Earlier this week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual report on the state of U.S. fisheries and overall, the news was fairly positive. U.S. fishermen caught 10.1 billion pounds of fish in 2011, up nearly 20 percent from 2010. They did so while remaining increasingly within science-based total catch limits intended to end overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks.
But the news wasn’t all good: Some fisheries still face severe uphill battles to remain profitable. And while Americans’ consumption of seafood per capita declined by about 5 percent last year, the total amount of fish we imported shot up—increasing from 86 percent to 91 percent. Meanwhile, domestic fishermen face increasing costs and, in many cases, stricter catch limits than in years past.
If we can’t allow fishermen to catch more fish without compromising the viability of fish populations, then for some of our struggling domestic fisheries to remain economically viable, we must figure out how fishermen can get more money for the same amount of fish. And ideally, to do so either without passing the affiliated cost on to consumers or by providing a higher-quality product.
Innovation in seafood marketing has led to new programs allowing fishermen to rethink the way they get paid to do the most dangerous job in the country. Two methods in particular—community-supported fisheries and underutilized species—provide a framework for how we can give fishermen a boost while getting a better product into the hands and ultimately the mouths of consumers.
Between May and September a quick scan down my Facebook page will inevitably produce photos or status updates related to my friends’ weekly vegetable windfalls from their farm shares. My personal favorite: “The kids’ new favorite snack: crispy kale chips!” Sure it is. Put the plate of kale chips next to a stack of Oreos and let’s put that theory to the test.
OK, maybe I’m just bitter because my kid won’t eat anything that’s not a carbohydrate. But my friends’ veggie boasting notwithstanding, the locavore food movement is a positive, growing trend. Community-supported agriculture, more commonly known as “farm shares,” has taken off since these programs first began cropping up a few decades ago. In short, consumers pay upfront for a share of a farmer’s output for the growing season. Then, every week, they receive a delivery or pick up a box of whatever came out of the fields that week.
In 2007 a group of fishermen in Port Clyde, Maine—sick of not being able to find their catch in local supermarkets—seized on this idea and created the first community-supported fishery. Under the brand, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, their group sold shares of whole, unprocessed fish—primarily groundfish like cod, haddock, flounder, and hake—to local residents in midcoast Maine. Customers received a percentage of the weeks’ landings: whatever came up in the nets. Today their business has expanded to the establishment of a local processing facility so they can provide a more consumer-friendly product—filets rather than whole fish—and expanded beyond groundfish to northern shrimp, lobster, skate, squid, and crab.
The concept has caught on throughout New England and even across North America. In addition to their growing popularity in Maine and Massachusetts, they’ve cropped up in California, British Columbia, Alaska, and North Carolina among other locations.
This model provides multiple benefits to fishermen, consumers, and the planet. Fishermen get the certainty of an upfront payment for their catch, removing the worry about what the market will be when they get back to the dock, and allowing them to plan expenses accordingly. And because the product is fresher, fishermen typically get a better price. Consumers receive the freshest fish available and the peace of mind that comes from knowing dollars spent on food are supporting neighbors and giving back to the community. And direct delivery means the fish is generating fewer carbon emissions in its travels from the ocean to the plate.
Diners’ seafood preferences are constantly evolving based on trends, availability, or just good old-fashioned PR makeovers. Could Ralph Lipschitz sell shirts with a polo pony on them for $89 a pop? Maybe, but Ralph Lauren certainly made them sound more stylish. Likewise, no one wants to eat a slimehead, but start calling it orange roughy and the next thing you know, it’s fished to near extinction. Ditto for the Patagonian toothfish’s reincarnation as the Chilean sea bass.
Such changes in appetite aren’t new—in the early days of this country, both Maine and Massachusetts had laws on the books expressly limiting the amount of lobster jailers could serve to prisoners. Too much lobster, it seemed, was considered cruel and unusual punishment. More recently, monkfish went through a similar transformation: The monkfish tails currently on haute cuisine menus at $25 a plate were surplus as recently as the 1990s and sold to the government to feed—you guessed it—prisoners.
Organizations like the Gulf of Maine Research Institute are now attempting to engineer an evolution in seafood preferences by helping create a market for underutilized species. These are fish that have rarely crossed chefs’ minds when planning their menus, and because of this, they remain abundant in the ocean. The program, called “Out of the Blue,” has chosen four such species to highlight and convinced more than a dozen Maine restaurants to feature the fish on their menus for a week. In June they pushed Acadian redfish; in July, Atlantic mackerel. Starting today, the program will kick off its third week with whiting, while the fourth species will remain under wraps until its October debut.
One concern about this effort in particular is that if the species takes off the way Chilean sea bass or monkfish did before it, the result could be a massive increase in fishing pressure. In both of those cases, the popularity boost led to overfishing. While monkfish is now in relatively good shape, the same can’t be said for the toothfish or the slimehead. But with science-based catch limits already in place for the species being promoted, the hope is that we can prevent history from repeating itself. And if programs like this one can develop a market for these species, fishermen can increase their bottom line by setting a few more lines to catch them.
The bottom line
Budgets are tight, and everyone loves a dollar menu, but paying fair-market value for fish means more than dropping two bucks on an order of Fish McBites. While the locavore movement has evolved from fringe to slightly less fringe enough to be spot-on parodied on the pilot episode of the sketch comedy show “Portlandia,” the principle of getting more of our food—including our seafood—from local sources is a model we should strive to replicate.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.