, but, you know, I think through Fishadelphia, it's just like one way of understanding that we are really connected.

I think when you talk about fisheries and the ocean, a lot of times people in the city, especially like low income immigrants, people of color, they're like left out of that conversation and they're not part of it. And here we're seeing that like actually so many people in the city, even if their lives are not connected directly to fishing and water today, they have generations of cultural traditions that do connect them to the seafood and to the water.

And they have also have knowledge and solutions and should and should be a central part of these conversations. And so we see in the city our communities offering solutions to climate change for our local fisheries and yeah, the fisheries community should be paying attention to that. 

And so I think overall, the message would just be that like, you know, our struggles are interconnected and and therefore our liberation is also interconnected. And those connections are really important to foster.

Alliyah

You heard it here, folks. Our struggles, our liberation are interconnected. We are interconnected.

Thank you so much Feini for sharing your story and more about Fishadelphia with us. To our audience, you can check out fishadelphia.com to learn more about them!

Hmm, after all that talk about fried and steamed and baked fish, I’m craving it now. This is Alliyah signing off, till next time.