August 21, 2008

Commercial fishermen looking to a future
with local, sustainable seafood


Commercial fishermen around the country plan to ride into the future on the wave of consumer support for local, sustainable food sources.

The unwieldy global food supply chain that has all but erased seasonal and regional variations on the American dinner table has also heightened national anxiety over food safety and over environmental responsibility in food production.

In the wake of that anxiety, more consumers are turning to farmers’ markets, cooperatives, and other alternative markets that offer local foods and foods produced using environmentally sustainable methods.  

The “local foods movement” is also a backlash against national and international policies that, local food proponents say, have laid waste to small farms and local economies.  

With national frustration over a food supply chain cloaked in global anonymity mounting, groups of fishermen are adopting marketing campaigns that evoke memories of the days when customers knew farmers and fishermen and shopkeepers and when individual integrity sealed most transactions.  

Web sites for marketing initiatives, such as Carteret Catch in North Carolina and The Faces of California Fishing, feature photographs and biographies of participating fishermen.  

“Consumers want to know who is producing their food, and that connection can be more important than price or the distance they have to travel to buy seafood,” said Scott Baker, fisheries specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant.

Battered by high fuel costs, low dockside prices driven by global trade and regulations that seem to reduce allowable catches more every year, fishermen say survival of the U.S. fishing fleet hinges on maximizing the value of every fish that comes across the deck.

And, some fishermen are adding new marketing techniques to traditional methods.  

In Maine, community-supported fisheries, based on a system used in small-scale farming where consumers buy shares in a farm in exchange for fruits and vegetables, have taken hold.  

Consumers can buy 12 weeks of fresh fish caught by members of the Mid Coast Fishermen’s Cooperative in Port Clyde, Maine.  A full share costs $360 and yields three to four pounds of filleted fish, such as haddock, cod, and flounder, each week.  Half-shares cost $180 and yield about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of fillets each week.  

“The Port Clyde CSF (community supported fishery) happened all because one fisherman there started to look at ways to diversify markets,” said Susan Andreatta.

Andreatta is director of Project Green Leaf at the University of North Carolina at Grennsboro, a project dedicated to promoting and supporting local agriculture by developing connections with consumers, and also works with commercial fishermen.

In Portland, Maine, John and Brendan Ready have started the Catch a Piece of Maine program where consumers “buy” a lobster pot and all the lobsters the pot catches for $2,995.  Customers are guaranteed at least 40 lobsters, and receive a complete dinner with four lobsters, steamer clams, mussels, and blueberry desserts, shipped overnight, every time they place an order.  

To date, there are no CSF programs in North Carolina.

Andreatta said that community-supported agriculture has been slow to catch on in the state also, even though nationwide more than 4,000 farms participate in community-supported arrangements.

Still, Andreatta believes CSFs could work well in North Carolina.

“It would be a way to retool, to diversify the market for small quantities of fish, to diversify the use of fish houses and other facilities,” she said.

Andreatta and Baker, the fisheries specialist, both said consumer education is an important component to the success of CSFs.  Through newsletters or Web sites, producers share information on how to clean and prepare different types of seafood with their customers.   

“You need to tell your personal story too,” said Baker.  

Some North Carolina fishing groups have added direct sales to their marketing programs.   

In Carteret County, fishermen, seafood dealers, retailers, and restaurants developed the Carteret Catch program in 2005.  The group created an easily recognized logo that tells consumers where they can purchase local seafood.

“The easiest way to add value to a product is to brand it,” Baker explained.

The Ocracoke Working Watermens’ Association runs both retail and wholesale operations at the Ocracoke Seafood Company.

In Hatteras, Vicki and Robert Harrison sell some of the snowy grouper, vermilion snapper, flounder, and other species landed by the family’s fishing boats at Harbor House Seafood Market, a retail shop they opened this year.

Baker said commercial fishermen face challenges, such as high fuel costs, complex regulatory systems, and the loss of working waterfront properties, unimaginable just a decade ago.

“None of those things are likely to change in the short term.  Fishermen are going to have to find ways to get every penny they can from their products,” Baker said.

(For more information on the Carteret Catch program, go to

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